It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have an unusual surname. I get asked a lot about my family’s history, about the heritage of my name, my Dutch past. I’ve never really been able to learn enough to satisfy my desires. I know there is more to where I came from. I’m fascinated with the idea of my ancestors being creative or artistic in some way, it helps me justify why I’m drawn to the things I love.
The closest I have come to any kind of significant answer is the following. It’s an article written by my grandfather (Friedrich Wilhelm “Wim” Schiernecker) about his experience of living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
I have always been interested in 20th century history but his take on the war chills me.
In the very early hours of 10th May 1940 I was woken up by the sound of bombs dropping and anti-aircraft guns blazing away. It took the Germans just a few days to force a total surrender by the Dutch armed forces. At first the Nazis used a “softly softly” approach, but it did not take long for them to show their true colours.
They installed a “Gauleiter” (top bossman) by the name of Seyes Inquart (I’m not sure of the spelling after all this time) and whatever he decreed was law. A few months after the Nazi invasion I “celebrated” my eighteenth birthday which, under the circumstances, was not much fun. I was due to start my military service in that August, but obviously that was scratched as the Nazis were by then our “benefactors”, or so they tried to make us believe.
As I was working for a chemical/pharmaceutical company I was given an “Ausweiss” (permit) to work because of the nature of the firm. In June/July 1943 this was declared null and void, and the general idea was that I would have to report to some authority or other so that I could be transported to Germany as part of their quest to force occupied-territory nationals to work for the Nazi war effort. Naturally it was not my plan to work for their munitions industry in order to help them to overcome the Allied Liberating Forces, as we saw them.
From the early days of the Nazi occupation quite a strong “underground” movement was started among the Dutch, which made as much “aggro” for the Nazis as they possibly could. In hindsight some of it seems cruel – like tipping as many Nazi soldiers and Nazi collaborators into the maze of canals, particularly in Amsterdam, as they could.
The people involved in this underground movement were to us “freedom fighters”, whereas to the Nazis they were “terrorists”. Quite a number of them were caught by the Nazis, unfortunately, and after sham court proceedings they were all found guilty of “terrorist” activities and were sent to prison, or concentration camps, or were executed. I vividly remember seeing some half dozen bodies lying on a small greensward, as the tram which took me to work went past, shot to deter others from following in their footsteps. They were possibly shot the night before and left there deliberately for all to see.
Through the “underground” movement, persons like myself who refused to work for the Nazis were given “safe addresses” where we could stay, and were given food ration cards, usually forged. Our hosts received very small amounts of money in recompense. I stayed with a family in Zaandam, north of Amsterdam, for quite a few months. They were the husband, who was a junior school teacher, his wife, three small daughters and a small boy. [People who provided safe houses like that, for people fleeing from the Nazis, were severely punished if caught, with punishments ranging from prison to death. The family who shielded Wim had so much to lose, with four young children, and were very brave].
The lady of the house became very ill while I was staying there. She had a form of meningitis. They didn’t take her into hospital, for reasons which have now escaped me, but a nurse and a doctor came in daily to see her. i finished up looking after the children and doing the housework.
The eldest girl, about nine or ten at the time, became ill., I think she had measles, so I finished up looking after he, as the mother was ill herself. When the husband came home after a day’s teaching he would cook the meal, sometimes with help from neighbours.
In those days many houses in Holland had wooden suspended floors, with a gap of two-and-a-half to three feet between the earth or rubble base and the suspended floor. When raids by the “Grune Polizei”, a nasty lot [searching for fugitives like Wim] were anticipated I was smuggled through a trap door in the kitchen, which was covered with linoleum, and stayed under the floorboards. Food was given to me through the trapdoor, and I had a “jerry” for other purposes. I had to stay there until it was considered safe for me to come out again.
As can be imagined it was not much fun and unfortunately, a few years after the end of the war I became subject to depression and claustrophobia as a result. Those problems stayed with me for quite a number of years. Fortunately I am very glad and thankful that depression is now in the past and does not affect the present.
In 1943/44 I developed mastoiditis, became extremely ill, and once taken into hospital, had three skull operations in approximately a fortnight. With God’s grace and surgeons’ skills I am still around to tell the tale. After this episode I had to leave my “safe” house and travelled, always under cover of darkness, to a place called Hilversum, to the east of Amsterdam, where I stayed for some time with an aunt of mine. When this address became too “hot” I went back to Amsterdam and stayed with an uncle and his family. By this time the tide of war had moved very firmly to the other side, and in May 1945 we were very glad to welcome the Allied Liberating Forces into the Netherlands.
In the meantime, in the north of Holland, we had the infamous so-called “hunger winter” which was so bad that food was almost non-existent. We had something like sugar beat, which was boiled to extract the syrup. The pulp that was left would be moulded into sorts of pancakes which were fried in Vaseline. No other fats were available. We used an “emergency stove” which my father invented and made out of some thin sheet metal. The main that was that it worked. Apart from sugar beet we also ate tulip bulbs, sliced and fried in Vaseline, as an alternative.
My mother developed “hunger oedema” and was given extra rations, which consisted of some kind of slimy soup. I would not like to what what was in it, and we never did find out.
I feel like I have never really had the chance to know my grandfather. Though I am fortunate enough that he is still around, he always seemed somewhat distant with us when we were children. By the time I was old enough to fully understand the reasons for his nature it was too late, he was gripped by dementia, and was either unable to recall much of his past or simply found it too painful to put into words. This article is the closest I have ever come to understanding him.
I am making it a personal resolution to find out more about my family’s history, to fill in the gaps in our history and to try and honour the memory of the brave people who stood up against the Nazi occupation of Holland. The things they must have been forced to do in pursuit of their freedom are unbelievable. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg and I can’t stand the unknown.