In 1943, at age 19, my grandfather received a letter from the German occupiers. At the time, he was living in The Hague, the Netherlands. The German forces were ordering young men from all over Europe to forcefully work in its factories. They replaced the German men that were sent to fight at the front.
My grandfather went without resistance: he feared punishment for his entire family if he didn’t go. He was sent to work in a Daimler- Benz factory in Stuttgart. He lived in the small village of Strümpfelbach, later Fellsbach. He worked here until 1945 when he, together with fellow labourers, escaped in the middle of the chaos of war.
His years in Germany pursued him throughout his life. In the years before his passing in 2014 he wrote down his memories, preserving them for the ages. Some parts of this 20-page document have touched me, seeing a lot of timeless humanity in this document. My grandfather writes about bombardments, violence and cruelty, but he also writes about people, people that try to shape their daily lives as much as they’re allowed to. It also helped to get a better understanding of my grandfather whom, for his entire life, spoke rarely of the war.
What follows are some parts from this diary:
‘’Initially, the local population was resistant to our coming. Our arrival allowed more of their sons to be send to the Eastern front. Only after we explained we didn’t help the Germans voluntarily, the started to become friendly’’. Many Germans had heard the news of Stalingrad, and knew they would lose this war. (…) Everyone was afraid of everyone, this you noticed in tram and train, on the platforms, and in restaurants. People were silent. Schwaben and Würtembergers are peaceful people; all were afraid of ‘Berlin’.’’
‘’The local minister we regarded a firm fellow. We followed some religious education with him. In the church was a tiny organ, on which I was allowed to pay during the week (..) after some months the preacher was gone without any ‘goodbye’. It was forbidden to educate foreigner. Was he taken a prisoner? Initially, every now and then there was a remembrance service for a local soldier fallen on the eastern front. Some months later, these memories happened every Sunday. Sometimes two in during a church service. These were dramatic memorials. Mothers were crying and crying young women that had become widow. There was never a body to be buried. Lists of losses became longer and longer.’’
‘’In our midst we had a man from Rotterdam, a real daunting figure, who was ready to show whom or what he liked or not. He talked all day, but to no one especially. (…) he was sent to a re-education camp for six weeks. At a time we saw him sitting in a bus. We could recognise him only with great effort. He was shaven bald, strongly meagre and had large, fearful eyes. I will never forget his gaze. He said no word and couldn’t be talked to. In the German re-education camp he had been dehumanized in six weeks.’’
‘’Later we moved to a former school building to serve as living quarters. We would stay here only briefly, because it would not be safe from bombs! One night, it was time. First firebombs, to set all alit, then highly explosive shells, these destroyed everything. Our school burned too. De normal exit was blocked. We tried to escape from the cellar window. On the streets all hell was loose. Flames, screaming women looking for their family, burning asphalt, sirens of firetrucks and a horrible stench that I will never forget. Smell can never be passed in war movies! We could easily retain our calmth, we had only ourselves to lose, and weren’t we all being saved? We all thought that it was needed, Germany had to be beaten.’’
‘’Because of the enormous loses of manpower, many young women became widows. We have been spoken to by a woman that offered shelter to us in exchange for protection and perhaps even more. This could allow us to escape the primitive living quarters.’’
On occasion, we saw Russian girls, that were sent to Germany as slaves. Some of them worked at our department. They were happy to teach us some Russian words. (…) when I saw one of these girls digging in piles of frozen potatoes, searching for something edible, I knew how hungry they must have been.’’
After the occupation (for us our liberation), a German family appeared. This family has consistently refused to deliver their children to the Hitler- Youth. For years they had been ignored by their neighbours. On one occasion, they were placed on a cart and driven through the village, so the local townspeople could mock them.’’
During the summer of 2020, during a brief interval of looser COVID 19 measures, I took some days off to pursue my grandfather’s story. WIth his story in my backpack I travelled to Stuttgart, to Strümpfelbach and to Fellsbach. Was there something to remind me of my grandfather?
Times have changed of course. And little could remind of this time of war and misery. Where My grandfather would write about war, about fear, about hunger, I can write about peace and calmth. But many things have not changed: He would also write about the hills, about the fruit trees in spring, and so do I. He wrote about the things he encountered around him. He discovered garlic, was surprised by both the cruelty and the happiness he could encounter around him. Walking around, I discovered that Fellsbach has its own YMCA. Isn’t that a coincidence?
And so I look around in life, just like my grandfather did before me. As such, I now live in The Hague, as my father did, nearly 80 years ago. Life must have changed greatly here, but is in many ways unchanged, I believe. Isn’t looking around like this in his or her own life?
Written by Arend Holvast – translation by Jonathan van Varik
This article is part of the World by Word campaign. This project originated at YMCA Netherlands and is a multinational cooperation of YMCA Europe Roots for Peace project, and the Dutch former Soviet Cemetery Leusden. World by Word is a prelude to an Erasmus+ funded Youth Exchange “Then, now and later: towards a composite memory”, taking place in the Netherlands in 2022.