A wartime childhood under German-occupation.
Zina lives in South-West England. She came to the UK in 1994, for work, and has lived here ever since. She was born in The Netherlands, in 1939, six months before the German army invaded and occupied the country. Her family lived in a small, rural Dutch village far from the battles and bombings. Her father, she tells me, was the local vicar and they lived in a large farmhouse, separated from the church by a beautiful, wild garden. She talks about her father with an undeniable affection.
“My father, he was warm. He was just a big bear. I loved him very much.”
The rural Netherlands did not escape the German occupation. Zina recalls how her parents walked a fine line between resisting and standing up to the German occupiers, while tolerating and living alongside them with a sense of diplomacy and politeness.
Photo Marcel Berendsen took May 1940 during the German invasion of The Netherlands
“When the Germans requested our house, my mother stood up to them. She showed them the dangers of our dodgy electric wiring and they allowed us to stay living in our house while the soldiers used the rooms built in the former cowshed. I remember they had a table in the middle and on all sides on the floor were straw mattresses where the soldiers slept.”
“My parents were extremely brave and heroic during the war. They ran a temporary emergency unit for sick people from a nearby German work camp and hid people who needed hiding from German cruelty. They received a medal from the Red Cross and after the war, when the frenzy of revenge raged and Dutch people started to victimise each other, my father continued to defend the helpless.”
Zina’s mother (right) helped nurse the sick and injured from nearby German work camps
“Befriending the enemy”
As a child, living in a German-occupied village was a unique, yet confusing experience for Zina. On the one hand, she was told by her parents that the German soldiers were “bad people” – many local people hated them. Yet, they were human beings. And even though it was forbidden, her childhood innocence and curiosity enabled her to relate to them as more than just “enemy soldiers.”
“The soldiers living in our house were young and jolly. One, called Max, became my special friend. He was blonde and he was cheerful, and he picked me up and swung me around, and he would cuddle me. I loved that because my mother wasn’t cuddly at all. I remember standing and looking out for my German friend, Max, and hoping he would twirl me around on the area where they marched and shouted and sometimes exercised.”
“I remember one day sitting on the steps to the soldiers’ rooms, next to their coats in the hall, listening to their laughter and cheers. Then I spotted something thick and sticky slowly running from under the door towards me. It tasted horrible! It was blood from some animal they were slaughtered on the table. I was flabbergasted. I had seen animals that had been killed and hung on a ladder and I knew they bled. But that was not a job for soldiers or a very kind thing to do! How could my Max be involved in such a thing? Such a very bad thing!?”
Zina as a child growing up during the German occupation of The Netherlands
I asked Zina how it feels to look back over an early family life dominated by such challenging wartime conditions. She has clearly thought about this a lot during her life and has some thoughtful answers. On the one hand, she told me that her childhood lacked a sense of safety, care, and security and it is clear from her voice that she has suffered for this.
“I felt all through childhood, and it’s only in retrospect that I recognise it and give the words to it, I felt that I was missing care and safety.”
Yet Zina doesn’t blame her parents. Instead, she seems to appreciate how difficult it would have been for them to raise a young family amid the German occupation.
“The problems of the world and society were so enormous, that maybe it would have been very selfish to spend your time on your family instead of on all the suffering around you. It must have been difficult, especially in wartime. There are moral issues, you see. How do you deal with a husband who was a traitor? How do you deal with losing your sons to the war? Or with food shortages? Yes, it was hard for my parents, I suppose.”
And she believes that her father’s approach to the struggles he faced, during and after the German occupation, taught her some valuable lessons.
“I always remember my father saying “I don’t care what you think, so long as you think. Don’t just go along with what you’re ordered to do, just blindly, use your own common sense, your own moral compass. Understand that things are not black and white.” At the end of the war, there was this sense of revenge, that all the Dutch traitors had to be punished; girls who had had a fling with a German soldier had their hair cut off and were tarred as traitors as a punishment and that was horrible. And people who had simply made bad decisions during the war but hadn’t really committed any horrible crimes were easy targets. They could have their houses set on fire for being traitors. It was horrible.”
“But my father taught me that none of us is completely blameless and good. And he told us to care about what other people think and not just what you conjure up. Other people have thoughts you might not agree with, but we must respect them.”
Perhaps most significantly of all, from the memories of a childhood spent amid a climate of war, conflict, threat and fear, Zina told me that she has learned some critical lessons about life and being human.
“What I find most peculiar and…comforting, is that whenever I had enormous troubles, problems, and I felt stuck in a rut, there was always some sort of way out. Some help, some solution, some answer. I want to think that we all have that possibility. I hope it happens to everybody.”
“I think that we’re given all these problems in order to give us the opportunity to sort them out, and to turn them into something, well, that is good, for yourself or others.”
There is much wisdom in Zina’s recollections, stories, and memories and she expresses them thoughtfully. Our conversation leaves me feeling privileged and enlightened. Her grandchildren, she tells me, sometimes ask her “What did you do in the war? What did you experience?” and they are always very interested and amazed that the stories she tells them were a part of their grandmother’s life.
Zina’s mother, father, and family in the wild garden between their house and the church.
Guild Living is celebrating the extraordinary lives of older people living within our local communities through the ‘Extraordinary Lives Project’. We believe that every older person has an extraordinary story to tell. Click here to view other stories shared by extraordinary people in your local communities.