During the second world war, Ian’s father escaped from the Netherlands and made his way through Belgium, France and Spain, coming eventually (via Portugal and Gibraltar) to Britain, where he flew in the RAF and met Ian’s mother. More than fifty years later, he wrote a book about his adventures, called An Odyssey through Occupied Europe in 1943. It’s an amazing story, and we have long wanted to try to trace the route he took, finding places and if possible people (or their descendants) that he mentions. At last we have the opportunity to undertake at least part of his journey. Before setting off, we tried to do as much research as possible, tracing people via the Internet. We were lucky to make contact with Renée Wachtel-Bech, the widow of one of Pa’s comrades. She has been very helpful in finding information for us, especially as we don’t speak Dutch!
So far we have had some disappointments and some successes. This and the next few blogs will take the form of a diary recording briefly the highlights (and lowlights!) of our trip.
Thursday 13 August: We flew to Amsterdam, and took the train (20 minutes) to Zaandam, where Pa started his journey and where Ian was born. After checking into our hotel, we took another train (12 mins) to the centre of Amsterdam. Renée had discovered that Pa’s travelling companion, Frans van den Brink, had written his own account of their journey, and his ‘little diary’ was stored in the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD). We went there, and the staff were very helpful. They found Frans’s file, let us look at it and promised to send an electronic copy of the contents (which they did, later the same day; we in return sent them a copy of Pa’s book). They even found a transcript of Pa’s interview with the Dutch authorities when he arrived in England.
We were so pleased with this information – and the weather was so good that day – that we decided to have a drink sitting by the canal in the sun. We got talking to an American lady at the next table, and two hours later… Still, we had no more research to do that day, so wandered around the canals, had dinner and wandered around again, taking photos of the bridges that by then were lit up.
Friday 14 August: In Zaandam we met up with Ian’s cousin Pieter and his wife Heather. They live in Australia, but are currently on a tour of Europe. It was great to see them again. After lunch together, Pieter took us to visit Aunt Fita, Pa’s younger sister. We had not seen her for many years, and were pleased to see her looking so well at the age of 88. She speaks some English, but we were grateful to have Pieter with us, as he still speaks good Dutch – unlike Ian!
Back at our hotel, Ian made several phone calls trying to trace Frans, or his descendants, but no luck.
Saturday 15 August: There seemed to be a consensus that Frans lived in North Holland, and the most recent address we had was in Heerhugowaard. Renée had established that the people living there had a different name, but as all our other attempts had failed, we decided to go there and knock on the door. We reasoned that the current inhabitants might know if he was still alive, and where he (or his descendants) now lived. Fortunately it was an easy journey by train from Zaandam, and the address was close to the station. But it was a flat, rather than a house, so we could not knock on the door. We rang the intercom, but when Ian explained what we wanted, the woman just said ‘he’s dead’ and put the phone down, before he had had a chance to ask about descendants. This was disappointing, but at least we knew now that we could give up the search.
The afternoon was more of a triumph. On 22 June 1943, Pa and Frans met at Zaandam railway station and walked southward to the ferry over the North Sea Canal. We saw no such ferry on our maps, and thought that it had probably been replaced by a bridge or a tunnel. We enquired in Zaandam, but were told more than once that the only ferry went from a direction that did not correspond to the book. Perhaps there used to be another one? we asked, and received only blank looks.
We decided to walk in the direction indicated by the book, to at least see the area where we believed the ferry used to be. But on the way, we gasped when ‘ferry’ signs suddenly appeared! And when we reached the canal, there was the ferry, exactly as Pa described. Score one for his book!
Sunday 16 August: We returned to the airport, and collected a rental car. Through France, Pa and Frans travelled mainly by train, and we intend to do the same. But through the Netherlands they relied on lifts, which we could not do, so we decided to use a car. First we detoured to Noordwijk, hoping to see a new museum devoted to the ‘Engelandvaaders’, Dutchmen who had made the wartime journey to England. We knew it was to be officially opened in September, but understood that it had already opened to the public. We went to the place indicated on its website, but saw no sign.
We walked along the promenade looking for information about the museum and some hot coffee – much needed as the weather had turned very cold and the sea wind was biting. After trekking backwards and forwards we finally confirmed where the museum will be – but as yet it does not exist. A big disappointment.
Later that day, we came to the Moerdijk Roadbridge. Pa and Frans tried to cross there, but were turned back by a German sentry and instead took a bus from Dordrecht to the ferry to Lage Zwaluwe. This ferry no longer exists, and we could not tell from where it would have left. The tourist office in Dordrecht was closed, which did not help! However, in Lage Zwaluwe we had drinks in a pub and talked to a man who knew about the wartime ferry. He showed us where it went and confirmed that it was used to transport Dutch people who were not allowed to use the bridge.
Monday 17 August: We drove to Ossendrecht, close to the Belgian border. Pa worked there as a customs officer earlier in the war, and came with Frans on their journey south. There were people and places we hoped to locate, but Ossendrecht is a small place, without tourist information or town hall, so where to make a start? Luckily, we were directed to the Hotel Dekkers, in the centre of the village, and the owner, Richard, was very helpful. It transpired that a café mentioned by Pa was just opposite, although it no longer exists. Richard took us to see an old lady, currently staying in the hotel, who has lived in Ossendrecht all her life. She informed us that a man who provided hospitality for Pa and Frans was no longer alive, but his children still lived in the village. She then phoned his son (Frans van der Sande) and he came to meet us. Over a drink, we talked and he showed us photos. He then gave us a guided tour of the area, pointing out all the places that would be of interest to us.
Tuesday 18 August: Suuske van der Sande (father of Frans whom we met yesterday) warned Pa and Frans against crossing at Ossendrect, and told them instead to go through ‘the woods of Putte’. (Putte is a village right on the border – the main road is half in Holland, half in Belgium.) Another man (whom we were unable to trace) showed them the way. We walked through the woods to Belgium, although we could not identify the footpath that they took. For us it was too easy, as there are plenty of well-signed walking trails and cycle paths. We walked into the village of Berendrecht, as did Pa and Frans. From there they took a tram to Antwerp. The tram service has been replaced by a bus, but we had to return to Holland, as our car and our luggage were there.
In the nearby village of Hoogerheide, we found the home of Eugene Jansen, grandson of another farmer where Pa stayed the night. Eugene has written a book on old Ossendrecht; it is now out of print, but he gave us some family photos. He welcomed us into his home, but unfortunately our conversation was limited by language barriers.