THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER!
Interview by Charlotte Wangrin, August 21, 2004
Charlotte: I am interviewing Truus Leader who was a child during World War 2. Truus could you tell me about your experience during World War 2, and where were you?
“Yes, ‘I was born in Amsterdam and was 5 when the war started. I had been living in a children’s home since I was 3 with my sister and 2 brothers. In a way we were fortunate to be in the home because during the war many people died from starvation. The Children’s home had at least some food sometimes.
My mother had us too close together and could not cope with the stress. She had a nervous breakdown. My father could not take care of 4 small children; neither could my aunts and uncles. That is why we were put in the Children’s home. At that time there were no drugs, nor the kind of therapy that is available today to help in a case like my mother’s. She was at that hospital until the war started. Then she was moved to another hospital in Zutphen where experiments were done on the patients. German soldiers were standing guard at the entrance. It was a scary place more like a prison. My father would pick us up to go see my mother. We would take the train from the Central railroad station in Amsterdam and saw a lot of people being herded into freight trains by German soldiers with guns. These trains did not have windows. I asked my father about these men, women and children who were wearing the Star of David, but he put his head down and said he did not know what would happen to them. Few people knew what awaited them.
Charlotte: Since you were so small yet, you probably don’t remember too much about the war.
I remember seeing German flags (no Dutch flags were allowed), on top of buildings with lookout towers for the German soldiers. Also sometimes we would pass German soldiers on the sidewalk on the way to school. They would say something in German which we did not understand and smile at us. It was mandatory to learn German in school, but after learning about the occupation of the German soldiers I pretended to be stupid and could not learn the language. I still don’t speak it, but understand it a little. The Dutch language spoken in Holland is not like German. Some of the soldiers were very young. It was hard to take them serious and we would laugh at them, and they’d smile back.
Yes, I do have some profound memories from the war years. The people at the railroad station, my mother’s crying and pleading to please go home with us, and the hunger in Amsterdam. I was very hungry and was told by my aunt that people left Amsterdam to go to the farms where they hoped to get some food. The farmers would give out potatoes and whatever food they could give. The people would trade in their linens, jewelry and anything they had of value just to be able to eat. Also, planes would strafe and shoot at the people on their bikes going to the farms and kill them. Trains were bombed too.
We also saw people who had died from starvation laying on the sidewalk in Amsterdam. You had to step over them. People in the neighborhood would throw a sheet or blanket over them. I have a book here that shows some of the pictures from the war in Amsterdam. That is exactly what I remember. Also, the horrible rats. They were very big and sometimes would start chewing on a person. The pedestrians would chase them away. They removed the bodies as soon as they could with a hand cart with big wheels.
The children from the orphanage were all very hungry and would bang their cups against the metal fence at the front of the building, to see if people walking by could give them some food. The German soldiers would bring potato peels and the women would boil them and put in some salt. That was our soup. It filled our stomachs for awhile. Also, when bread was old and mildewed we would get that. The woman would make bread pudding. There were no eggs, no sugar, but there was cinnamon. It tasted bad and had a strange odor, and color. To this day I never want to eat bread pudding again. My husband gets it from restaurants sometimes. That is one desert I will not make.
My dad was a classical pianist, but was not needed during the war and went to work in a bakery. He would stop once a week by the children’s home and have a fresh roll of bread that he would split 4 ways for us. Once for some reason I was early and my dad was waiting by the door of the home. He started to take the roll out of his pocket, but a policeman stopped him. He said something to my dad and he reacted by punching the policeman. They were rolling on the ground and I was able to snatch the bread from my dad’s pocket and ate it while running into the building. I did not tell my brothers and sister for a long time about stealing their bread until after the war. I wondered why papa did not come to see us anymore.
My aunt and uncle picked us up sometime to let us visit with our grandpa and grandma, my mother’s parents. I asked my grandmother about it. She said our father was in a labor camp in Germany because he fought with a policeman. My father did not take care of himself. He did not shave and wore old clothes. The policeman must have thought the man was bothering me. I felt very bad of course. I told my grandma what had happened and she said there was nothing anybody could do about it now. She never liked my dad and thought it was his fault that my mother had to be hospitalized. She said, you and Piet, my younger brother, really should never have been born, maybe she would have been all right then.
There was a curfew. Everybody had to be inside by 8 p.m. Anybody who was still outside was shot dead. Sometimes we could hear shots at night and screams. To avoid being bombed the lights had to be out too, so the city could not be seen from the sky. I did not know who would want to bomb us?
We only had to walk a few blocks to our school, but that is when we saw bad things happen. One time a big German truck was parked in front of a house. The soldiers were inside. They brought out an older woman in her nightgown who was crying, “I am old and sick let me die in my home.” They ignored her screaming and put her on the truck. Us kids screamed at the soldiers but they just laughed and drove off holding her down on the back of the truck. I can still hear her terrified screams.
Sometimes there were air raids and the sirens would warn us that the city might be bombed. We would stand in the doorways of stores. Like that would saved us, right? When the all clear siren came on we would go on to school. One time we actually saw a dog fight between 2 planes from our 3rd floor classroom window. We all stood by the window wondering which way the planes were going. One of the planes suddenly exploded and disappeared behind the buildings. It fell in the center of the city and destroyed the Hotel Carlton. The hotel was rebuilt after the war.
The school was across From a dairy factory where powdered milk was made. One time they were hoisting a bag of milk powder from a window above onto a truck. The sack broke when it fell to the ground. We saw it happened from our window. We all ran down stairs and across the street. He did not try to stop us; he knew we were hungry. We ate the powdered milk and put as much as we could in our pockets. What a mess. It also is hard to swallow so we ran back to class to get a drink of water and clean up. That was a happy accident for us. We had not laughed so much for a long time. Our clothes and faces were all white from the powdered milk.
There were sirens going off at night too. All the children would go outside without shoes in their night clothes quiet as a mouse (remember there was a curfew). There was a large warehouse down the street where we could go down a stairway into the cellar and lay on straw until the all clear siren was heard. The straw smelled so good. We pretended to be on a farm in a barn. We took deep breaths. Some kids were scared and started to cry, but we always tried to sing songs and not be afraid.
One time there was a lot of excitement. The ladies from the kitchen told us we had meat today. No one was to come to the kitchen; they would bring the food out. They had a big pot and put it on the table. We all got a few very small pieces of gray meat on our plate. I took a piece of meat on my fork. It was tough and had a bad flavor. When someone shouted [that] it might be a rat, I threw it back on the plate. “No, it is not!” we were told. “Just be glad you have some food. Now eat up!” I could not eat, no matter how hungry I was. I just kept going to the faucet to fill up with water. No one was allowed to go into the kitchen. We were told that a couple of times. Soon the plates were collected and I was told you are not leaving the table until your plate is empty. It took me a long, long time between gagging by trying to swallow the pieces whole. I could not make myself chew the meat. I just sat there unable to eat. Finally, they must have thought everyone had left the room. I was very small and sat in the back of the room. The lights were turned off. Finally I gulped down the last piece of meat and found my way to the kitchen. I turned the lights on. I seemed to step on something like a string. It rolled under my shoe. When I looked down on the floor it looked like the root of a beet, but that is not what we had for dinner. I realized it must have been the hairy tail of a rat. I ran up to my bed completely nauseated. All the girls in the dorm were in their beds and ready to go to sleep. My stomach was rumbling and I was so sick. Suddenly before I could get out of bed, I vomited all over the blanket. The girls screamed for some one to come. I was dragged out of bed and thrown into a closet. The door was locked. It was pitch dark in there. While I was locked in the closet an air raid siren went off. All the children left the building. They did not hear my calling and left the building quickly. I was the only one left in the building. I sat on the cold floor in my dirty, smelly nightgown. The building became very, very quiet. I hoped they would bomb the children’s home so I could die. I did not care anymore. We attended church on Sundays but our minister was a fat man, who apparently got plenty to eat. He told us, the skinny undernourished kids, that we were sinners. To me there was no God. So I had no faith. Finally, it seemed like hours, the all clear siren went off. When I heard everyone coming back inside, I screamed as loud as I could to let me out.
The woman who had put me in the closet unlocked the door. I told her, I am going to tell Mrs. Akkerman (the supervisor) that you made me stay there. She quickly took me to the bathroom where I could wash up and gave me clean clothes. Then she stroked my hair and said, “If you are good I will give you a piece of cheese.” She took me to her desk and unlocked the drawer. There she had hidden a nice chunk of cheese. She cut me some, and cheese never tasted so good to me. I told her, “I hope the cheese will stay in my stomach.” She said, “I hope it does, too.” She made me promise I would not tell anyone that she had forgotten me. I said, just give me a piece of cheese now and then and I will not tell. She did. Once a week I got a tiny piece of cheese when she tucked me in. I would eat it under the blanket. She must have been going out with a German soldier who gave her the cheese so we both had a secret to keep.
I really resented having to go to the Dutch Reformed Church to be told how bad we were by the fat minister, until something terrible happened. One day on the way to school, my sister and I saw a lot of people standing around in the park. Soldiers raised their guns and shot down all the men. They threw the bleeding dead men on their truck like sacks of potatoes, and drove off. We were in shock. I just stood there and could not move. We went on to school and I was late, so had to stand in the corner. I was not asked why I was late. When the teacher told me to go to my seat, he still did not ask. And I was silent. A few days later the teacher apologized to me when he realized where I was. He told us that someone had killed a German soldier and in retaliation 12 men were picked off the street and shot. One of them was the son of Reverend Koningsberg, our minister. We all felt very bad for him. My sister and I were in Amsterdam recently and went to that site where a Memorial has been built and fresh flowers were laid.
New children kept coming to the home and apparently someone had head lice. All the boys and girls had their hair cut and shaved off. We were totally bald. Our heads were cold. We were all given different colored berets. When we walked together to church we sure attracted attention with our bald heads covered with the colorful green, yellow, orange, blue and red berets. (Someone probably donated them.)
The Children’s home was divided; one side was the boys and the girls were on the other side. I seldom saw my brothers. The girls’ side of the building had a large dollhouse with a second story. It was so big; those of us who were small could actually crawl around in it. It also had a little bed upstairs where we hid one of the little girls who was Jewish. We were told that when the bell rang we had to hide her in that bed and not look at the doll house.
The Winters can be very cold since we get the icy wind from the North Atlantic Ocean. There was no hot water in the building for baths. The building was cold too. You could see steam coming off your skin when you took a bath. In spite of being malnourished, I don’t remember getting sick. We were just very skinny. The children’s home was very old and was torn down after the war.
It seems like all Dutch people ride bikes. During the war the German Soldiers would block a street. They ordered everyone to get off their bikes and threw them them on their trucks. That was called a Razzia. My father had his bike taken and one time he just stole someone else’s bike. This was war.
We were told the Americans are coming to chase the German Army out. We heard about all the fighting and the soldiers who died. My uncle Jo had a clandestine radio which he hid behind a bookcase. We would listen to Briton’s new Prime Minister Winston Churchill speaking to the Dutch people to keep up their courage. It made me think of the young German soldier boys we would see on the streets. Would they be fighting against Americans?
It seems the days of misery and hunger went on. We heard about Rotterdam and the harbor being destroyed by bombers and other parts of the country. We heard about heavy fighting for weeks. We tried not to give up hope. One day it was my turn to hang up the laundry on the roof. While I was doing that there was a loud rumbling sound. I looked at the sky. It was clear. I saw no planes. Then I realized the noise was coming from the street below. I peeked over the edge and saw a huge American tank with soldiers walking alongside it. A large American flag was on the tank. The soldiers were being hugged and kissed by people who ran up to them. They were all shouting for joy. I quickly went downstairs. In the living room the girls were all under the table expecting an air raid. I told them, “No, the war is over. The Yankees are here. Look outside.” Everyone ran to the windows and stared in amazement. We were allowed to run outside too and cheered the soldiers. I love that American Flag. That flag means a lot to me. It truly means freedom for all of us from Holland and the many millions of people who were liberated by the American soldiers. There are several cemeteries in Holland where American, Canadian and English soldiers are buried. The cemeteries are kept beautiful. We saw them. Also, sadly there is a cemetery in Southern Holland where 32,000 German soldiers are buried. What a waste of young people right?
So Liberation Day was on May 5th, 1945. The American Soldiers came to the children’s home and we all got on Army busses and were driven to the Stadium. There the American Army Band Played the Stars and Stripes Forever. All the soldiers picked up the children and we were put on their shoulders. My soldier just lifted me with one hand and put me on his shoulder. I did not weight much and he had a white pet mouse in his coat uniform pocket which he had to keep from running of. So we proudly marched into the stadium with our bald heads, at the sound of John Philip Sousa’s wonderful music. What a wonderful celebration! People took pictures of us. I wish I could see them.
The United States has been subjected to some severe criticism on the part of its friends and allies in recent years. What they must be aware of though is, there are many, many millions of people who are deeply grateful for their bravery and sacrifice to liberate so many countries.
Thanks through the Marshal Plan, Holland was able to borrow $129.5 million dollars from America after the war. The money helped to rebuild Holland; new housing, schools, hospitals and roads. Although the final payment was not due until 1983, the Dutch paid in advance the remainder of $65.5 million dollars in 1968, in the spirit of cooperation in view of the U.S. balance of payment problems. They called it their Dutch Treat.
Thank you Charlotte for letting me tell my story. Hopefully this was helpful to get a perspective of one person who knows about Democratic Freedoms so hard it was fought for by the American Veterans.
Every 5 years all the American, Canadian and English Soldiers who fought in Holland during the Second World War are greeted back to Holland and given a reception by the Queen. They are housed in the Dutch homes and not allowed to stay in a hotel. There is a parade with many Dutch flags and those from the Liberators. Sadly many of the Veterans are getting older or gone so there are less coming each time. But Holland will never forget the United States of America and will be forever grateful.
P.S. My father did come back and lived to be 84 years of age.