Heather/ Gerda van Wieringen was born in Holland and immigrated to New Zealand in 1957. Heather has three adult children and grandchildren. She enjoys travelling, Classical Studies (Greek and Roman history, art and literature), researching her genealogy, being involved in her church and community and cups of tea or coffee with friends. Heather was just two years old at the start of World War Two and seven years old at the end of the war, so many of her early childhood memories are of Holland under occupation by Hitler’s forces.
The following childhood memory piece by Heather/ Gerda van Wieringen, appeared in Growing Up In Wartime: Recollections from Children and Adolescents of the 1940s, compiled by Isobel Veitch, edited by Mervyn Palmer and published in 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-473-15535-3). Profits from the sale of this book went to benefit a charity in Dunedin, New Zealand. We at “The Forever Years” strongly recommend this book, which shows not only how our childhood years are indeed our “forever years”, but also how living through war feels through the eyes of a child.
May 5th 1945. There was the sound of planes roaring overhead. Everywhere, people were coming out of doors into the streets, hurrying to the different places where the English and American pilots would drop boxes of food to relieve some of the hunger. Excitement was everywhere. “Food!” they screamed. They danced, they laughed, they cried. I was seven years old.
I felt bewildered and ran to my favourite lamp post, a typical green-painted seventeenth century Dutch post which had two arms sticking out from just beneath the head. Quickly, I climbed up and looked around and below me, wondering and observing– not understanding. What did people dance for? Why did they cry and laugh? They came running with packets and tins to show one another.
“Biscuits!” some called out. “Meat!” sang someone else. One tall woman started to sing, “Peace, it is Peace!” The crowd joined in singing the National Anthem– Wilhelmus van Nassaue. They sang with loud voices and I saw some with tears in their eyes.
“Peace?” I wondered. But I saw the strange soldiers still about and I could even recognise one of them from my favourite high place. He was the blond German boy who was one of the cooks working in the village abattoir which belonged to the butcher. The new soldiers had installed themselves there. I had watched him bringing food in little aluminium pans with one handle, from one side of the street to a building on the other side belonging to the village greengrocer. Walter was the German boy’s name and one day he had come up to me and sat in front of me, gently putting something in my hand and giving me a friendly smile. He spoke words I didn’t understand and when the dark brown thing in my hand began to melt, I licked it and looked at it, not knowing what it was… but it tasted nice.
I didn’t dare tell anybody and it weighed heavily on my feelings of childhood guilt to have been near the soldiers, which was forbidden.
From my high place, I followed him as he pushed through the crowd, who either ignored him or spat at him. A mist clouded my sight for a few moments, but I quickly cheered up again.
Someone shouted, “Oranje boven“, which meant that once again everybody dared to mention the name of our Queen. I gave a sigh of relief and thought of a daring act of mine: walking in front of the soldiers with a gold flower [a marigold] from my father’s nursery in my buttonhole. My parents had always warned me never to wear orange or have orange ribbons in my hair. This was forbidden as the soldiers didn’t like our Queen whose name was Oranje [Orange]. But I loved my father’s orange flowers and I felt angry with the soldiers. I was certain they would like the golden flower when they saw it, because it had the colour of the sun. The German soldiers lived very near our house and I had walked to them secretly and shown off my beautiful flower. Maybe they also liked it and they looked at me and the flower but, that day, nothing had happened.
Soon there was more cheering when some daring boys came out with bunches of marigolds, which they quickly distributed. People put them in the buttonholes of their jackets, which hung like sacks around their thin bodies. Flags and orange banners, smelling musty from five years in storage in the most unlikely places, were hung out of windows.
A small girl with a tin opened by her brother started to shout, “Porc! Porc!” The crowd, dunk with emotion, joined in the singing, “Porcie, Porcie viees in blik!” [meat in a tin].
They made up songs as they went along. I felt a pang of jealousy as I was not allowed to join them. My mother had told her children, “Do not take any tins or parcels, as we still have some food. They are for those people who are very hungry. They come first!” Such a wise lesson!
The village baker and his wife, who hung on his arm, started to dance and soon everybody hooked in. With amazement, I saw people dancing and twirling around singing, “Put your left foot forward…” I had never seen such happiness.
I kept looking anxiously at the door of the village community hall and from the door to the heavy army motorbikes which were parked nearby. The door stayed closed– or did it?
Oh no! Out they came, the German soldiers all dressed up in leather coats and wearing helmets as they were leaving. I wanted to warn the people, but I became paralysed with fear. Would shooting start? I looked down on the happy, cheerful crowd. About ten young German soldiers marched out of the door. They had unhappy faces and they didn’t look around. They mounted their heavy motorbikes, not even glancing at the happy, dancing crowds singing, clapping and cheering.
“At last we are free. We are free,” said the people near me.
We were free? Free of what? I didn’t know. Were they all friends again, the German boys and the village people? What about the blond boy with the nice, kind face? Would he stay with us in the village? Why didn’t he dance with all the people? Wasn’t he also free? I felt so happy now that everyone was friends again. Although I had never spoken to the German soldier boy, he had given me a friendly smile.
Every evening my father had told me over and over again that I was never allowed to speak to the soldiers or answer any questions. I didn’t know until many years later that the reason for this was because there had been an officer of the Dutch army hidden in our flower shed between two walls and the Nazis had been searching for him. I so loved the young German soldier who had given me my first piece of chocolate. I had just stared at him and observed him in silence.
Slowly I slithered down the carved metal post of the old street lantern to the footpath and skipped and hopped to the crowd. My father saw me and suddenly, I was lifted high upon his shoulders and we danced around the circle of people who were clapping and stamping their feet for joy. But the blond friend was gone and I was sad as I watched the motorbikes leaving. Why didn’t they let them dance with us? He was free too.
Such is the story of a questioning child who loved unconditionally when the word “war” had no meaning. Who is one’s friend and who is one’s enemy when one is only seven years old? She lived in a world of secrecy, a world of fear and yet a world of kindness shared. She lived in her world where hatred had not been felt yet.