Moving Forward from a Childhood under the Khmer Rouge, by Pisey Leng

1431947088727Even though I was only seven years old, my childhood ended abruptly on April 17, 1975. That was the day the Communist Khmer Rouge guerilla forces captured the city of Phnom Penh and Cambodia fell under the control of a murderous regime whose reign of terror resulted in the deaths of almost two million Cambodians.

As the mostly teen-aged soldiers marched into our city, they had flowers in the muzzles of their guns and waved to the crowds of Cambodians who celebrated their peaceful arrival. The celebration quickly turned into chaos when the Khmer Rouge soldiers began to order people from their homes and into the streets where they began a forced death-march into the countryside. Within two days, my parents, my older brother and I walked with two million other Cambodians who were forced from their homes leaving the city of Phnom Penh completely deserted. Those who protested or did not leave quickly enough were shot. No one was spared.

My eighth birthday passed during that terrifying three-month march where most of the sick and elderly died on the sides of the road. Shortly after we arrived at our labor camp, my father and brother were taken away to work in different mobile work groups. We were told that the Khmer Rouge leaders were our family and we now lived in the year zero. There was no music, manufacturing, mail, toilet facilities, medicine, motor vehicles or anything to make life easy or enjoyable. There was only work and death. Cambodia was brought back to the pre-industrial age in a radical social experiment that was horribly flawed.

My father was executed about six months after we were forced from the city and it was painfully obvious that death was the most likely outcome of our own ordeal. The Khmer Rouge’s leader Pol Pot condemned anything modern or western and blamed the plight of Cambodia’s peasant farmers on those who lived in the city. Professional and skilled workers were executed along with anyone who spoke a foreign language or wore glasses. Anyone who was even suspected of any formal education was murdered.

To read more, follow the link below…

Pisey Leng, who now lives in New Zealand, was born in Cambodia in 1968.  She has recently written a book about living under the Khmer Rouge as a child, and how this effected her later life.  Her book is entitled: The Wisdom Seeker: Finding the Seed of Advantage in the Khmer Rouge. 

Related Links:

A message I wrote to Pisey Leng and her reply:

From Kirsteen McLay-Knopp:  An amazing story, Pisey Leng. As a New Zealander who has been to Cambodia and spent time living in Vietnam, I am so glad you were able to make Aotearoa into your new home and a place where you could find peace. 🙂

From Pisey Leng:  Kirsteen, Thank you. As I said New Zealand holds a very special place in my heart. Aotearoa gave me a heavenly home after 14 years of labour camps and refugee camps not knowing where my life would end up. It has given me much more than just a home. It has given me a new life, stability, hope and identity as a person. I’m no longer just a number in the labour camps or refugee camps. I can now walk proudly as a rightful citizen of Aotearoa. I’m Truly Blessed.


Is Education a Human Right? By Professor Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey

Classroom(Originally Published in “The Huffington Post”.  Follow link below).

Editor’s Note:  Of course, here at “The Forever Years”, we believe that ALL children should have the opportunity to an education, particularly considering the enormous, positive difference that this makes! 🙂

Going beyond the rhetoric, should access to education be legally protected and addressed as a human right under international law? Education is increasingly highlighted as fundamental to the advancement of societies as well as essential to opportunity for individuals. Both the opportunity but also the right are too frequently unequal and arbitrarily secured. Girls have too often been shortchanged. Poverty and conflict frequently are obstacles as children barely in their teens are compelled to support hungry families or some are forced to become “child soldiers” or “comfort wives.” Malala Yousafzai, targeted by the Pakistani Taliban for assassination for promoting education for her generation of young men and women, stands out as a symbol for millions who are denied opportunity and access. What more can be done both in practice and definition by the United Nations and International Community?

Photo Credit: UNESCO

Photo Credit: UNESCO

(Read more at the following link…)

“We needn’t wait for conflicts to end for children to be removed from armed organizations.” By Siddharth Chatterjee

C.Soldiers CollageThe Kony 2012 video viewed by nearly 100 million people stunned the world and brought back into focus the egregious use of children as combatants. The blatant terror and savagery taking place in a moral vacuum of sorts, where thousands of children are maimed, raped, killed and abused is a microcosm of a problem afflicting many parts of the world. It even spurred some U.S. Senators to act upon the decades of crimes against humanity committed by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.

Human Rights Watch confirmed reports of child soldiers being used extensively in recent weeks by the M 23 rebel group in the Congo. Young children continue to be recruited and used as soldiers, scarring them for life. Estimates suggest that as many as 300,000 child soldiers are active in conflicts around the world. 40% of armed forces (including national armies, militias, gangs, terrorist organizations and resistance forces) in the world use children.

Many erroneously believe that child soldiers are mostly boys. In fact, 30% of armed organizations that use children have girls. Girl soldiers aren’t just at risk for long-lasting physical and psychological wounds, they are almost always at risk of often brutal sexual violence as well.

Over 30% of children used as combatants are girls. Photo Credit: ©2006 Peter Mantello.

Over 30% of children used as combatants are girls. Photo Credit: ©2006 Peter Mantello.

The other fallacy is that the issue of child soldiers is isolated to armed militias in parts of Africa. Child soldiers have been used by armed groups in recent and ongoing conflicts in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South America. Moreover, some governments also recruit and use children under the age of 18 in their armed forces.

(To read further, follow the link below…)


(See also “the Kony Video”, below… riveting watching about this very important topic and a lesson to us all about how individuals CAN make a difference for our global family.  🙂 )

Editor’s Note (by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp)

Just a follow up note to “the Kony Video”… Joseph Kony is still alive, although there have been reports that he has poor health.  He has evaded capture so far.  However, the world wide campaign in 2012 (in the video), forced him (once he realised that he was “wanted”) to go into hiding… with the result that thousands of children who would otherwise have become his soldiers are, instead, in school and living “normal” young lives.

Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills (Historical Kindness)


What a lovely example from history not only of how things can be re-used, but also of how the manufacturers went out of their way to help so many children by creating bright and beautiful material: something they didn’t have to do.

Kindness Blog

In times gone by, amidst widespread poverty, the Flour Mills realized that some women were using sacks to make clothes for their children. In response, the Flour Mills started using flowered fabric…

With the introduction of this new cloth into the home, thrifty women everywhere began to reuse the cloth for a variety of home uses – dish towels, diapers, and more. The bags began to become very popular for clothing items.

Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour MillsAs the recycling trend looked like it was going to stay, the manufacturers began to print their cloth bags – or feedsacks – in an ever wider variety of patterns and colors.

Some of the patterns they started using are shown below

Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills Over time, the popularity of the feedsack as clothing fabric increased beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, fueled by both ingenuity and scarcity.

By the time WWII dominated the lives of Americans, and cloth for fabric was in…

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A Post about Kids and ANZAC Day (but not “The Last Post”)

Joseph ANZAC Poem

 Article by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Our eldest son, age 9, wrote this poem for ANZAC Day.  He just wrote it off his own bat during the school holidays, it wasn’t something he had to do in class at school, although they have been learning about ANZAC Day.  We’ve also talked about ANZAC Day (and war in general) and read some stories at home and our three boys are going to be part of the “dawn parade” (in their keas and cubs groups) on 25th April.  The photo below is of our ancestor Peter McLay who was killed in France in 1918 (First World War– he was my Grandad’s Uncle).

Peter McLay FY

The World War One generation are, then, the great-great grandparents’ generation for our children.  It’s amazing, however, how kids can still relate to what happened so long ago and how these days, through media, we can make history come alive.  Boys in particular, I’ve noticed, often have a sense of war as “glorious and exciting”. I like that we can show our children what things were really like: that there were certainly heroes and incredible acts of sacrifice and bravery, but that there was also terrible loss of life, that many of those who died were very young and, as well as being killed by the enemy, there were deaths from disease, infected wounds, hypothermia and other non-combat related incidents.

I know there are people out there who believe we shouldn’t teach our children about war and who object to the extent to which ANZAC Day has now become a “popular event”, some might say almost a “festival”, in Australia and New Zealand (and it is, indeed, a national holiday in both countries).   When I was a child (1970s and 80s), I remember people selling poppies and there being “dawn parades” and special church services on ANZAC Day, but now it’s common for whole families (even with very young children) to attend the “dawn parade” and schools teach about the ANZACs and both world wars (as well as other conflicts such as those in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf) in detail.  Some of this is, obviously, because 2014 marked 100 years since the beginning of the First World War.  ANZAC Day 2015 marks 100 years since the beginning of the “Gallipoli Campaign”, (also known as the Dardanelles Campaign, the Battle of Gallipoli or the Battle of Çanakkale), between 25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916, in which large numbers of Australian and New Zealand soldiers (ANZACs) fell.  The Centennial Anniversaries, then, have drawn more interest to and highlighted an awareness of the events that took place.

Another aspect of this is that, as veterans pass away (and many of the World War Two veterans now have, including my maternal grandfather who was an Airforce navigator in Europe), their medals and mementos of their  experiences are being poured over with new interest by their descendants– many of whom now wear these with pride at dawn parades and services.  Out of love and respect for those now deceased (whether at a young age through war or at a ripe old age many, many years later) we “remember them”.

Personally, I believe our children need to learn about history (the nice and the not so nice aspects of it) for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives them a sense of belonging and anchors them in their present time and place.  (See my article “Tree and Leaf: A Child’s Place in Family and Social History” in “The Forever Years” at the link below).

Learning about history also encourages our children to be grateful for what they have now– our children love to hear stories about how kids their own age lived during different periods of history.  War effected those “left behind” including the younger siblings of the young men who served, (whether or not the soldiers returned, life was never the same again). We can encourage empathy with questions like “how would you feel if your big brother went to fight in a war?”  and generate an understanding of and respect for the enormity of the expectation governments had of civilians, the unspoken understanding that many young men (and some women) would lose their lives.

Giving our kids a sense of their (and humanity’s) history also heightens their understanding of why the world we live in today is the way it is and, hopefully, a healthy respect for this might be conducive to them (as a generation) making carefully considered decisions in the future.  A friend told me recently about how her grandfather was unable to serve in the Second World War because of health issues.  Apparently others in the community, grieving over the loss of their own fathers, sons and brothers, ostracised the family and her grandfather was sent an anonymous letter containing white feathers.  The plight, then, of those who were too ill to serve (my paternal grandfather was among these in World War Two, he had had pneumonia, but was also needed at home for his skills as a civil engineer, so was not alienated socially) and the guilt they often carried to their graves because they did not go to war, is another important aspect for our children to be aware of.  Conscientious Objectors, the choices they made and why and social reaction to these choices, are also important.

Where can we start as parents if we want to help our kids understand the history and events behind ANZAC Day?  Here are some ideas:

1. You can create a simple book telling about ANZAC Day.  I did this a few years ago, just using information and images from the internet and we still get it out every ANZAC Day.  It explains at a very basic level why we have ANZAC Day, the traditions surrounding the day and why we use the symbol of the poppy on this day.  (Don’t forget to explain that ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”).  For very young children, making a booklet can be a good idea, as they may need an adult with them if they are using a computer, but with a simple book they can look at it again and again after an adult has read it to them and answered any questions they might have.

2.  A poster telling the basics of the ANZAC Day traditions is also a good idea.

3.  A poster to put up yearly with pictures of ancestors who served in the various wars is also interesting.  I made one with our kids a couple of years ago and they enjoy doing a “who is who?” and hearing the stories of the various people in the photographs.  Sometimes you have to dig a bit around your extended whanau/ family to find stories and pictures.  If you don’t have anyone in your whakapapa/ family tree who served in one of the wars or you don’t have a picture of them, getting a photo of relatives who lived through the wars is another way in which  you can make the topic come alive for your children.  In my article “Tree and Leaf” (see link above) I talk about creating a “Family Wall” of pictures through the generations.  Sometimes these pictures can trigger a conversation about particular topics from history, including the wars.

Papa's FamilyFY

The picture above (taken in 1939) shows my maternal grandfather as a young man with his parents and sisters, shortly before he left to serve in World War Two in Europe.  They went to a studio and had this picture taken especially, as they did not know whether their son/ brother would return (luckily he did, or he would not have met my grandmother and I wouldn’t be here now– I often tell my children this story in light of the fact that they wouldn’t exist had their great-grandfather died in the war!  Many families have such stories).  As a parent, I often look at the picture and can only imagine how my great-grandparents must have felt, knowing that their son was going to risk his life.  When the kids and I talk about it, I say how much I’d hate it if it were one of them in that situation.

4.  Support teachers by going on school trips related to learning about ANZAC Day and contributing to your children’s class discussions by finding photographs and stories for them to share at school:  these things create an opening for discussing family and social history with your children, as well as giving our kids a sense of pride in their ancestors who were there and were a part of it all.  As well as this, it can be interesting for kids to see that their friends also had family involved in these wars, that whole communities were effected.

5.  There are also, these days, some awesome children’s books and online resources related to ANZAC Day and to children gaining an understanding of the events behind war in history.  Some kids’ book covers are below and I will put some links to online resources and books about ANZAC Day, to use with children, at the end of this article.

Some books for children about ANZAC Day

Some books for children about ANZAC Day

6.  Make ANZAC biscuits: they are easy and fun to make with kids and provide an opportunity to tell another story from history: how the women back at home sent these biscuits to the soldiers at the front line: the biscuits didn’t go bad while being shipped across to Europe, because they contained no milk.

Here is a recipe for ANZAC Biscuits:

ANZAC Biscuit recipe

7.  Attend dawn services (even though you have to get up early and even if the weather is bad).  This doesn’t necessarily mean attending every year, but it’s good for kids to have some experience of being part of the community of the present in this way, whilst at the same time having space to reflect on and gain a respect for and an understanding of the events of our past.



Books for Kids about ANZAC Day (links):


Some online resources for teaching kids about ANZAC Day and war:

Born In Auschwitz: How One Woman Delivered 3,000 Babies During The Holocaust, by Abby Norman


When Stanislawa Leszczyńska first became a midwife, she never could have imagined that she would one day be whisked away from her home in Poland, where she routinely walked miles to deliver babies, and into the real-life nightmare of Auschwitz. After the murder of her husband in Poland and the forced removal of her son to another work camp, Stanislawa and her daughter entered Auschwitz with only one hope: that they would survive.

Soon after she arrived, however, Stanislawa began to realize that her particular set of skills as a midwife might be her saving grace. The women’s barracks at Auschwitz weren’t set up even for basic medical care — let alone caring for pregnant women and their babies. Stanislawa was pragmatic and resourceful, assuring that the beds closest to the barrack’s stove, which were apt to be the warmest, were reserved for the “maternity ward.”

Many women were brought into Auschwitz pregnant, some perhaps hadn’t even realized it, and for Stanislawa assuring the health of the mother and her baby often meant making sacrifices. She also was forced to instruct the women to make sacrifices of their own: a few weeks before the woman would deliver, the midwife would tell them to forgo their bread ration in order to barter for sheets, which would be used for diapers and swaddling for the baby. If sheets weren’t obtained in time, the babies were often wrapped in dirty paper.

1389.4 Holocaust B

Women survivors huddled in a prisoner barracks shortly after Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz camp. (Source: Google Images).

Despite the horrors surrounding her, Stanislawa’s only concern when a woman went into labor was making her feel safe and comfortable — just as she had in Poland aiding laboring women in their homes. Women who were in the barracks with Stanislawa remembered her staying up through the night with woman after woman — hardly ever resting. She was a calm, composed and steady presence for all women there, and pretty soon everyone was calling her Mother.

In addition to her exhaustion and malnourishment, the barracks at Auschwitz had nothing by way of antiseptics, dressings or tools. This meant that Stanislawa had nothing to give women for the pain of childbirth, and all her practices were carefully monitored by Nazi physicians. There were many other Auschwitz medical professionals besides Stanislawa, and they cared for the sick and injured under Nazi guidance. These doctors were instructed to give progress updates on patients, and when a person was not apt to recover, they were immediately taken to the gas chamber.

Many who were in Auschwitz contracted Typhus, and though there was a fairly good chance they wouldn’t recover, the doctors often lied to the Nazis in order to buy them enough time to heal. If they succumbed to Typhus, at least they hadn’t been sent to the incinerator. Likewise, Stanislawa was immediately told to drown all the surviving infants she delivered.

The Nazis assumed that the babies would never survive to term–let alone labor and delivery, but when they acquired Stanislawa’s progress reports they realized that she had not lost a single baby — or mother — since she had begun practicing midwifery in the camp. They were immediately incredulous, and instructed her to drown the newborns in a barrel in the barracks. She refused, and risked her life by doing so. Instead, the task was given to an imprisoned German midwife who had been convicted of infanticide.


Women survivors huddled in a prisoner barracks shortly after Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz camp. (Source:

As Stanislawa continued to successfully bring thousands of babies into the world despite the camp’s treacherous conditions, the Nazis began to take any children born with Aryan features, sending them to orphanages to be adopted by German families. The mothers were devastated, and together with Stanislawa they found a way to surreptitiously tattoo the tiny babies in a subtle manner, with the hope that one day mother and child would be reunited.

Though she was able to help over 3,000 babies enter the world while imprisoned at Auschwitz, Stanislawa rarely spoke publicly of her time there. One story that she did regale to her children — who have subsequently told it on her behalf— involved a young mother whom she had assisted during labor. Within a few hours, the young mother’s number was called to go to the chamber. The woman bundled her up and wrapped the baby in damp paper fluttering around the barracks. Knowing that she was about to die, the woman clutched her newborn to breast and walked out of the barracks.

Obviously, the women at the camp understood Stanislawa’s incredible presence–as did those responsible for placing her there in the first place. Dr. Menegle visited the “maternity ward” in the women’s barracks and was furious that the midwife was allowing the babies to survive. She orchestrated wet-nurses within the barracks who would suckle the babies whose mothers were so malnourished their milk never came in, and thus, babies who were born close to the camp’s liberation survived.

Even though Menegle was clearly opposed to Stanislawa’s saving of Jewish infants and their mothers, he did remark to the other Nazi physicians that not only was she an exceptionally skilled midwife, but that she was the personification of hope prisoners clung to that they may, eventually, escape the camp.


Infants and small children coming out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp after it was liberated by Soviet troops. (Source:

Released when the camp was liberated, Stanislawa was reunited with her children, both of whom went on to become doctors. Until her retirement in the 1950s, Stanislawa never really spoke of her time in Auschwitz. What she did share, and what others who had been in the camp with her shared, went on to be documented as justification for her beatification by the Catholic Church as a saint, a process that began in 2010.

Stanislawa died in 1974, but her story is perhaps the most miraculous account from the Holocaust’s history. As she spoke about her time at Auschwitz upon her retirement, she concluded her story by saying that even though many of the 3,000 babies born in the camp perished at the hands of the Nazis, either directly through murder or indirectly through malnourishment, she was proud to say that every single one of them had been born alive and into her waiting, loving hands.

Chemical Weapons and Future Generations

Reblogging this, as there is now a great video clip (attached below) from a film about “The Friendship Village” in Vietnam. I knew Suel Jones, one of the veterans in this interview, during my three years living in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and I visited the Friendship Village a number of times (see article). (Kirsteen McLay-Knopp).

The Forever Years


By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

The following article was originally published in the “Otago Daily Times” newspaper, May 1-2, 2004, about six months after I returned to New Zealand from Vietnam. Such stories are always relevant to child advocacy: the choices of our past and present (particularly in situations of war) can continue to affect those born long afterwards. Before continuing to my article, I would like to include some information from Wikipedia about attempts so far to prevent the use of chemical weapons, as well as a further article by Rania Khalek about recent use of chemical weapons in Gaza and a picture with text from


The following is from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The Chemical Weapons Convention

Intergovernmental consideration of a chemical and biological weapons ban was initiated in 1968 within the 18-nation Disarmament Committee, which, after numerous changes of name and composition, became the Conference on…

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“Children of The World”/ “A Life Like Mine”: A Song and a Book Review

Featured Image

A Life Like Mine

Published in association with UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund) A Life Like Mine/ How Children Live Around the World unpacks UNCROC (The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) and presents these with colourful pictures of children from around the world.  Aimed at children and young people, this book is also useful for adults who want to learn or familiarise themselves with the major UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child.

In the forward, Harry Belafonte, Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 2002, the year this book was published, says, “There are millions of children, leading different lives, all over the world.  You speak different languages, look different, and face all kinds of challenges every day.  However, although you live thousands of miles apart, in many respects your needs and hopes are alike.   …A Life Like Mine records the courage, energy, joy and optimism of children from all over the world.  Some of the children in this book enjoy every privilege in their lives; others have been deprived of some of their basic rights.”

Kids Round WorldObviously it would be impossible to have a child representing every single country on the planet– I was personally a bit disappointed that Aotearoa/ New Zealand, Japan and Vietnam weren’t included (nor were a number of others).  These countries are, however, mentioned under the different headings in A Life Like Mine.  I like that seventeen children, boys and girls from diverse cultures, are “introduced” to the reader in this book.  My own children really enjoyed “getting to know them” and learning their various names (also such an in integral part of culture and identity) and nationalities.

“The Forever Years” strongly recommends A Life Like Mine.  We love the ethos of inclusion, celebrating diversity and encouraging children (and anyone) to view themselves as part of the “global family”.  We also support UNICEF’s mission “…to create conditions that enable children to live happy, healthy and dignified lives…” and their programmes “to improve children’s health and education… protecting children from violence, exploitation, and disaters… guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” [After the forward by the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, at the very front of A Life Like Mine].

A Life Like Mine is just one in a series.  Other titles include A School Like Mine, (about schools and classrooms around the world)  A Faith Like Mine (looking at the world’s religions through the eyes of the different children who practise them) and Children Just Like Me.

3 Books

“Children of the World,” a song by Amy Grant

Children of the World is a song by “pop-Christian” artist Amy Grant.  It was released in 1994 on her album House of Love. We felt that this song, as well as being in line with the ethos of “The Forever Years”, fitted well with the book A Life Like Mine… so we’ve put some of the images from the book (including the major articles in UNCROC) together with Grant’s song (click below to view). Enjoy, whether you’re watching alone or sharing a view through the eyes of a child.  We’ll put the song lyrics underneath the video clip.


Children of the World: a song by Amy Grant (Lyrics)

Every life, every beating heart
Has a searching soul inside
Ever needing, ever seeking out
The meaning to life

I refuse to believe that we’re only here to live and die
In the futile days of a faithless haze
Never asking why, why would I
When I’ve felt the hand of eternity
It’s a legacy I will leave, I want to leave

For the children of the world
Every single little boy and girl
Heaven plants a special seed
And we must have faith for these

I will stand for the truth I’ve seen
So the truth is seen in me
I will give from the source of love
So all that I believe is handed down
For the road that’s yet to be travelled on
By the ones who will carry on, I’ll carry on

For the children of the world
Every single little boy and girl
Heaven plants a special seed
And we must have faith for these

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The View from a High Place: War through the eyes of a child: A Childhood Memory piece by Heather/ Gerda van Wieringen

Meet Heather

HeatherHeather/ 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.

BookThe 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.

Heather Cover FYMay 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.

1945 dancing in the street in Holland

Dutch women dancing in the street in 1945 as they celebrate the end of World War II. (Taken from Google Images.)


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.

Heather age 7

Heather/ Gerda van Wieringen age 7 years, shortly after the liberation of Holland from the NAZIS in 1945. In this photo Heather is holding a favourite doll and wearing a dress she says her mother made in celebration of the war  coming to an end. “She made one for me and one for my sister,” Heather says. “You can’t really see it in this picture, but my Mum had stitched ‘Peace 1945′ onto each skirt.”

Kids Holland just after end WW2

Four Dutch children in an Amsterdam park some time after liberation. You would not have seen a barefoot boy in the city before the War. Many economists believe that because of the devastation, it would take the Europeans a generation to recover from the War. Photo source: