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Maria van der Linden
An unforgettable journey
(1992)

 

15. The Dutch Connection

Parental values are always
The key elements of an inheritance.
John Wareham

William John van der Linden (Wim) was born in the Netherlands on 15th April 1925 in Delft, a city not only internationally known for its picturesque canals, the weekly flower market and the hand-painted Delft Blue porcelain, but also for 1t'~ Engineering University. He was the eldest son and the second child In a family of 11 children. Soon after Wim's birth the family moved to The Hague, where most of Wim's childhood and youth was spent.

      Wim's parents were originally from Utrecht. His father, Johannes Franciscus van der Linden, was a bookbinder by trade. He was one of five children of a working-class family. He was forced to leave school at an early age, but his considerable native intelligence stood him in good stead in his struggle for survival. Dutch society of that time contained sharp socio-economic class divisions and stringent church controls. Wim's father felt the social injustices of his day acutely, seeing how the rich minority of the upper class exploited the poor workers, who often lived below the poverty line. After leaving school, Wim's father worked 12 hours daily in primitive conditions, six days per week, for a meagre weekly wage. He was an idealist, who fought to improve the poor working conditions so prevalent in Holland In those days. He took up this challenge in his youth and persisted in this endeavour throughout his working life. He was a strong advocate of an organised union movement as a means of obtaining Just treatment for all workers, irrespective of their creed or ethnic origins.

      Wim's mother, Lucia Sophia Kragten, like her husband, also came from a working-class family and completed only elementary school. She was the second eldest of five children.

      When her mother died of cancer when she was only 17 years old, it became Sophia's task to care for her widowed father, three sisters and a younger brother. These family responsibilities at an early age gave her the inner strength and endurance to succeed in her many subsequent duties in life, as a wife and the mother of 11 children.

      Wim's parents initially made their home in Delft, then in The Hague, where their young family increased rapidly. In spite of the family's low income, both parents instilled in their children the love of books and the desire for learning at an early age. They were a happy family with strong loyalties towards each other. They were very determined people and succeeded in creating a home environment that encouraged its members to improve themselves by study for professions in preparation for their later lives. Daily food in the family was simple, but sufficient and wholesome. Most clothes were home-made. There were no luxuries and no family holidays abroad. It was a home where everyone felt safe in the warmth generated within. Every child felt loved, wanted, and secure in the daily routine of their allotted home tasks. They worked, played, prayed and enjoyed singing together. Their home pulsated with life and activity. It was not an oasis or an island. The family was integrated into the rigid world of the Roman Catholic regular, religious observances and dogma, also into the sharp divisions of the socio-economic structure of that period in Holland. Tradesmen and workers' families were unfortunately at the bottom of the social ladder, so life for them was tough.

      During World War II the van der Linden family, like many others, was exposed to the sound of sirens announcing Imminent bombardments, the roar of German and later Allied planes overhead, which did not always hit their desired enemy targets, with the consequent bomb explosions over urban, residential areas.

      During the war, human suffering and privation was intensified by food and fuel shortages. In the last year of the war, the so-called 'hunger winter', the van der Linden family survived by eating sugar beet and tulip bulbs. Bare cupboards and floor boards were cut up for firewood. Wim's family was grateful for an occasional windfall from heaven. Once a local baker realising the large family's plight, offered them ration cards for 10 loaves of bread, which he withheld from the occupying German forces. On other occasions, Aunt Ans sent parcels of dried bread, saved from her German patients, in the hospital where she was a nurse. The family relished this sometimes partly mouldy bread with the intensity of a child's delight in candy. To them, at that time, it was a luxury to savour. In March 1944 the family's youngest child was born. During the hunger winter of 1944-1945 which followed, milk was most difficult to obtain in The Hague, so any available milk was reserved exclusively for Guus.

      During these difficult, uncertain times, Wim studied mechanical engineering at the Rotterdam Polytechnic. The money for this tertiary education was lent to him by Aunt Ans. Wim often wore threadbare, patched clothes to lectures, unable to afford more suitable attire. He often studied in an icy cold room wearing an overcoat and a scarf to keep reasonably warm.

      The two-storeyed house which the family rented was part of a block of terrace houses. It was small and totally inadequate for a family of 13. The children slept together, often two to a bed, to conserve space. Towards the end of the war the whole family spent their days together in the living room. Wim and his father could not venture outside that relatively safe haven, fearing arrest by the Germans. who deported all able-bodied men to work in ammunition factories in Germany. In many cases the Gestapo arrested Dutchmen in their own homes breaking up families.

      As food supplies continued to diminish, the two elder sisters Ria and Lucy left home to work on farms, where real food shortages were almost unknown. They both worked very hard, receiving meagre food allowances, but were unable to purchase any food for their undernourished family in the city. Occasionally, on their days off, they smuggled some dry beans and peas in their stockings and underclothes. Even these meagre pickings meant an unexpected family feast at that difficult time. As starvation became widespread in urban areas In Holland, Wim decided to leave home. Bep had already been evacuated to Friesland to work there, while some of the younger children had been placed with people in the country. Now the family was scattered all over Holland.

      Wim set off on his bicycle without tyres at 6.00 a.m. on a cold, icy morning in February, bound for the eastern part of Holland. The previous year he had spent a few weeks on a farm there during a working holiday. As the distance was In excess of 180 km. it took him a few days and he had some hair-raising experiences, once escaping a German road block by a mere few metres. He found a Dutch farmer brave enough to conceal him from the ever-vigilant German authorities, who regarded this action as a serious offense. The farmer, a father of eight children, was amazed at Wim's insatiable appetite, the result of serious malnutrition. While the farmer worked hard on a breakfast consisting of half a large pancake with a square of speck, Wim eagerly consumed two large pancakes with large pieces of speck and still had room for more.

      The Germans had by this time destroyed many Dutch Industries, bringing the production of essential consumer goods to a standstill. Furthermore, in their endeavour to completely break the Dutch spirit, the German forces blew up several dykes, flooding the polders, and this decreased the available food supplies even further. At this time, the Allied armies were continuing their steady advance into Western Europe. The southern part of Holland had been liberated in September 1944, while the thrust into the northern part of Holland had been halted by the unsuccessful battle of Arnhem, where the Allied troops suffered a severe setback. Thus, in the spring of 1945 the eastern part of Holland was being liberated and the concentration of German troops became very noticeable, especially in the area where Wim was. Wim could not escape the German dragnet, and on the 15th of March 1945 he was arrested. As Wim understood German he was told by his captors to inform the farmer's wife of the standard punishment for concealing him on their property, namely, that the farmer's homestead would be razed to the ground by fire. Wim was transferred to the local prison, where he spent the night. The following morning he was interviewed and sentenced to a transit concentration camp where hundreds of captured men were held and had to work long hours with minimal food rations on German defense works. Within the next fortnight he shifted camp twice. The last camp consisted of rows of army-type barracks. The area was fenced off with barbed wire, while lookout towers at various strategic points ensured that any escape attempts by the inmates would have a minimum chance of succeeding. During the last few days the distant cannon fire had become louder and It was clear that the Allied forces were advancing rapidly. The German guards became very agitated and the atmosphere in the camp became extremely tense. A further shift, this time into Germany, was being planned. On the 30th of March 1945 at 6.30 a.m., all inmates were assembled in the central courtyard in three rows in front of each barrack. The roll call took place and numbers were checked by the German guards. Wim, standing In the front row, suddenly made up his mind to try and avoid deportation to Germany. He repeatedly changed places with men behind him until he was standing In the last line close to the barrack. As the first groups of men were being marched away, he ran quickly Into the empty barrack, where he hid in an empty cupboard. As the last sound of marching boots died away he decided to explore the situation and through the partly open door he watched one of the guards stationed at the nearest camp exit gate, walk over to the far gate to have a chat with his colleague. In a split-second decision, Wim ran from the barrack through the gate and across the road Into a stand of pine trees. Fortunately he was unnoticed, because he could have been shot instantly.

      After regaining his breath Wim crawled away some distance before starting to walk through the woods towards the nearing gun fire. Later that day he met soldiers from the advancing Canadian liberating army, who, following a short interrogation were satisfied that he was not a spy and allowed him to proceed as a free man in that newly-liberated part of Holland. On approaching the homestead of the farm down its long driveway, Wim saw the farmer come out of the large stable door. The farmer thought that he was seeing a ghost and dropped both the buckets of water which he was carrying. It was a joyous reunion, especially as the German soldiers had not carried out their threat of burning the homestead. Another eight weeks passed before Wim traveled back to his home in The Hague to be reunited with his family. By that time the rest of the family had already returned home. Against all the odds, the entire van der Linden family had survived the deprivations and dangers of the war years.

      Life in post-war Holland was difficult, with industries and agriculture ruined and the economy in tatters. Large areas of the polders were flooded and dykes destroyed. These dykes needed urgent reconstruction before the flooded polders could be reclaimed for farming. Food was still carefully rationed for the first few months after the liberation, which was completed in May 1945. On the psychological level, there were the personal tragedies in many households of lost loved ones, also the various traumatic war experiences to absorb and to work through. Many were permanently affected by these experiences and emotional disturbances continued to surface in later years as a consequence of the trauma suffered during the war years. Poverty in Holland and in much of the rest of Europe was widespread. Many buildings had been ruined or destroyed, so accommodation was difficult to procure. Often several large families shared a house in substandard conditions and young married couples had to remain with their parents and other relatives.

      Just as Holland was readjusting to its freedom, its colony, the Dutch East Indies, was liberated from the Japanese. The Indonesians now wanted self-determination and complete independence from The Netherlands. As this independence movement gathered momentum, the Dutch Government was anxious to protect the extensive Dutch investments in their colony. Finally, it was decided to dispatch Dutch troops to Indonesia to safeguard the Interests of Dutch citizens and the substantial financial involvement of large Dutch companies operating there. Although the Dutch colonists were increasingly unwelcome, The Netherlands Government regarded military force as the means of reasserting colonial control in Indonesia. Dutch investments and political authority were to be retained at all costs.

      In Holland there was much opposition to this idea of resorting to military force in the colony. People were tired of war and the violence associated with it. They remembered the suffering inflicted upon them by the occupying Nazi Germans. Wim, like many other Dutchmen, was at heart a pacifist, and totally opposed to Dutch military involvement In Indonesia. However, he was drafted into the army In October 1946. at the age of 21, just after he had qualified as a mechanical engineer at the Rotterdam Polytechnic. He was unable to avoid this compulsory military service, so by April 1947 he was bound for Indonesia with the second division of young Dutch recruits. Having completed his studies in very adverse circumstances, he was now denied the chance to remain in his country to recuperate from the war trauma of his adolescence and to commence work as an engineer.

      The long sea voyage to Indonesia was arduous in the spartan conditions aboard. On arrival, Wim's platoon was stationed in Western Java in the Bogor area. Here, as a Dutch soldier he was expected to protect his country's interests by force. He was given the rank of corporal. Wim saw the 'police action' in Indonesia as morally wrong and refused to shoot people. He made his strong views known to his commanding officers and discussed them with a Catholic army chaplain attached to his platoon. The priest simply advised Wim to disregard his own conflicts of conscience In this matter, because he was required to obey the Dutch military authorities. However, Wim could not reconcile killing Indonesians with his Christian principles. He refused to be in a position of some authority and asked to be relieved of his corporal's responsibilities. Accordingly, the commanding officer demoted him to serve as an ordinary soldier.

      The three years In the Dutch army in Indonesia were the most unhappy part of Wim's life. The memories connected with experiences of that period were deeply repressed and disturbed him many years later when he was an older man. He witnessed much human misery, saw friends killed and innocent Indonesians slaughtered. Mutilated bodies were a common sight. He suffered mental anguish when some of his colleagues broke down under continual strain; some reacted by indiscriminate killing to avenge their friends' deaths. One particular episode remained vividly etched in Wim's mind. He recalled how he was powerless, too shocked, to prevent a massacre of Innocent Indonesians returning from a weekly market, by a young Dutch soldier, who went berserk. That soldier, deprived of all reason, gunned down entire families, Indiscriminately killing children, women and men walking homewards. Wim stood beside him petrified in utter disbelief and in deep shock, unable to respond to this horrific slaughter.

      The living conditions of the Dutch soldiers in Indonesia were extremely primitive in many instances. In Surabaya the soldiers were accommodated in storage sheds on the wharf. There were no showers or sanitation, and in the tropical climate malaria and amoebic dysentery were very prevalent among the Dutch troops. Their natural resistance to tropical diseases was lowered by exhaustion and inadequate hygiene. They were required to undertake guard duties for up to 24 hours at a stretch, with a break of eight hours in between. They were also subjected to prolonged exercises In full military uniform during Intense heat. Wim was severely affected by both malaria and amoebic dysentery. In spite of physical and mental exhaustion, he was required to do guard duties. He presented himself for treatment, but received none until finally he was unable to leave his camp stretcher. Only at that point was he admitted into the sick bay by a male nurse, who realised how ill he was. There Wim was examined by a newly-arrived, conscientious young Dutch doctor, who sent him to the military hospital at Surabaya immediately. Running a very high temperature, Wim remained critically ill, while a consortium of doctors at his bedside deliberated on the possible course of treatment for him. They discovered that amoebic dysentery had destroyed his intestinal lining and that his blood count was extremely low. His body was ravaged by the combined effects of malaria and persistent dysentery. He was informed that he was near death.

      In Holland, Wim's brother Ab, a teacher, heard his brother's name mentioned in a radio announcement. Wim was included on the critically ill list of Dutch military personnel in Indonesia. The van der Linden family at home, friends and Ab's pupils began to pray for Wim's recovery. I believe that this strong faith combined with effective treatment in the Surabaya hospital brought astonishing results. Wim was successfully cured of malaria. The emetine injections prescribed for amoebic dysentery gradually brought the disease under control. After several weeks of intensive medication, his health continued to improve until he regained sufficient strength to be discharged from hospital as a convalescing outpatient. When his illness subsided, he was sent to Bandung. There, as he recovered his health, he was given light duties. After a few months Wim was admitted into the Dutch military hospital in Western Java for a second course of emetine injections. In April 1950, still a convalescent, he returned to The Netherlands with other troops from Jakarta in Indonesia. During Wim's time in the army, Indonesia gained independence, on the 27th of December 1949.

      On Wim's arrival in Holland he was medically examined and pronounced fit and well enough to be discharged from the Dutch army. The very next day he became severely jaundiced. This necessitated his admission into the military hospital in The Hague, where he remained for three months' treatment, followed by another three months in Arnhem. The amoebae organisms had settled In Wim's liver, affecting its normal functions. As his liver was badly damaged, Wim's recovery was very slow. Following his final discharge from hospital towards the end of 1950, he remained on a very strict diet, high in protein content and low in fat. Regular medical check-ups continued for some time.

      Now at 25 years of age, Wim had had no opportunity to work professionally as an engineer. Returned servicemen in Holland had no special privileges of rehabilitation as they did in post-war New Zealand. In fact, Dutch returned servicemen were at a disadvantage, while their compatriots who had missed army recruitment abroad, were well established in their professions in Holland, earning good salaries. Furthermore. after Indonesia's declaration of independence In 1949, many Dutch Indonesians were resettled in Holland and had to be absorbed into the workforce. Employment was hard to obtain for someone with no practical experience and the wages offered were very low. Initially, Wim worked as a design draftsman in The Hague for seven months while continuing to live with his parents. His small salary precluded an independent life away from home.

      Wim felt very restless and enjoyed cycling for hours alone in solitude. He was attracted by advertisements for immigration to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Disillusioned with life in Holland, he decided to enquire about the possibilities of emigrating from The Netherlands to a far off land where he could start a new life.

      At that time New Zealand encouraged young, healthy, single, unskilled Immigrants from The Netherlands. Wim chose New Zealand, but the Dutch authorities tried to discourage him from leaving because his engineering skills were needed In his homeland, which was gradually recovering from war devastation. Likewise, his parents and his Dutch girlfriend, Thrse, tried to persuade him to remain in his native land. However, Wim's mind was made up. His health was now good and he possessed enough money to pay for his own sea passage. Without hesitation he applied for immigration to New Zealand, a fascinating country, the farthest away from troubled postwar Europe.

      In August 1951, on his own insistence, Wim left his family behind without a special farewell. He traveled by train to Amsterdam from The Hague alone, after a surprise visit from his father at the railway station. Wim's parents keenly felt his departure to far-off New Zealand, which seemed so inaccessible then. They wondered if they would ever see their eldest son again.

      The Dutch ship De Groote Beer, which means The Great Bear. left Amsterdam for New Zealand with some two thousand Dutch immigrants on board, all looking forward to a new life in that distant land, which had been first sighted by their compatriot Abel Janszoon Tasman on 13th December 1642.
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(C) Maria van der Linden

electronic version by:
Roman Antoszewski
Auckland, Titirangi, New Zealand (Nov. 2000)
antora@ihug.co.nz