Amsterdam, February 1945
Gerrit woke in darkness, today was the day he may start the journey, if his parents finally relent and let him go. At only twelve years of age, his mother and father were very worried about sending him off by himself, but they knew the living conditions may get much worse. There was a shortage of food, and it was getting harder each day to find enough to eat. People were falling ill, and they didn’t want young Ger to end up like that. They also knew he had taken risks, by distributing news pamphlets for his Uncle, and that could see him arrested by the Germans.
They had heard the bridge over the River IJssel, at you enter Zwolle, was likely to be closed. Apparently the Dutch authorities were concerned about the number of people heading to the north-east and taking what supplies remained after the long winter. The Germans would give permission for this, since it was in their interests and their focus was on repelling the allied advances.
This closure of the bridge would mean there was probably no chance to get to Delfzijl. It was a trip of more than 200 kilometres and if it was even possible to go another way, it would be much further. Gerrit had done the trip before. He and Wim Slijster had been there last summer, visiting Wim’s aunt who lived on the northern outskirts of Delfzijl.
Aunt Lien, Marten’s sister, had suggested that young Ger stay with her friend Miep who lived quite near the house of Wim’s aunt. Miep had a baby, but a room for him and plenty of food. Her husband was at sea, being in the Merchant Marine based out of Delfzijl.
Gerrit lay in bed, but he could hear his father was already up. He got himself out of bed and walked into the lounge room. Marten had brought his bike into the room, and was checking it over. It had new tyres on it which he had since before the war, but now was the time he needed them. They were lucky to still have the bike as the Germans confiscated most bicycles from the citizens, and this one they had not taken because it had 26 inch wheels, rather than the standard adult size of 28 inches. Marten still had his bicycle too, being authorised as necessary for his work.
Marten looked up at Gerrit and smiled with some sadness.
“Good morning, Ger, the time has come, my boy.”
Gerrit nodded sombrely, but felt a stab of excitement. He continued on into the kitchen where his mother, Jansje, was trying to prepare what meagre fare there was, to have some sort of breakfast. That awful bread again, if you could call it that, Gerrit thought to himself. It seemed more sawdust than bread, how unappealing, but at least it is food. He knew there will be more for him at Miep’s place, but wondered what his father and mother would eat.
How could the Germans let us starve, he thought to himself. It seems so cruel; where is the love for fellow man? He had heard his father and mother talking about this. The Germans had cut off all supplies in retaliation to the railway strike which the exiled Dutch government had ordered last year. He wished the Allies could provide supplies, there must be so much wonderful food out there somewhere.
His mother greeted him solemnly, and reached for him and held him tightly. She whispered in his ear how she loved him and reassured him again that everything would be all right.
Gerrit sat down to some thin slices of the bread, which had just a fine film of something that pretended to be butter on it. There was also a little pile of grated sugar beet, which Jansje encouraged him to eat, knowing he would need something in his stomach for the long ride ahead.
With no electricity and no gas available any more, Marten had installed an old wood stove and very fortunately, through his work as a technician for the government telecommunications, he was able to bring home old telephone books to use as fuel. Jansje had cooked brown beans for Gerrit to eat along the way.
After breakfast, Gerrit cast his eyes around the apartment, this was home he thought and tried not to let his emotions take over. He knew he must be strong today, and for his parent’s sake, show them he had the confidence to do this.
The apartment had three bedrooms, a kitchen and living area, and the toilet. There was a small balcony off his parents’ bedroom which overlooked the street, and a large veranda across the width of the apartment at the back, which was accessed through the kitchen. The veranda had space for some potted geraniums and a place to hang the washing. There was also an attic and up there, Marten had kept his pigeons, but of course they were long gone.
A comfortable home, and with Marten’s work an absolute necessity for the government, even more so for the Germans, he had a secure income, but so little food.
The time had come. Gerrit had his few possessions packed and Jansje handed him the beans now packed in a tin tobacco box for the journey. Marten was just giving the bicycle a final check to make sure it was good for the journey.
Jansje stood very bravely and said, “Well off you go boys, Marten, please be careful, Ger…,” she stopped, could speak no more, and gave him a loving embrace.
Gerrit held his mother tightly, screwing his face tightly to keep the flood of tears from beginning.
Marten put his hand on Gerrit’s shoulder and they turned for the door, quietly without another word.
Marten and Gerrit rode off together on their bicycles, looking about their neighbourhood. There was not much happening. When people are hungry, it is not a time for normal life, let alone with the presence of the German soldiers.
They continued on, speaking very little, reaching the outskirts of town in a short time, and a checkpoint. They dismounted, waiting in line with other people on similar journeys. The soldier inspected Marten’s permit, glancing briefly at Gerrit and his bicycle, and waved them on. Gerrit, being only twelve years old, was not required to have a permit; that would only be necessary if he were sixteen, and surely the war would be over by then.
They rode on; the first stop was to be Hilversum which was near forty kilometres away. The roads were quite crowded with many people pushing carts or prams, heading north in the search for food. Those who had bicycles were riding them with rubber hose in place of tyres. Some people were taking their possessions, including what food they had, with them. One of the carts jolted on the uneven roadway, and Marten saw a potato bounce free along the road. He quickly leapt from the bicycle and picked it up. Even a solitary potato was too precious to ignore.
After a brief stop in Hilversum, where they enjoyed the brown beans as their lunch, they continued in their journey to Amersfoort. On their arrival there, they sought the local Red Cross shelter where they hoped to find a place to sleep for the night. The local school had been converted into a centre providing support for civilians on these journeys. A straw floor was their bed for the night.
The next morning, Marten was to head back to Amsterdam. He asked Gerrit to tell him which way he was to go, and Gerrit replied carefully repeating the instructions his father had given him. Gerrit looked into his father’s stern blue eyes, and reassured him he could do this. Marten held him close for a moment and ruffled his hair.
Gerrit climbed on the bike, and began to ride. Marten called out, “take care, my boy, we will see you again soon!”
Gerrit waved back and was on his way.
This leg of the journey would take him to Appeldoorn, which was nearly fifty kilometres away. Again, there were lots of people on the road, and Gerrit continued to pedal along in their midst. After some time, he thought he would try his luck with the locals and knocked on the door of a farmhouse. He asked for some water, and they kindly gave him some, and to his surprise, some pieces of rye bread. He hadn’t even seen rye bread for years now, and joyfully munched the pieces he’d been given.
He continued his journey re-joining the mass of people on the road. Sometimes a German vehicle, be it a car or a truck, would come along and the people would move off the road and quietly wait for it to pass, hoping they would not stop. No one wanted their attention. They could easily just stop and confiscate possessions, and if you argued, simply shoot you dead there and then. He was worried about that, worried that the Germans may harass him, or steal his bike, or beat him, or even shoot him. He shuddered at the thought and peddled harder.
He had a short break when he arrived in Appeldoorn, but was soon under away again and making good progress. He was riding through a forest area when he heard a motorcar approaching from behind. The people parted to the edge of the road as it passed through them and continued on down the road without slowing down. It was a German staff car with an open top carrying three occupants, the driver and two officers in the rear seat. They were not interested in these people, and thankfully not interested in a Dutch boy on his bike. Gerrit soon heard a huge roar in the sky above, coming from behind. He looked and saw a plane flying low at the height of the treetops heading straight toward them. Everyone scattered for cover, and looking ahead down the road, the staff car could still be seen. The plane fired its’ machine-guns as it continued on down the road, incredibly loud and terrifying. The car was receiving the full attention of those bullets.
Together with the mass of people, Gerrit continued on and soon approached the wrecked vehicle. The car was slightly off to the side of the road with the occupants slain, slumped in their seats, dead. The people moved quickly on. No one wanted to be anywhere near there when the Germans discovered what had happened.
Zwolle was the next destination, and getting across the river was vital to reaching his destination. Gerrit rolled up to the checkpoint near midday, and waited in the line. There were barbed wire barricades blocking the road, and German soldiers stationed either side of the checkpoint. He walked his bike through the area and the Germans gave him a cursory inspection, but quickly let him go on his way. He went across the bridge, over the river, and into Zwolle. He looked for a place to stay, but as it was not late in the day, the shelter was not allowing people in yet. Gerrit decided he should just keep going. He passed through Meppel, then approached Dwingelo late in the day.
Aunt Lien, Marten’s younger sister, knew people that lived here. They had a farm where she used to go for holidays. He found the place just outside Dwingelo, and knocked on their door. He introduced himself; they gave him some food, and led him to the barn where he spent the night in the hayloft.
Next morning, his destination now only a day’s ride away, he continued on down the road. He passed through Assen, through Groningen, and to Delfzijl. He headed toward the northern outskirts. Miep lived only around the corner from the house he had visited with Wim Slijster.
He knocked on the door.