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New insider book reveals role of ‘armed support service’
Dutch wartime resistance work focused on hiding people
Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill World War II
How does one organize the disappearance of over 300,000 people 1) with as few people as possible noticing they have ‘moved away?’ How does one find hiding places for that many people without neighbours in a densely populated country becoming aware of strangers living next door or down the street? How does one supply food for that many unregistered roommates or illegal guests in a society where everything has been tightly regulated with ration cards, stamps, identification papers and various permits, all enforced by a highly efficient bureaucracy and by brute force?
The Landelijke Organisatie voor hulp aan onderduikers, LO for short, founded early in 1943 by a number of widely scattered groups throughout the country, in two short years built a comprehensive network from scratch. Through this network that many people, representing roughly three percent of the Dutch population (then nine million), became invisible to the Nazi apparatus, which occupied and controlled the Netherlands.
The story of Dutch resistance to Nazi rule and its horrendous injustices is quite unique. Resistance took various forms, some very subtle, others principled, or dramatic and risky. Most widespread perhaps was the failure of the Nazis to place Dutch unions and other societies under guardianships of collaborators. A huge majority in these groups either resigned or let their memberships lapse. Less widely-known were the largely futile Nazi attempts to replace teachers or lecturers with Nazi-sympathizers. Some opposition was very spontaneous. The first strike against Nazi ideology occurred in November 1940 when Leyden University law professor E.M. Meijers was fired for being Jewish. Very coordinated were the anti-Nazi pastoral letters read from numerous pulpits, an effort in which during the course of the occupation nearly all Dutch churches participated. One church federation already had declared membership in the Dutch Nazi party to be incompatible with church membership in the late 1930s, a stand reconfirmed during the occupation. When the first Jews in Amsterdam was arrested there was a spontaneous strike, the dokwerkers staking of February 25, 1941. There were other strikes as well, but the September 1944 railway strike was the largest and lasted till the Liberation of May 1945.
Although the LO was not the only group to resist the Nazis, it was by far the best organized and successful at outwitting its oppressors. The largest group of volunteers were kept busy looking after those in hiding or those needing to hide. A small core of specialists kept busy producing quality counterfeit documents and identification papers allowing wanted individuals to continue operating with new identities. LO’s third group were armed civilian commando teams, called Knokploegen (KP). Set up to facilitate the work of the LO, this wing only used force as a last resort, preferably without causing any human casualties.
It was decades ago that the LO published an account of its wartime activities in the 2-volume book, Het Grote Gebod, written by a number of well-known authors. Several books have been published on LO’s co-founder Frits de Zwerver, the best known alias of Rev.F. Slomp, a Reformed Christian pastor who, while being sought extensively, went from place to place speaking to Young Men’s Societies and other church groups about the war behind the war, the battle against the Nazi ideology and Hitler’s blueprint for society should he defeat the Allies. To Hardenberg’s fugitive minister, active resistance refusing to hand over anything that the Germans demanded, whether it was radios, bikes or articles made of certain metals. Even more important, he urged men, when called up for labour conscription, to go into hiding. Church members able to so were urged to take in and hide those needing a place to stay.
The process toward such resistance is described by a key participant in his book, ‘Koos’ Michel, Mijn verzet in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, edited by S.E. Scheepstra. A young clerk at a notary office in his home-town of Wierden, near Almelo, Michel, whose given names are Henk Heiko, first describes his youth and family life. He also gives the reader a glimpse of life in general in Wierden in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before wading into the issue of anti-Nazi resistance. The first steps were small, distributing the underground press (usually stenciled bulletins, transcribed from notes taken during broadcasts received on an unreported radio) and other disguised acts of civil disobedience. The April 29, 1943 general call up of former POW’s to report for captivity in Germany, was spontaneously answered by unprecedented work stoppages in factories. Farmers even dumped their milk. The Nazis were not amused and retaliated everywhere with harsh measures, including executions on the spot.
On the eve of the POW reporting deadline, a core group from the ranks of Wierden’s young men’s Bible study group executed a bold plan they had conceived to derail a freight train going to Germany. The derailment became a point of no return for the plotters, who became very active in the resistance movement. Luckily, those who were arrested by the Germans, including Koos’ close partner Dirk van Harten who later immigrated to Canada, eventually were released for lack of evidence.
The Gestapo was not the only one looking for the Wierden saboteurs. The LO, which regularly was desperate for rationing cards, stamps, and other such documents to help host families of the onderduikers buy groceries, had more success making contact with the group. It convinced them to join the action, a choice which turned out to be a very good one for the LO. The Wierden group, soon known by insiders as KP Henk Visser and its successors, raided local distribution offices far and wide.
The book lists all the raids and heists Koos and his partners were involved in. Some of those cases involved minimal risk, and others were abandoned when circumstances unexpectedly changed. The chance of detection was always very real. Although gunfire was a very last resort, the book describes some very harrowing confrontations. No other ‘job’ equals the June 11, 1944 Sunday morning raid on Arnhem’s jail when the group returned 54 fellow resistance members to freedom without firing a shot. It was the fourth try that proved to be successful.
The value of the book ‘Koos’ Michel is its candor about the KP’s actions, and the way risks were taken, and how the ethical issues involving armed resistance were weighed and solved. One telling detail Koos shares concerns a jammed pistol, which spared the enemy’s life and saved likely that of many civilians. The Nazis probably would have in customary fashion, retaliated by liquidating innocent people living in the vicinity. Resistance people generally learned the hard way that it was best to keep a low profile. Although close family suspected their involvement in the resistance, Koos shares how, when his sister and mother found out, they kept details of their underground work from nearly everyone, following the rule “what is not known, cannot hurt.” Koos, however, talked about his work with his fiancé Jo Oegema, who raised no objections to it because she shared his convictions.
No, although the book does not detail exactly how the LO kept so many people out of the hands of the Nazis, it does give an insight into how this KP and several other such groups helped carry on this crucial work.
In the postwar years, as the debate continued on collaboration, fence-sitting and resistance, it has become painfully obvious that many historians critically examined Dutch resistance for what it should have done rather than what was done under very difficult circumstances. Koos’ book may help its readers to appreciate those times just a bit better and dispel erroneous perceptions associated with freedom fighting and heroism.
It was only after Prince Bernhard assumed command of the resistance groups in September 1944, that the role of KP evolved. As part of the Binnenlandsche Strijdkrachten (BS), which operated behind enemy lines, Koos was responsible for picking the sites where the Allies parachuted containers filled with weapons and ammunition to arm the BS with weapons.
'Koos' Michel, Mijn verzet in de tweede wereldoorlog, by Scheepstra, S.E., editor. Paperback, 138 pages, Illustrations, indexes, Dutch text, Special import, US$22.95/CA$22.95, available from Vanderheide Publishing 1-800-881-0705.
1) Website statistic Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam.