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Dutch-Canadian ex-prisoner revisits war-time camp sites

A memorable return to Amersfoort

Tags: World War II


In the months ahead, a series of commemorations and fiftieth anniversaries has been scheduled to highlight the liberation of provinces, cities and towns in several European countries. Few of these events are likely to receive as much attention as did the recent D-Day commemoration where leaders of allied countries paid their respect to the fallen soldiers. While D-Day may well be the occasion that scores high with the mass media, there are countries where commemorations and anniversaries are as regularly observed as in the Netherlands. American, British, Canadian and Polish veterans - but especially the Canadians - frequently make their way to these Dutch events.

Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of groups in the Netherlands have been holding commemorations, anniversaries and even reunions. In 1987, with the 45th anniversary of the liberation from Nazidom approaching, former Dutch labour conscripts who spent some of the occupation years in Germany and its occupied territories, founded De Vereniging van Dwangarbeiders in de Tweede Wereldoorlog 1). That it took so long to establish this group, does not suggest they were few in number 2). In the post-war task of re-building the nation and re-establishing oneself, these former labour conscripts were a largely neglected group of war victims. Unfortunately, they still are fighting for (public and political) recognition!

Fugitive caught in a dragnet

Among the men who were expected to report for work in Germany was Art Van Diermen, a recent graduate of a technical school who worked in a machine shop in the northern Dutch town of Meppel. Conscripted in 1942, Van Diermen already had bought his train ticket for Hamburg when neighbour Jan Slomp in Ruinerwold (Drenthe) spontaneously arranged for him to hide in newly reclaimed Wieringermeerpolder where farmers always could use extra help. In June 1943, when Van Diermen worked in a machine shop in Andijk, an isolated rural town at the foot of the IJsselmeer-dike, he was arrested by a German mid-night raiding party. It was impossible for him to escape since the house was surrounded.

An easy-going man, Van Diermen said of his first jail experience in Amstelveen 3) that the tension, and the uncertainty of what the Nazi's had in store for their prisoners, 'killed the mind.' Thankfully, they neither killed Van Diermen's mind nor body but they did get close on occasion. From Amstelveen, he was taken to Amersfoort's infamous concentration camp, where to his great surprise, he found his older brother who had been arrested in Assen. In camp Amersfoort, Van Diermen lost in three months time 30 lbs. of weight. 'We existed on a daily ration of 1/2 litre of watery soup, some turnips and three slices of bread,' he commented, 'many men were little more than walking skeletons.'

It was not just lack of nutrition that made life so difficult in Amersfoort. The Nazi's also treated their prisoners to brutally forcing them to stand motionless at attention for hours, while pointing loaded guns at them. Some men fainted and were badly beaten or clubbed to death. Heightening the uncertainty, was the Nazi's practice to unexpectedly pick men from the barracks who were then taken to be executed at dawn. Their fate would be announced when shots were heard in the distance 4). Some prisoners preferred a quick death over a death by starvation or through brutality.

No escape

Escaping from camp Amersfoort was not easy. Weighing their chances, some prisoners hoped to escape in transit, after they volunteered for work in Germany. This motivated some men to register, Van Diermen among them. Unfortunately, the prisoners were so tightly guarded in transit that there was no chance to escape. Van Diermen and his group were taken to Berlin, were they were ordered to search for survivors in the rubble of bombed-out and burned-down houses using bare hands only. Life in Berlin was far more dangerous than Amersfoort ever had been. Twice every night, around 11 p.m. and a couple of hours later Allied planes bombed the city. However, Van Diermen's living quarters - formerly Hotel Beelitzhoff - was spared a hit.

Next, Van Diermen and his party were shipped off to a site near Lieberosen, close to the German/Polish border, where in below zero temperatures in the late Fall, they were forced to built a camp. Lightly dressed with no underwear, the men each were given a blanket, and then slept three nights in open air on frost-covered cobble stones. In poor physical condition and near starvation, the men easily attracted diseases which were often fatal. In these conditions, survival was the only thing on their mind. Van Diermen escaped twice on foot in search for food. The first time he was caught, but was let off with a severe tongue lashing by the camp's commander. The second time, he made it back into the camp, unnoticed but soaking wet from a plunge through thin ice. The food he had collected was divided among his comrades, but Van Diermen became too sick to enjoy any of it. He was nursed back to health by the men who conspired to keep him from going to the sick bay from which no one ever recovered.

At first, labour conscripts would be allowed a furlough if they promised to return voluntarily. If they did not return, the other men could not go on furlough. Van Diermen was allowed to leave camp after the commander had confirmed the story that his mother was dying. For the sake of his mates, Van Diermen initially felt it to be his duty to return to his 'post.' While he was on leave, the Nazi's announced that no more furloughs would be allowed. Upon hearing this, Van Diermen felt that this released him from his promise to the men in the camp and decided to go in hiding again. This time he found a safe place in the Jansen-parsonage in Hindeloopen, Friesland. It was there that he welcomed the Canadian liberators.

Few nightmares

After the liberation, Van Diermen joined the Dutch police force but he emigrated to Canada in the fifties. Eventually, he established himself in the plumbing business. Now twelve years ago, ill health forced him to retire. After some difficult years, Van Diermen found a remedy to his lung disease which he blames on lead fumes. 'Health and safety were not serious issues in the plumbing business. If a job needed to be done, we did it,' said the former slave labourer in an interview recently. He never considered his bout with pneumonia in Lieberosen a possible contributing factor to his health problems. Van Diermen largely forgot about his war-time experiences, and never felt the urge to re-establish contact with those who shared his fate in the camps. Unlike many others, who re-live beatings and bombings in their sleep, the Ruinerwold-emigre had very few of such nightmares. Still, his past caught up with him while on a visit to the Netherlands last year - the first time he and his wife were there in May - when a sister casually suggested he take part in the silent walk 5) which was being held at Amersfoort. Former prisoners who participate in such an event usually identify themselves with their prisoner's number pinned to their shirt or jacket. Van Diermen followed that custom, and made a tag with his number (#1324) on it. When reporters covering the event, learned he was from Canada and there for the first time, he almost missed the silent walk because of the interviews and photo sessions. While talking about his imprisonment there, it dawned on him that his involuntary stay in the camp had taken place exactly 50 years ago. But what a difference those years made. Then a humiliated man, who endured Nazi brutality, including an unforgettable encounter with war-criminal Kotalla, now seemingly a guest of honour. Then the mere sight of a watchtower spelled danger, now it seemed the right place to have a picture taken. Then the number meant horror, now it was a badge of honour. Then to have one's name in a paper meant serious trouble if not death, now it was the story of a resurfacing survivor. The difference between those years is, of course, freedom.

No trace of camp

Amersfoort was only part of Van Diermen's story. The other part consisted of experiences in Berlin's and Lieberosen. So he travelled to there like an old soldier who returns to the battlefield. It certainly was easier to do so now since the Iron Curtain was dismantled. Berlin's bombed districts had changed drastically but so had the village of Lieberosen, where hardly anyone was even aware of the fact that at one time prisoners built a Hitler-Jugend camp nearby. It had disappeared without a trace.

To Van Diermen, the 1993 spring vacation tops all other trips to the Netherlands as he re-discovered so many links with his own past. By the same token, the extended Van Diermen family has gained a deeper appreciation for their own background even if it means knowing that their father's life repeatedly hung by a thread then. The Van Diermen story - because there are so many similar ones - has implications on a broader scale. Historians have calculated that the Nazis uprooted hundreds of thousands Dutchmen during the occupation years. Although very few historians have made a connection between war-time disruption in Dutch society 6), and the unprecedented emigration waves a few years later, it urgently needs close scrutiny will we as a Dutch community in North America keep in tune with our recent past. Thanks Art, for sharing yours. Literally translated the name reads: The Association of Forced Labourers in the Second World War. This organization in turn is associated with an international umbrella group. 'De Vereniging van Dwangarbeiders' was founded on October 5, 1987. Those interested are invited to reach this group via its Canadian representative: A. Van Gurp, 3119 Hemlock Avenue, Halifax, N.S. B3L 4B5, phone (902)453-4734 or at 682-2107. Other groups represented similar concerns in the past.

Of the labour conscripts (modern-day slaves who often were subjected to harsh conditions, malnourishment and abusive treatments) there were about 250,000 who were either a) conscripted and reported themselves if they had no method of escape, b) who were arrested without proper documentation, c) who were caught in man-hunt dragnets (razzia's) by Nazi's and collaborators, d) who were betrayed and caught hiding. Besides those who were sent to German, there were another 350,000 men who were in hiding.

For three weeks he shared a small, one-man cell with five others. In retrospect, it was a mild introduction compared to what was to follow. The municipality of Leusden where camp Amersfoort was located, is the site of over twenty war-related monuments. Leusden documented the history behind each monument in a booklet Zichtbaar verleden, with several of these monuments located where prisoners were executed because they chose to resist the Nazi's in one way or other.

The silent walk on the eve of Liberation Day of May 5th is held throughout the country, and usually involves the laying of wreaths, to commemorate those who died during the hostilities, and the occupation years.

Among a population of about 9,5 million, 20,400 civilians died as a result of the hostilities; 22,000 of malnourishment; 150,000 in imprisonment (at the hands of their captors); 850,000 people had been evacuated; 350,000 had been in hiding to avoid labour conscription; 300,000 Dutch D.P.'s were in Germany, of which 250,000 labourers; 500,000 had lost their homes; 1.500,000 lived in damaged homes; as well, there were well-founded fears for all sorts of diseases. A fully 11% of all agricultural land bank had been inundated and was unstable for production; 900 bridges had been destroyed; 50% of the truck and barge fleets and 90% of the rolling stock of the railways had been destroyed.