Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It was 1943 and spring was just starting to make room for summer in war torn Europe. Jan and Yvette Bartlema were just settling in as a newly wed couple in Delft. Happy as they were with eachother, they just couldn’t make do with the status quo of every day life. They were fed up with the Nazi occupation, fed up with the insecurity and fed up with the fear of being deported to work for the Germans and their arbeitseinsatz.

They teamed up with a close friend, Henning Meyer and were soon after joined by two more young Dutchmen, Hein Louwerse and Hein Kaars Sijpesteijn who had been planning their own escape for a longer time. All participants knew a little something about boats, varying from great rowing experience to extensive experience in sea sailing. Important traits, as the escape route they were planning on taking would take them to England, straight across the 100 mile North Sea crossing.

People had done it before but no one had succeeded since 1941. Fellow countrymen were still fleeing the Nazi occupation but most favored the slower but slightly more secure landroutes at the time. They would go either South through Portugal and Gibraltar or North through Scandinavia, but everyone had the same destination; England. That is where the opposition had been gathering, the allied forces and our queen.


I know this story, even though the details are new to me. This story is in my blood, all though it was never spoken about much. I grew up with the pictures of these people in my home. Their names resound in the names of the people I grew up taking for granted. If someone were to ask my 9-year old self to summarize the life of my grandparents, my answer would have been: “They went to England to have a cup of tea with the queen, and then they went to Indonesia where my dad was born”.

My 29-year old self had to admit she knew absolutely nothing, when she was called by a reporter at the beginning of 2014. This journalist had come up with a plan to bring tribute to the so called Engelandvaarders or Englandsailors by retaking the voyage in a replica of an original boat. And it so happens to be that the boat my grandparents sailed to England in, actually returned to the Netherlands and ended up in a museum. The boat was also named after my grandmother after their arrival in England, as she was the only woman ever to have made (and survived) this voyage.

It was easy to track the boat back to my grandmother, and then to my aunt who is also named Yvette. My aunt then put him in contact with me, as I was the only granddaughter of Jan and Yvette that was somewhat in the same age category as the original passengers were at the time. So, what I am trying to say is that it was no merit of mine that I was the first person this reporter asked to participate in this project. But he did, and I said yes, not completely understanding what I was getting myself into.

I introduced myself many times in the weeks following that first phonecall. I introduced myself to the staff at the Telegraaf, who seemed to grow increasingly uneasy with my lack of sailing experience and the fact that I was not worried about it at all. I introduced myself to old veterans and other valiant people from my grandparents’ generation who reacted thrilled to hear my last name and had many questions for and about me I did not know the answers to. I introduced myself to other grandchildren of the original passengers, who were in varying stages of bewilderment (as I was) about how big this project was growing out to be.

The replica of the original boat was finished in March and presented to the public at the Hiswa, the largest boat event of the Netherlands. That is where I first saw her. If you were to imagine a walnut being blown up by a magic spell, similar to the one that helped James’ giant peach grow, you would get the Yvette II. A 5,5 meter long walnut shell, be it with a narrower rear end than your average walnut…

afvaart ceremonie2


So, why was I compelled to do this? And more importantly, why were my grandparents? It is sad that I never had the pleasure of meeting them and never had the chance to ask them this question (and so many others) first hand. Luckily, we do have many letters and reports they wrote in the years after the war. My grandfather wrote:

 It became a selfimposed yet impelling duty to participate actively somehow, somewhere in the fight against the invader and in our case we felt that the call lay in trying to join the Allied forces.

My grandmother’s report is very colorful and pays more attention to the emotions and reasoning behind certain decisions, which is immensely valuable to me. She describes how the German invasion made her feel and how it drove her to choose such a perilous road, even though she was in no direct danger at the time. She writes:

 Before the war I had accepted [German] as just another compulsory highschool subject, just like English and French. Now German had become identical with cruelty, suppression and lies. I would never have dreamed in those carefree days of prewar Holland that I would be capable of such intense feelings of despise. But three years of German occupation had taught me otherwise.

(…) Although never able to chain the mind of the Dutch, the Nazis succeeded in regimenting everything else. The road for a free individual had become pitifully narrow. A deeprooted intense urge of rebellion grew gradually inside me, an urge that was not satisfied by occasional activities like helping subversive persons, finding safe homes for cornered Jewish families and such.

You can imagine how proud I am to have the blood of this strong woman running through my veins. I wish I could say with certainty I would do the same in her situation, but I really don’t know. (Luckily) we can’t imagine living under those circumstances and having to make actual life or death decisions. I said yes to this journey, with no sailing experience whatsoever, but with the guarantee we would be escorted by the Dutch marine and the best possible clothing and life vest. Hardly heroic.

The crew of the Yvette II consisted of Teije Brandsma, – the reporter that had called me so many months ago-, Epco Ongering, – the editor of the newspaper’s sailing magazine and TV program-, Robert Croll, – chairman of the Dutch veteran fund,- Coen Meurer, – grandson of Hein Louwerse and myself, granddaughter of Jan and Yvette. During the training sessions we were accompanied by our sixth crew member, Inge Kaars Sijpesteijn, granddaughter of Hein Kaars Sijpesteijn. She came along on the marine ship and was a great support for all of us.

And I think I am going to leave it at this for now. I’ll write about how our trip went in a separate blog, on another day….