Today was the official opening of the Engelandvaarders museum in an old bunker, once part of the Nazi’s Atlantic wall. Our jolly king did not let the weather bring his spirits down and had no trouble putting himself second to give the amazing volunteers and veterans that made this museum possible a moment to shine.
All though I might need some more time to come up with a decent blog on this topic, I did want to post this today, also in response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Generation XYZ.”
You see, this new museum in Noordwijk is both a tribute to those who gathered up all their courage and decided to risk their lives to make freedom possible for themselves and the rest of their countrymen and -women during WWII as it is a reminder to younger generations that every single person can play a role, take a stand and make a change!
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
And as far as I’m concerned it’s not any deity that you are accuontable to, it’s all of us. It’s society. The world. Mankind. Give it whatever name you want. Show you know right from wrong, by speaking up against injustice or malice. You’ll see you’re not alone. Be inspired and inspire others. We can do better than this.
Quoting Kid President: What will you create that will make the world awesome?
My story is not spectacular. My story is not heroic. My story is actually not even my story but at the same time it really absolutely is! This story forms part of a greater whole and I am so proud that I am a part of it! It deserves to be told and I want to be the one to do it. So there.
I ended my previous blog on a bit of a cliffhanger. I wrote about the voyage of my grandparents in 1943 and may have briefly mentioned that I retook this voyage, as an ode to them and all others who attempted to cross the North Sea to England during WWII. But enough about them (but no seriously, they were awesome!), allow me to tell you about my part in all of this!
So, I think I’ll start at the end and work back from there. You see, when we returned from our fourtysomething hour long journey, we came ashore with cameras pointing at our faces (waiting for us to break down?). We were applauded, photographed, filmed and interviewed. We were asked to pose, to talk about how we felt, to smile and to wave this way and that. I tried to be original every time I was asked about the voyage and to treat every question as if it was asked to me for the first time.
The most frequent asked questions were the following:
1) What drove you to take part in this venture? (sometimes asked in the form of: why in the blazes did you say yes?)
2) What went through your mind while you were at sea?
3) What does it mean for you to step in the footsteps of your grandparents?
4) Would you do it again?
The questions sound simple enough, but I had the hardest possible time coming up with the right answers. I think whoever asked me them, was pretty satisfied with whatever I came up with but I always felt I hadn’t quite covered it. I kept thinking they actually wanted to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I felt I was never really giving them all that. Sure, it was always true but I always had to feed it to them in ready to eat soundbites and therefore my answers always sounded incomplete to me. It missed the “on the one side blablabla, but on the other side blablabla” crap we academics love to get lost in.
That’s why I thought writing this blog would be easy. I would just jot it all down, from left to write, and equip my formulated thoughts with tons of footnotes and sidethoughts between parentheses, which is what I reckon most of my daydreams must look like as well… but I degress…
Let’s answer these questions… Numero uno, why in the blazes did I say yes?! Ahhh, but my answer needs an introduction… because my perceptive readers must have noticed that this question implies the involvement of another party, being the one that is asking me to come along. That would be Epco and Teije, who came up with the idea for this undertaking during the new year’s reception of the newspaper they both work for.
They found out about a little boat that lay in a museum in Overloon, named after one of the original passengers, Yvette Bartlema. And during their first brainstorm sessions about how this project could take form, they came into contact with living legend, Eddie Jonker. This 90 year old war veteran was also the chairman of a Stichting Engelandvaardermuseum, raising funds for the resurrection of a museum to commemorate all those who travelled to England during the second world war and joined the allied forces and the resistance. He joined the RAF himself and contributed greatly to the cause and remains an amazingly sharp witted man today with a strong will and a warm hart. The foundation was working on a project to build a replica of the Yvette for in the museum’s collection, which turned out to be the final boost Epco and Teije needed for their idea to really set sail.
All they needed now were 3 other people to come along on this odyssey, which (long story short) brought them to me. And I said yes because… well, honestly because I thought it sounded like an adventure. The first time I tried to explain this to my friends and family, I described it as the reaction a child would have hearing his / her favorite attraction park had just opened a new ride. But of course there was more to it… I was getting the chance to learn about these mysterious people in the black and white pictures. I read their words from fading letters that had been kept safe (but nearly forgotten!) in boxes and cupboards by family members. I learned things about my own history and about history in general that I didn’t even know I missed.
I also said yes because from the very start, the organizers emphasized that safety was very high on their list of priorities. That made me feel like I could permit myself to be brazen. It was an opportunity to go on an adventure, with a big chance of discomfort a slight chance of getting hurt, but with a panic button in case things (or people) would go overboard. That my grandparents did not have this luxury, was a realization that was often in our minds and humbled us during our get-togethers.
And I guess that brings us to the second question. In all honesty, what I thought about during my time at sea wasn’t all that interesting… I wish I could tell you I philosophized about the meaning of life and my part in it. I wish I could tell you I solved some crazy riddle or perhaps made up one, but I’m afraid it would be untrue.
My thoughts were more along the lines of “Man, this North Sea puddle sure is BIG!” and “ Didn’t I see a wave just like that one, an hour ago?!” and most of all “ bleeeuh, my tummy feels funny… but luckily not as bad as THAT guy…”. That guy was one of my fellow passengers and grandson of one of the original crewmembers, Coen. His nausea started somewhere during the first night and never really stopped. He came out of his greenish-greyish cloud of misery for a couple of minutes every time he ate something. It would give him enough energy to make a couple of jokes and then fall back into his zombie-state after hanging over the side to give whatever he had just eaten back to nature…
There were a couple of moments during the voyage that we spoke about what we were doing and what it all meant. We talked about the original passengers and about their role in the bigger picture. We talked about the other veterans we had met and what they represented for the younger generations. We talked about boat refugees in current times and the way we view them. My grandparents were heroes, boat refugees arriving in Southern Europe from Africa are a plague. Is it really that different?
After this last conversation I had Manu Chao’s song, Clandestino, on my mind and tried to remember all the lyrics. All I kept coming back to was “Soy una raya en el mar”, or “ I’m a line in the sea”, which is pretty much how I felt. Another song that stuck with me is Papeles mojados, by Chambao. I encourage you to listen to both songs and look up their translated lyrics if you don’t speak Spanish.
And how it feels to step in the footsteps of my grandparents…? In truth, I don’t think I have. I made a trip in a boat and I am proud of myself for doing it, but I have in no way done anything matching the heroism of the original passengers, as the boat trip itself was merely the beginning of their voyage. I guess that is also why it was so hard to write this blog. I just felt so small in the light of their story and almost unworthy to be putting the spotlight on myself for something so meaningless.
I did feel the need to describe this feeling of gratitude and admiration I feel for the people that fought for our freedom. Not just my grandparents but all the men and women that contributed to the resistance and stood up against the hate and injustice that was swallowing the continent. The last question is therefore an insignificant one. Retaking the boattrip does nothing for the true meaning of their mission. To truly honor their valor I must actively participate in the world and make an effort to make a difference. I can either sit by the sidelines and point at all the things I see going wrong, or I can find ways to truly make a difference.
In current times, things have been getting so confused. People are being called fascists left and right. Politics are filled with fear mongering rhetorics, which is creating an atmosphere that is truly worrying. Fear is the best bed to plant the seed of hate in and it is happening all around me. I will not go into this much further in this blog (but I will try to in a future one) but will leave you with this video that recently aired before the European elections.
We must never forget our past, and that is the true moral of this story and the only true way to honor the original passengers of the Yvette!
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…
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….
My grandparents were brave people. In the second world war they decided the course this Hitler guy was steering Europe down, wouldn’t do. They were in no immediate threat but were fed up with the oppression and decided to flee the country. They bought a small boat, really not designed for open seas, and set sail to England. They joined the allied forces there and fought for the future of their country and the children they would bring into this world. I am grateful for the sacrifices they were willing to make and their courage to stand up for what they believed in.
I guess in modern times we would refer to my grandparents as refugees. I will be posting a more elaborate blog about the story of my grandparents soon, but for now I leave you with a song by Cuban singer, Celia Cruz, with lyrics that apply to the thoughts my grandparents must have had at the time, as much as they do to Celia’s feelings towards the country she left behind.
In case I don’t return, I take your flag with me regretting that my eyes, now liberated, do not see you.
Why I had to leave anybody can understand.
I thought I would return to your soil any minute
But time keeps passing by and your sun keeps crying
Your chains remain strong and I keep waiting and praying to the sky
I always felt fortunate to have been born in your arms
And eventhough I am no longer there, I left you a part of my heart
Just in case, in case I don’t return
Soon the moment will arrive that the suffering will stop
Let’s not hold any grudges, oh my lord
so we can share our feelings together
Even though time has passed I have carried your name with me
with pride and dignity all across the world and I have told them your truth
But my land, don’t suffer anymore; my heart, don’t go to pieces
There is no evil that can last a hundred years, nor can my body
And I never wanted to abandon you, I brought you with me in every step
And with me you will stay, my love, like a flower on my lap
Just in case, in case I don’t return
If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
And if I don’t return to my country, I will die with the pain
If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
My country, beautiful land, I love you so dearly.
If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
My heart aches without seeing her for so long
If i case I don’t return, when I die
I want my flag to be draped upon my tomb
If in case I don’t return, I hope they bury me with music
with music of my beloved lands