ANTIGONISH: Ten days after Henry Van Berkel’s parents gave birth to their first child on April 27, 1940, the Nazi regime launched a surprise attack on their native country of the Netherlands that resulted in a five-year German occupation.
Van Berkel provided his family’s first-hand experience during World War II at the Antigonish Legion’s annual veteran’s dinner on November 2, in which the legion was honouring the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands.
“Some people believed it was never going to change, that it was always going to be under occupation,” the 76-year-old said. “Most people remained passive, they gave the minimum cooperation, they had to cooperate to some extent to stay alive, some joined resistance movements and joined the underground, of course if they were caught, it was a terrible thing.”
Van Berkel was born under German occupation in 1943, and lived in a small town near ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which is the capital city of the province North Brabant.
When the Germans first attacked in 1940, 29-of-the-31 farms in their farming community were damaged but it wasn’t as tough for farmers as it was for people in the city as the enemy forces needed their produce.
“My family survived reasonably well, my father, who we called papa was a bit of a poacher,” Van Berkel said. “He supplemented the family income through his snares and traps; he was [also] really good with a gun – and luckily he never got caught.”
After the devastating Rotterdam Blitz, an aerial bombardment on the City of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe, the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II, Van Berkel said it resulted in inevitable food and fuel shortages.
He spoke of the terror and brutality by Nazi Germany in terms of the Putten Raid. On October 1, 1944, a total of 602 men – almost the entire male population of the village – were taken from Putten, in central Netherlands, and deported to various concentration camps inside Germany. Over 100 houses in the village were set on fire; six men and one woman were shot dead during the raid which was carried out as a reprisal for a Dutch resistance attack on a vehicle carrying personnel from the Wehrmacht. Only 48 men returned at the end of the war.’
Van Berkel indicated some individuals had access to battery-powered radios here-and-there, which weren’t legal, but people could occasionally hear a bit of news coming from the allied side.
As time went on, resistance grew, and as resistance grew, so did repression and it became worse in Northern Holland, the most-populated area, late during the war.
Following the Low Countries, (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) were freed, Van Beckel said ‘Operation Market Garden’ was a failed military operation undertaken by the First Allied Airborne Army and XXX Corps. The objective was to break into German territory with a bridgehead over the Rhine River, creating an allied invasion route into northern Germany. This was to be achieved by seizing a series of nine bridges by airborne forces.
“The operation succeeded in liberating the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen along with many towns,” Van Berkel said. “However, they failed to capture the one at Arnhem, that became known as ‘the bridge too far,’ and because of that failure, the rest of the Netherlands wasn’t free until eight-months later.”
In that time, the Dutch had their most difficult period in the history of the country.
“People were caught between starvation and drowning. More than 18,000 people starved to death,” he said. “Many more would have starved if the allies hadn’t started a major food drop before the end of the war, in fact it was only 10-days before peace came that they started the food drop. Thousands of tonnes saved thousands of lives.”
Van Berkel reminisced about many nights of kneeling down on all fours and listening to the conversations going on downstairs through a grate in his bedroom floor.
“Papa encountered a Jewish teenager and he needed a place to go, he was on the run so my parents took him in. This was very dangerous,” he said. “One night, a heavy knock came on the door, papa jumped out of bed, ran in his sock-feet to the front door, he crawled on all fours under the door window, and into the bedroom that was located in the stable where the teenage boy was sleeping, roused him out of bed, and quickly ushered him out of the window.”
When his father returned to the door, the individual indicated they had reason to believe they were harbouring a fugitive and they were going to search the house – they only found the warm bed in which the teen was sleeping in but his father claimed he was sleeping there – and they took his word.
Speaking about another close-call, Van Berkel recalled a time when his father went behind enemy lines to care for a pig.
“He was with his brother, and they were caught. He was gone three weeks and he survived because he was a good milker,” he said. “He milked the cows and gave the milk to the German’s. Because they were given kind of a freedom to roam and milk the cows, they took advantage of an opportunity, swam a canal and crawled to the allied lines, and escaped.”
Van Berkel migrated to Canada with his parents and siblings in 1951 and grew up on a farm in Antigonish County. He earned his BA and B Ed. degrees from StFX and spent 33-years in the education systems in Alberta and Nova Scotia as a teacher and principal.
For the past 35-years, he has operated a 330-acre woodlot in Ashdale harvesting Christmas trees for the domestic and U.S. markets. In 2013, he was recognized as the Eastern Nova Scotia Woodlot Owner of the Year.
“I don’t normally attend Remembrance Day ceremonies, I’m usually cutting down Christmas trees on November 11,” Van Berkel said. “But in the woods in Ashdale, at 11 o’clock, I shut down the chainsaws, I gather the people I have out there with me, and we have a moment of silence. Emotionally everyone deals with this different – I shed tears.”