As a young boy I would spend a couple of weekends per year at my grandparents’. There was one thing in their house that fascinated me greatly: a brown envelope, containing pictures, postcards and some other documents from the time my grandfather was in Germany. He never said much about it. When my grandparents both had died, this brown envelope came into my possession and I actually consider it to be one of my most precious family heirlooms.
During the Second World War Germany had a shortage of workmen. All the men were serving as soldiers, lots of them got killed. Since the Netherlands was one of the countries occupied by the Germans, Dutch men were asked to work voluntarily in German factories. Except for a small group – some of them being Nazi sympathizers – nobody responded. So the Germans chose another strategy: young Dutch men were now forced to keep up the German production lines. One of them was my grandfather, who was a shoemaker his whole life.
He was summoned in July 1942 to appear at the Regional Bureau of Labor in Waalwijk, a city in the center of the province of Noord-Brabant, only 10 kilometers north of his home village Loon op Zand. After he had passed a physical examination, he was recruited for a year to work in the shoe factory of the Lichtenstein Brothers in Meerane, in the province of Saxony. He was assigned a job as a shoemaker for 52 hours a week. His salary would be 0.7344 Reichsmark (RM) per hour, or RM 38.19 per week. He could stay at a guest house for the price of RM 6.00 per week and he would get a warm meal in the canteen of the Lichtenstein factory for 1.20 Reichsmark per day. At the end of the week he would have earned RM 25.00.
Once in Germany he found his temporarily home in a guest house called ‘Stadt Leipzig’, run by a friendly family. One of his colleagues at the shoe factory was – coincidentally – a fellow resident of his home village. Having a friend ‘from home’ made his stay in Meerane endurable. Soon he became friends with another colleague: a man from Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. Their friendship would last for decades: they visited each other very often and were guests at each other’s wedding anniversaries. The shared past in Germany shaped a bond that would exist until their deaths.
Although my grandfather had some friends around him and he was treated well, live in Meerane was hard and absolutely no pleasure. Six days per week he would work in the factory, only on Sundays he had some time off. These free hours were almost always spent in the same way: going to church in the morning, having a walk and a drink with his friends in the afternoon. To give his fiancée an idea of the city, he bought several postcards from Meerane. Twenty-four of them are now in my possession. Unfortunately he did no send any of them to the Netherlands. I would have loved to read about his experiences written in his own words.
After six months he was granted permission to visit his family for Christmas. He was allowed to leave Meerane on 23 December 1942 under the condition that he would return. I have no idea why exactly he chose not to go back, most likely because he wanted to stay with his family and did not want to work for the German occupiers any longer. By doing so he took an enormous risk. He had to hide for the German police. During winter he would seek shelter in a hay-loft of one of the farmers in the area. And during summer he would hide in the forests. His fiancée – my grandmother – would bring him some food every day. One day the German police came to his parental house, having orders to arrest him. His foster parents were beaten. The police officers searched the house and the garden and even pierced the hay stack in the garden with their bayonets. Fortunately, my grandfather was not around. He was never found by the Germans.
For nine months my grandfather had to fear for his life. From September 1943 on, he was safe. Somehow he, or maybe his family, arranged a permit from the Regional Bureau of Labor: he was no longer forced to work in Germany. Given reason: “inability to work in Germany”. My grandfather returned to his former job in a shoe factory in Loon op Zand. At the end of the war, exactly on the national Liberation Day (5 May 1945) he and his fiancée got married. They were married for 54 years. Although my grandparents never spoke much about this black period in their lives, the documents in the brown envelope tell this remarkable story.
One of my German fellow genealogists was able to find some original files about my grandfather’s work at the Lichtenstein factory. According to a wage statement he started to work on 13 July 1942. A second wage statement says he received his weekly wages until 23 July 1943. Does this mean he did not come home for Christmas 1942, and does it mean he hid from the Germans for only two months during Summer 1943? Interesting to see how oral history and original documents may conflict.
This article was first published on the website of The In-Depth Genealogist.