Saturday, 17 May 2014

Sepia Saturday – The (lost) innocence of youth

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo prompt is of a lady filling a sandbag - and a little boy in a sailor suit.
Straight away it reminded me of a photo of my father-in-law Arno van Bergen taken in Limburg, Netherlands around 1930 and wearing a ‘sailor suit’, and so a good prompt to begin writing his fascinating story.

Arno was born Johannes Arnoldus van Bergen in 1925 in Maastricht to carpenter Johannes Jacobus van Bergen (b1895) and tobacconist Maria Elisabeth Hardy (1898-1993). Many generations of both sides of his family had lived in Limburg, with his mothers family going as far back as I could trace - all from Maastricht.

The innocent looking boy in the photo knew nothing of what was to become of him as war broke out in his country by the turn of the decade. He had a very strict Catholic upbringing so he is almost certainly not wearing a sailor suit at all – it is probably a choir or altar boy’s outfit, and he is likely to be holding a bible or prayer book in his hands.

He was a mischievous boy who loved to run and play soccer. He was very good at maths. By 1940 he had probably finished school, or was in his last year.
Despite the destruction of the Wilhelminabrug and the Sint Servaasbrug (pictured)
German troops passed Maastricht, a vital traffic hub, relatively quickly.
Photo taken 10 May 1940 in Maastricht (from Wikipedia)
A month after his 15th birthday, on 10 May 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands. The inexperienced Dutch Army held out for four days until the Germans bombed Rotterdam and 800 people were killed. The Royal family and the government went into exile in England. Anyone in a government position who stepped down was replaced by a member of the NSB, the Dutch Nazi Party. Some government officials tried to stay on to protect the Dutch people from things like conscription into the German army. Some newspapers and radio stations were banned or shut down in an attempt to control.
The aftermath of the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam from Wikipedia
Before he turned 16 years old, the first ‘roundups’ of Jews occurred, on 22 Feb 1941 and this shocked the Dutch so much the illegal Dutch Communist Party called for a national strike (and marches) three days later. It started in Amsterdam and spread to outlying towns. The Germans were caught by surprise and reacted by shooting at groups of strikers. The strikes didn’t prevent further persecution of the Jews but it did strengthen the disgust for National Socialism in the Netherlands.
In 1941 every Dutch citizen over 14 years (so including Arno) had to carry an identity card. Propaganda was increased, with an overwhelming amount of cinema newsreels, pamphlets, brochures and posters. Aversion to Jews was stirred up.
The Netherlands had pride in their educational system, with different religious groups having separate schools. The Germans had trouble gaining influence in the schools apart from giving preference to NSB teachers, banning school books and increasing the hours of German study. Pupils and teachers were fiercely anti-German so jokes and songs circulated.
Many more people became church-goers as protests were preached from the pulpit and clergymen urged their congregations to help those in hiding.
Catholic and Christian trade unions came under National Socialist leadership in 1941 and when the churches urged members to cancel their membership, 95% took their advice.
The standard of living dropped, imports were impossible and many goods were transported into Germany. There were long queues at shops, petrol became scarce and bicycle tyres were replaced with wooden ones.

Just after he turned 17, at the end of April 1942, all Jews were required to wear a Star of David, and deportations began in that summer. About 80% of the Dutch Jewish population was murdered in the extermination camps.

As Arno turned 18, the Germans decided they needed labour forces and announced 300,000 Dutch soldiers would be transported to Germany. Spontaneous strikes broke out and spread across the country. Known later as the ‘milk strikes’ because they were mainly in country areas where farmers refused to deliver milk to the factories. The German occupiers responded, executing strikers and shooting at groups of strikers. They insisted on all radios being handed in, resulting in many being hidden.
In May 1943, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 had to report for forced labour – this included Arno, aged 18 years and one month – bad timing!

About 140,000 Dutch citizens were taken to Germany and forced to work very long hours in factories that were Allied bombing targets. There were promises of good meals, cigarettes and payment, that in reality didn’t eventuate.
About 120,000 more were used to dig trenches and build fortifications in northeastern Holland – “soldiers without guns”. Arno was one of these - moved from his home in Maastricht, Limburg over 200 kilometres to the area around Lochem, Gelderland.

Many of those in forced labour died or suffered long term physical and/or psychological effects. Many tried to go into hiding but this was difficult as they had no money or ration coupons, and they were fearful of what would happen to their family.

This move was in one sense a good thing for Arno as it is how he met his future wife, and mother of my husband.

This post is long enough – I’ll talk to my mother in law and write more later – including how Arno escaped!


  1. I'll look forward to hearing how Arno escaped. What a heart-rending story!

  2. Everyone in the country must have suffered a lot, but I imagine the forced labor wasn't as bad for an 18-year-old as it would have been for someone older.

  3. Many life stories are astonishing and Arno's story seems already to be in that category. Please don't be too long posting the sequal:)

  4. Your father-in-law was a sweet little fellow as a child. Great that you can tell us his story.

  5. Who could have guessed the tale which eventually attached to such a photo of a young boy? Thank you for sharing.

  6. Oh my, what an incredible story you have begun! He's such a lovely boy!

  7. A beautiful photograph of Amo, innocent in what was to become an evil world. You have written such a poignant story and I look forward to reading what happened next.

  8. This is history brought to life! Staying tuned to see what happened to Arno!

  9. I really enjoy reading this kind of blog and look forward to more of the story. As in your story Australia also had Identity Cards during the war. I think you received it at age 15 and I think they started in 1942.

  10. Looking forward to the next installment!

  11. Thank you for Arno's story. I am looking forward to the rest. It's hard to image the hardship he went through.

  12. Engaging story -- love how you are weaving history with Arno's personal story.

  13. A terrific presentation.,Recently I've been reading a history of the same era and it is difficult to comprehend the huge numbers in the terrible statistics. Much better to follow an individual face who experienced it.

  14. Thanks everyone for the comments. I'm working on more of his story but need to talk to my mother-in-law to check a few things.