I had the pleasure of photographing 28 vets, along with their families, at the annual dinner, held at the Port Perry Legion branch. To say I was moved by the attendance was an understatement.
The event made me think about one man in particular, who, although he survived the war, was not without involvement, which must have had an abysmal impact. That man was my father.
Having been born and raised in the southern portion of the Netherlands, our town shares a border with Germany. Now that Europe (or most of it) is one nation, the border between the two countries is marked with a line on a sidewalk. In the thirties and forties, however, it was quite different.
I knew my father had been involved in the war, mostly with the Dutch resistance, but like so many from that era, he seldom, if ever, spoke of those days. I can only imagine some of the events he must have witnessed. In 2005, on one of my trips to Europe, I asked my father (84 at the time), if he wanted to join me. I explained we could do a trek from the Netherlands to Dusseldorf, where he was interned during the war, and then to Berlin. He agreed, and off we went.
After a few days with relatives (and there are many of them), we set out and drove to the city of Dusseldorf, about an hour away. Enroute I asked him why he was there during the war, and he began to relay some of the facts of his life, sixty years earlier.
The Dutch did not have an army and the Nazi invasion of the country took less than five days. The Netherlands had a vast underground system, and my father, along with my grandfather, played their part. Unfortunately, after a few months, my father was picked up by the German army, and he was taken to a camp in Dusseldorf. Although it was not a death camp, I am sure it was no doubt, a traumatic place.
I recall him talking about the food, 90% of which consisted of sauerkraut, and how a boyhood friend of his, also in the same camp, complained once about dinner, and was never heard from again. Small tidbits of information began to trickle out, and I started to piece together the silent part of his life.
As we neared Dusseldorf, I asked if he knew where the camp was. He looked at me, as if I had two heads. “Of course I remember,” he said. “I spent two years here.” I explained how time had passed, but when we drove along a few streets he saw the massive chimney of the camp still intact.
I pulled up and spoke with a guard in a gatehouse, and explained the history. He said we could go in. I thought it best to let my dad wander on his own, as he had grown very quiet. After 90 minutes or so, we continued on toward Berlin. During the six hour drive, I began to learn more about his time in Germany.
After nearly two years in the camp, he contracted Diphtheria, a highly contagious and life threatening illness. In an effort to avoid spreading the sickness, they sent him to a hospital in Cologne. After two weeks, he had vastly improved, and the intent was to send him back to the camp. He and his roommate decided they could escape from the hospital, as it was not heavily guarded, and the Americans were pushing close to the German border from the south.
Stereotypically, they hid in a laundry truck, and made their way into the town of Cologne. From there they split up, and my dad, speaking fluent German, managed to make his way south into Belgium. He was nearing the Dutch border and encountered an American unit, pushing forward to liberate the South of the Netherlands (part of the Ardennes, historically now known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’).
He was able to spend three days with the Americans and finally made it to safety at a farm, owned by his great aunt. I remember him telling me he was 95 lbs. when he made it to her house. She immediately fed him good farm food, and he was quite ill, for a day or so.
From there he walked home and was reunited with his family, began courting my mother and soon after, the couple were married. I was captivated by the story, and realized how fortunate I am to have missed those horrific times.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.