Ray Hiemstra: Hiding from the Nazis: My WWII Memoir

E---(COVER)-Ray-at-16-from-passport-photo--copyBy RAY HIEMSTRA

As told to Chace Anderson

During the last year of the war, my mother hid two men who participated in a strike and who ran the underground in our area. One of them was the head of the police in a province south of Friesland, and the other was a train inspector who was from our village … If my mother had been caught hiding these two men, the Nazis would have burned the barn and the whole farm. And my mother? When someone was caught helping the Allies, they were shot.

– Ray Hiemstra

“They got the wrong guy if they think I’m going to help them against the Allies,” I told my mother. “They can forget that.”

I had received a letter from the German government telling me to report to the railroad station at 9 a.m. the next morning. They were sending young Dutch men like me to Hamburg to help repair bomb damage in that city. I knew I would go into hiding before I would help the Nazis.

My mother, of course, understood. At that time – the last year of World War II – she was hiding two leaders of the local underground in our farmhouse.

In the Beginning

When I was born in 1924, my family had maybe 100 acres near the Dutch village of Sneek, the second biggest town in the province of Friesland. My father always had 30 or 40 dairy cows and some sheep, and we had two horses. We didn’t have a tractor when I was a boy, so he borrowed a third horse when it was time to harvest hay from the grassland.

Like much of Holland, our land was reclaimed from the sea. The dike for our farm was only two fields away. When I was a small kid I remember the older ones would help me climb the stairs of the windmill, and I could see over everything. When a storm came or we expected one, my father would go out and secure the windmill. The high dikes were transformed later into roads.

We sold dairy products and hay to make money, and we sheared about a dozen sheep. My father was a good farmer, so he had more hay than he needed for his own cows and sold the extra to people who had horses and fancy buggies they hired out for weddings.

There were 10 of us kids, but the oldest four were from my father’s first wife. He lost her at the end of World War I to Spanish Grippe or flu. His brother also lost a wife in that epidemic – it was terrible. My father married again, and I was the third of the six children he had with my mother.

I went to a school of about 70 students in the village roughly two miles away. Like everyone else, I rode there on a bike. When I finished grade 6, there were still three older brothers at home to help with the work on the farm, so my father told the director of the school that I could go further, go on to high school. I was the first child to complete 10 years of school. Some of the younger ones after me also finished, and my older sister had completed a home economics program. But I was the first to complete high school.

I studied English and French and German, history, literature and mathematics. I was always interested in history, but I was best in English because even then I felt I would end up in an English-speaking country. England used English, and the United States, you know, was English speaking. We knew it was developing a strong economy, and the future would be there. And many Dutch, even from our province, were already in America. People in Holland had big families, and there wasn’t all that much land where we lived.

Ray's Dutch passport, issued in 1941

Ray’s Dutch passport, issued in 1941

I was in high school in 1939 when my oldest brother from the first four children was drafted into the Dutch army.

War and Occupation

I remember one day I was delivering milk containers on a cart to the place where they took them on a boat to distribute them. It was very busy in the sky, with planes going everywhere. I turned to a guy and asked what was happening. He said, “You don’t know? The Germans have crossed the border.”

That was the first thing I heard about the invasion. We had no radio at home because we had no electricity. Oh some farms did, but the owner had to pay for the poles and wires, and my father said, “I don’t want those big poles that look so bad in the fields.”

The Germans invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, and after five days of intense bombing, mainly in the city of Rotterdam to the south, the Dutch forces surrendered. Queen Wilhelmina and her cabinet fled to London and set up a government-in-exile there.

We began five years of German occupation. At first, life actually didn’t change much on the farm. It was hard to get things, and later those who had electricity lost it, so they couldn’t pump water out of the lowlands in the spring. The Germans told us what we could make in our factories, and everything went for the German war effort.

There were plenty of German soldiers and military vehicles around Sneek. Many of the soldiers were boys just like us, very young and optimistic. Although they didn’t speak Dutch, I could talk to those boys because I could understand German. On many of their vehicles they had written in German, “We’re going to England,” making it sound like it would be easy to conquer the Allies.

Our Loss

My father died early in the war. It may have been 1941 because I remember the war with Russia started then, and when I’d visit him in the hospital, he’d always ask how far the Germans had advanced into Russia.

I liked the library in Sneek because they had all kinds of books and papers there. I would ride my bike into the village, go to the library to read about what was going on and then visit my father in the hospital.

He would ask me about the progress of the war and everything. I never knew what he died from. I asked my mother, but I don’t know if I ever found out exactly what it was.

Dutch document stated Ray was healthy enough to be assigned to work in Poland for German war effort

Dutch document stated Ray was healthy enough to be assigned to work in Poland for German war effort

Taking Sides

Before Holland was invaded, I was too young to be drafted into the Dutch army, and when the occupation began, the Germans couldn’t draft the Dutch into their army unless they volunteered. And to tell you the truth, there were some who did, and the Dutch Nazi party formed militia units.

But there was also a strong underground movement to aid the Allies, and my family, whether intentionally or unintentionally, became part of that movement.

We had people in my village who thought Hitler was not that bad. Sympathizers. My mother’s youngest sister was even married to an SS soldier in Germany.

My father had not been a sympathizer, but he really hadn’t supported the underground either. He was the kind of person who just didn’t take sides.

Now my mother – she was not necessarily brave, but she just wouldn’t say no.

She always wanted to help if she could, and she eventually ended up being asked to help those in the underground. And I was somebody who would say, “Yes, yes, I’ll help.”

Trouble for Me

We had to know who was a German sympathizer and who wasn’t. It didn’t take too long to find out the people loyal to Holland and the people who weren’t. But you had to be careful. People from Sneek sometimes disappeared. We never knew for sure what happened to them, but we believed they were sent to the camps if they were found with stuff against the Germans. I remember that happened to the son of the blacksmith.

There were times during the war that I carried literature, printed stuff against the Germans, usually just statistics that listed how many vehicles and guns they were making in the States. I would distribute it to people I knew who would distribute it to someone else.

Most of the police in the village were not sympathetic to the Germans, but there was one man who was. One day – I think it was my last year of high school – I got there early before the bell rang. I was just resting with some other boys when one of them opened up his jacket and took out orange flowers, poppies I guess they were. Well, it was very strongly forbidden to have anything orange in Holland at the time because orange is the color of the Dutch royal family.

I said to the boy, “Give me one of those.” And I put it right on my shirt in a buttonhole where everybody could see it. And that was verboden.

The police officer, the one who was a German sympathizer, came around on his bike and saw our flowers. He came over to me and said, “Where did you get that flower?”

I said, “I can’t tell you.” I wasn’t going to squeal on my friends.

Then he said, “If you don’t tell me where you got that flower, you’re going to go with me to the police station.”

I said, “Do what you have to do, but I can’t tell you. I’m not that low.” So I went to the police station.

I was taken in about 8:30 and was told to sit. The head of the police came in about 11, and I heard him ask, “What’s he doing sitting there?” Someone told him I was wearing an orange flower.

The head of the police, who I’m sure was not a Nazi sympathizer, went to my school and told the director of the school what happened and that one boy, me, had been picked up.

The director came back to the station and really gave it to me. He said, “You dumb kid; we got it difficult enough, and you are going around making all this trouble. Do you know what can come of this?”

The director of my school asked the police to let me loose because if I came in the hands of the Germans, I could go to a concentration camp. The head of the police said to me, “Go to school and don’t make no more trouble.”

One of the false ID papers Ray carried during World War II

One of the false ID papers Ray carried during World War II

Into Hiding

About the time I was 20, I got a letter in the mail telling me I had to be at the train station at 9 o’clock the next morning. I was going to be sent to Hamburg, Germany, to help clean up the city after all the Allied bombing there.

Now, I don’t know if I got on the list because of the orange flower thing or if they were taking Dutch boys about my age. But I said to my mother, “They got the wrong guy if they think I’m going to help them against the Allies. They can forget that.”

I didn’t show up at the train station the next day. What I did was go into hiding each night.

A neighbor had a farm on the edge of the fields, and to get there, you had to use a boat or go around the back where the horses would go. It was quite isolated. I went to the neighbor and showed him the letter. He said I could sleep in his barn each night.

My father had had a little rowboat for fishing, so the boat was no problem. My mother had helped with that neighbor’s young kids, so she knew him well and thought it was a good idea. My father never would have approved of me doing that.

So for something like the last six months or year of the war, I would return to our farm during the day and do all my work. If anyone were to come for me, I could see them from a long way off and leave long before they arrived.

But I wouldn’t be able to see them coming at night, so I slept in a bed we made in the hay in the neighbor’s barn.

I was quite bold during that time, especially when I was in town. I carried this paper with a Nazi stamp that had a phony name on it, saying I was 24 and a veterinarian. That was an occupation the Dutch needed, so if the Germans stopped me I couldn’t be sent to Hamburg.

I was never afraid to talk to German soldiers either. I knew there was always a chance they could send me away, but I wasn’t afraid of them. If you act afraid, those people get suspicious, but if you’re not afraid then they don’t get suspicious. And just in case, I had the paper in my pocket that said I was a veterinarian.

Toward the end of the war it became more difficult for the occupying German soldiers to find food. Sometimes they would come around and ask my mother if there was any extra butter. They had shotguns to shoot ducks, but because there was so much water around, they couldn’t always collect what they shot. But we had that boat, so at times I would go out on the water and collect a duck for them. I helped them so they thought, “Oh he’s a friend.” The hell I was a friend!

My Mother’s Attic

Editorial note: In early 1941, there was a general strike in Holland. It was organized by non-Jews and was aimed at protesting the anti-Jewish measures and activities of the Nazis, most specifically the pogroms the Germans conducted in Jewish neighborhoods in the larger cities.

Most of the Jews in Holland lived in the big cities, but we all knew some Jews in Sneek. They had businesses there, and many of them were picked up and the businesses shut down. They were taken to the railroad station, and the train was ready to go to Germany or Poland, and they killed them there. That’s what we heard. It happened mostly in cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

During the last year of the war, my mother hid two men who participated in a strike and who ran the underground in our area. One of them was the head of the police in a province south of Friesland, and the other was a train inspector who was from our village. They had received letters that they were going to be sent to Germany – to either Bremen or Hamburg – for service there.

There was a special hiding place between the roof and the top floor of our house where they could crawl in. That is where they slept. They ate their meals with us downstairs and ran the underground from there as well. If someone should come to the house, they could quickly crawl into the hiding place.

Those two men did things the general population didn’t even know. The underground was quietly fighting the Germans by distributing literature, collecting and distributing food stamps, and doing other things. Quite often they tried to free friends before they could be sent to camps in Germany. If someone was picked up and held at the police station, they would try to get him out before he could be sent to a concentration camp.

I think the people they helped went to Spain. That was generally the route. Spain was neutral so they went to France and then on to Spain.

Watching for Parachutes

Everybody in Holland looked for parachutes, and if an Allied pilot was shot down and survived, the men in our attic helped organize their return to England through first Belgium and then France.

Every day it seemed we would get some people coming to our house – mostly on bicycles – to see the two men. There were young women who came to our house carrying milk containers. We called them the milk haulers, and in the containers was information for the underground. They carried away information the same way.

If my mother had been caught hiding these two men, the Nazis would have burned the barn and the whole farm. And my mother? When someone was caught helping the Allies, they were shot.

Planes

During the war we had plenty of planes flying over. Crippled Allied bombers sometimes dropped their bombs early to lighten the load, and we had bombs fall on our farm. The craters were huge and took a lot of work to fill in. Those bombers that destroyed Hamburg came right over us at night. I could hear them in the dark, and it was like music.

My father’s brother had a nearby farm, and the railroad ran near it. One day I was on my bike going home, and someone told me a plane had gone down on my uncle’s farm. I rode over there and saw a huge crowd.

An Allied fighter had swooped down and strafed a train but didn’t pull up in time. The plane hit the trees and crashed in a field. The two Canadian pilots were dead.

The family of the dead can decide where they are to be buried, and those two were buried in our village. Some years ago, I visited their graves on a trip back to Holland.

Another plane came down on a different uncle’s farm late in the war. It was a German plane, a Messerschmitt, and it hit a dike. The pilot was a young fellow; his plane gave up, I guess.

Enough to Eat

Editorial Note: Late in 1944, sensing that victory was close at hand, the Dutch government-in-exile from London called upon the Dutch railway staff to strike, and they did. But the war – largely due to the failure of Operation Market Garden – did not end quickly. In retaliation for the strike, the German government blocked food and coal transport to much of Holland. During the particularly harsh winter of 1944-’45, people suffered horribly from cold and hunger. Many in cities were reduced to eating flower bulbs and sawdust. Those who were able often walked out to farms to try to trade valuables for produce.

During the famine of 1944, people in the cities had it very hard, but my family and the other people on farms always had enough to eat. Because of the two men in our attic, we really didn’t get that many people coming to us for food. We already had a lot of people coming on underground business.

Some people would come to us for milk, but we kept that quiet because we were afraid that if too much traffic passed on the road to our farm, the Germans would get suspicious. We started to tell people to come at night when it was dark if they had a message for the two men we were hiding.

Ray, Dutch Army, 1945

Ray, Dutch Army, 1945

Out of Hiding

Some of the people who organized the underground in Holland were caught and shot on site. I knew one. He was a teacher, and how they caught him I don’t know. I guess sometimes people you know talk too much. The Dutch Nazis led him away from the house to a park and shot him.

But the two men my mother hid were never caught before the Canadians showed up in Sneek.

I had been keeping up by reading newspapers, and I knew the end of the war was near. It was in early May 1945 that the Canadians showed up. One day some of my friends said, “The Canadians are already in the city, they’re at the fairgrounds.” I told my mother I had to see that.

“Be careful,” she said, afraid that I would get in trouble. I took my bike, and in 10 minutes I was in Sneek. The first thing I saw was a three-ton truck full of Canadian soldiers. Then I saw a motorcycle with a Canadian standing next to it, and everyone was hugging him. He asked if there were any Germans around, and making fun, we said, “No, no, we ran them all out.” The truth is the Germans had left that morning, I think, or maybe the day before.

We all headed for the fairgrounds and found lots of Canadian vehicles there. It was May 2 or maybe May 3, and the formal end to the war didn’t come until May 8. But we knew the war was over.

With the armistice, I no longer had to hide in the farmer’s barn. With the armistice, the two men who ran the local underground no longer had to hide in my mother’s attic. The Germans no longer occupied Holland.

Ray at front, far left, on the way to Java

Ray at front, far left, on the way to Java

Duty in the Dutch East Indies

Editorial Note: Holland, like most European countries, was imperialistic during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia, was rich in – among other things – oil and rubber. Japan, needing those commodities for its war effort, invaded the Dutch East Indies in 1942 as part of the Pacific War.

After Germany surrendered in Europe but before the Japanese surrender in the Pacific, some friends and I said, “We’re going to go after those Japs and get them out of Java and Sumatra and Borneo.”

Ray in Malaysia, 1946

Ray in Malaysia, 1946

The Dutch government, having returned to The Hague from London, set up a new army, and I volunteered. I had three or four weeks training in England and then left by ship for Malacca, now known as Malaysia.

My first duty there was guarding Japanese POWs in Penang, a duty that lasted maybe a month or six weeks. Then the war with Japan was over, and the POWs could return to their own country.

I was then sent to Batavia (currently known as Jakarta) on the island of Java. In 1944 the Japanese had promised independence to the entire archipelago, but after the war, the Dutch were not eager to let it go.

The Indonesian War of Independence was fought from 1945 to 1949, and I was there for about two of those years. I think my unit was Infantry Section 3, and we patrolled many of the villages.

My first time coming under a rain of bullets was a day when Indonesians on the other side of a power plant started shooting at us, and I remember being so scared. I wasn’t hurt that day, but a soldier in my unit was killed.

The Indonesians would damage and sometimes blow up the bridges we needed for our trucks. Usually seven or eight men would get in a truck and do a patrol. I was a corporal, and each patrol needed at least one corporal.

One Sunday we were about to go out. Another corporal came to me and told me he was bored and had nothing to do. He asked if I would mind if he did that patrol. It was not a dangerous area, and I said sure.

The driver and the corporal usually sit in the cab of the truck, and the other soldiers sit in the back. That day the truck drove across a damaged bridge and toppled over. The corporal was badly hurt, and one of the men in back was killed. I have to wonder if that would have happened to me if I had gone myself.

Ray back home in Holland

Ray back home in Holland

About 30 men were killed from my unit during that war. Finally pressure from the U.N. prevailed, and Indonesia gained its independence in 1949, but by that time I had returned to Holland.

Horticulture, Love and Peppermint

I had served my time, so when I returned to Holland I gave my uniform back, returned to the farm and did whatever I could to make money.

After I had been back in Holland for a while, I began taking a course in a forestry school in Frederiksoord. It was a well-known school for horticulture and forestry and things like that. It was a four-year college, and you had to have finished high school to go. Because I had served my country in Indonesia, they gave me a year credit, and I attended three years instead of four.

Students in Frederiksoord had to have some place to live, so families in that town often rented rooms to students. Well, that is where I met my wife, Annie. I rented a room from her family and met her there. I was about 26, and she was about 19 when we met, and we dated while I went to the forestry school. We were married in January 1953.

My first job after our marriage was at the King Peppermint factory in Sneek. The company still makes candy, and the building where I worked is still there.

I had known for a long time that I wanted to go to the United States. I felt there would be more opportunities for me and for any children I might have, so I put my name on the list at the U.S. Consulate. My older sister and her husband had gone to the U.S. about 1949, so I had someone there who could sponsor me.

After a short time at the candy factory, Annie and I moved to Zeeland where our daughter Rhea was born in October 1953, and in 1955, I finally got a letter from the U.S. Consulate that my name was on the list to go to the U.S.

America

Annie, Rhea and I left Holland in March 1955 for America, stopping briefly in Canada and then going on to Washingtonville, New York, where my sister and her husband lived.

Newspaper photo of Ray in greenhouse

Newspaper photo of Ray in greenhouse

I was able to find a job in nearby Salisbury Mills, New York, working in greenhouses that grew flowers and vegetables. I had been to that horticultural college in Frederiksoord, and I’m sure that helped. I worked there the first six years we were in the U.S.

During the time I worked in Salisbury Mills, we found a house to buy on about five acres in another little town close by called Rock Tavern, and we moved the family there in 1959.

I call it just plain luck that I ended up getting a job in 1961 with the city of Newburgh, New York. There was a Dutchman I met, and he had a cousin who worked for Newburgh. They talked, I guess, and it turned out the city needed someone to run their greenhouses.

I got the job and eventually became the foreman, taking care of growing the flowers for all the parks in Newburgh. I remember the flower clocks we made, planning which flowers of each color bloomed at the right time to make those garden clocks.

Another benefit of the job in Newburgh was my citizenship. To work for the city, I had to become a U.S. citizen, so in 1961, not only me, but Annie and Rhea also became U.S. citizens.

Newburgh was close to Rock Tavern, so we didn’t have to move. And that was where we raised our children. Sidney had been born the year we came to America, and we had Marion in 1959, Annette in 1964, and Christy in 1970.

In the mid-’70s, the city of Newburgh was having financial problems, and they wanted to cut the workforce. I took voluntary retirement to run my own greenhouse business. There was plenty of room on our property, so I put two greenhouses there and ran a nursery out of them.

Mr. Hiemstra, January 2015

Mr. Hiemstra, January 2015

Retirement and reflections

Finally, by 1996, I was ready to retire completely. My daughter Annette and my son Sidney and their families lived in Tuolumne County, so we sold our property and came to Sonora. We’ve lived here ever since.

Once settled in California, I worked in my garden when I could, and Annie and I traveled along the West Coast and to Canada. My health hasn’t been too good lately.

Ninety years is pretty old. I’ve seen a lot of things in my life. Annie and I raised the five children, and now we have 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

I think coming to America was the best thing I ever did. Oh, I know it was hard on Annie. She missed her family a great deal. We’ve been back to Holland five times together, and Annie has gone five more times by herself. But I know it has still been hard for her.

I think coming here was good for our children. And our grandchildren too. There are so many opportunities in America. If you go to different countries – and I’ve traveled to many – then you realize how rich this country actually is compared to the others. In this country, as long as you’re willing to work, you will find something.

I have been happy here. I think it is a beautiful country, and I’m glad I came over here.

 

 

 

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