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Guestwords: How Do You React to a War?

Wed, 05/04/2022 - 11:39

The war against Ukraine raises questions about responding to aggression. How much suffering is enough before you surrender? Do you resist or care for the targets of war, or do you just try not to be a target? How do you celebrate when it ends?

In World War II, the Dutch were unprepared because they expected to be allowed neutral status as in the prior war. The Nazi aggressors had forces 10 times the size of those that attacked Ukraine. In September 1944, having been occupied by the Nazis for four years, the Dutch expected to be liberated. After snafus in Arnhem, however, the war was prolonged for another season, the horrible Hunger Winter of 1944-45, when the Dutch who had survived competed unequally with their Nazi occupiers for food.

The Netherlands war ended almost exactly five years after it had started, on April 29, 1945. In her book about a Dutch family during the war (“The Winged Watchman”), my mother described how the Dutch reacted: “On April 29, two bombers roared over the cities, dropping parcels in nearby polders. The population went wild. Heedless of the Germans, they ran into the streets, climbed roofs, hung out of windows. They waved sheets, flags, kerchiefs; they shouted greetings, embraced one another, wept.”

The Nazis surrendered to Eisenhower on May 7, effective May 8. They surrendered to the Soviet Union on May 9, and this date has been celebrated ever since in Moscow with a display of weapons. This year, the date has been widely viewed as Vladimir Putin’s personal deadline for subjugating Ukraine. Soviet flags have been hauled up prematurely in Moscow.

After the Dutch celebrated the end of the Nazi nightmare, they settled their scores with collaborators during the “hatchet days.” Courts ordered executions, exiles, and losses of honors. They terminated pensions. Unofficial sanctions were bitter and lasted lifetimes.

One woman had special reason to mourn deeply, but channeled her grief into action. Mies van Lennep Boissevain (1896-1965) was active in the Resistance. She and her husband, Jan, helped house and protect Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The Amsterdam house to which her family moved at the end of 1939 became a center of armed resistance. Jan and Mies hid in their house “underdivers” (people hiding from the Nazis), along with a workshop for creating fake identity papers and a storehouse of weapons and explosives in a double basement under a normal-looking middle-class home.

Their two eldest sons, Janka and Gi Boissevain, were leaders of a sabotage and assassin group known as CS-6, named after the address of their house, Corellistraat 6, which I have visited.

Mies and Jan and their three sons were all arrested and sent to concentration camps. The two older boys were executed on Oct. 1, 1943. The night before his execution, Janka scratched on his cell wall the Boissevain family motto, Ni regret du passé, ni peur de l’avenir (“Neither regret for the past, nor fear of the future”).

Mies and her remaining son, Frans, were imprisoned in the Herzogenbusch concentration camp, where Mies served as a nurse in the camp hospital. Among the surviving prisoners in the camp was Jan, who had been arrested earlier. He wrote to their daughters, as translated by my mother:

“Mum is brave. This morning she gave her 33 fellow-prisoners fitness training and she will be able to cope better here in the prison camp than in jail. She was very pale but her spirit was strong. When the doctor asked about her health and said, ‘How are your teeth?’ she answered: ‘My teeth are fine and they actually have hair,’ which indicated her intention to fight off any attackers. This expression spread through the camp like wildfire and was whispered to me a few hours later when we were lined up for inspection. So her spirit hasn’t been broken in these two months.”

Mies was, before the war, a Dutch feminist, active through the Society for Women’s Interests and Equal Citizenship. Her sister-in-law, Maria Pijnappel Boissevain, was the first woman elected to the Dutch Parliament. Both were aunts of my mother.

The Nazis moved Mies to the Ravensbruck death camp and nearly sent her to the gas chamber several times. When her camp was liberated in April 1945, she weighed only 73 pounds and was seriously ill. She was evacuated by the Red Cross to Sweden, part of a group liberated by Sweden’s Count Bernadotte. She learned then of the execution of her two eldest sons, and the death in Buchenwald of Jan, her husband. (Her son Frans was transferred to Dachau and barely survived.)

When Mies heard that her husband and two eldest sons had died, she did not want to live anymore. But then she looked out the window of the plane that was taking them all to Sweden, and it broke through the clouds. The sun shone on a quilt of farms and towns below.

She decided there was still a lot of work left for her to do on earth and that she should celebrate the war’s end by creating a festival skirt, using remnants of cloth, the only thing left in any quantity. She made her own quilted skirt, which she called a national liberation skirt (nationale feestrok). Her national liberation skirt was embroidered with the dates of successive Liberation Day celebrations at which it was worn; it was imitated all over the country, and some of them are now in Dutch museums.

Today, we are startled by the bravery of the defenders of Ukraine. One way Americans and their churches and civic organizations are responding to it is by sponsoring Ukrainian refugees. President Biden has created the United for Ukraine program — see dhs.gov/ukraine. In Manhattan, one church that is helping and needs money to do so is the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr on West 82nd Street.

During the Covid pandemic, East Hampton churches stepped up to alleviate hunger through food pantries. This public-spiritedness might show itself now through the creation of welcoming and support groups for the brave refugees, mostly women and children.

After the war ends, we should also think of ways to remember this tragedy and the astonishing spirit of the Ukrainians. They have succeeded so far, where the Dutch did not, in resisting and defeating unprovoked aggression.


John Tepper Marlin, Ph.D., has lived in Springs since 1981 and is a frequent contributor to “Guestwords.” He is writing a book about the Resistance in Holland.


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