The Nazi occupation of The Netherlands is indelibly linked to reading Ann Frank’s diary; her extraordinary description of surviving in hiding for over two years and her tragic death in Belsen shortly before the end of the war.
However, fewer of us know much about the Nazi occupation and the resistance to it, including the contribution made by women and teenagers.
This fascinating book by Dutch author and lecturer Sophie Poldermans focuses on the activities of Hannie Schaft, who was shot by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war, and two sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegan.
These three women, all teenagers when war broke out, were part of the resistance, mainly in Haarlem. They all came from radical, left wing families. Schaft’s father was a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party; Truus and Freddie’s mother had links with the Communist party, and from the early 1930s the family had illegally sheltered Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
From the start of the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands they became involved in different ways. Truus and Freddie and their mother engaged in illegal printing. Poldermans details how Hannie quickly became involved in stealing identity cards for Jews and helping Jewish girls to hide.
Hannie also took part in protests in Amsterdam on the occasion of the “February Strike” in 1941, a general strike that followed the first deportation of young Jewish men. It was the only protest on a large scale against the persecution of the Jews in occupied Europe.
It was after this that all three women became involved in acts of sabotage that Poldermans details, including shooting collaborators, blowing up trains, seeking out information to be passed back to the Dutch resistance in London and helping escort Jewish children to safety.
Their activity came at a huge human and personal cost. They had to kill Nazis and collaborators “because it had to be done” and, as Truus said, “I was not born to liquidate”. Moreover, they were only able to help a few people. At other times they saw acts of brutality they could not prevent and experienced the deaths of children they were escorting to safe houses.
They also posed as “Moffen girls” — girls who had (alleged) relationships with German soldiers. This involved dressing up and flirting with German officers in order to gain information or eventually to seduce and lure them into woods where they were killed and their bodies hidden.
Shamefully the memory of the three women and others was contested after 1945 as the Cold War set in and those associated with the Communist Party were targeted. In 1951, an official ban was placed on the commemorative march in Haarlem, a ban defied by 4,000 people. It is only later that the achievements of these women and others have been acknowledged.
As antisemitism and the far right grow, whether in the United States, Hungary or this country, we should remember them, and this book makes a valuable contribution to the struggle against racism today.