Johanna Bremer was a teenager living near Rotterdam when the German army invaded Holland in 1940. She met and fell in love with her future husband, Fred, a Jew, while he was being hidden in her sister’s house in Leiden. She remembers life going on in a relatively “normal” way for a while. … Then, the “Hunger Winter” came, when the war was near an end and Holland had been stripped to its bones.
Interview: January 31, 2012, Asbury Solomons, Md.
I was living in Leiden when the Germans invaded Holland. It was May 10, 1940, and I was born in 1923 so I was about 16 or 17. I know it was over when I was 22. We were woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning with boom, boom, boom – look outside the window and they were bombarding already Rotterdam. It was about a half hour or so away from Leiden. They were fighting the Dutch army. Now imagine that, the Dutch army of a country about this big [makes pinching motion with fingers] and then the Germans were about this [spreads arms] and they had everything. So!
We didn’t know what was going on, not really. We thought it was a thunderstorm or something like that. It is funny but it was that way. You just saw dark clouds hanging over the town. Nobody knew [the occupation was coming to our town]. Not even our soldiers, who were very young and a very small group. When they came, there were some soldiers killed, the Dutch soldiers because they didn’t have the equipment. They just marched in, that’s it. When they came into my town they came all over from here to there, there, everywhere – they were everywhere.
In the beginning we didn’t see them much. They arrived with the bayonets on their shoulders and came around the town; but then they loved to hide and just came around in trucks so you didn’t see much of the soldiers themselves. You didn’t know what was going on.
We eventually heard because there was still the radio – before they stole all the radios because we weren’t supposed to listen to anything. Our attitude was quite casual to my thinking back to it. We walked with my girlfriends and we saw them and we didn’t pay any attention to them.
But the girls who went out with the German soldiers, they got attention after the war. My town was 80,000 people and Amsterdam was eight million and so there were more of them over there than in other smaller towns so after the war we reckoned with them, the older people, I mean. I was only 22.
They were picked up – the ones who had gone out with German soldiers cause if you battle with the Dutch watch out. They grabbed their hats or put orange paint on them because the color orange is from the Dutch people and they did a lot more of those things than I can remember cause after that I was much too happy to be free.
I never realized what hardship this was going to mean for us until the last year [of the occupation] because then the whole … you see it started with the Jewish communication and everything and the communes [ghettos] and when they were picked up, that was when it really started. That was in 1944.
My husband was Jewish so from that family I knew a lot. They were in hiding in Amsterdam but someone informed on them. People would do that. The Germans would pay you. He never saw his parents again. He saw his brother after his brother was finally free by the underground and he was 5 years old.
Later in the occupation you did start to understand what was going on and then the last year of course the whole, all of Holland was dead. Ja. The bombing from Holland to England and the other war, the Juden war. There was nothing to eat, we had no water, no electricity. There was no light, no heat, no soap, no butter, no bread, no potatoes, no vegetables, nothing. There was all chaos over the whole land and by the end of the war Holland was so devastated there was nothing, absolutely nothing. You couldn’t go to stores and the Jewish people – the ones that hadn’t been picked up yet, they had to wear the stars and all that kind of stuff. I have a star do you want to see a star? That was my husband’s. So! Later on we had it laminated in a store to save it because it’s just a piece of cotton.
We were being punished because the underground was bombing whatever they did to trains the German soldiers were using to bring in supplies. We just went our way. There was nothing else to do. But at first, businesses were still running, everyone was working in order to keep the soldiers alive. They just came and said ‘You do this.’
But later, after the Germans knew they had lost the war, we called that the hunger winter. We got one loaf of bread a week on coupons, if you could get them at the bakery, and they tasted like clay come out of the ground. They didn’t get the things to bake real bread; they had to take what the Germans gave them. Everyone who lives in the family got one loaf for a week so my mother got 6 breads – 4 for kids and 2 for adults – there were 6 breads and we were very careful.
And then we ate tulip bulbs. Ja. They were something for your stomach! You cooked them or you fried them with whatever oil you still had in the house or what you could get on the black market. I still have to watch out for my stomach because of all that. Ja. Irritation of the stomach lining, which I had for years and you are always hungry.
You could get some meat on the coupons. They gave you a sheet of coupons for a month to go get some meat and when you came, they didn’t have to give to you but if you took horse meat you got twice as much. I still like horse meat; I don’t eat it anymore, but I still believe it was necessary.
But I tell you something that we did do – I went outside in the street in the dark once the sun went down because we had no electricity anyway and if people opened the door to let a cat or dog out. … I caught a cat. Everybody on the street did that. I lived on my own, but I visited during the day wherever Fred was in hiding. So I caught a cat and Fred skinned it. And he was a spoiled brat who was an only child and had everything ready next to his bed when he woke up in the morning – before the war. But Fred did skin the cat and there was blood in the kitchen sink. Meow! We cooked it. We had a three-pound coffee can and an engineer we had as a friend who was also in hiding, but he sometimes came over and he made a three-prong end in the can so we could put it on the pot belly stove and so cooked on there. The wood slivers we got, they came from the train tracks in the streets. Ja. The wood from in between the rails.
And later on we heard that everybody in Amsterdam went through the houses from the Jews who were taken out and they got everything they could find.
At this time, I was taking care of the child of the owner of the biggest restaurant in Amsterdam. I went to Amsterdam later on once I knew my boyfriend [Fred] was living there in hiding. I worked in her house but then she asked me to work in her restaurant. It was known to everybody in Holland and sometimes she gave me vegetables and whatever she had in her freezers. My parents were living in Leiden and when the trains were still going, I always brought it to my parents.
I saw a German solider kill Dutch people when I was looking for that lady in the house. I come out of her house and I walked there and I heard some noise and I turned around and I looked over into that street and there they stood boom, boom, boom – 20 of them just like that. It was probably just people they took out of the house if they couldn’t find what they were looking for. I just kept on walking because if you would’ve started to run you would’ve gotten someone after you. I saw two or three people fall and then I didn’t look anymore. I just kept looking this way and they were the other way, against the wall. I was about 17 years old.
I actually met Fred in my other sister’s house; her husband had just gotten back from a German work camp where he was so sick and had to have his stomach out and he had come home that day on February 29th and I came to see him. Fred and a friend of his who worked in the Underground were there. I was with a friend and we brought them back to the station and we put them on the train and they said goodbye and Fred asked if he could kiss me and I said ‘Sure.’ So he went back and they made it and we were corresponding after that because I could write Fred’s cousin in Amsterdam and he got him the letters.
[She shows a photo of herself taken around that time and explains that it was to replace her passport which the Underground took from her to help doctor a passport for a Jewish citizen.]
“The Jews had the word Jude in their passport. They [the Underground] stole this one from me when I was visiting. I didn’t know they had done it. It took them about two days to get this seal out here and put it in another passport. They made a false one for a Jewish girl my age and my stature. I was 19 years old at that time.
It seems strange that I was living on my own at that age when we were at war, but my parents had 13 children. And I was very headstrong. I had gone to Ireland to help my sister who had a sick child and I was a good nurse. Then my parents wrote to tell me to come home. I said, ‘Nope.’ That was me. Actually my mother gave birth to 17 children, but that was before I was born. I was born in 1923 and those kids died in the First World War from what they now call the flu [Spanish Influenza]. They were all three under 4 years old. I was one of the youngest.
During the hunger winter, I saw people fall to the ground from hunger right in front of my nose. They were strangers. Mostly children. Ja. They would faint. Faint and they died. Here is a picture that was taken 14 days after the Canadians freed us. We got coupons for clothes. We didn’t have clothes then anymore after five years you know. The threads hang over you. We looked very happy there, but it was not really. You made believe just to keep on living, and so we looked very happy there. And we were happy that we were freed, and that we could go out the two of us, openly.
On the day the Canadians came to Amsterdam, we cried on their trucks. They were building bridges to go over the water and we climbed on it and I smoked my first cigarette. They were also passing chocolate, but I gave it to somebody else because I don’t eat chocolate. So I smoked my first Canadian cigarette. People were screaming and they were all climbing all over the Canadian soldiers.
We already had some food. A week before the war ended, Eisenhower dropped in food. Flour and the butter and yeast. They had to lower that down out of the airplanes. They told the soldiers and every German who was there not to touch it because they would be shot. Eisenhower said that. The Germans were still here. My sister’s boss was shot the day that they were not allowed to do that anymore. They still shot him.
They knew the war was over but some would not surrender. That evening Fred and I walked to our friends in the eastern part of the city. We lived in the Southern part of Amsterdam, and we didn’t live together. Not like it is now when you see someone for two hours and you say ‘Okay, let’s shack up tomorrow.’ We walked and I was not really anxious to do that because German soldiers were still roaming the streets, but we said okay. There was nobody on the street but the two of us, walking on the street at night, no electricity yet. You didn’t get that right away, and so I was shivering and Fred said, ‘Are you cold?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not cold; I’m scared.’ He said, ‘Don’t be scared. They can’t do anything anymore.’ But they pass us by in a truck and six soldiers standing in the truck with their bayonets on their shoulder. Now you get a scared, but they didn’t do anything.
So we got to their house and they had saved some cans [from the air drop] and they opened it that evening. You know what it was? Butter. There was no label on the can, and there was something else and they baked a cake, and he was a good cook, so we sat there until four in the morning – baking a cake and talking about it. It was a strange feeling, though, to sit there and eat a cake when four and a half hours before you were scared of the bayonets on their shoulders.
You hardened against things. You know there was no radio at the end, but you heard it from the grapevine before you knew it from one town to the other so on and so on. You just didn’t think about it all the time. What could you do? You had to be brave and go on. Now I cry looking at the television, seeing kids hurt by their parents or whatever. I’m very sentimental actually.