Holocaust survivors understand the true meaning of Independence Day
VIRGINIA, July 21, 2014 — As John and Sophia Oord sat in their kitchen recounting growing up under German Nazi rule, John was factually spot on with his memory of detailed events, as was Sophia. But Sophia took a little urging from her granddaughter Tina, because Sophia would rather “forget all this Dutch and Nazi stuff.”
No doubt she would because Holland was decimated by the Nazis as 75 percent of Jewish people there either disappeared into concentration camps or were forced to dig their own graves, then shot.
This is where the famed Anne Frank lived and where the Oords earned and learned a thing or two of independence.
On May 10, 1940, the Nazi Army invaded the Oord’s home country of Holland despite the Netherlands’ attempts to remain neutral. Within five days, the unprepared Dutch Army surrendered after the massive bombing of Rotterdam.
The entire Dutch government and royal family went into exile in London, England.
The infamous Nazi air force — the Luftwaffe — along with heavy ground forces and massive paratroop assaults slammed into Holland but met with substantial resistance from the Dutch military, with the Dutch destroying many transport craft destined to be used for a planned Nazi invasion of England.
For the duration of the war, Dutch resistance fighters famously fought the goose-stepping Nazis at every turn.
Since the Dutch government abandoned the country, the Nazis ruled by Gleichschaltung, or “enforced conformity,” turning the police against its own citizens, conscripting young men, enslaving Dutch civilians for their own purposes, and seizing Dutch possessions at will.
The Nazis set up small airports in and around Holland, with the major airport known as the Deleen Airbase. This system turned into a defensive network as Allied and German servicemen died in large numbers; over 20,000 died and 6,000 aircraft were downed over this small country.
Close by was the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, where many of john and Sophia’s Jewish friends and acquaintances were sent; many more were killed outright in cold blood. Of the over 107,000 Dutch Jews forced into the concentration camps, only about 30,000 survived the war.
Non-Jews were sent to homes of people who had to let strangers in to accommodate Nazi demands for forced housing. Both John and Sophia‘s parents took others in. An interesting detail was that a Nazi came to Sophia’s parents and demanded their bicycle.
The Oords recall the yellow patch Jews wore to denote “Judean” and spoke of horrific mistreatment they witnessed by the Waffen-SS. However, after the war, the local SS commander was so-well liked, the Dutch resistance took the highly unusual step of providing him with Dutch clothing and identity so that he would not be captured by the Allies as an enemy.
The Oords did not know each another during the war, but both had shared experiences of hiding in water wells to duck bombs, fleeing from heavy small arms fire, and watching as their way of life dissolved into Nazi rule.
To survive WWII under Nazi domination was a remarkable feat of courage, determination and constant quick thinking, particularly during the famed “Hunger Winter” when food was unavailable and the rapidly losing Nazis had no food of their own.
Food and medicine were in such short supply, Sophia was held down on a table and her inflamed tonsils removed with no anesthesia or pain relief.
The procedure was torturous.
John says, “it sounds horrible, but no cat or dog was safe in that winter. In fact, skinned cats were decapitated and sold as rabbit.”
By war’s end, over 206,000 Dutch had perished from war-related causes; for such a small country, this number represents a significant portion of the population.
The 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far” was based on the book with the same name. It depicts the Allied Forces’ “Operation Market Garden,” a near-disaster that cost many lives, but ultimately helped liberate Holland.
Both Sophia and John emigrated from Holland to Canada after the war, separately, not meeting until, as Sophia tells it, she saw John at a restaurant looking quite alone and struck up a conversation. As john tells it, he was nudged toward Sophia at the suggestion of a fried.
Either way, both had the necessary personality to make a first move.
During our conversation, Sophia realized she had met john’s parents but not John, which is not surprising since John comes from a family of 10 children. Taking in others during Nazi occupation must have been a challenge.
John and Sophie married and lived in Canada for years. Their daughter Carolyn was born in a van because their vehicle was so slow, they could not get to the nearest hospital in time.
The slow van? A Volkswagen, the so-called “peoples car” commissioned to Ferdinand Porsche by Hitler as an auto to serve the average German.
The road-crawling van was Carolyn’s delivery room, and perhaps Sophia and John’s revenge on the Nazis; they had a healthy daughter, born in Hitler’s auto-dream and who now resides a stone’s throw from the Oords.
Carolyn now has a family of her own.
The Oords’ move to America was the start of 30 years of eeling, crabbing and oystering with Sophia as captain of their 42-foot boat and John working the rivers. Imagine their surprise when, after leaving a town close to The Hauge in Holland, they ended up five minutes from Hague, Virginia.
John and Sophia marvel at how America celebrates its Independence Day as a family day and not with military parades as other world powers do, and happily so, as the Oords have seen, heard and lived far too much military.
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist