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Alie Touw’s War

April 21, 2019
by the gentle author

In the second of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw tells of her life in the occupation

Centenarian Alie Touw lives in a small flat in Petticoat Lane where she delights in domesticity. The kitchen is clean and well-organised, and Alie is especially pleased to have acquired a new grinder suitable for apple sauce. To impart the ideal flavour to apple sauce – she explains – you need to include the peel but then it raises the question of how to achieve the smooth puree that is the desired texture for proper apple sauce, which is why a grinder is essential.

Such culinary matters are important to Alie Touw, not because she is a pedant or unduly house proud but because she believes in the significance of small things. Alie understands that the culture of keeping house is the basis of a civilised life, she knows this because she has experienced the disruption when a family home is destroyed and the domestic world is displaced by chaos and violence.

I visited Alie to hear of her experiences during the war and we sat together in conversation on either side of her kitchen table as the dusk gathered in the late afternoon. ‘I don’t like taking about the war,’ she confided to me with a frown, ‘My father lived through two wars but he would never speak about it.’ Only after she had finished telling her story did I fully understand her reluctance but, now that I know what happened, I am grateful to her for her astonishing testimony.

“We had a hard time in Holland during the war, especially the last winter of 1944, it was terrible. We were occupied for more than five years.

At that time you could not even trust your own neighbours. I was twenty-six, I had been married two years and I had a one year old baby. I had a pro-German neighbour living next to me in our house in Arnhem near the Rhine. He was from Germany and he had ten children who had to fight for his country. His wife was Dutch but she was even more pro-German, so we had to be very careful what we said to them. I never spoke to her anymore, just in case.

People were bringing Jewish children over the bridge, arranging for them to escape from Germany, and sometimes they stayed with me overnight before catching the train next morning to London. Another of my neighbours who I was very friendly with, she had five Jews hiding in the loft of her house. On the other side of me I had an old couple who knew I was alright, that I would never reveal anyone for the sake of a reward. He was in the resistance and every morning he listened to Radio London. He would tell me, ‘It’s going well, it’s going well’ and I would say, ‘Fine, fine.’ But then we all had to leave.

We had to leave our home on the 23rd September, two days after my birthday. Everybody had to leave or they would shoot us they said. We had no telephones at that time, so had no idea what was going on. Arnhem was not a small village, it was big town and everyone had to leave. There were dead soldiers lying in the street. My father went to look in the pockets of the dead soldiers and took their addresses, so he could inform the families. There was shooting through the streets and in the windows. Nothing was safe anymore. There was fighting everywhere and every night the sky was red with the buildings near the bridge over the Rhine burning. We saw people running through the street and we asked, ‘What’s happening?’ and they answered, ‘Our house is gone!’

The Red Cross gave us addresses where we could go to, so we started walking from town to town. I had to walk for hours with my baby. At first, we were staying with my parents, but we had to leave them. Me and my husband and his sister, all of us went walking until we came to the place. The weather was so bad and all we had was a bicycle. It was raining and there was thunder, everything. We got soaked. All we had was a small suitcase for ourselves and a big one for the baby. It was all we could carry, since they told us it would only be a fortnight, so we did not take much with us but it was nine months before we could come back, after the war ended.

They expected a fight over the bridge over the Rhine which was the border with Germany – they called it the Battle of Arnhem. The Germans wanted to hold it but on the other side were the English, American and Polish soldiers. There had been fighting in the streets. The British and the American and Polish wanted to cross the bridge over the Rhine but the Germans would not give up, and so many people died. The Dutch blew up the bridge.

On the first night, a farmer took us in and we had to sleep on the floor because they did not have beds for us. We did not know how long we could stay or how long the war would go on. They were very kind and they had plenty of food for us. We brought what we had with us but we did not have much.

We slept on straw on the floor of the stable with a blanket over us. After five or six weeks, my husband said, ‘We have to go, we are eating up all their food.’ So we had to leave and, one afternoon before we left, we were having a cup of tea and we looked outside and saw a familiar face, my brother-in-law. I rushed out and he told me he had been made to digging holes in the streets for people to jump into if a bomb fell. He had never lifted a spade or done physical work in his life before. So we brought him in and gave him a cup of tea, and he told us my father and my sister and her three little children were sleeping on the floor of a school.

We went to join them and stayed overnight. Of course, we had to ask permission and we asked to stay but we were told, ‘No get out, get out! There are too many here and we don’t trust you.’ So we had to go back.

We had to find a place to stay. My father-in-law contacted his daughter who lived in Aalsmeer near Amsterdam and she said, ‘Come over here.’ The Germans told us we could go to the north or the west. It took us four days to walk there. Every night, the Red Cross gave us an address of a place we could stay. I still cannot understand how they organised it, but there were so many who wanted to take in people who had been evacuated. We could not always stay together. It was November when we started walking, and it was raining and raining for days. We had no raincoats.

Everywhere the Germans stopped us to check our identities. From the beginning of the war, we had to show it wherever we went. We were not free any more. There was a curfew every night between ten and four o’clock when we could not go outside.

On 5th December, we arrived at my sister-in-law’s house. We had been travelling since September. My husband had made a little cart for wood which we put the baby in and attached to the back of the bicycle. When we still had five kilometres to go, a farmer with a big cart stopped. He said, ‘Put the whole lot on board, where do you have to go?’ It was evening already and he took us to my sister-in-law. She was standing outside and my father-in-law was there already. They took us in and we stayed there until the war was over.

In January, my husband said, ‘I am going to see what is left of our house.’ I do not know how he ever dared, we were not supposed to go there. It was so near the end of the war that I do not think the Germans had any ammunition in their guns to shoot you. There had been fighting in the street and lots of houses were damaged. He found our front door open, there was no glass left in the windows and the house was empty. When they blew up the bridge in Arnhem, all the windows in the nearby streets were broken. I had been saving up since I was eighteen and I had some lovely things, some brand new furniture, bed linen and cutlery. There were no curtains left, they even took the curtains off. All my husband found was some baby clothes and a little cot in the loft.

Food was very scarce at that time. The winter was long and cold, and food became so scarce that some people died of hunger. We had no money but you could not buy anything – the Germans stole everything. Every morning we went to farm to see if they had any food and they asked us, ‘You’ve come all the way from Arnhem, we don’t know who you are – we want to know if you have been with the Germans?’ There was a list of people who collaborated with the Germans and, after the war, they got those people. They shaved the heads of girls who had been with German soldiers.

At the farm, they said to us, ‘We will find out who you are, come back tomorrow.’ Next morning they saw us coming and gave us a sack of flour. My sister in law took us in even though she had hardly any food herself. There was almost no electricity or gas to cook but there were these communal kitchens and people brought what food they had to share. My husband said, ‘I will go and try to help out.’ My father-in-law went with him and they came back with soup.

Then the Germans became desperate. They could come to your house and if you said, ‘No you cannot come in,’ they would shoot you. You had to let them in. They went in all the houses looking for radios, although we had already got rid of them because we were not allowed to have radios. We were not supposed to listen to London but people hid radios.

All the young men were summoned to the quay on Saturday afternoon and were taken to Germany. My husband had to go. They were put on a boat to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam sent by train to Germany. It was April and the war was nearly over. I went to the quay to say goodbye to him and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ They were told, ‘Take a blanket with you and a spoon and a mug,’ so that if somebody came to the train when it stopped they might get a drink or some food. The Dutch people did this. But my husband said, ‘I’m not taking a mug or a spoon, I’m going to escape.’

The train stopped at the border with Germany and my husband saw a familiar face. His brother lived there and he recognised his sister-in-law, going round with a kettle giving everyone on the train a drink. There were soldiers on the train and they were at a station. She saw my husband and said, ‘Peter, what are you doing here?’ He told her, ‘They took me, we have to go to Germany.’ She said, ‘You’re not, here’s the kettle,’ and she took him home. My brother-in-law was in the resistance. They stole German uniforms and put them on and went to the gaol every evening with a list of names from Aalsmeer. They said, ‘These people have to come out.’ Each time, they took a few out. It was unbelievable really what they did.

I did not know when my husband would come back, if ever, but one day the baker returned to Aalsmeer. The shortage of food got very bad and there was no soup kitchen anymore. It was just at the end of the war and my husband was still not back. There were no dogs and cats, people were eating the animals.

My son got very ill because he had no fruit, no vitamins. My sister was a nurse in another town and, before my husband left, he put the child on his bike to take him to the hospital where she worked and asked, ‘Can you take care of your nephew?’ They admitted him to the hospital and I did not see him for a fortnight. The hospitals still had a little food. They were able to make him better but he cried, ‘Mama, mama,’ day and night. He was just two years old and when the doctor saw him, he said, ‘This child is so ill.’  I had to send him to bed without any food. The boy should never have been born then, but what can you do?

My brother who lived in Amsterdam was in the resistance and he had a typewriter to type pamphlets for the underground secret service. One day he had a knock and the door and he had to chuck the typewriter out the window. If they had found a typewriter, they would shoot you.

By 5th May, it was over. My husband came back home on a bicycle all the way from the east. He had to travel all the way across Holland on his bicycle, but he came back. There was no money and no jobs but my husband went to the bakery and repaired some bicycles and they gave him a loaf. Sweden sent us flour and bakers started baking. There was no butter but bread tasted like cake for us.

The Red Cross made up wooden boxes of food. We saw the planes came over flying low and dropping the boxes in the fields. Each family got a case containing bacon, beans, sardines, flour, yeast, egg powder, biscuits and chocolate. Those planes were all coming from Lincolnshire and people spread out sheets on the ground with the words ‘Thankyou boys!’ We were so grateful. Today my son lives in Lincolnshire and is married to the niece of one of the pilots who flew those planes.”

Tomorrow, Alie concludes with her account of how she came to London after the war

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

22 Responses leave one →
  1. April 21, 2019

    A very touching story of the hard times back then. Valerie

  2. April 21, 2019

    Astounding courage and endurance. We are very fortunate and perhaps should remember that more often.

  3. April 21, 2019

    Alie’s incredible story tells us so much it is hard to take all of it in.

    Personally it has evoked dormant childhood memories . My father was stationed in Eindhoven in 1944 and part of 30 Corp waiting to reinforce the besieged paras at Arnhem . He must have been there for a while because I recall in the mid 1950’s we used to get long letters with photos of children from a Dutch woman in Einhoven . I still have no idea who she is but I think my mother was very tolerant. He was not the sort of man to have affairs, although he was good looking . Who she was remains a mystery. He said the Dutch were suffering terribly and he tried to help the family in what way he could, with food

    The paras at Arnhem were eventually withdrawn – it was a disaster . He told me about an incident in Eindhoven in a bar when a group of soldiers from his squad were set upon by the Paratroops. The Signal Corp got the blame for the faulty radio sets that were dropped by air . Not one worked as they were fitted with the wrong crystals. Therefore communication with HQ were impossible or very difficult. It was a serious incident. MPs were called and many soldiers injured in the bar brawl. I think the Paras got the worst of it despite their reputation. it was a tragic incident. It wasn’t the fault of the Royal Signals that the sets didn’t work but the fault went back to where the sets were manufactured.

    In late 1944, he was transferred to the Ardennes where the Germans had broken through the forest and what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. He never returned to Holland, as the war went into Germany and across the Rhine .

    What a story Alie tells . The Dutch people suffered so much at that time . It’s a lifetime of pain and misery fitted in a few short years . War is madness.

  4. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    April 21, 2019

    What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it.
    What hardship.

  5. April 21, 2019

    We always think of Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria, but we rearely remember how very hard it was for Holland.

  6. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Please thank Alie for that most moving story and thank you, Gentle Author, for sharing it with us.

  7. April 21, 2019

    thank you for sharing – amazing story and still resonates

  8. Janet Highland permalink
    April 21, 2019

    That was just so interesting and so moving. I know quite a bit about Operation Market Garden and Arnhem in particular and to hear from people who were there. I was aware of the suffering of the Dutch people but not to this extent.

  9. Laura Williamson permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Amazing eyewitness testimony that captures the grinding, frightening chaos that civilians lived through under occupation.

    Thank you for sharing this Ali, it was a true privilege to read it.


  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Wow! What a story… We don’t often hear about what the Dutch had to go through in the war.
    It must be absolute hell under occupation when you don’t know who you can trust, and particular agony not even having enough food to feed your young baby. But at least he survived and the fact that he married a daughter of one of the Red Cross pilots is wonderful.

    Thank you for sharing Alie and GA. Looking forward to reading tomorrow’s instalment…

  11. Ron Bunting permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Growing up in New Zealand in the 50’s and 60’s I knew a lot of Dutch people who had lived through the same situations as Alie. One man ,Harry, was one of the young men who was lined up to go to Germany ,but he and his pal from school ,sidestepped out of the line and ran off ,narrowly escaping .
    One thing sticks with me, these people were tough and resourceful ,coming all the way to New Zealand they all did remarkeably well and although I knew a lot of the hardship they went through ,they never spoke of it much although many attended the ANZAC day services,probably to remember family who had perished in the war.
    ANZAC day has been cancelled in New Zealand this year.
    Some went to NZ to start anew,others ,not so much.

  12. janet green permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Thank you for sharing Alie’s story. It is humbling to read of her fortitude in those terrible times.

  13. Peter, The Hague permalink
    April 21, 2019

    I am a Dutch man living in The Netherlands and enjoying the posts on Spitalfields already for many years and sharing many of them on Facebook. So interesting to read this life story of this remarkable Dutch woman. Arnheim during the war was an inferno, the Allies and Germans fought hard over the bridge over the River Rhine and destroyed most of the city. Audrey Hepburn lived in Arnheim (Arnhem in Dutch) during the war. I hope someone who knows Ali Touw gives her my regards and greetings from The Netherlands.

  14. Helen Breen permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Easter greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a profoundly moving narrative of Alie’s war experience. The Dutch suffered so much during that time, as did most of Europe. So many little details of her account remind me of parts of Ann Frank’s story – about going out to the farms for food, the mistrust among neighbors, the desperation of the enemy.

    Although I never thought of it this way, I find that what she believes about “housekeeping” is profoundly true:

    “Alie understands that the culture of keeping house is the basis of a civilised life, she knows this because she has experienced the disruption when a family home is destroyed and the domestic world is displaced by chaos and violence.”

    Alie, thank you for sharing your story…

  15. Ruth Fleming permalink
    April 21, 2019

    What an incredible story, and what courage. Alie thank you for sharing this with us. I look forward to the next instalment. We should all be a lot more grateful for what we have, and more generous to others who have little.

  16. Sue permalink
    April 21, 2019

    What a tale of hardship and bravery. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  17. Leslie A Eaton permalink
    April 21, 2019

    When I read your posts and the experiences of the people you interview, I cry with their struggles, applaud their successes, and my faith in the humanity renews. Thank you.

  18. Saba permalink
    April 21, 2019

    I wish that many more Americans could take the opportunity to visit European countries and get to know some of the residents who survived WWII. Our country has been heading off into a hateful direction, and some naively support militarism and dictatorial strongmen. Alie cautions us as to the stakes of madness. If we continue to hate rather than seek peace, the enemy troops may one day be billeted in Kansas or Wyoming.

    Meanwhile, blessings to you, Alie. I celebrate that you have found peace and contentment.

  19. Carol permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing woman’s story. My family lived in Belgium for a time, while my father worked across the border in The Netherlands — we spent many days exploring that country. I’ve had the privelege of living in Berlin for the last 14 years, and going to Belgium on countless business trips. The suffering in both countries during both wars is so little appreciated by people in other countries. I know that growing up in the US, we were taught only the barest minimum about the part either people played in defeating Germany. Resistance in France? Sure — heard about it all the time. Resistance in other occupied countries? Not at all. Thank you so much. Really looking forward to the next installment.

  20. Sofi permalink
    April 22, 2019

    Bless her heart.
    Courageous good hearted people.
    The people who own the Dutch grocery store put a card in the window every Nov11.
    To thank Canadians for helping liberate them during the war.
    Also for helping to get them food.
    They have never forgotten and they passed their gratitude on to their children.
    The Dutch suffered terribly during the occupation.

  21. April 23, 2019

    My mother lived in France during the occupation and also remembers food shortages.

    Once the Americans liberated her home town, she remembers running to a local school that the Germans had used as a storage facility, especially for food storage. Everyone was running there to take as much food as possible back to their families. She could not believe what the Germans had hoarded when so many people around them were going hungry.

  22. April 25, 2019

    What an amazing piece. I really enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing it!

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