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Alie Touw’s War

May 8, 2020
by the gentle author

Commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, I publish Spitalfields’ resident Alie Touw’s account of her life in occupied Holland

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.

When I visited Alie to hear of her experiences during the war, 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 (VE Day), 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.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read

Alie Touw, Centenarian

Alie Touw’s Life in Britain

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Laurence permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Such an inspiring story told so simply, particularly poignant to read on this day, the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

  2. Vicki Lovell permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Oh what a brave and wonderful lady. Thank you for writing her story and her for having the courage to tell it. We have no idea what people went through back then. It shames me here in Australia that people were bulk buying toilet paper etc as if we would ever run out. I often wonder how people now would react if there was a war like the one she lived through.

    I have never read a story like this one, although I am sure there are many. It seems most people tried to work together as a community as well.
    I feel very humbled by her life and story.
    Kind regards to her and yourself for bringing her to us.
    South Australia

  3. James Harris permalink
    May 8, 2020

    I am in tears.

  4. May 8, 2020

    Excellent photos and gripping text

  5. aubrey permalink
    May 8, 2020

    No words. . .

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Wow! That certainly puts our present so called “war” into perspective…

    And it must have been even worse in an occupied country when you didn’t even know if you could trust your neighbours who might be collaborating with the enemy.

    Let us never forget what extraordinary things “ordinary” people like Ali had to go through, and remember and celebrate VE Day with gratitude.

    Stay safe everyone..

  7. May 8, 2020

    Thank you.

  8. Vicky permalink
    May 8, 2020

    My grandfather was born in the village of Denekamp in Holland, on the border with Germany, and had come to England when a young man. Whenever he could he would take his large family to Denekamp where they knew everyone. In WW2 his son – my uncle – was a pilot and returning from a raid over Germany realised he was over Denekamp and knew of their suffering. He circled over the village a few times to attract attention then dropped his cigarette case into the churchyard where it was found. It was engraved with his name. It brought hope to the people saying help was at hand. In 1966 I was in Denekamp and the story was still spoken of then.

  9. May 8, 2020

    Her sturdy memory is as impressive as her long lived age. We don’t know what real suffering is under coronavirus Lockdown ny comparison.

    My mother had to travel by train every morning from Three Bridges to her bank job in Horsham fearing doodle bugs overhead as the Germans tried to knock out the railways. The family business (beside the house) was a petrol station/garage complex which was also a potentially devastating target.

    Their discipline of blackout and routines, their strength when homes were lost, loved ones killed is a source of inspiration & admiration. The imperative is to endure. To wait it out. As we must now too.

  10. Barbara Robertson permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Read this at 11am today and brought home to me the individual human endurance and courage and community spirit , thank you

  11. May 8, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for sharing the story of Alie Touw’s life in occupied Holland at the end of WWII. So reminiscent of Ann Frank’s account and so many others. Seventy- five year ago, yet her takeaway is worth reflecting upon:

    “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.”

  12. May 8, 2020

    An emotional, touching and thought-provoking story …

    Love & Peace

  13. paul loften permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Thank you and Ali for this timely reminder of the end of the war in Europe. whilst all this was happening at Arnhem my father was waiting just a few miles away in Eindhoven with 30 corp to relieve the paratroops at Arnhem. But it never happened. During the prolonged stay in Eindhoven, he made a friend who worked at the Phillips factory there. The family, with two small children, were starving as was all of the civilian population and he brought them meat from the army kitchens. After the war, we received letters from the mother with photos of the Dutch children until the mid-1950’s when they stopped coming.

  14. May 8, 2020

    I have read the comments here and join in saluting Alie’s courage in telling her story. Thank you for helping her bear witness to those days of unimaginable hardship. My father spent the war in movement control and helped organise the food parcels for the Dutch people. Only now, reading this personal account do I come close to understanding what it must have meant.

  15. Kristine Dillon permalink
    May 8, 2020

    Such a touching account of life during WWII. How can one feel anything but profound respect for people like Alie Touw and those of her generation who faced the immense hardships of war and yet persevered. I can only imagine how hard it is for her to share her story and relive the ordeal she faced and yet, I am thankful for her doing so. It puts into perspective how strong the human spirit is. It is telling of the great depth of character that previous generations were able to muster up when they were faced with unimaginable hardships. It make it abundantly clear to me that during this time of shelter in place, so little is being asked of me.

  16. Paul Sieloff permalink
    May 9, 2020

    My Uncle flew 3 of the Manna missions in a Lancaster from Cambridgeshire, all crew members of those missions say they were the best flights of the war, they were still at risk of being shot down but they after 5 years were saving lives not taking them

  17. May 9, 2020

    Such a wonderful read.
    Having been brought up in occupied rural France with the stories of local farmers, I came to the realization whilst living in the East End of London, that there are as many wars as each individual experienced it and the psychological legacy was very different according to geographical location of the affected ones.
    The story of Alie is a stark reminder that Belgium, Holland and the North of France bore the brunt of both conflicts as WWI also affected those regions more than any others.
    I’d love to hear how Alie ended up in England after the war. One of the first lady I nursed at the Bethnal Green Hospital when it was still in existence in 1979, was a french lady by the name of Sophie who, coming from a poor mining town in the North of France, I had followed her english lover to the East End at the end of WWI. Alone and suffering from some form of dementia, she had reverted back to her native tongue and was forgetting english, so she responded better to my speaking french to her than to other nurses prompts. I shall never forget her and how I wondered how she had been perceiving the world throughout her life.
    If you ever write about Alie again, could we have a bit more about her life after WWII and how she ended up in the East End.

  18. Doodie permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Alie, the story about your family’s struggle to survive the war is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing it.
    I was born in Lincolnshire after the war, and was delighted to read about the connection with your story. How wonderful that you remembered that detail!
    My mother was born in London and moved to Lincolnshire after marrying my father. They met whilst he was serving in the RAF during the war!

  19. Robin permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. My husband’s father was imprisoned in Mauthausen, and was welcomed to England after the war. Alie’s story, like my father-in-law’s, is a lesson in courage in the face of the evils of war.

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