The Ghosts

I read the chapters in Tom’s book that described the Resistance and the war in a flurry of excitement. I had heard vague mentions of Resistance activity amongst family before, but I had never known the extent to which we had been involved. 

Growing up in Britain we have a very different understanding of World War Two- it is a triumph to be celebrated, even gloated about. Stories of back garden pig farms, digging for victory, Tommy and women in overalls is glossed with a hazy sheen of nostalgia, as if it was a better time- a time when people worked together for a common goal. The fear and the fascism that bubbled under the surface is rarely talked about, even less portrayed in media. The Dutch understanding of the war is very different- it is sober, sombre, something quiet to be remembered with a heavy heart, not a triumph.

Tom searched for Cornelis for many years. He knew from a man who had come to see him, named Henk Van Hoeve, that Cor had been working in Nordhausen and one day, he was dropped at Camp Dora, a sub camp of Buchenwald, and never came back to work. 

We don’t know for sure that he died there. The Nazis did not keep a good record of political prisoners in the same way they did the Jews- their deaths were a distraction from the war effort, an inconvenience, rather than something to be strived for, documented and celebrated. 

We don’t know that he died there, but we know he never came back to Griet and their remaining children. He may have died sick and emaciated at Dora. He may have been burned to death in Gardlegen. He may have been shot at Buchenwald, and been one of the skeletal bodies flung into mass graves by the Allied soldiers who had the horrific job of cleaning up the camps after the Nazis had fled. 

Tom went to Dora a number of times and tried to find some evidence of his brother’s existence there. But it was like a footprint in the sand- there for a moment, and swiftly erased. In Tom’s archive was a large folder of research, maps, letters, photographs; a dossier of information to try and lay his brother’s ghost to rest. Cor was never found, and never will be found, along with so many other millions of Europeans whose “blood cries out but their voices are silent and unheard”.

On the Dreef in Haarlem, near my Oma’s house, is a dark iron statue of a young man standing tall with his head bowed. It is life-size- you could stand next to it and feel it was a real person. Every year on Dodenherdenking- the day of remembrance of the dead- the townspeople gather in complete silence to remember all those that died. Some take a walk from there to the Resistance graveyard in the nearby sand dunes, 5 kilometres away. There are no brass brands, no singing of upbeat wartime songs, no towering gleaming white statues of men with swords or guns raised. It is a prayer of humility and of gratitude- an offering to the ghosts.

Cor with half of his children before the war

Cor with half of his children before the war