War Boy

To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, over the course of eight weeks, the Echo is publishing Haliburton resident Martin Hofland’s first-person account of living through the war as a child in Holland, originally published in his book, War Boy. This is the seventh installment.

Concentration camps and executions
Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht became open concentration camps. Barbed wire didn’t make any difference. People were dropping dead from starvation at both sides. We were all trapped in by the brutal Nazi treatment of the holocaust of starvation. No matter where you were, in a ghetto, fenced in, or open concentration camp. In most labour concentration camps, the prisoners getting some food, they have to work for the Germans. But we had totally nothing! And by the brutality and looting the food by the Germans, the Dutch hated them. Many were killed by the resistance fighters. And when a dead German or collaborator will be found, the Germans retaliated very harshly. As a way of punishment, they round up groups of 10 or 20 men, put them against a wall and machine gun them down. As a boy of 12 years, I witnessed such an execution. The Germans surrounded a city like Rotterdam, and commands came from loudspeakers. Whoever does not stand in front of his house, packed with a blanket, spoon and plate, will be summarily executed. More than 50,000 men were rounded up that way. They were put on train box cars packed like sardines in a tin, and send to Russia’s eastern front, “Stalingrad” to dig trenches under heavy fire and bombardment till they were exhausted and worked to death, and many died from disease and starvation. Most never returned back to Holland. The Germans carried out the same tactics in most cities.

Hunger and starvation
Next came the “winter of hunger” 1944/45. It turned out to be the most brutal, and deadliest in history. Forty thousand civilians were killed as hostages, and four million were on the brink of death by starvation. The most feared sickness was malnutrition, killing more than 50,000. Children and the old were the majority of victims. Millions suffered greatly from it, and many had serious health problems for the rest of their lives. My stomach was swollen like a balloon from malnutrition. Hitler used the method of starvation as a weapon to put Holland on her knees to win a war, but he failed! We also had to fight the snow and cold. With no fuel, it was almost as cold inside as it was outside. We had very few clothes. My only pair of shoes, I had holes in them the size of a potato, it was like walking barefoot. Cardboard helped until it got wet. My father’s old coat was still too big for me, but I never took it off, even at bedtime. Besides killing six million Jews, the Germans were responsible for 50 million others in Europe, for a total of 68 million worldwide. Hitler`s holocaust of hunger had taken its toll on humanity.

Hardship and hope
It was a struggle to survive. It was a race against time, and many were losing the race. We looked death straight in the eye. The only thing that kept me alive was determination and hope, maybe tomorrow … tomorrow. People tried to support each other, but had nothing to offer except moral support. All the cats and dogs had been eaten. If you were lucky to catch a rat, you had a meal for the whole family. It was the darkest time of my life. The death rate multiplied four times. Rows of dead were laying in churches, with a label attached to the bony thin arms. The undertakers could not bury them fast enough. Coffins were made out of cardboard to replace those of wood. Hitler’s holocaust of starvation had taken its toll on humanity.

The broomstick Christmas tree
When Christmas arrived, all the trees in the free zones had already been burned for heat. I was determined to have a Christmas tree, and knew where to get one. Yes, it was back to the forest in the forbidden territory. And many German military zones were heavily protected by guards and minefields. Entering was a deadly risk of being shot or being blown up. I took a chance, because I wanted to have a Christmas tree. I managed to get some branches, hide them under my coat, and smuggled them home into the free zone. My father cut holes in a broomstick with a pair of scissors, and stuck the branches into them. It was the most beautiful tree in the world, and on Christmas Eve, we all sat on the floor around the tree, in a big cold empty room. We had no candles to light the room, no presents to give each other, not even an orange, no food to eat. I was so thin that you could play the piano on my ribs, but we were alive. While we sat under the tree, my mother told us the story of Christmas, and we sang “Silent Night.” I still remember it as the best Christmas I ever had. We were so thankful to be alive, and to have each other. This gift of family love was the greatest gift I ever received, and it will always be tattooed in my memory. We still had our mother. After Christmas, the situation became worse by the day. People became very weak and sick, and there was no cure available. Thousands were dying from disease because of this lack of medicine. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. Everyone was trying to survive on nothing. The smell of bread could have filled your stomach. Despite the hardships of the “Holocaust of Hunger,” through the pain of Nazi brutality, I have learned about war and peace, life and death, love and hate. I experienced hunger, danger, and fear. I learned how to share and have compassion, and how to appreciate the smaller things in life. I also learned the true meaning of Christmas, which brought us hope and the strength to survive. I learned how to fold my fingers together in prayer when the bombs came down. I heard the voice that said to me “Hang on Martin, hang on.”