Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Truus Oversteegen - 16yo female Resistance fighter

Truus Oversteegen was involved with Hannie Schaft, the girl with the red hair, in the Dutch Resistance during WWII which I wrote about in my last blog. Truus was only 16 when she joined Hannie in their Resistance activities. The picture to the right is a rare photograph of Hannie and Truus in action. Hannie is on the right after she dyed her hair black and took to wearing fake glasses to avoid being identified as 'the girl with the red hair'; Truus is on the left dressed as a man so they could pretend to be a couple while they waited for their next target.

Not a lot is written about Truus. The girl with the red hair has books published, movies produced, streets and squares named after her, foundations established in her honour, and even a planet named after her. What about 16yo Truus? I decided to see what I could find out about the 16yo Truus who used to assassinate collaborators, traitors, and German secret police from a bicycle.
Hannie was 19, Truus was 16 and Freddie only 14 at the beginning of the war. Truus became the leader when they worked together because Hannie was a bit dreamy, according to Truus, and Freddie was still too young.
They have aptly been referred to as 'three children in Resistance'. 16 and Truus is leading a 19yo and 14yo in assassinations and sabotage, among other things.

Truus and Freddie thought Hannie was a German infiltrator when they first met. Truus and Freddie responded very coolly. The director of the emergency hospital felt that there was tension and gave them her room so the girls could talk seriously there. Hannie introduced herself as Miss de Wit and said she was sent by the French. 16yo Truus and 14yo Freddie had their guns ready and asked Hannie to explain as they didn't believer her story. 19yo Hannie also had her gun ready to shoot. There was a lengthy silence, and when it became unbearable, Truus suddenly began to laugh uncontrollably. The girls saw how stupid the situation was and then began to laugh 'scandalously'. Hannie put her gun on the table so Truus and Freddie knew it was all right. From then on, Hannie, Truus and Freddie were good friends and they worked together in the Resistance.
Truus recalls some of these actions together. One of them was the liquidation of the collaborator Ko Langendijk. Hannie shot this man from the back seat of Truus' bicycle. A bit further on they went into a pub. Truus showed her gun to the customers and indicated that, if the Germans would ask, they should say they had been there for hours. After putting on a bit of tarty make-up, 'a bit posh', they sat at a table acting drunk. Passing Germans were not impressed by these two 'cuddly' ladies and, after a brief check, left them alone.
The following is a link to an interview with Truus. In it she (a) talks about how she always carried a gun, (b) how she killed a Nazi on the spur of the moment (see the interview for the motivation), and (c) how the Dutch general population helped protect her when she committed acts of resistance. She was a child when she engaged in these acts, and she now talks about them looking like a grandmother. Reconciliation between the person and the actions continues to elude me.

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Riding on her bicycle and shooting at the enemy, Truus killed more Germans than she later wished to remember. Through Hannie, Truus became acquainted with a group that transported Jewish children to hiding places. ... In 1944, a Jewish child was riding pillion with Truus. They were just passing German soldiers when a British airplane flew overhead and opened fire on them. When Truus turned around, she saw that the child had been killed, but she had to continue. Steering the bicycle with one hand and holding the dead child in the other, she continued peddling until she arrived at a farm where she buried the child.

On another occasion, Truus dressed up in the uniform of a German woman soldier, entered a concentration camp with false papers and took out a seven-year-old Jewish boy. When she passed the guard, she lifted her arm and said 'Heil Hitler.' The boy kept quiet and to maintain the charade Truus slapped the child and ordered him to say 'Heil Hitler' too. The boy saluted and was saved.

By the end of the war, the Germans were offering 50,000 guilders for her capture, but she managed to stay out of their hands, having a total of 53 addresses across the Netherlands where she could safely go into hiding at any time. After the liberation, Truus had a nervous breakdown, caused partly by the fact that Hannie had been arrested and shot shortly before the liberation, and in part by the suffering of Jewish children that she had witnessed. She married Mr. Menger, a Resistance worker, and they had four children. Truus became a professional artist and painted children's faces for many years, images from the dreams that haunted her. Truus was offered decorations by Eisenhower, underground movements in Western Europe, and partisan organizations in the east. She turned them all down.
When Hannie was arrested, Truus attempted an audacious rescue attempt by dressing as a nurse and trying to convince the Nazis that Hannnie was need for some medical procedure.
Because Truus came from a communistic background she was first denied to make a sculpture of Hannie Schaft in Haarlem. Finally she could because she had won, anonymously, the contest of designing a sculpture. She had been Hannie’s close friend, had worked together with her in the resistance group, had lived in Haarlem and is a sculptor. She is very famous now. She has made some of the great war memorials in the Netherlands, in South Africa, and all over the world, she gives speeches at schools all over the world and wrote a book: "Not then, not now, not ever", about her war experiences. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands bestowed the honour of a decoration on Truus, despite her refuse of recognition because she doesn’t feel like she is a hero.
Apparently Truus had submitted five proposals under different names. She is said to have said that if she didn't win she was going to emigrate.

The Resistance group Hannie and Truus belonged to was a Communist group. Consequently, following the end of WWII and the engagement in the Cold War, Hannie's memory became a political football. In the 1950s, Hannie's commentary service was banned. Communists and former Resistance fighters gathered to march anyway. They were met with tanks and riot police. Truus remembers:
We saw the tanks from afar and strengthened by the words 'continue to walk comrades, they know we are unarmed.' Slowly we approached the armoured vehicle. The gun on top of the tank moved towards us. All of a sudden a rage came over me. I let go of the floral wreath I was carrying and walked towards the tank. Tears running down my face. I shouted 'Are you really going to shoot on us boy?' I have fought five years for your liberation and you want to fire at us?' Some arrests were made but no shots were fired.
We tend to think that VE Day was the end of WWII. It was not for many.

Truus named her eldest daughter Hannie after her murdered comrade and friend. The daughter is the head of the Hannie Schaft Foundation. Truus established an orphanage in Soweto, South Africa for mentally and physically handicapped children. She said these children really needed our help.

Apparently Truus' Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever is available in English. I cannot locate a copy. If anyone could send me a copy I'd be very grateful.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Het meisje met het rode haar: The girl with the red hair

I came across the story of 'Hannie' Schaft when researching the WWII experience of Jan de Jong. An inspirational story that sheds further light on the war years of De Jong.

Jannetje Johanna (Jo) Schaft, was a Dutch resistance fighter whose code name in the Dutch resistance was Hannie. She was born 16 September 1920, died 17 April 1945, aged 24. What were you doing in your 20s? Who were you in your 20s? If you think you are 'hard core' or 'tough', Hannie was the real deal (De Jong was roughly the same age, in the same situation).

Hannie was born in Haarlem, the capital city of the Dutch province of Northern Holland. She was a shy child, perhaps because she was teased by schoolmates for her reddish hair and freckles. Her parents were over protective possibly due to the death of her older sister.

Hannie was a law student at the University of Amsterdam when Holland was invaded by Nazi Germany. Hannie's sense of justice was offended by the laws enacted by the invaders, so, she became involved in small acts of resistance. She went to swimming pools to steal ID cards for Jewish friends, the Jewish ID cards being marked with a 'J' signifying Jew.

In the spring of 1943, the Germans enacted a law requiring all university students to sign a loyalty declaration to Nazi Germany, promising, among other things, to spend a certain amount of time working in Germany after graduation. Hannie, along with 80% of Dutch university students, refused to sign.

Hannie left university and returned home and joined a Resistance organisation called Raad van Verzet (the Council of Resistance), or RVV.

Women were always in demand in RVV as couriers because women were less likely to be stopped and searched as their male counterparts. Hannie wanted to do more. She wanted to fight with weapons.

The RVV agreed to Hannies 'request'. Her first assignment was to assassinate a particular target thought to be a traitor. Hannie fired the gun, only to hear the click on an empty chamber followed by another. The target turned, and introduced himself. It had been a test which Hannie had passed, but she was furious.

Hannie teamed up with sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegan, 16 and 14 at the beginning of the war. 16 and 14! What were you doing when you were 16 or 14? What are your children doing when they are 16 or 14?

The team engaged in sabotage, and assassinations of Dutch Nazis, Dutch collaborators, and German secret police. They would ride on their bicycles with the passenger being the assassin; 'drive-bys' on a bicycle.

Hannie, Truus, and Freddie, had no qualms about assassinating the abovementioned targets. But when they were instructed to kidnap the children of a Nazi official, they refused. If the plan failed, they'd have to kill the children: 'We are no Hitlerites', Hannie said to Truus and Freddie as they walked away, 'Resistance fighters don't murder children'.

Hannie became recognised because of her red hair being spotted at certain assassinations. She took up a new name, dyed her red hair, and took to wearing fake glasses. Truus would dress as a male and they would pretend to embrace waiting for a target, before Hannie would disengage and assassinate the target.

21 March 1945, Hannie was stopped at a checkpoint and searched. They found underground newspapers, and a pistol, in her handbag. She was arrested, and after being detained for a while, her auburn roots started to show through. The Nazis had captured the girl with the red hair. She was interrogated, tortured, and placed in solitary confinement.

On 17 April 1945, three weeks before the liberation of Holland, Hannie was taken to the sanddunes near Bloemendaal. A German SS officer took a shot and only grazed her temple. 'I can shoot better than that' cried Hannie. ... 'I can shoot better than that' this 24yo conservatively brought up woman shouted to her executioner. I don't know about you, but that is an image I cannot erase from my mind.

A Dutch NSB agent then killed her with a machine gun. She was buried in a shallow grave in the sand dunes. After the war, the bodies of more than 400 resisters were found in those sand dunes, all men and one woman - Hannie Schaft.