Around 50,000 residents were ordered to leave the city on Whitsun Monday, May 12, 1940. Breda threatened to end up between the front lines of the Germans and the advancing French. “I think we are walking towards a dangerous situation,” my grandmother had said as she put her four daughters in a cart to leave for Flanders. That was true: fighter planes and bombers flew over with great regularity.
When planes were flying over, my grandfather pushed his wife and his four daughters into a ditch, lay down on top of them and yelled: “Pray!,” after which the entire family started a seemingly endless litany of Hail Mary’s.
After Breda fell, the family was able to go home unscathed. Almost four and a half years later, the city was liberated by Canadian and Polish divisions led by General Maczek. In Breda, there is still a street named after General Maczek, and as a child I had to learn the Polish national anthem by heart. Each year, it is still sung during the commemoration of the dead at the Polish monument in Breda.
My father was five when the war started. My grandmother was a brave and determined woman, also during World War II. With six children and a sick, asthmatic husband, she lived in Made in Brabant, where heavy fighting took place towards the end of the war. The Germans were on the left-hand side of the Godfried Schalkenstraat where the family lived, and the Poles were on the right-hand side.
The entire street could take shelter from the fights in the long, self-dug air-raid shelter of the village’s wooden shoe maker. This shelter was covered by heavy tree trunks. In the dark corridor, as the advance of the Allies progressed, the whistling of the treacherous German V1 rockets flying over, was increasingly heard. When the whistling suddenly stopped - a sign that the explosive rocket was coming down and was about to explode somewhere - my grandmother called out: “Pray!,” and everyone in the shelter continued with reciting countless Hail Mary’s.
When the shelter was hit on the other side of where my family was hiding, everyone ran out of the shelter. Grandmother’s sister-in-law lived across the street with her family, who also had their own air-raid shelter. They would go there.
With her youngest child on her arm, with the rest of her offspring and some fellow villagers in her wake and supporting her slow, sick husband, grandmother had to cross the wide street on which fights were taking place. The Germans on the left. The Polish on the right.
With baby Cees on her right arm, my grandmother suddenly entered the Godfried Schalkenstraat. She stopped in the middle of the road. She raised her left fist first to the German side, then to the Polish side. “Don’t you dare shoot!” It was a miracle that they actually stopped shooting. The family crossed the Godfried Schalkenstraat without any problems. As soon as my grandfather reached the other side of the street, the shooting resumed. My then six-year-old uncle Ton was then hit in the face by a detached roof tile. Great-aunt Dien - who was hiding in her shelter - heard the screeching and immediately shouted: “Damn, that’s our Toontje!,” and ran out of the basement to help the family and her little nephew. My grandmother, grandfather and their six children all survived the war and the liberation without too many other problems.
After the fights and the liberation, the family returned to the parental home. The rear part of the house - the large extension with a flat roof - had been swept away by a bomb. Because the Germans confiscated all bicycles during the occupation, my grandmother had offered to hide most of the village’s bicycles on the extension’s flat roof. Not much was left of them. After the liberation, Made was largely bicycle-free for a long period of time.
My asthmatic grandfather was quite grumpy. His oldest sons had dug a hole for him in the garden where he had hidden his best suit and a pair of new shoes. That little air-raid shelter also got hit, and Grandpa remained grumpy about the loss of his beautiful shoes. “Oh Willem,” my grandmother told her husband when she had enough of his moods, “Be glad that your legs were not in them.”
After the war my father started his carpenter training. My mother decided to become a nun and entered the Franciscan Monastery in Dongen in 1949. Two years later she abandoned it. My parents got married in 1963.
I am the son of a former Dongen nun and a baker’s son from Made. They had four children, of which I am the third.
I am gay, which won’t surprise you. I also have a gay brother and a lesbian sister. My eldest sister - the only heterosexual child - married a Kurdish refugee. They have four children with a beautiful Kurdish-Turkish surname.
My brother, sisters and I grew up in freedom and surrounded by love, despite the strict Catholic descent of my parents. My parents loved their children unconditionally, as well as their children-in-law and their grandchildren. It came easy to them. They only had to open their hearts.
We often spoke of the war and “The Flight.” We also discussed faith, the church, acceptance of homosexuality and of cultures other than Dutch ones. Those conversations were always accompanied by respect for the different values of the various family members.
“If you lie in a ditch with bombers flying over your head, you know that freedom can never be taken for granted,” mother taught us.
“Your grandmother demanded the right to an unharmed passage,” father said, “But when it comes to freedom, it is better to give it than to claim it.”
“There is no such thing as one-way freedom, only reciprocity,” my mother said.
“What does ‘in all freedom’ mean if the freedom of one intends to restrict the freedom of others?,” my father wondered aloud.
When I asked my mother on her deathbed if she was afraid of dying, she anwered: “Not at all. I am going to see Hetty and God.” Perhaps the love for her deceased twin sister Hetty was just a bit bigger than the love for Our Lord.
My mother’s funeral turned out to be a wonderful Catholic mass in which pastor Kortmann had those present, Catholics, protestants, atheists, Muslims, hetero, bi and homosexuals, say goodbye to my mother in a dignified and warm way.
My mother who had given so much love, knowledge, individuality and freedom to both her own children and the children she had taught as a teacher. She would never have abused her freedom to teach any child that people can be “wrong.” “I was not praying in a Flemish ditch for nothing,” she said.
She always chose the Good in people.
“My love for you, my children, has conquered everything,” Mother said to me on her deathbed. “Doubt, ignorance and fear disappeared as soon as I heard one of you laugh, as soon as you gave me a kiss, as soon as I saw that you were happy.” “Son, you know,” said Mother, “you are only free if you can wish the stranger next to you all the happiness of the world.” “Amen,” I said, giving my mother a kiss on her forehead.
I am the son of loving and proud parents and the grandson of bold freedom-loving grandparents who all knew what it was like to be free.
I always think of them on October 29. And of the young, heroic, Polish soldier who did not have a grandfather who pushed him into a ditch when it became really dangerous. The soldier who did not have a grandmother who raised her fist against the German enemy, to get him through unscathed.
The unprecedented courage of the soldier. The courage and love of grandparents. The unconditional love of parents.
People through whom I can exist today in complete freedom and in all love.