By Ray Hulstein
On Nov 28, 1968, the following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun:
“Funeral Service for Mr. Henry Hulstein, 65, who risked his life harbouring Jews during the Nazi occupation in Holland, was held Friday at the First Christian Reformed Church in Vancouver. Mr. Hulstein and his wife, Grace, shielded many Jewish people in their home in Apeldoorn, Holland, until Mr. Hulstein was detected and sent to a concentration camp.”
It all started on May 10, 1940, just 24 days after my 11th birthday. Standing in front of our home, Dad and I looked up towards the sky, and to our amazement, we saw many planes flying overhead. At a closer look we saw the German Swastika on their wings, and we immediately knew that the dreaded prospect of war had become a reality. Normally a quiet man with gentle ways and seldom very angry, this man started to cry and shook his first upwards to the sky to the invaders. He yelled not so gently and not so quietly into the sky. He then went quickly inside, and when I saw him again he had transformed himself by putting on his old army uniform. Obviously, the uniform was a few sizes too small, the sleeves a bit too short, and the buttons too tight, but he did look ready to defend his country.
Saying his goodbyes to us, he presented himself at the local Army Hall. Later that same evening he returned home after the mighty German Army had already entered our town. As history will tell you, the Dutch fought very well with the resources that were available to them, but after a murderous bombardment of the town of Rotterdam, where thousands of innocent citizens were killed, this war was lost to the Dutch people within five days. And so five years of oppression, five years of terror and five years of the most terrible atrocities began.
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For the first few months things were not too bad. Life seemed not too much different, except for the many German soldiers and their awesome war equipment that constantly roamed our streets.
But then the first sign of what was to come, what Hitler had planned for our Jewish population, came slowly into being. The order was put forth that all people of Jewish decent, young and old, were to be identified by wearing a yellow “David” star with the word “Jood” written across it.
It was then only that I discovered that I had some Jewish playmates. They came to play with us in the same clothes, the same blazers and the same jackets that they always did, except that now the “David” star and the word “Jood” was written on their clothing! How degrading! How monstrous! Our friends were now separated from us – they were shown to be different from us, they were Jews! But it worked very well for the Germans. They separated them effectively, and the Jews were now easy to recognize. And because of that, a new order came soon after this: Jews can now only shop at certain hours of the day, Jews no longer could attend movies, concerts or any other performance. We, the non-Jewish population, had received ration cards in order to obtain food, but the Jews would only receive half a ration card – therefore, half of the food. Within a year, the rounding up of the Jewish population began.
I remember my parents getting together with some members of our church and talking about this situation. Soon after this, the Committee of Jewish Rescue was formed. Several elders of our church become involved. A very good friend of my dad, Arent Jan Smit, headed this committee as its leader. It did not take very long for them to become active.
Extra ration cards were needed in order to feed those that had gone into hiding. The only way to obtain those ration cards was to go and get them. So Dad, the so called “quiet man” and his cohorts went to the Central Distribution Centre. They simply held up the place and helped themselves to this, by now, very precious commodity.
This done, they went to the City Hall and the Bureau of Vital Statistics. With guns in hand, they “obtained” a load of blank passports mostly used for those of Jewish descent who then received a new identity as a non-Jewish person.
As the roundup continued, more and more homes that could be used as hiding places had to be found. Our parents’ home was rather small, and by that time, already housed 6 or 7 children. But a makeshift bedroom was made for my brother and me in Dad’s upholstering workshop, and whenever our bedroom was occupied by some “visitors,” we two would sleep in the workshop.
Despite all the tension and the fear, there were sometimes funny and hilarious moments as well. One day, our parents had gone out to visit some friends. When I came home later that night, I found the whole house in total darkness.
As I entered the house, a voice came out of the darkness, “Would you be so kind to turn on the lights?”
My first thought that we were harboring some really lazy people here – but then I realized that it was the Sabbath, and since they could not “work” after sunset, they asked me to “sin” for them by turning on the lights. I got a hearty “thank you” for my trouble.
During the years of occupation it was forbidden to have a radio of any type in your possession. All radios were to be handed over to the authorities. This was to prevent anyone from listening to any broadcast from the BBC in London. Dad had found a very old radio and dutifully handed this one over and even got a nice receipt for it. But his own radio he kept hidden, and many evenings he would listen to the news from London, and after the news he would wait for coded messages such as, “The moon is blue,” or, “It comes like mustard after a meal.”
While Dad was away one evening, he asked me to listen for such a coded message, and it did come through that night. So the following day Dad left town for a few days. Later, I found out that a drop-off was made of some weapons and blank passports somewhere in a field outside town.
One night there was a great commotion – yelling and screaming. Peaking through the blackout curtains, we saw the Gestapo at the home of our neighbor, Mr. Westhof. They had him arrested, but as they escorted him to the wagon he made a run for it and bolted into the dark night. One of the Gestapo men took his gun and aimed, but the weapon misfired. Then another Gestapo took aim and again that one misfired. Talk about the Lord’s intervention! Mr. Westhof escaped, went into hiding for the rest of the war and survived. But, unfortunately, the Gestapo then went to his brother’s home and shot him instead. Mr. Theo Westhof became the first member of our church to give his life to save others.
As the war went on, food became a very short commodity. Thousands of people were without food. They exchanged their watches, their jewelry, their gold and silver and anything else that could be used for bartering to get precious food.
As time went on, Dad got more and more involved with the Jewish Rescue Committee, along with many other members of our local community and church members. One day, there was a phone call asking for some special help. A Jewish lady, hidden somewhere in a large city, had given birth to a baby boy. The location where she and her husband were hidden was such that it was impossible to hide this little baby. Its crying alone would give away their hiding place.
Right after this phone call our mother went to the Central Railway Station with an empty baby carriage. She was to meet with a lady dressed as a nurse and had been given a certain password. All went as planned. The nurse was there, the password accepted, the baby was put in the baby carriage and so our mother came home with a new addition to our already large family of eight children – and mother was expecting number nine. The baby made ten. We all loved this little boy, and my sisters drooled over him!
Dad had a good and trusted friend at the Bureau of Vital Statistics, where all families are registered with the names of all of their children and their birthdays. So this little boy was then entered into our family register as Jacques Hulstein. This little boy stayed with us all during the war – nearly three years. After the war, his parents managed to find him via the Red Cross. He was left with us for a while. His parents returned to their home and continued to visit us and their son for weekends. In this way, he slowly got to know his real parents.
In October 1944, a call was issued by the German Command that every available man between the ages of 18 and 45 were to bring a shovel and assemble at the market place. They were required to start digging defenses to stop the advancing Allied Forces. This order was, of course, against the rules of the Geneva Convention, and only a few men turned up for that duty.
The Germans then went to the local prison and selected a few men at random. Some of the men in prison had been charged for minor local offences such as traffic offences, others for smuggling food. There were also three Allied pilots in prison whose plane had been shot down over our town. The Germans then shot these men, a total of thirteen, and their bodies were loaded on a flat deck truck and deposited in strategic places around our town. Via radio and loudspeakers, the people were then informed of this deed, warned that anyone not turning up for the required digging would be shot as well, and their bodies displayed with those already laying in several intersections around our town.
This scared a lot of people, particularly the women who urged their husbands and sons to follow the order. And indeed, a large group of men passed our home on the way to the market, led by several German soldiers. Dad looked out on to the street and to his dismay he saw our Uncle Jan marching with the group, shovel over his shoulder. Dad ran down to the tool shed, grabbed a spade, ran into the street and fell in line with the marching group, making sure to be beside his brother-in law. He gave Uncle Jan a piece of his mind and told him that “no brother-in-law of mine is going to work for the Germans.” Dad told him of a plan of escape. He was going to create a diversion by falling down and screaming with pain at which point Uncle Jan was to dart away. As Dad fell and screamed and a soldier came to see what the commotion was, Uncle Jan dashed across the street into a neighborhood garden. He then jumped right into this stranger’s front door, which luckily happened to be open, ran though the hallway and right out of the back door to freedom. Dad got up and continued his march to the market, but found an opportunity for escape as well. He found his brother-in-law, and together they found a hiding place at one of our church elders’ home.
It was about that time that our Pastor, the Rev. Nawijn, came to see my dad and warned him that this situation was becoming more and more dangerous and urged Dad to be very careful in harboring Jews. He himself could do with a message like that since he, also, was deeply involved, particularly in his Sunday preaching style and prayers for the Queen in exile and our country.
Our visitors having moved on, brother Henk and I could sleep in our own bed again – but not for very long. We only had a few days of respite when we were once again ordered to our makeshift bedroom in the workshop. The reason this time was a little different. Our own bed was being occupied by two Allied flyers shot down somewhere over Holland. With the help of the Underground they were trying to return to England. It seemed they might be successful according to a coded message received via the BBC sometime later.
The night that we returned once again to our own bedroom we were shocked to find a large stengun under the bed. We took it downstairs and pointed the gun at Dad and yelled, “Hands up!”
Dad quickly took this gun from us and in the morning took it apart in smaller pieces. The parts went into our bike’s saddle bag, and he gave us an address in town to deliver this merchandise. Just as we approached an intersection, we found ourselves surrounded by German soldiers who were in the process of confiscating bikes. Since the mighty German army was getting short on transportation, they simply took bikes from the people whenever they needed them. Many bikes were already leaning against a fence, and that’s where our bikes landed up, with the gun parts in the bags.
I thought about disappearing fast before those bags were inspected more closely. But brother Henk had a better idea. He walked up to one of the soldiers and said, “Is it not true that any woman in Germany with more than 4 children receives a medal from Hitler?”
“Yes,” said the soldier, “That is true!”
“Well”, retorts brother Henk, “My mother has 9 children, does not get a medal and you steal her children’s bike!”
“She has 9 children?” the soldier asked.
With that, he turned around, handed our bikes back to us, and we happily rode on to deliver the gun parts to the address given us.
Soon after this, new “guests” arrived at our home. I have forgotten many of their names but do remember all their faces. Faces portraying terrible anxiety, faces full of fear. What a terrible and scary time this was for them. Not only for the Jewish people, but for all those that tried to help and shelter the Jews and others being chased by the Gestapo. So many put themselves and their family at risk – the risk of being imprisoned, the risk of being executed. One day, two large buses passed our home, and inside those buses were 121 men – some political prisoners, some taken from the local police station, some simply taken from the street and also two Allied pilots. The bus took these men just outside of town to an open field and they were then all gunned down with machine guns. Only one survived, although badly wounded. This was in retaliation for an attack by the Underground on a German convoy. This mass murder was simply done to teach the populace a lesson.
It was much later when I started to understand the real danger my parents were in and what scary moments they must be going through. But they never showed this to us children. But they certainly knew what the Gestapo was capable of.
It is no wonder that the present generation find it hard to believe what really went on during those terrible years. The things people went through in those five years! How are you to explain to them what human beings are capable of doing to one another?
They will have a hard time believing me when I tell them that one night a house right across the street from ours was raided by the Gestapo, where they discovered a young Jewish family that was hidden there. They were dragged out of the house towards a paddy wagon, the young woman crying loudly. One of the German Gestapo came out of the house, having found their baby, and holding him upside down by one leg. He yelled to his comrade, “Look what I found. Here, catch!” With this, he threw the baby towards the other German standing by the paddy wagon, who missed the catch and the tiny baby fell on the road. Even today I can still hear the terrible scream of the young mother. Yet this was only one of the millions of victims of Hitler’s final solution.
Then one night, something we had feared happened. Just before 8 o’clock one evening Dad had taken his hidden radio into the living room and placed it behind the curtain that was drawn across the garden door, a door that was normally locked. Dad was ready to tune in on the BBC evening news, after which he was expecting a coded message. Just then we heard the sound of tires squealing, shouting in German and the sound of heavy boots on the gravel pathway leading to our door. Dad instantly knew that this was the dreaded moment. He asked me to quickly run upstairs and get rid of a briefcase under his bed. As I ran up the stairway, I got a glimpse of the first Gestapo man running towards the garden door. To my surprise and to the surprise of the family in the living room, this door was not locked, as it was supposed to be. The Gestapo man tripped over this illegal radio and landed very unceremoniously on the living room floor. He had tripped over a radio that was tuned in to the BBC! I managed to reach my parent’s bedroom, retrieved the briefcase and dashed over to the girls’ bedroom.
I opened the skylight window and threw the briefcase onto the roof, where it slid and came to rest in the gutter. Just as I closed the window, I was grabbed from behind and faced a big bulky Gestapo man who demanded to know what I was up to. Today, I know that it was the Lord who gave me the words to answer him, and I calmly told him that I was closing the window so that my sisters would not feel the cold air coming in.
He accepted that, but then marched me to the bedroom where brother Henk was sleeping. He roughly shook him awake and started to ask this 13-year-old boy, still half asleep, all sorts of questions, such as, “Where are the Jews?” and “What do you know about Mr. Smit?”
Very sleepily Henk looked this giant straight in his face and said, “I don’t know! Let me go to sleep!”
But he also was grabbed and both of us were dragged toward the stairway. When we reached the top of the stairs, he kicked us in the behind and we tumbled down the stairs and landed in the hallway. Maybe it was nerves, I don’t really know, but both of us started to laugh like we were watching a funny movie. But we stopped laughing when we entered the living room. There stood our dad with his hands up in the air and a gun pointed at him. The Gestapo man that had tripped over the radio picked it up off the floor, and looking at Dad he said, “Just for this you will be shot!”
Mother sat in her chair holding our little Jewish brother on her lap. By this time it was very obvious that mother was pregnant again with our sister Irene, soon to be born on Jan. 2, 1945. A baby on her lap with very dark hair, a very dark complexion and not even a year old and this woman is very much pregnant again?
One of the Gestapo men was a Dutch collaborator, and in our own language he turned to mother and asked, “How old is this child?”
Mother answered, “He is a year and a half but is very undeveloped because he was born very premature.”
This seemed to satisfy him, but he then began to ask her all kinds of questions about the Jews we were hiding, and the whereabouts of the Jews, and what did she know about Mr. Arent Jan Smit and other people involved in “actions against the German Reich.”
But mother kept telling him that she had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, which made him very angry. He took a box of matches out of his pocket, struck a match and told mother that if she persisted in giving no satisfactory answers he would put a match to “this joint” and burn it down.
I will never forget my mother’s reaction to this and her courage and faith when she replied, “I put absolutely no value in earthly things – neither my house nor my furniture are of any value to me. If you want to burn this ‘joint’ down you go right ahead! Just let me pick up my children and I will leave you to it!”
But then he said, “Take your children out first? That remains to be seen!”
Well, that made my mother shut up in a hurry. Her children were her most precious possessions. At that point, Dad was handcuffed and they were ready to take him away.
At this point, our sister Hanny, just 14 years old, became extremely upset and pleaded with one of the men to bring her dad home again. This man had been acting somewhat different than the others. He seemed calmer and had a very sad face during all this and therefore looked to us to be somewhat human. He did tell Hanny that he would see what he could do. He wore a beautiful watch on his wrist, and our sister asked him for that watch until Dad would come back home. She would then return his watch to him. He looked rather sheepishly at the other Gestapo men and told her that he could not do that.
They let Dad kiss Mom goodbye, kissed each one of us, and said simply, “Look after your Mother.”
Then they led him out of the door and into the waiting wagon. They took away a husband and father whose only wrongdoing was that he firmly believed what the Lord demanded of him – to love his neighbor as himself, to help those in need, to shelter those that are homeless and to save those that were doomed for prison or even death.
As soon as Dad was taken away, mother sprang into action. She bundled the little Jewish boy in the baby carriage and told my sister and me to take him to her sister who lived close by. It was by now well past the curfew time, and we had to walk through alleyways and private properties to reach our aunt’s home. It was essential to get him there just in case the Gestapo would get a brain wave and have second thoughts about that little boy and that very pregnant woman. Also, the possibility of Dad being tortured came to our minds, so it would certainly be wise to move baby Jacques.
We managed to make a safe delivery and told the family about Dad’s arrest. They, in turn, phoned others that were, like Dad, involved in the Jewish Rescue Committee.
The following morning I retrieved the briefcase from the roof’s gutter and passed it on to the wife of Dad’s partner, Mrs. Ina Smit, who would know what to do with it.
So, here we were – Mother Hulstein left behind with 9 children, ages 2 to 15, and her husband somewhere in the custody of the Gestapo. How she managed to keep sane, I don’t know. Within a week she was informed that Dad was taken to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, a town about 45 km west of us. By this time our food supply had dwindled, but with the help of some of Dad’s customers, many of whom were farmers, we managed to barter for some food supplies. Our situation was certainly not as bad as they were in the western provinces of Holland. There, people were dying by the thousands. Many were so hungry so that they packed up some of their personal belongings in baby carriages and hand wagons and walked for hundred of kilometers through Holland to reach the farms to barter their possessions for food. But in our situation we were at times even able to share our food with those that came to our door begging for something to eat.
It was somewhere around the middle of March when one of Dad’s brothers came to our home very excited with the unbelievable news that our father was released from the concentration camp and was walking on his way home. A lady who was biking along the road from Amersfoort to Apeldoorn had met with Dad, and he had asked her to inform his brother that he had been released and was walking towards home.
In April 1945 the Allied Forces [mainly Canadians] came very close to the edge of our town. The southern part of town across the canal that divided our town was already in their hands, but it would take another 10 days of fighting before we would be liberated of the oppressor. Many months before this our family and our neighbors had constructed a shelter for our mutual protection. It was a very large hole in the ground, covered with several feet of soil. The inside was big enough to hold our family of 10 and the neighbor’s family of 13 people. During the days of fighting and bombardments, we all sat together in this shelter for many days and nights. I spent my birthday, April 16, in that shelter.
One night, Dad had to leave the shelter. He was still very weak and needed a more comfortable sleeping arrangement than the one that was available in this underground shelter. I went with him into our house and we both tried to get some sleep.
Waking up early in the morning, we noticed that it was unusually quiet outside – no guns blazing and no bombs falling. There was only quietness. Dad went to the window and peaked through the blackout curtains, and on this morning of April 17, 1945, he saw the first Canadian soldiers walking behind the trees, guns at the ready. What a sight! The long awaited moment had arrived. We were finally free! Dad quickly dressed and ran across the street. The first Canadian he accosted received a big bear hug!
Then we started to yell, “Wake up, everybody; we are free! We are finally free!”
And with that, a mass of people flooded the street. I am afraid we prevented those soldiers from doing the job they were supposed to do. They were surrounded by a huge crowd of people, all yelling, shouting, laughing, crying and hugging!
The very next day, we had a Thanksgiving Service in our church and in many other churches in Holland, giving thanks to Whom all thanks belong for freeing us from the terror of the last five years, for giving us our freedom back and giving thanks for saving Dad and Mom for us and keeping our family together.
Looking back, I feel during all these happenings that Dad was more in the limelight than Mom. Often forgotten is the amount of support she gave her husband in order that he could do what he felt he should do. She stood by him all the time. Never will I forget her courage when facing the Gestapo man in her home. Yes, they were a team, and I am proud to have been their son. I am now already many years older then when Dad died at age 65, and I hope that I also have, and will show, some of that conviction in my life.
Henry Hulstein and his family eventually emigrated to Canada, where in November of 1968 he went home to be with his Lord. To read the full story of Henry Hulstein, including details of his reunion with those whose lives he helped to save, click here. You will be richly blessed.