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How to Grow Up Under Occupation
In 1940, when I was six years old, we were living in a small town in the Netherlands at the mouth of one of the Rhine subsidiaries. My father who was an eye surgeon needed a large house so that he could have the correct distance in his practice room for measuring people’s eye sight. Since both parents were artistically inclined, he designed an art moderne inspired open fire place in our living room to go with our tubular steel furniture and which was adjacent to a large by plate glass enclosed veranda, where a circular art moderne dining table was set up. The morning of the German invasion we were sitting at this table when suddenly we heard loud explosions from the high circling German airplanes trying to bomb the main bridge over the nearby river. Luckily my parents decided to duck with us children under the table because the large plate glass windows came crashing down breaking into a thousand small pieces. It was our first introduction to a five year occupation, which started with contingents of German soldiers marching into town and setting up administrative offices. For the commanding officer our house was chosen also because of my mother’s Jewish background and her connection to a banking dynasty in Hamburg. My parents were told to get out within twenty four hours and leave behind all their furniture and belongings. In the middle of the night my parents heaved as much as they could of our possessions over the garden wall to our neighbors. Then they were homeless but one of my father’s patients offered his small apartment for us to take refuge in.
Both of my parents were shell shocked as it became apparent that our survival was at stake. My mother’s father disappeared suddenly and as was later found out, died in a German concentration camp. Her mother was placed by my father in a mental institution, where she stayed for four years to protect her from being deported in the same manner. My father compensated by literally disappearing into his practice and stayed at the hospital where he tried to save as many people from the Germans as he could. My mother who was left with two children and the unknown fate of her parents, developed a psychosomatic disease, called the illness of Meuniere which attacks one’s equilibrium. She was hospitalized for several months at a time and we were left with a part-time helper and a cousin of my father who came to stay with us for almost a year. There was very little to eat and sugar beets were almost the only food available. The community set up soup kitchens for the poor who were starving and we also went there often to stand in line for a cupful of watery and hardly nourishing broth. When my mother was home she browned what little flour was available to make us fake peanut butter and she cooked on the few coals that I accompanied by a small girl friend dug up with a spoon, small pieces of coal that were spilled on the sides of a train track where the German army supply trains passed by.
But as a child one can compensate for dispossession and scarcity of food. The anxiety of adults is absorbed, but forgotten in playing as we did with what we could find discarded on the street and which in fact fed our imagination. We even accepted that our clothes became raggedy, though stitched together as much as was possible because needles and thread were scarce and our shoes worn out and falling apart and not repairable as there were no materials available for shoemakers. Thus left on our own, some of my parents’ friends took pity on us pseudo street orphans but they could do little because they were mostly in the same circumstances as us. But all this was bearable and even though we by instinct learned to stay away when we saw German soldiers on the street and learned to cope with no heat in winter by huddling together and running around, the emotional damages became lasting and hurtful.
I was in kindergarten at the outbreak of the war in 1940 in total bliss and innocence, having loving parents and feeling safe at home. One of the small kids came from a poor family that had lived in the same town as my maternal grandparents and he in a kind of envy told me that the Germans would kill my mother and us because of the Jewish connection. I ran home in tears feeling an outcast and very vulnerable and needed to be reassured by my poor mother that this would not at all be the case. Nevertheless once again when playing near an office of the Dutch Nazis, I saw large colored posters with images of faces of people bathed in blood from having their tongues cut out above a text that this was what the Jews had done to good Germans. I felt as if all the forces of the world were threatening me because I was guilty of some inferiority and again I ran home in tears. The onslaught of the war came close to us when we heard the horrible sounds of falling airplanes whenever there were air fights near and above us and once I went to a place where a plane had fallen and disintegrated with small pieces of flesh remaining of its crew. The physical fear became intense and any loud sound made my sister and I cringe and run for cover. Towards the later parts of the war because there was nobody who could take charge of us, my sister was placed in an orphanage where she almost starved and I with farmers, patients of my father, who resented that they had another mouth to feed. They secretly raised a few rabbits, that when they were strung up for slaughtering, emitted a pitiful crying sound that to this day remains with me as a symbol of the war years.
Though I know that many children had a fate far worse than us, I am writing this to show what effect adult wars and occupations have on children who lack the emotional maturity to cope with horrible events and how the relative safety of the Anglo-Saxon world make it hard to comprehend what effect these wars have on children in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other countries under attack.
Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.