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As the Dutch resistance veterans prepare to disband, Loek Caspers describes battles old and new.
THE HAGUE — They defied Hitler, but they can’t defy time.
The association of Dutch World War II resistance veterans has decided to disband next year, on the 65th anniversary of their country’s liberation from the Nazis.
“The people you worked with in the war, they are all gone, so what’s the use in going on?” said Loek Caspers, secretary of the National Federative Council of the Former Dutch Resistance.
“You can better stop now and make your own decision, than wait until there’s nobody left,” Caspers told GlobalPost. “I’m one of the youngest and I’m 84.”
Caspers was just 18 when a friend of the family asked her to escort Jewish children to safe houses around Nazi-occupied Holland.
“Fortunately I was rather dark and I had dark brown eyes, so I could sort of travel with them as if I was their older sister you see,” she recalled.
One particular 3-year-old stands out in her memory. She was taking him from his parents’ attic hiding place to the relative safety of a children’s home.
“We were in the train and he started crying and crying, saying ‘I don’t want to come with you’ and ‘I want my mummy.’”
Things soon got worse.
“There was a Nazi who got on the train, he had a Nazi badge, and I got so terribly scared and put the boy in the corner and he was very, very dark and Jewish-looking and I thought, well if this chap thinks this is a Jewish child we’ve had it.”
The coolheaded teenager quickly invented a story involving a sick mother and an enforced visit to an unpopular grandma and the trip passed off safely. Caspers wrote it up in one the books she has written of wartime reminiscences. Late last year, she received a letter via her publishers from a man in his 60s called Carlo, who turned out to be the young boy she had last seen in 1943. He had been reunited with his parents after the war and lives just a few miles away from Caspers’ home in a leafy suburb of The Hague.
After that close shave, Caspers graduated to transporting arms, passing intelligence reports to British and American agents, sabotage and guiding escaping Allied aircrews out of occupied territory. She worked disguised as a midwife, a job that allowed her to travel during the nighttime curfew and hang on to a vital piece of equipment.
“Because of that profession I also could keep my bike, because the Germans could take your bike at any time and my permit said that under no circumstances could my bicycle be requisitioned,” she said over tea in her apartment.
Caspers used her bike to transport everything from hand grenades to transmitters for calling in allied bombing raids and microfilm revealing details of German troop positions. Escaping allied airmen however often lacked the traditional Dutch talent on two wheels, much to the dismay of their minders in the underground.
“The Americans were worse than the British, because they can’t ride bicycles and a Dutchman never, ever falls off a bike,” Caspers remembered. “And the British tried to keep on the left and you had to tell them to keep on the right.”
The resistance’s work intensified after September 1944 when Allied forces suffered a severe setback at the Battle of Arnhem which left most of the Netherlands under Nazi control until the final weeks of the war in Europe. Caspers said the U.S. airmen who the resistance helped to escape often underestimated the suffering facing the Dutch during the “Hunger winter” of 1944.
“They didn’t know anything about food shortages and they got furious sometime if they didn’t get the nice food they wanted,” she said. “There were several cases where people said, 'well we’ll go to the Germans, we’ll be better off in a POW camp.'"
Despite such misunderstandings, Caspers, who became a doctor after the war, stayed in touch with escapees in Britain and the United States.
“We still have reunions, but last year there were only about five or six of us, the rest were all gone,” she said.
“We always had lovely parties in London every year. That’s how I got to the States a few times, because they had reunions. They still have them but I don’t feel like flying over that enormous amount of ocean.”
The membership of the Dutch resistance veterans’ organization has fallen from 2,000 members to 370, Caspers said. Many are in nursing homes unable to attend events unaided. Despite the passing of time, Caspers said she’s still fighting for the values that inspired her in the resistance.
“It’s very important not forget,” she said. “You fight for the same principles don’t you? Freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, freedom of religion, against dictatorship, and you see that in an awful lot of countries going on, and I think we should support it. I’m a strong supporter of Amnesty International and actually I think it would be better to spend my time on that than reminiscing on things that happened 65 years ago.”
Caspers’ book “To Save a Life” was published in English under one of her wartime aliases: Elsa Caspers.
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