This is Herman Veenendaal - my mom's dad, and my Opa. If not for this man's determination and tenacity, I would not be here today. I thought I'd tell you some of his story.
Sadly Opa died in the small hours of the morning on December 16, 2017 at the age of 94. In speaking with my family this week, I've been able to get a bit more colour for this story, and I've updated the text below with what I've learned.
Europe during the Second World War was full of stories that amaze and inspire. Here's my family's:
Before the War, Opa met Jacoba Nijland, who would later become my Oma, when her family had moved close to his town. He saw her standing in the garden outside her family's new home, and thought to himself that he had to meet her. Not one to let moss gather under his feet he walked up and asked her if she's busy that afternoon, and if she'd like to go to see a movie with him. She checked with her mother, and off they went.
There was a brief courtship, and then despite the Netherlands' declared neutrality, the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940. On May 15, Dutch military forces surrendered, and all men aged 18-45 were ordered into forced labour camps to feed the Nazi war machine. Opa was posted to a munitions factory in Wilemshaven, transported there in June 1940 by box car - the Allies bombed that factory in the early part of 1943, destroying it's capacity for manufacture. Opa was one of the few survivors, having hidden under a flight of stairs during the attack.
He escaped with a Belgian man who took him under his wing and helped him walk back to his family’s hometown of Veenendaal (Google tells me today that's a 55 hour, 273 km walk through Nazi controlled territory), where he hid for seven days and nights. The Dutch underground resistance movement then transported him from the south of Nazi-occupied Holland to the north - sometimes by foot, sometimes literally in the back of a cart filled with hay. Posing as a farmhand with the false name Martin Lathouwers, he hid from Nazi authorities for 3.5 years until the Allies liberated Holland to end the war in 1945.
At the end of the occupation, Opa walked home to find his future wife had survived the occupation. They emigrated to Halifax in 1953 on the SS Waterman, with the first two of their seven children. My mother would be born in Kingston on September 26, 1955.
They built a life for themselves in Kingston. Opa learned english working on construction sites and in the 1970s, watching Wheel of Fortune in the evenings. They built their home just outside of Kingston in a new subdivision, and a family named the Breens moved in next door.
Opa and Mr Breen (I never knew his full name) one day got to talking about their respective war experiences, and they found they had something in common. Mr Breen was a bombardier on the raid that set Opa free in 1943!
That's something that always amazes me. What are the odds that your next door neighbour had simultaneously almost ended your life, but also set you free from one of the most oppressive regimes in human history?
I'm glad it went the way it did.
Oma passed away on July 1, 2014, surrounded by her family. There are over 50 of us now - we're breeders! She was such a light of joy and happiness through my life - always quick with a laugh and a smile. Opa tears up when he talks about her: "She waited for me through the war".