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George Mitchell: Working for the Dutch underground in the Second World War

George meets a 91-year-old Dutch lady who worked against the Nazis in her occupied homeland at the age of just 14.
George meets a 91-year-old Dutch lady who worked against the Nazis in her occupied homeland at the age of just 14.

In Canada, my friend Andy has a part-time job, delivering prescription drugs for a local chemist, to people’s houses. A vital service indeed.

On his rounds, he meets all sorts. He told me of this one lady who he sees almost every week.

“I think you need to meet her,” Andy told me. “She’s got a tale to tell.”

And so, a meeting was set up.

Born in Holland in 1930, Renee Bakema is now Canadian citizen and has been for many years.

At 3pm one afternoon, Renee met us at the door with her mobility walker. She greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake. From the off it was obvious to me her brain was as sharp as a tack.

After offering to make me coffee, she invited me to sit. Renee, wearing beautiful pink silk pyjamas, sat herself down in her reclining chair, pressed the button and reclined to a comfortable position. She turned to me and said: “So, what do you want to know?”

Renee Bakema as she looks today, aged 91.

I started by learning about her life and how she ended up in Canada. Renee and her husband left Holland in 1950 and ended up in Indonesia, where her husband managed a tobacco planation. The journey to Indonesia was by boat and took a long 21 days. Renee even remembers getting sea sick. She also by now had two young children of her own.

Extremely adventurous indeed at that time. It seems to me that the young couple wanted to get as far away from post-war Europe as was possible.

Renee: “The planation grew and supplied cigars for the European market.”

George: “Did you smoke yourself Renee?”

Renee: “Yes, I smoked cigarettes, but stopped in 1960.”

“A wise decision,” I said to her. She nodded her head in agreement.

In 1956, they made an even longer journey and decided to emigrate to Canada. Renee was coming on 27 years old.

George: “Why Canada?”

Renee: “My brother came first, after the war, and talked me into it. Holland is too small, I didn’t want to live there anymore. I wanted a change.”

George: “Do you feel Canadian or Dutch?”

She paused for a second, then replied: “I am Canadian by law, I managed to get citizenship after five years. So, I feel Canadian… but also still Dutch. Both really.”

English, of course, is not Renee’s native language, it was Dutch she spoke as a young girl. Yet her English is excellent, no hint of a Canadian accent, still a lovely lilt of Dutch in there. Renee has not been in Holland for over 20 years, and has no desire to live there again.

Dutch reminders in Renee’s house. 

George: “How was your English when you moved to Canada in 1956?”

Renee: “I spoke very little English, so I had to learn quickly. We lived in Windsor, Ontario for 25 years, before coming to where I am now.”

Renee lives a short 10-minute drive from Andy’s house.

“I worked in a nursing home for many years,” Renee told me. Her husband Antoon worked for Chrysler, the car manufacturer. “We also rented out the upstairs of our house. We got 60 dollars a month. It helped keep our heads above water.”

Antoon sadly died, aged 75, in 1993.

Suddenly Renee said: “But I really think you want to hear about the war?”

I nodded my head like an excited teenager. “Oh yes,” I said.

Renee began her story…

“You must understand, I wasn’t bombed, but Holland was under Nazi occupation at the time. We lived close to the town of Hilversum. We had no coal, no wood, and almost no food. The Nazis took everything. They came in 1940 and didn’t leave until 1945.

“I was 10 when they arrived, and 15 when they left.

“We had a garden and grew our own vegetables which was a life-saver. My father, a tailor, I remember, once made a brand new suit for a man in exchange for a bag of potatoes. Can you imagine?”

I can’t. I watch her as she speaks, she’s focused and remembers everything with clarity like it was yesterday. Then out of nowhere she said: “I smuggled papers for the Dutch underground.

“One person would listen in secret of course, to the news on the radio. Usually the BBC. They would then type as much as they could of what was being said. That typed paper was copied as many times as possible. It was my job to carry these papers, often thick batches of them, under my blouse, jumper, coat, whatever.”

Lest we forget. 

I sat enthralled at what I was hearing. Renee continued: “With the papers safely hidden on my person, I got on my bike and cycled four kilometres, and handed them over to another person who then passed the papers out amongst houses. Each family, when finished reading them, passed them on and so on. It was a huge operation. It happened all over Holland I guess, not just in my town.”

“How old were you when you did this?” I asked.

“Early teens.” Renee then told me about an incident that could have changed her life, or even ended it.

“One day, when I was 14, I was carrying the hidden documents, and a policeman stopped me. At the time, we never knew if a particular policeman was working with the Nazis, many were.”

George: “What happened?”

Renee: “It’s silly… but I’d cycled between some tress, I should not have done so, you were meant to cycle round the trees, but I took a shortcut. The policeman stopped me, and took me to the police station. I had many papers stuffed under my coat. If he’d searched me, I’d have been done for. Thankfully he didn’t, and after questioning me what I was doing, he let me go.”

George: “Were you scared?”

Renee: “I was a 14-year-old girl, I was terrified. If he’d discovered what I was doing, I’d have been sent to a camp, or even shot. I did this journey many, many times, and I don’t regret it. I was proud of what I did.”

A picture of Renee aged 17.

George: “What did your family or friends think of what you did? The danger you put your self into?”

Renee: “I didn’t tell them. In fact, I never told my parents, they died many years later without knowing. Also, I have a grown-up family of my own now, my kids are in their 60s, and I only told them during the last 10 years.”

Fourteen-year-old Renee, and others like her all over occupied Holland played, her part. A small part you may think, but a vital one.

She summed it up herself perfectly what getting these “newspapers” meant for her people, who at the time lived in a world of only Nazi propaganda.

“Getting news from the outside world was a lifeline to us. It helped us stay connected with reality. It let us know what was really going on. The news from the outside world brought us hope and relief.”

Renee then went on to talk about the retreat of the Nazis in 1945 and the arrival of the Allies.

“After the Nazis left, my sister and I went to a bunker-style building on the edge of our town. It’s where the Nazi soldiers had lived only days before. We went inside, there was stuff lying around, they’d obviously left in a hurry.

“Do you see that green vase on my table?”

I nodded.

“I took that, took it from inside the Nazi bunker in my town. I’ve kept it as a keepsake of that episode of my life.” She smiled, a smile a mix of defiance and bit of a young girl cheekiness.

The green vase.

Renee, now 91, lives in her own home and has a carer who comes in every day to help. But she seems pretty independent from what I could see. She told me that she forgets things sometimes, yet I never experienced this while in her company, her brain is sharp, no doubt about that.

She did suffer a fall two years ago, falling in her bedroom and breaking her spine. Hence the walker she now uses to get around.

After almost two hours in her company, I thanked Renee for her time, promised to send her the column, and hoped to visit her next time I come, possibly in spring 2022.

“You’re very welcome,” she said.

What a remarkable lady. What a remarkable and brave 14-year-old girl she must have been.

And talking about remarkable – fully recovered from his recent chest infection, it was time for me visit Charlie. He’s 107 now.

Due to my Canada trip being cancelled in 2020, it would be two years since I’d last seen him.

As I walked across the town of Owen Sound towards his house, I wondered, would he still be as mentally sharp as previously?

I knocked on his door, and tentatively walked in…

“Charlie?” I called out.

“Hey George, come in. Good to see you!”

Next week – ‘107 ain’t so bad,’ says Charlie

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