It was the year 1939 and I was six years old. My parents and I lived in the center of the city of Rotterdam. The street we lived on was one of the main streets of the city. It was called the "Hoogstraat". every Rotterdammer knew where that street was located. It was one of the most attractive shopping centers and entertainment places in those days. We lived on the third floor above a store which sold all kinds of basket slats. Sometimes the store owner would take me along in his delivery van with his son who was the same age as I. That was a big treat for me, being driven around the city. On weekends our street was always filled with people strolling along and looking at the attractive merchandise displayed in the windows. With the holidays like New Year, and especially Queen Wilhelmina's birthday our street was the center of celebrations.
Rotterdam before World War II
I will never forget the city of Rotterdam before World War II with its picturesque old buildings and the canals which ran all through the city. My favorite playing spot was always around one of the canals watching the small boats, which were loaded with merchandise and getting unloaded into the warehouses. Most of the warehouses were built next to the canals. The warehouses used dumbwaiters to unload their cargo. In those days the canals were very important to the city, as most of the merchandise came on the big ocean liners and was transported by small boats all over the city. All the sewage outlets of the buildings ran into the canals, and it was a haven for the city rats. I spent many hours watching the rats play in the canals and along the warehouse buildings. The canal rat was one of the greatest pests in the city. I must have given my mother many scares. Whenever she was looking for me she could always find me below on the canal concrete steps. Those steps started from the street level so people could get into their boats, as they had them anchored in the canals. As for me, it was very easy to slip into the canal, and that was what worried my mother the most. Despite the many times she told me not to play there, she could always find me there.
I remember the open markets on the street in the center of the city. There were always so many interesting things to see. I remember when my father bought me five little baby ducks for five cents apiece. I played with them in our apartment, and my father made a small water basin for the baby ducks to swim.
In the summertime on weekends my parents would rent a bicycle around the corner of our building where there was a bicycle shop, and we should spend our weekend at the beach. The beach was just a bike ride away from the city. I would sit in front of my father's bike in one of those specially made kiddie seats. The beach we spent our weekends at was called "Schiedam" and on the North Sea. It was an open beach for the public. My father was a very good swimmer and he always took me for a swim into the ocean.
I just started elementary level of school, and my parents decided to put me in a good education level of schooling. I came from the Montessori kindergarten school, and my parents put me in an advanced education elementary school supervised by the strict Jesuit Fathers. My education program looked so good for the future until a year later when the clouds of World War II started to drift all over Europe.
Holland was promised neutrality by the German government. All along, the Dutch people knew that Hitler would invade their country one day. As the Dutch government had never prepared themselves for any war, when the feeling started coming of a German invasion, they started to draft many men into the army. My father was drafted into the Dutch cavalry. Since the coming of the war was in the air, my mother moved to another section of the city for safety reasons. In case of war, the center of the city would be hit first, because there was a large base of marines stationed there. In the meantime, my oldest sister was born, and therefore we had to move also.
There are many ways of getting into the city of Rotterdam, but you always have to cross a bridge. One of the main rivers around Rotterdam is called "De Maas" and it is one of the biggest export rivers into the European cities. When the Germans invaded Holland, they planned to occupy all of Holland in one day, as they knew that the Dutch army was not prepared for any war at all. But when the German army got to Rotterdam they met stiff opposition from a small group of fierce fighting Dutch marines who would not give up the bridges for the German army to cross into Rotterdam. So all of the people who lived in Rotterdam were trapped, because there was no way of getting out of the city without crossing those bridges. The German Army tried everything to occupy the city. They dropped hundreds of paratroopers, but most of them were killed before they hit the ground. Those paratroopers were just an open target for all the Dutch soldiers stationed around Rotterdam. After two days of fighting, and the Dutch marines had not given up an inch of their occupied bridges, we knew something bad was going to happen.
I clearly remember the street we lived on. It was called "Plantagestraat". We lived on the top floor in the building. My mother was preparing lunch for us, when suddenly this terrible noise of low flying planes streaked right over the roof of our building. Those Germans flew so low that they took the chimney off our roof. Before we knew what was happening, the whole building was shaking. Those German bombers were dropping their bombs on the marine base which was only several streets away from us. This was our first experience of getting bombed. It was a sneak attack by the Germans, and many of the marines on base lost their lives.
All along, we knew our time of getting bombed out was coming, as the German army was getting very impatient by being stopped in their drive of taking the city of Rotterdam by a few fierce fighting Dutch marines. For safety reasons, my mother decided that it would be much better for us to move to the first floor, which was on the street level. In most buildings at the time there were no basements because the city of Rotterdam is built below sea level. So the first floor is more like a storage room or garage.