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Fifty Years of My Life (1939 - 1990)
A Memoir by Jeff R. Noordermeer

The destruction of Rotterdam by German forces

The German army had given the Dutch marines a last ultimatum of surrendering all the bridges, or the city would be bombed. The marines were too proud to give up their bridge position as they were well known for their bravery. The Dutch marines were highly looked at by the Dutch people. It was one of the best trained elite armed forces at the time in Holland. They were specially-picked men who had to join and sign for a six-year duty. Before the war, most marines were sent overseas for colonial duties on Dutch territories like Indonesia. The Dutch marine corps was one of the oldest in the world. It was established during the birth of the East Indies Company. So their tradition was never to give up, and would fight until the last man.

Rotterdam after the 1940 bombing 
Rotterdam after the 1940 bombing

We sat on the first floor with some other neighbors and listened to the radio about the latest news. We just waited for the German bombers to come. My mother was holding my sister who was just six months old, and I carried a pillowcase filled with baby clothes and some family papers and pictures. As we all prayed nervously for God's help, the noise of planes in the air could be clearly heard everywhere. All of us were sure it would be the end of our lives. My mother told me years later that I asked her: "Mom, are we going to die now?" Not too far from us we could hear the fire bombs being dropped, as the front and back doors of the storage room kept swinging open due to the air pressure. Then suddenly bombs started to fall around us. Everything started to shake as if there was a big earthquake. We thought the whole building would collapse on top of us. Then there was a direct bomb hit on our building. I will never forget that moment in my life for as long as I live. As my mother held us close together, the whole building shook back and forth and then it started to collapse completely. We all thought we were going to die.

There are no words to explain the fear and the drainage of emotions and nerves you go through in such a moment. One of our neighbors who sat with us in our storage room, before the bombing she had completely dark hair, and after the bombing her hair had turned all white.

As our building collapsed, we were very lucky to get out of the rubble. Had we used a basement for shelter, we would never have gotten out of the rubble alive. We were right next to the street and that had helped us a lot. As we got out of the rubble and into the street, all the buildings around us were burning. A grocery store right across from our building was all bombed out. While we were passing by, my mother told me to go into the store and pick up as many groceries as I could carry. All the groceries were all over the place.

Down the street from us was a park where during the summertime we would go for walks or picnics. All around the park was an old handmade iron fence. It was totally destroyed by the bombings. My mother took us straight into the park, as the German planes were still bombing and shooting at the Dutch soldiers. It was very dangerous for us to walk through the bombed out and burning streets. Once we were in the park many covered artillery and soldiers were shooting at the German planes. Every time a group of German bomber planes flew over, we had to cover ourselves under trees or bushes so that the German planes couldn't see us, otherwise we might mistakenly be recognized for Dutch soldiers and shot at. The sky was filled with German planes. When the planes had passed, we would continue our walk to get out of the burning city. We only stayed in the park for a little while until the air had cleared of all the German bombers.

As we moved through the burning city streets, every street we walked through was burning. People with torn clothes and covered with blood were coming out of bombed out buildings and just following the stream of people who all were fleeing the city and heading for the beach. I will never forget this scene for as long as I live. The sky was just like an open fire and completely red in color. Left and right of us were buildings burning and you could see the force of the flames sparking out of the buildings. This is something you don't want to write or talk about, but within me this death walk will never leave my mind.

For two and a half hours the Germans kept bombing the city. From twelve o'clock noon until two-thirty a relentless rain of death poured from the skies. After the bombing was over, more than 26,000 buildings lay in wreckage. Nearly 25,000 men, women and children lay dead in the street or buried under the masses of rubble. Eyewitnesses who escaped from Rotterdam reported that even after streets had been cleared of their heaps of dead, there was still an average of 1,800 bodies a day being dragged from the ruins for a period of seven days. That the Germans were trying to wash the blood strains of guilt from their hands was proved by the tight censorship they placed on the graveyard city. The green-clad Dutch troops, who had stood throughout the bombing with their feeble rifles pointed at the skies, watched a city with a population of nearly 600,000 become a flaming furnace. Many of the Dutch soldiers around the city of Rotterdam wept as they surrendered to the Germans. Holland's combined armed forces, estimated at about 400,000 men, were hardly able to stem the German mass attacks of armored columns and airplanes. What the Germans had planned for an invasion in one day for Holland took them five days against some determined, stubborn Dutch people.

As we reached the beach, the Red Cross people were waiting for us. They made shelters from tree branches where we had to cover ourselves until the Germans had complete control over the city of Rotterdam. My father had run away from the Dutch army before the Germans could take him as a prisoner of war. My father had witnessed the bombing of Rotterdam and after the bombing went to our apartment building and found that completely in rubble. Our family declared us dead, not knowing that we had survived the bombing. My father looked all over the city to find a trace of us. Finally, from the Red Cross, he was able to locate us on the beach. The Germans never found out that my father served in the Dutch cavalry. Most of the Dutch marines and some soldiers of the infantry avoided being taken prisoner by the German army, and were able to take a Dutch navy or merchant marine boat to England. The Dutch soldiers who were captured by the German army were later all set free to go home.

When my father found us back at the beach, he took us to the outside section of Rotterdam which was not as heavily damaged as the central part of the city. Many of the buildings were empty, and since we had nowhere to stay, we just moved into one of them. As soon as the owner found out that we had moved into one of his empty buildings, we were put on the street again. These were our own Dutch people who knew that we were bombed out. So the Red Cross took care of us again and we were moved from one building to the other. After the bombing of the city, there weren't many housing accommodations around Rotterdam.

My mother came from the southern part of Holland which was called the province of Limburg. As a young girl she had moved to Rotterdam for better job opportunities. In Rotterdam she met my father. My father was a diehard Rotterdammer and never wanted to move away from that area, but the war changed things. The town of Heerleen where my mother came from was very close to the German and Belgian borders. The province of Limburg was known for its coal mining and farming industries. Because of the coal mines many immigrants from eastern block countries had moved to this part of Holland before World War II. All of my mother's family lived in the province of Limburg. When my mother's family found out that we had survived the bombing of Rotterdam, they told my father and mother to move to Limburg. The province of Limburg had hardly suffered any damage from the German invasion. With a war going on and so many farms around, my mother's family felt it would be much easier for us to survive in that part of the country, especially in case of a food shortage which would be very hard in the big cities.

My father was born and raised in Rotterdam and all his family lived there. He never wanted to leave that part of the country, but for the better of all of us he moved away. It was very uncomfortable for my father to leave Rotterdam and move to Limburg. In those days there wasn't too much of a love feeling between the Northern and Southern people. Even in the daily spoken Dutch language you could pick out a Northerner from a Southerner. If a Northerner moved into a Southern neighborhood he was treated like an outcast.

As we left Rotterdam with just a few bundles of clothes to go to my grandparents home, at the train station were many German soldiers checking on passengers for their destinations. As young as I was, I couldn't stand the looks of those German uniforms, just thinking about what they had done to us in Rotterdam.

As I grow older, I always ask myself why we had to survive this bombing, as we lived in the central part of the city where thousands of people around us were killed. What was the reason that we had to stay alive?

There are so many mysteries about life which I could never fully understand. Certain things happen in life and they seem just to be a dream in later life like they never happened.

The first part of our train trip to Limburg we had to travel in cattle cars, as that was the only transportation available. On our next transfer we had passenger train cars, and our nest stop was Heerlen where my grandparents' home was.

CONTINUED: The war in Rotterdam and Limburg
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© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora

- Foreword
- Old Rotterdam
- World War II
- After the War
- Coming to America
- Washington, D.C.
- Southeast Asia
- Philosophy of Life

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