An Unlikely Veteran

 My father, Hans Bouricius, was born in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1921. When the Netherlands were made part of the greater German Reich in May of 1940, he was nineteen, and about to join the navy. Unfortunately, the Royal Netherlands Navy had just moved to England.

After capitulation, life returned more or less to normal for most Dutch citizens–for a short while. Unemployed males, however, were almost immediately sent to work in the German war industry, initially with help from the Dutch government unemployment service–a highly staid bureaucracy: if you refused work in Germany, you would not get unemployment benefits or social security. Until November, 1942, Dutch students were not forced to do this. Hans thus decided to do the next-best thing to joining the Navy, and attended Merchant Marine Academy Abel Tasman in Delfzijl, in the far northwestern reaches of The Netherlands.

Many Dutch merchant marine ships were outside of the Allied blockade, either on some ocean or held up by the British Navy. Yet, about half the Dutch coastal trading fleet had been caught in the Netherlands and was commandeered by the occupier. Many ships were sent into transport service for the German military, but others were simply forced to keep doing their work for the new boss. Moreover, the families of the captains and crew were essentially held hostage to ensure their willingness to stay in convoys of the Axis powers.

Nevertheless, once in a while a ship changed course–these were and are called Engelandvaarders and they are seen as heroic. About 1,700 people tried to get to England to join the fight, but only 152 made it before D-day. Few were able to simply cross the North Sea. On average, the trip took about a year, according to research available through the Dutch National Archives. The film Soldier of Orange is based on the life of the most famous of these, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema.

Hans graduated in 1942. Just in time for the “Arbeitseinsatz" (forced labor) to really get going. Increasingly, the German war industry, led by Albert Speer, simply demanded tens and then hundreds of thousands of Dutch workers. As of November, 1942, these included students–and in December of 1942, all Dutch males born 1918-1922 had to go. Dutch businesses were no longer allowed to employ them.

Sailing would be better. However, volunteering to work for the now-German merchant marine was essentially treason, since the ships were engaged in supporting the war effort rather than, for instance, feeding the Dutch population. After having discussed his predicament with a government agency to check for correctness, Hans shipped as a deck hand to get his hours for a third mate's license.

When Hans talks about this, he never addresses the whys and wherefore of his choices, nor does he explain them. I have done a bunch of research to figure out what his choices were at particular moments. When talking or emailing with him (he winters in Aswan, Egypt), I have all sorts of questions that have to do with the mundaneness of foreign occupation. How can you talk to the government when the real thing is in England? Wasn’t it difficult to discuss that with someone, since it could have been grounds for dismissal and worse to talk of German defeat? How does this work? Who do you go to? But Hans is quite casual about it all: he asked, they answered–he signed up.

Nonetheless, this is a kind of political correctness that has of supreme importance in the Netherlands for the past sixty and more years. In November of 1978, Willem Aantjes, founding member and leader of the Christian Democrats, was forced to resign because of his behavior during the War–which could, like that of Hans Bouricius, be interpreted as volunteering to enlist with the enemy. Aantjes lost his career over it. Hans, however, ended up in more immediate trouble.

He signed on to go to Sweden–which was still possible, via Kiel, and one route of communication and even escape for some across the blockades. "Some people" (Hans’s words) asked him to take letters to family members in England. This was obviously a strict no-no under German occupation, and he had stipulated that there could not be any information in any of these. Hans says he wasn’t being heroic, you just did what you could do and “sometimes something went wrong.”

Something did. The letters were found. Hans was arrested, interrogated, and sent to jail. After a while he and some others were shipped off to the only SS camp in Northwestern Europe: Vught. Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch was for tens of thousands of Jewish-Dutch the first step to the end. It still exists. After the war, the barracks were used as a refugee camp for Germans, then as a refugee camp for South Moluccan families until the 1970’s. Currently, the location sports a high security prison once again – housing WWII Nazi prisoners and now Mohammed Bouyeri, the murderer of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh. Part was opened as a National Memorial in 1990.

One of the sections of the camp, established in August 1943, was a temporary police prison, where Hans was sent with a large group of other prisoners, by train. He received a number, P833, and had to work under duress, but that was about it. After a few months he was given a train ticket home. Yet another few months later he received the judgment: he'd been sentenced to three months in prison–time served–for “sending letters out of the country without mediation of the Dutch mail system.” He was judged by laws, he says, that he did not know, and that did not apply to him. “Just like many of the people in Guantanamo Bay today,” he says.

In any case, things got a little "hot in Holland," what with Hans having been born in 1921, so he volunteered for a company that worked for the German Navy office in Normandy, was accepted, got papers and a ticket to LeHavre. In Paris, Hans says, "I made a lateral move and went to people whose name I had been given in Holland who had connections with the Resistance: I went underground."

With Paris, Hans was liberated in 1944. The Dutch consulate in Paris sent him to London to take ship. There, he says, I made the mistake of joining the military." When asked why this was a mistake, he shrugs (metaphorically, he's in Aswan), "well, I had my papers for third mate–I could have done some actual war work at sea–which also counted as militairy service–rather than in a suit at some kind of RAF training." Hans saw no further "action." In August, 1945, he was demobilized. He's a veteran–a veteran of being sent hither and yon as a pawn of world events. A veteran of not trusting government agencies and yet wanting to fight for your country. A veteran of the intense confusion between "ought to" and "ought have."

Author: Pleun Clara Bouricius

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