Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Great Grandmother (by Rocky Lubbers)

Recently, my son Rocky had to write a memoir about a person that has influenced his life. Although he had only met his great grandmother once at a very young age, her stories are alive and well in our household. Oma, as we used to call her, was a remarkable yet simple person.

World WarII played an important part in oma's life. Oma was a quiet war hero--without question one of the righteous among the nations. Her life story makes us remember what's really important in this world. I feel proud and honored to have known her for many years and her sayings and memories will live on forever.

Here is Rocky's complete memoir:

My Great Grandmother

By Rocky Lubbers (7th Grade Creative Writing 1)

“Wat ze je leren, kunnen ze je nooit meer afpakken”
(What you have learnt, nobody can ever take away from you)
—Gebbechien Lubbers-Katoen

22 February 1945

On a beautiful winter day, just after lunch, the sound of approaching airplanes filled the sky. Forty-three-year old, Bouwe Lubbers, rushed out of the house. “Quick, Geppy and Herman, let’s go outside until the planes are gone,” yelled Bouwe to his wife and his twelve-year old son. Herman followed his dad quickly. “Just a moment,” said Geppy. “Let me just wash this last dish.”

The noise grew stronger, almost deafening. To the relief of many people gathered on the streets, the planes were not German; instead, they bore the insignia of the Allied Forces, shimmering in the sun. The English bombing plane circled overhead. Once. Twice. When the plane emerges above the trees for the third time it is so close that Herman can see the pilot’s face.

The Allied forces had received a tip that Nazi General of the Luftwaffe, Friedrich Christian Christiansen, who was in command of the German Wehrmacht might be among the German soldiers gathered for lunch at the Nazi administrative headquarters located close to the forest on the east side of town, just down the street from Bouwe’s house. Taking out this hot-headed general and the administrative headquarters would be a blow to the methodical Nazi war machine.

The bomb destined to wreak havoc on the Nazi headquarters is released. Bouwe yells for Geppy to come out of the house. “Just a little bit more dusting...” The bomb strikes with a massive blow. Bouwe and Herman hold their breath as the world moves around them in slow motion. Instead of destroying the Nazi offices, the bomb has leveled Bouwe and Geppy’s house.

In an instant, Geppy is buried in the rubble.

A photo album and an illegal radio dangle from a tree, sixty feet in the air as a grim reminder of flashbacks and memories…

Early Days
My great grandmother Gebbechien Katoen (Geppy) was born on August 30th in 1907. She was the daughter of Hendrik Katoen (1876-1925) and Lammechien Tieman (1882-1911) and the older of two sisters. Jantje (later her name would become Janny) was her younger sister. My great grandmother was born in Emmen in the province Drenthe, located in the north-east of Holland, next to the German border. She would spend all of her life in Emmen.

Great Grandmother’s Mother--Lammechien Tieman*

At the age of 29, Geppy and Janny’s mother died. Great grandmother was only four years old. Her father, Hendrik, was a tailor and owned a hat store. He took care of the two girls. At an early age, Geppy and Janny started helping out in the store. When great grandmother was 18, however, her father passed away and the girls were left by themselves.

Great Grandmother's Father--Hendrik Katoen

Great grandmother and her sister continued to run the hat store that their father had left them. Her father had bought the house and the shop, so they were fortunate that they did not have to pay rent. The house was quite big, so they have would rent out rooms to guests—sometimes for several months and sometimes for just a few days.

Oma's Preferred Mode of Transportation--The "Gazelle" Bike

Great grandmother was very industrious. Apart from running the hat store, great grandmother would travel (often by bicycle) to nearby towns to by yarn and fabric that she would then sell for profit. Great grandmother always thought of creative ways to make a little bit money. For example, every Friday there was (and still is) a big market in the center of Emmen. In her days there were not too many cars. Instead, most people rode their bikes. Since it was not possible to take the bike with you to the market, great grandmother organized a place for parking bicycles behind her house. She crafted little cards that looked like raffle tickets and rented the parking space to the owners. It was a nice bit of extra income.

The Two Sisters—Geppy (left) and Janny (right)

Married Life
At age 23, great grandmother got married to Bouwe Jurrie Lubbers (1902-1968). They had one son, Herman Hendrik Lubbers (my grandfather, or as I call him, Opa) who was born on June 27 in 1934 in Emmen.

Great Grandmother with My Opa

After they got married, great grandfather took a job as finance department of the city of Emmen and eventually he would become the treasurer of Emmen. In those days it was not allowed for a woman to have a job when her husband was working at the local government, so they sold the hat store. You can see some historical pictures of their hat shop (The Iron Cap) on the Historic Emmen website.

Over the years, however, great grandmother had made some good connections with a big shop in the city of Groningen (about 60 km from Emmen). She would go there and buy all kind of fabrics for clothes and she would sell the fabric to her friends in Emmen.

To go to Groningen, great grandmother would not take the bicycle. Instead, she took the bus. Most of the time there were a lot of passengers and there was a long line at the bus stop. Over time, great grandmother became good friends with the bus drivers and sometimes, even though great grandmother stood in the middle of a long line, a bus driver would come to a full stop right in front of her so she could get in first.

Because great grandfather’s job included control of the “entertainment” (cinemas, theater, and so on) taxes for Emmen and the surrounding area, great grandmother and opa would often be able to get into shows and movies for free.

World War II
In 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland and after they bombed Rotterdam for a few days, the Dutch surrendered. The Nazis set up administrative offices in a lot of towns, including Emmen. Living in the rural countryside in the north east of Holland, life was slightly better than for the people in the cities in the west. Over time, the Nazis became more and more oppressive. They started their systematic killing of all Jewish people, by sending Jewish people to concentration camps. One of these camps was located in Drenthe (Westerbork).

A lot of families in the countryside offered housing for kids from the cities and through this program, my grandmother—oma—came to live with a family that was close friends with great grandmother and great grandfather—this is basically how my opa and oma first met.
The Nazis were after a lot of people, but two groups in particular stood out: Jews and Resistance fighters. In all of Holland, and also in Drenthe, the resistance was an underground group of people that would free prisoners (from the Nazis) and try to derail the Nazi plans in general, by blowing up train tracks and creating false papers for Jewish people. Some of the resistance fighters had a price on their heads. In Drenthe, the main resistance group was called Knokploeg Drenthe (Fight-Team Drenthe).

At the same time, not all the Dutch people were fighting the Nazis. A group of people called the NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging)—a fascist political movement in the Netherlands—supplied the Nazis with information against their fellow Dutchmen. In other words, they ratted out their countrymen by spying on them and informing the Nazis if they saw somebody do something that the Nazis had ordered the Dutch not to do (for example, hiding Jewish people to save them from deportation)

Great grandmother and great grandfather did what they felt was the right thing to do and they provided shelter for a lot of Jewish people and resistance fighters (specifically the ones from Knokploeg Drenthe). They did this without question, yet risking their own lives. Some of the most prominent figures of the resistance were placed in their care as they moved from one house to another trying to escape the Nazis and the NSB tipsters. Hiding people was a very risky business. If the Nazis found out, the people sheltering the Jews could be sent to a camp or be shot to “set an example.”

Because food was heavily rationed, it was very hard to get enough food to feed the people that great grandmother and great grandfather were hiding in the attic. Therefore, great grandmother would bike all around Emmen to go to farms to pick up food and milk. She had to routinely stop at German road blocks and explain what she was doing with all the food she was carrying, but she always came up with an excuse and she would alternate where she was going to avoid suspicion. Above all, they would keep their resistance support efforts completely secret. To avoid nosy NSBers finding, they did not tell anybody. Even my grandfather—opa—who was only 10 at the time, did not know much.

For their efforts, great grandmother and great grandfather were written up as heroes in the book titled “Knokploeg Noord Drenthe.” They were the quiet and modest kind of hero that never raised a fist or a gun, but quietly made sure that their county’s honor was defended. The book also tells the story about one of the biggest Nazi prison breaks in Assen, Drenthe (the town were my father was born). Great grandmother and great grandfather hid some of the key resistance fighters that masterminded the prison break.

The book that Mentions My Great Grandparents

The allied-forces decided to bomb the Nazi administrative offices in Emmen. Unfortunately, the English plane dropped the bomb a few seconds too late and it was accidentally dropped on great grandmother and great grandfather’s house and the house of their neighbors’.

At that time two young girls (two my opa’s cousins from the town of The Hague) were staying at great grandmother’s house because there was not a lot of food in the west of the Netherlands. Just before the bomb was dropped, they all had lunch and one of the girls went next door to play with the neighbors’ daughters. The oldest cousin stayed with my opa and great grandfather and joined them outside when they heard the planes.

When the bomb struck, the two houses were instantly ruined. The neighbors’ two children and opa’s youngest cousin died instantly and great grandmother was buried in the rubble. Outside, opa and his cousin were also covered by pieces of debris and ashes. Things were flying all over the place. Great grandfather did not get hurt and started looking around for Herman and saw a small piece of his jacket sticking out of the debris. With supernormal strength, he pulled Herman out of the debris. Herman had broken his arm, but was otherwise all right. The cousin that had been with them was fine, too.

In a bizarre turn of events, the father of the two cousins, Remmert, who worked at the train station in The Hague, had decided to visit his girls, because he missed them. In those days, the only way to get around was by bicycle and even many bicycles had been repossessed. Remmert made the almost 300-kilometer journey from The Hague to Emmen by bike and arrived at the end of the great grandmother and great grandfather’s street just hours after the bomb had been dropped. The street was closed off by the Nazis, and when he said where he wanted to go, they waved him through. Showing up only an hour after this tragic accident was an incredible shock for Remmert.

One very fortunate event was that some of the major resistance fighters that had been staying at great grandmother and great grandfather’s house had just been moved to another location a few days earlier. At the time of the bombing their attic was empty—something that was quite rare.

Great grandmother was declared dead by the rescue workers that came to assist. As the bodies of the dead children were hauled out and placed in boxes, the rescue workers and a doctor gave great grandfather their condolences. Great grandfather, however, wouldn’t have any of it! “Take her to the hospital,” he insisted. “It’s no use, she’s dead” replied the rescue workers. She looked dead and her jaw had been fractured. The fact that they were able to pull her out from under the collapsed two-story house was amazing enough by itself. The rescue workers and the doctor tried to carry her off again, but great grandfather insisted once more and, because he was a very well-respected member of the community of Emmen, they finally gave in and transported great grandmother to the hospital.

Two months later, great grandmother woke up out of her long coma. She lived until she was 94 and survived her husband and her sister…

After the War
After the bombing, Great grandmother and great grandfather temporarily moved to another house in Emmen and over the years, they rented many different houses in Emmen. All in all, Great grandmother lived at 11 different locations in Emmen.

My great grandmother and great grandfather were happily married and Great grandmother spent her days as a housewife and looked after her son, Herman (Opa). Great grandmother loved to cook and bake. Her pastries were delicious and very famous among family and friends. My great grandfather died in 1968 in Emmen. He was a smoker and died from lung cancer. That was very hard for Great grandmother, but she pulled through it and adjusted to life on her own.

Great Grandmother Loved to Read

She loved to take extra good care and pamper her family. For example, when the family would stop by before going on a trip she would give them bags full or sweets for the whole trip. She even had a special “goodies-closet” filled with cake, cookies, chocolates and other tasty delights. She also canned vegetables and kept a big supply of pickled vegetables and cans in the basement of her house to be eaten in winter.

Great grandmother was very fond of flowers and she would always have some in her house and in her garden. Saving was also one of the priorities in her life. They were not rich, but great grandmother and great grandfather never borrowed money.

Great grandmother was a member of the reformed protestant church and she would always go to the church services on Sundays (twice a day). She followed the church rules, but every once in a while she would make a small exception. For example, members of her church were not supposed to have a Christmas tree, but great grandmother bought a (small) tree when her grandchildren came over, because she knew they would love it. “It can’t be in the tree” she would comment.

Later in Life
Great grandmother kept bicycling until she was around 80 years old. There was a four-day, 160K bike tour once a year in Emmen and great grandmother rode and finished that event until she was in her late seventies! She suffered from Rheumatism and it became harder and harder for her to move around.

Great Grandmother and my Oma on the Bike

Great grandmother also enjoyed speaking the dialect of the province of Drenthe, which almost sounds like another language. There was a special club (‘t Aol Folk) for mostly older people that organized game nights, folk dancing, theater, and other fun events and they celebrated the Drenthe dialect and life in Emmen and the surrounding areas in general. Great grandmother really enjoyed meeting with the other people that she had known for decades. Because she lived to such an old age she saw many of her friends die and that caused her a good deal of suffering.

Until the end, Great grandmother remained very sharp mentally and she would always quote her father and her mother in law and other wise sayings. For example, “Nobody is ever too old to learn something new,” and “He who saves something, always has something.”

Great grandmother died on August 26 2002 In Emmen, just a few days before her 95th birthday.

My Meeting with Great Grandmother
When I was very small (1 year old) I met my great grandmother. It was in September 1998 in Emmen. Unfortunately, I don’t remember it, but I am told that great grandmother was very overjoyed to see both me, my brother Sean and my cousin Gabriella (my other cousin Elektra had not been born yet). Until the end of her life great grandmother had all kinds of pictures from her family and her grandchildren on her cabinet.

Since we live in America and my aunt and my cousins live in Sweden, we were not able to visit great grandmother that often, but when we did it was always very nice. And of course she continued to pull delicious treats out of the goodie-closet!

The Author (Rocky), Reaching for the Pictures on Great Grandmother’s Cabinet

* Photographs courtesy of Herman Lubbers
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