Ria Gonzalez was born while her town – located on the Frisian island of Texel in Holland – was occupied by Germany during WWII. Bombing by the Allies and occupiers was a constant, especially during the last two years of the war. The trauma she experienced stayed with her for decades. Her home was occupied by four Nazi officers, who the family housed, cleaned for and fed. “She did what she was expected to do,” Ria says of her mother. “You don’t say, ‘No.’ ” Interview: April 24, 2012, Springhill, Erie, Pa.
I was born in 1942 on an island on the North Sea, one of the Frisian Islands north of Holland. Germany invaded the island in 1942, so the first three years of my life were nothing but war experiences and I vividly remember many things from the last year.
On the island there were seven little villages and I lived in the middle, in the biggest village, called Den Burg. The island became very strategic when the Allied forces came into being. Coming in from England and Scotland, they crossed the North Sea and then flew into Germany over the islands. On the west shore, where the dunes protect the land, the Germans built huge bunkers about two miles apart to shoot down anything that tried to fly over. They were so huge, they’ve never been taken down. Now they have made stores out of them for refreshments on the beach. The Dutch don’t get rid of things! A few of them were bombed by the Allies, but there were quite a few bunkers left and for many, many years you couldn’t even walk on the dunes. It was all roped off because there were a lot of land mines.
We had one of the biggest homes on the island, and we had four officers living in our home. They just moved in, that was that, and my mother had to cook for them. There were five of us, my brother, sister and myself and my parents. The Germans lived in the front area and then they had bedrooms and they built a bomb shelter in our yard – just for them. They built a cement building and covered it with grass. We had to go down in our fruit cellar, in our house. We don’t have basements because of the water level. At that time there was no refrigeration, and so we had to go down to the fruit cellar and get very, very cold. They moved in and said, “You cook food for us and make sure that we eat every day.” My mother had to take care of their rooms and you know basically take care of the housekeeping. She did what she was expected to do. You don’t say no. Our parents told us to behave and just try and stay away and obey. But they spoke German and we only spoke Dutch and being only three years old when the war ended, I don’t remember ever even speaking – I would see one and I would just run away.
I was scared to death of everything; I was a very, very fearful child. When the war was over I was really very mentally traumatized, and I had it for years and years, horrible, horrible memories. It really wasn’t until I was in my 40s when I finally came to terms with these unexplained fears. I was afraid of thunder to the point where I would go and hide in a closets and fireworks – when I was growing up to they would just throw me into panic attacks. I went to see a psychologist and I said I know where its coming from and I can’t get it out of my system and that helped a lot, helped me understand these fears and feelings I had.
Toward the end of the war it seemed like we were getting bombed constantly. The worst years were 1944, 1945 and that is where I have most of my memories. We would be warned that a new bomb attack would come, somehow you had underground communication system going and my father was very much involved in the underground resistance movement and so we were always warned and then we would warn our friends and people that we knew in the town. Sometimes there were accidents where they lost the bombs or they missed the targets. You know they didn’t have the communication systems and technology like today.
Once, our house almost got bombed because a bomb went astray. It totally destroyed the house next door and then the Germans retaliated with their B1 rockets and I remember that very distinctly. It’s like a whistle sound comes over and you can hear them coming you know; it’s very frightening. The first two years of my life I just shook. I was terribly frightened cause it was constant, just horrible. All kinds of soldiers walking in our house with swords and I was just a little kid.
My father’s business was an agri-business. We didn’t live on the farm; it was only three miles away. We came to a point where we had to flee from the town and we would go to the farm. In the farm’s big barn they had built little rooms with bales of hay and then each family had their own little private area where they would live for a couple of days. We probably had 50 to 100 [rooms] at least.
The Germans had brought in probably a couple hundred Russian POWs to work on the island. The prisoners’ living conditions were so bad that they had an uprising thinking they could defeat the Germans, they just basically went berserk and that was a big battle. They had gotten guns somehow. I don’t know how they got the guns, but a lot of people on the island were sympathetic to their predicament and of course the Germans being the enemy. It was a major fiasco and a lot of people died, and a lot of local people died, too, who had been involved with it or suspected of helping them. The German thing was always just line them up and shoot them. The uprising lasted a couple of weeks and they lost because the Germans just brought in reinforcements. When you look at it in retrospect, it was a dumb thing to do, but people get to the point where life isn’t bearable anymore and you don’t care what happens, you just know you want to change this. You are going to try anything because living was so horrible that death becomes a friend. There is a section in the cemetery especially dedicated to these Russian POWs that died and every year still to this date a Russian delegation comes from Georgia because that’s a country now and does a memorial service at the cemetery.
We were lucky enough that we lived in a rural area and that my father was the head of the business and that he had the freedom and courage to bring flour and food and milk home, but it was all very little. I remember being hungry, just plain hungry and missing fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s amazing the ingenuity a person has to make things work and to grow things in your house in boxes. Things that were to be grown outside you are growing inside. We would put them in boxes and then take them outside for a couple of hours in the sun, and then bring them back inside again. We were luckier than people on the mainland where things were really bad. There was a home drive of taking in children, especially from big cities, and we had a girl we took care of in our home for a year after the war until things got more stabilized in Amsterdam. We still had trees that walnuts fell off, things like that. As locals we would go in the darker hours and pick food as we could.
My mother, I think, suffered the most because of the kind of personality that she was a very sensitive person. I think she died an early death because the war left such a fear in her. For years and years, we had a packed suitcase in front of the door ready to go because anytime we had to leave the house for bombing raids the suitcase came with us and had everything in it we would need as a family for survival. Clean clothing, some extra food of some kind but mostly clean clothing, toiletries, that was it. She would be very particular – there was a wash line so she could do the laundry, and she had a pan and washboard. It was a big suitcase, and the suitcase stayed after the war. We had it sitting by the door for 10 years and then when the Korean War started she was so afraid that it was going to turn into another world war. It was until the 50s when that suitcase was still sitting by the door packed ready to go.