Geschichte auf deutsch, Cuento en español, Histoire en français, Historia po polsku, Оповідь українською, Рассказ на русском
Story by Marichka Melnyk
Illustrated by Kateryna Sova
On the Border Between Two Worlds
The first Russian soldiers appeared in my village north of the capital city Kyiv at dawn on February 25, 2022. I awoke around 5 am to the crescendo of rumbling engines and rattling windows. The fold-out sofa bed I was lying on started shaking and soon it felt as if the whole house was shuddering. Carefully peering out the window from behind the curtains, I saw a slow-moving but constant, never-ending convoy of armored personnel carriers, tanks, self-propelled artillery, Grad rocket launchers, fuel trucks, tractor trailers, amphibious rigs, vehicles carrying radio jamming equipment. And a sea of trucks carrying soldiers. All the vehicles were emblazoned with the letter “V” in white paint.
My mind and body were paralyzed by the sight. My brain couldn’t piece together a sentence and my fingers couldn’t type the letters on my phone. I sent a message about the movement of enemy vehicles through our village to the Facebook page of the ground forces of Ukraine’s army. I must have typed those sorry 14 words at a rate of about one word per minute, and then I spent half an hour waiting for a reply (don’t ask me why I thought someone would actually reply).
One could only guess what path the Russian soldiers had taken on their way to our village, but their next destination was obvious. My parents’ house, from which, barely breathing, I watched this terrifying scene, is on route P02, part of the road which leads directly to Kyiv. On any normal day, it takes just under an hour to reach the capital.
This procession however, went on for two and a half hours. They didn’t hang around for long and left behind the first (and, unfortunately, not the last) bullet-ridden car – a white 1998 Opel Corsa that had carelessly driven towards them. The man behind the wheel and the woman in the front seat were killed. They were shot 200 meters from my home. After 30 seconds of machine-gun fire, followed by the sound of the deafening grind of metal and shattering glass, the Russian invasion moved on.
The subsequent caravans that drove through the village had fewer vehicles. Earlier, they just passed through, but after a while they started stopping – sometimes to wait for those lagging behind or to set up a field kitchen. But mainly they took cover alongside people’s houses from shelling by the Ukrainian military, which had formed a buffer to stop the enemy from entering the capital.
We couldn’t see all of this, but we heard it.
By we, I mean my Mom, my Dad and myself. And also, my brother Andriy and his wife, my sister and her husband Oleh, and my two nieces and one nephew. They came to the village immediately after Russia fired missiles at our military airports and depots on February 24th, thinking it would be safer to ride out the war here rather than in Kyiv.
“Riding out the war,” we quickly became sensitive to the faintest vibrations and could predict the approach of enemy columns before they appeared on the horizon. We spent the time the Russian military was in the village lying on the floor of our veranda (the room in my parents’ house farthest from the street) or sitting in the cellar. On the first day we carried down two wooden pallets, old mattresses, pillows, blankets, candles, matches, a 19-liter sized bottle of drinking water, the kind you’d find in an office on top of a water cooler, and a scoop shovel.
We chose our hiding spot depending on the proximity and intensity of shooting.
Every minute spent in expectation of danger seemed like an eternity, with no beginning or end. Every onset of darkness dredged our inner anxiety, with hundreds of visions of unpleasant scenarios that awaited us if Ukraine fell. Every sunrise brought the hope all of this was just a nightmare, and we would soon wake up to no war. But those hopes were futile.
The electricity and phone service went out in our village on the morning of the third day of the Russian invasion, and along with them the opportunity to help our defenders by giving them information about the enemy’s movements. The only remaining option was to “help” the Russians find their way around. Armed with a crowbar, my brother Andriy and brother-in-law Oleh went to remove road signs. Their first expedition went off without a hitch, but the next one…
In the afternoon on February 28, 2022, another horde, driving down both lanes of the two-lane highway, turned off the main road and took up positions in our village. Soldiers with guns broke into almost every other house, brazenly telling the owners, “We’re moving in!” They parked their vehicles in the local park and turned the school and community center into a command post and military hospital. By nightfall, there were checkpoints on all the streets, regardless of whether they were main roads or small lanes. Machine gun fire rang out from time to time.
We were under occupation.
Andriy and Oleh started heading back from their “special operation” around dusk. They were no more than 150 meters away from home when an armored personnel carrier and a military jeep stopped on Bila Street, which they needed to cross to get home. Half a dozen soldiers poured out of the vehicle to meet them.
There was no doubt to whom these soldier’s swore allegiance. Covered in orange and black ribbons like fleas on a dog, the language they spoke gave them away – the tone, rhythm, tempo, and accent weren’t the same as “our” Russian.
My brother and brother-in-law dropped the crowbar and tried to hide behind a nearby fence unsuccessfully. They were caught and searched, forced to strip to the waist. The soldiers checked for “Nazi” tattoos and marks on their skin from the kickback of a gun or a bulletproof vest and looked for traces of gunpowder on their hands. They held them at gunpoint as they looked through the call logs, messages, and photos on their phones. Having found nothing incriminating, they let Andriy and Oleh go.
Before letting them go, one of the occupiers, an ethnic Buryat, said arrogantly “We’re here to bring order,” savoring each word. “Go and tell everyone!”
“Never. Never again in my life will I utter a single word in Russian. And I won’t respond to it either,” my brother summed up when he got home and recounted his experience.
Andriy is the oldest of the three of us. He’s three years older than my sister and nine years older than me. He was the first to leave our village to go study in one of the universities in Kyiv. I rarely think about the age difference, but it did have a major impact on certain things. Kyiv in 1998, when my brother moved there, and Kyiv in 2007, when I followed suit, were two very different cities linguistically. He had zero chance of not learning to speak Russian.
The whole family gathered on the veranda, where recently we began spending our evenings together.
The door was locked, the windows tightly covered with sheets and a candle on the table flickered, casting shadows on the walls. The rest of the house was completely dark. Everyone was fully dressed (to be ready to run to the cellar) and had their emergency “go bag” by their side.
Andriy sat on the chair next to me and I could feel his whole body shaking.
His shivering was passed on to everyone in the room. We all knew that his encounter with the Russian “order-restorers” could have ended very differently. There was a deep silence. My imagination was filled with gory images that made my stomach turn and I felt like I was walking on needles.
“All my colleagues speak Ukrainian,” I said to break the oppressive silence, taking a sip of tea from a coffee cup decorated with a “Mochy Mantoo” sticker.
“Most of the people where I work are Russian speakers, but they switch to Ukrainian with me,” my sister observed from the ottoman where she sat rocking her three-year-old daughter. “Although that change happened only recently, after the Maidan.”
“Hardly anyone in my office speaks Ukrainian, maybe two or three people,” my brother chimed in. “But from now on, they can go to hell with their Russian!”
“After all, if war isn’t reason enough to stop speaking Russian, then I don’t know what is,” I added. I was truly happy with Andriy’s decision, but I knew it was wrong to attribute it to the war. The war is in its ninth year, and he chose to speak his native language only when came face to face with that war.
Despite my attempts at conversation, silence again filled the room. But at least now the silence sounded Ukrainian.
“Is your water, okay?” I heard a neighbor ask my mother through the garden fence the following morning. A stranger stood next to her. My brother and I stood off to the side, listening to their conversation from our porch.
The neighbor’s name is Lesia. She lives one house away from us and is relatively new to our street, so I don’t know much about her. Lesia is from the Poltava region, under 40, twice married, twice divorced, and has two children. Those are the only facts I know about her – the rest are rumors. Supposedly, her first husband is in the militia of the ORDLO (the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). The second one, with whom she’s still living, is also a real winner. As soon as the first shots rang out, he took his biological son, the younger one, and went to his parents’ house deeper in the village, leaving Lesia behind with the older son.
“Are you kidding? You need electricity to pump water from the drilled well and the water from our dug well is rusty. I can’t remember the last time we cleaned it… You don’t have anywhere to get water?” my mother asked, concerned.
“I do! I’m staying at Serhiy’s place,” Lesia nodded at the man standing next to her, who turned out to be the neighbor on the other side of our garden. “He took me and Vitaliy in because everything we have is electric. It’s so cold in our house you can’t stop your teeth from chattering. He at least has a wood-burning stove…”
“What were you celebrating all night, almost ‘til dawn?” my mother asked. “The whole house was lit up and it was really loud and noisy.”
“Well the Russians came over last night. First they checked every nook and cranny in the place, then decided to take steam baths. We started up the generator in the yard and it was running half the night heating water so they could wash off the dirt from the road. They drank tea to warm up because they were freezing cold, but the water we have is no good for tea…”
“So you’re asking for water for whom exactly? The Russians?” my mother asked, puzzled.
“They’re okay guys!” Lesia stubbornly tried to convince my mother, as Serhiy vigorously nodded as if to add credence to Lesia’s words. “They didn’t know where they were going. Their leaders gave them rations for two days and told them they were being sent for training…” our neighbor was quoting Russian propaganda verbatim, oblivious to what she was doing.
“Okay guys?! What about the people they shot and killed, just like that, for no reason?!” Andriy burst out next to me. He turned around and stormed off before Lesia could respond. I stood there, lost in thought.
Serhiy’s house is on the street where the Russian soldiers crossed paths with my brother and brother-in-law. To the best of my recollection, it was once called Sovietska. They decided to rename it in 2015, before I moved back in with my parents. At first, I was happy to hear that decommunization was taking place in my village, like in the rest of Ukraine. But my excitement faded when I heard the new name: Bila (which means white). Seriously? If the goal was to pick the most meaningless and empty name possible, then my fellow villagers earned an A+ on the assignment. The only thing this renaming showed was their inability to reflect on the history of Ukraine in the 20th century and make a clear statement regarding the Soviet past.
And now we’re dealing with those direct consequences. Modern-day Soviets – the direct descendants of those who 100 years ago couldn’t accept the declaration of independence by the Ukrainian People’s Republic and forced the USSR on us – have literally come knocking on our doors, again armed with machine guns, declaring that “there is no such country as Ukraine.”
“Our guys left,” Lesia sighed forlornly, holding two thermoses of cold water above the wooden fence separating us.
Our village had been without electricity for three weeks now. My family was lucky – our house is hooked up to natural gas. But many people in our village, who relied on electricity for heating and cooking, had to improvise. For example, our neighbors on the right had to move their kitchen to the garden that stretches behind their house: the owner made a makeshift stovetop-oven out of bricks. They took Lesia in and her older son because Serhiy’s home had been taken over by the Russians.
To ration firewood, our neighbors lit the homemade stove only once a day, usually around lunchtime. They tried to make do with not eating, only drinking tea in the morning and evening. My mother invited our neighbors to use our gas stove, but they declined. From time to time they would ask us to heat some water for them, but that’s it.
“Why did Lesia suddenly start speaking Russian? And what guys left?” These thoughts flashed in my head as I headed toward the fence, carefully hopping between the white snowdrops and yellow and purple crocuses to avoid crushing the plants in my mother’s flowerbed. As I stepped with one foot onto a tree stump to reach for the water containers, I looked over to the other side – there stood my neighbor with an unhappy look on her face. “She really is sad. It’s not my imagination,” I thought.
Sad, but as they say in our village – in full combat splendor with black penciled-in eyebrows, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, blush, lipstick (or was it lip gloss?), her blond hair in a high ponytail, a manicure, new tracksuit, and lots and lots of lavender perfume.
Lesia’s appearance was in stark contrast to mine.
I hadn’t washed my hair in a week. It was so greasy you could fry an egg on it. When you have ten people living in a house instead of the usual three, every drop of shampoo is as valuable as gold. Forget about makeup – my face hadn’t even seen moisturizer for 18 days. My nails were cut down to the nub, but dirt still somehow found its way to make a home underneath them.
I was wearing my brother’s pants, which my mom at some point had altered for me, although they were still too long and I had to roll them up, and a stretched-out hand-woven sweater I had worn years ago as a student in university. I wanted to be warm and comfortable and not have to care about keeping my clothes clean when I went to the barn to help my parents with the goats (and I stank to prove it). Lesia, on the other hand, looked like she was getting ready for a date, or had just come back from one.
“Good morning!” I called out a greeting, as I grabbed the thermoses from Lesia… and immediately bit my tongue.
Over the past few weeks this normal greeting had become completely inappropriate. It flew out of your mouth automatically and left behind a bitter aftertaste, like you get after eating a grapefruit. It sounded like a gibe – what goddamn kind of “good” morning could there be when you hadn’t slept all night because you were counting artillery fire or enemy helicopters circling overhead instead of elephants and sheep jumping over a fence? People immediately followed with an apologetic “Well, if you can say that,” and dropped their gaze to the ground, as if covered in guilt. Once a neighbor said, “It’s a new day!” instead of the usual greeting, as he approached me with his one-and-a-half-year-old son. These words, in my opinion, better reflected our new reality, the one in which you didn’t know if you’d live to see tomorrow.
“Who left?” I asked Lesia as I leaned against the wooden fence pole trying not to fall over while balancing on one leg.
“Our guys…” I still had no clue who she was talking about because there weren’t any Ukrainian soldiers in our village. There were rumors about a detachment that was supposed to have deployed to our village, but our guys weren’t able to take up positions before the Russian soldiers came, and then it became impossible. She saw my raised eyebrows and explained: “The guys who were stationed here,” and pointed to the opposite end of the gardens, to
Sovietska Bila Street.
Her answer literally knocked me off my feet. I lost my balance and fell off the stump, trampling my mother’s flowers. “Am I hearing things?” I thought. I couldn’t believe my ears.
I didn’t get back up onto the stump to continue the conversation; instead, I quietly turned around and took the thermoses to our house to boil water for tea.
The wooden fence no longer provided a sense of protection nor seemed like a reliable barrier.
“There’s something I don’t get about Lesia’s behavior,” I opened the discussion at dinner when my family gathered on the veranda that evening. The conversation with our neighbor that morning was still bothering me.
“What don’t you understand?” my mother asked, as she stood by the open kitchen door preparing swill for the baby goats.
“For one thing, she calls the occupiers ‘our guys.’ She makes them tea so that the poor fellas don’t get too cold. She dresses up for them like a Christmas tree. She speaks Russian, which she never used to,” I sat on the ottoman next to the table, listing everything that confused me.
“Well, she’s a young, single woman. Maybe she’s looking for a husband. Her next one,” my sister-in-law suggested, shrugging her shoulders.
“Maybe, but… What if our neighbor is a collaborator?” I said, having found the courage to voice my suspicion.
“What does that word mean?” my mother asked.
“It comes from the English ‘to collaborate’ – to cooperate. A collaborator is someone – he or SHE,” I emphasized, “who cooperates with the enemy of their country during war. The word isn’t as widely used here because in the Soviet Union they were more often called ‘traitors of the Homeland’ or ‘accomplices of the fascists’.”
“Aren’t you being a bit extreme? What does Lesia have to do with that?” my mother tried to defend our neighbor.
“Mom, you can cooperate in different ways. You don’t necessarily have to dig trenches with the Russians or hand them artillery shells.” I was going to stand my ground. “In the USSR you could wind up on the list of ‘traitors of the Homeland’ for having been ‘lucky’ enough to be in Nazi-occupied territory… Ok, that isn’t a very good example.” I stopped myself at this point. “But there’s a better one if you’re ready to listen to me for a bit.”
I looked around and hearing no objections, I continued.
“Remember when I flew to the Netherlands last fall with my colleagues from work? I stumbled upon a really interesting exhibit called ‘The Ongoing War’ at the National Archives in the Hague. It was about the challenges the country faced after World War II and it motivated me to dig deeper into this issue…”
My mother put aside the plastic bucket with the baby goats’ dinner and sat down on the other ottoman next to me.
(In)visible children of (in)correct parents
“Welcome to Amsterdam on this special occasion!” an elegantly dressed man wearing a ceremonial medal of honor announced with a smile from the lectern in the Beurs van Berlage conference hall.
On Saturday, February 2, 2002, some 600 people – members of the royal family of Netherlands, the prime minister, government officials and parliamentarians – gathered in the premises of the former Stock and Commodities Exchange built at the turn of the 20th century in the heart of the city. Their attention was fixed on the speaker with the medal on his chest and the young couple sitting on the two chairs in front of him. The seated man was dressed in the ceremonial uniform of a Royal Navy captain and the woman was wearing a long ivory silk dress with a five-meter-long train, an expensive tiara and a lace veil. She held a bouquet of white roses, gardenias and lilies of the valley.
“Unfortunately for our English- and Spanish-speaking guests, we will, of course, be conducting the ceremony in Dutch. But it’s quite simple: the word for ‘yes’ in English and ‘sí’ in Spanish is pronounced ‘ja’ in Dutch – so you’ll have no problem understanding the most important part of this ceremony,” the man who had welcomed the guests joked in English, and the audience promptly responded with laughter.
Standing at the lectern was Job Cohen – the mayor of Amsterdam. He had the extraordinary honor of officiating the civil marriage ceremony of the Crown Prince of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander and his fiancée Máxima Zorreguieta of Argentina, who immediately after their marriage became the Princess of Orange-Nassau.
“This marriage is a confirmation of your union with the whole country,” Cohen continued in his native language, his words laced with hidden meaning. “You, the groom, are accustomed to your life always being public. For you, the bride, this is relatively new, although in recent months you got a taste of what all this entails (…) We hope that you will love this sometimes difficult but at the same time wonderful piece of land as much as you love the crown prince of this country…”
A few seconds later, with a strike of the ceremonial gavel, the mayor affirmed the exchange of their “I do’s” and the hall burst into congratulatory applause.
From the historical Exchange, which is now Amsterdam’s version of Italian palazzo pubblicos, the newlyweds headed to the Nieuwe Kerk church for the religious ceremony. This 15th century church in the city’s central Dam Square is the traditional site for all royal events: inaugurations, weddings and so forth. During the religious service, officiated by Court chaplain Carel ter Linden, the couple reaffirmed their marriage vows and exchanged the wedding bands given to them by Máxima’s brother.
Out of respect for the newlywed princess’s roots, at the end of the ceremony “Adiós Nonino” – a melancholic but very beautiful tango by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, was played. He wrote it in October 1959, a few days after receiving word of the death of his father while he was far away from home. For several decades this song has become deeply symbolic for Argentinians abroad, inspiring nostalgia for their homeland.
Thousands of Dutch people filled the streets of Amsterdam that day, waving orange flags and balloons, wearing orange-colored crowns, hats, and scarves to celebrate the wedding of their beloved prince. Accompanied by the honor guard, the couple took a small tour of the central streets in the royal carriage before returning to Dam Square – this time to the balcony of the Royal Palace, where they finally kissed to cheers and applause from the crowd.
At that moment, Willem-Alexander and Máxima looked truly happy. The only thing that could have marred this, the happiest day of their lives, was the absence of the princess’s parents. Her father was such an unwelcome guest for the Dutch that it was forbidden for him to attend his daughter’s wedding. Her mother also stayed away, out of solidarity with her husband. The newlyweds had to accept their absence – otherwise, their marriage may not have happened.
After falling in love and deciding to get married, Willem-Alexander and Máxima stepped onto a very sore spot that had been troubling Dutch society for over half a century, since the end of WWII.
When Hitler and Stalin launched their new war in Europe in the autumn of 1939, the Netherlands had hoped to remain neutral. But the subterfuge they used to remain neutral in WWI worked only for a very short period this time around.
After our country, with scrupulous conscientiousness, has observed strict neutrality during all these months, and while Holland had no other plan than to maintain this attitude, Germany last night made a sudden attack on our territory without any warning…
I and my Government will do our duty. Do your duty everywhere and in all circumstances, everyone to the post to which he is appointed, with the utmost vigilance and with that inner calmness and strong heartedness which a clear conscience gives.”
On May 10, 1940, this proclamation by Queen Wilhelmina – Willem-Alexander’s great-grandmother – was printed in all the local newspapers. Early that morning, German planes dropped the first bombs on Dutch cities. This became the start of a war that the country had tried so hard to avoid. The Royal Army fought back but could only hold out for several days. On May 14, they capitulated to Nazi Germany, and two weeks later the Reich Commissariat for the Occupied Dutch Territories was established. It would maintain control over the country until May 1945.
All this time, the queen, prime minister, and other members of the government were in exile. They managed to flee before the capitulation and rejected outright any peace talks with Germany. The rest of Wilhelmina’s addresses to the Dutch people were made from London, where the BBC launched the underground Dutch radio program “Radio Oranje.” She would speak on the radio more than 30 times during the war, and there wasn’t a single speech in which the queen didn’t thank the Royal Armed Forces for their heroic defense and the civilian population for their passive resistance to the occupation. This is why the Dutch often refer to her as the “mother of the Resistance” or the “mother of the homeland.”
The exact number of human losses suffered by the Netherlands in WWII remains unknown. Researchers propose the following estimates: 102,000 Dutch Jews and 215 Roma and Sinti were exterminated in Nazi death camps; 16,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians died as a result of military operations; 50,000 Dutch died from health problems worsened by the war; 15,000-25,000 didn’t survive the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945; 8,500 died performing forced labor in Germany; 2,000-3,000 were executed by the Nazis for being in the resistance. This is not a complete list. In total, there were about 250,000 victims (the population of the Netherlands in 1942 was around 9 million).
In the post-war period, the memory of WWII became a cornerstone of the national myth, which, like any other myth by nature, was supposed to unite Dutch society and build a sense of solidarity. It had two key elements: first, that all citizens of the country, not just the Jews, had been victims of the Nazi regime; second, that all citizens of the country had united as one, risking their lives to resist the occupiers.
This interpretation of their wartime experience fueled the belief that the Dutch were “the good guys” who made the right choice in difficult circumstances. They were heroes – and beyond reproach.
Seems pretty straightforward.
This version of history wouldn’t be controversial if not for the oversight of historical truths. First, that Dutch Jews had suffered disproportionately compared with the rest of Dutch society. Second, that some citizens had supported or cooperated with the Nazis. And so not everyone in the Netherlands was either innocent victims or heroic fighters for liberation.
“There will be no place for traitors in a liberated Netherlands,” Queen Wilhelmina asserted in one of her radio addresses from London. Having learned that thousands of Dutch were suspected of collaboration, she and Prime Minister Pieter Gerbrandy set out to draft legislation for the purpose of punishing the traitors even before the end of the war. They did this in advance, among other reasons, so that ordinary Dutch citizens didn’t act on their own, taking up weapons to exact fair retribution on the collaborators (although they weren’t able to prevent all cases of mob justice).
Four pieces of legislation were passed in late December 1943: the Decree on Extraordinary Penal Law, the Decree on Special Courts (including Appeals), the Decree on Extraordinary Justice, and the Decree on Pardons. Together with the Decree on Political Offenses, which was passed later in 1945, the legislation formed the legal basis for the specific form of justice that was administered in the Netherlands in the initial post-war years, at first by the temporary Dutch Military Administration headed by General Kruls, and later by the General Directorate of Special Justice of the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands.
It is estimated that up to 150,000 people designated by this special justice legislation as collaborators were arrested and forever branded as “incorrect” Dutch. They were placed in special internment camps such as De Vergulde Hand in Vlaardingen or in existing prisons, barracks, or camps. From April 1945 to December 1948 some of the detained members of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands and the Dutch who volunteered with the Nazi Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron – SS) and Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service – SD) were held in Westerbork. During the occupation, this was the main transit camp where the Nazis held Jews before they were sent by train to concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany.
There were 130-180 internment camps in the Netherlands. Initially, former members of the resistance served as guards. Many prisoners in these camps faced disease, malnutrition, and ill-treatment. At least 89 prisoners died in Westerbork in the first four months of their imprisonment. There is also evidence that those held in De Vergulde Hand were handcuffed and chained together day and night.
Were these isolated incidents or evidence of systemic abuse? In 1947, the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into Government Policy during 1940-1945 was created and tried to answer that question. Two years later, Baron van Tuyll van Serooskerken, who had been commissioned to investigate the conditions in the camps for the “incorrect” Dutch, wrote in his report: “Nearly everywhere the guards spared no effort to torture and mistreat defenseless people, using the same methods as the Nazis during occupation.”
But his report came a bit too late. Most of the internment camps had closed by then. And his conclusions didn’t fit with the prevailing heroic discourse in society at the time. The results of the investigation did not lead to any actions being taken by the authorities.
150,000 people had been arrested. There was no way that investigators, prosecutors and judges could have handled such an avalanche of cases. That’s why only a third of the potential collaborators – those accused of the most serious offenses – wound up in the defendant’s chair of special courts in Amsterdam, Arnhem, Den Bosch, The Hague and Leeuwarden. The rest didn’t face charges and were released after serving several months to two years in the internment camps.
The special justice courts handed down more than 14,000 verdicts. Many of them were against Dutch members of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands – NSB) – the only legal party during occupation which openly cooperated with the Nazis. In September 1943, the NSB had up to 100,000 members.
The guilty faced various sentences, from several years to life in prison, and even execution. In 1945 the Netherlands reinstated the death penalty in order to punish those guilty of the most serious military crimes and crimes against humanity. Most of the population welcomed this decision. A former prosecutor of the Special Court in Leeuwarden later recalled in an interview: “We were flooded with requests. We were offered gifts… in the hope that we could reserve seats in the gallery. The courtrooms were packed. Sometimes you could hear the spectators shout ‘Bravo!’ when a death sentence was handed down.”
The first official execution of a collaborator in the Netherlands was on March 16, 1946. That day the firing squad executed Max Blokzijl, the journalist and radio host who was responsible for Nazi propaganda in the occupied territories. On March 21, 1952, capital punishment was used for the last time on a member of the SS Andries Jan Pieters and the head of the SD in Friesland Artur Albrecht. They had both been implicated in dozens of cases of torture and crimes against humanity.
Many death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. Of the 145 people sentenced to death, only 42 were executed. The rest were granted royal pardons.
The only woman to be sentenced to death was Anna “Ans” van Dijk – a Jew who had been recruited by the Nazis. She pretended to be a member of the resistance to find out where Jews were hiding and then ratted them out to the occupation administration for a reward. She was one of the most famous “Jew-hunters” in Amsterdam, responsible for betraying the whereabouts of at least 145 Jews. At one point it was even rumored that she gave away Anne Frank’s hiding place, although this was never officially corroborated. To this day, the name Anna van Dijk is associated with betrayal.
Court trials weren’t the only forms of punishment that awaited the Dutch caught cooperating with the Nazis. According to a royal decree, special purification councils were established for the military, public service, police, press, business, creative professions, etc.
Some of the sanctions the purification commissions applied to collaborators included: deprivation of voting rights and participation in elections; confiscation of property worth 20,000 guilders; deprivation of the right to hold a managerial position in any company in any business sector for 10 years; deprivation of the right to claim assets co-owned with a spouse; deprivation of the right to work in journalism in any capacity; prohibition from participating in architectural tenders or being on the jury of such tenders for 3 years; forced retirement without the right to a pension; prohibition from any public professional practice, including membership in professional associations, for 6 years. The sanctions often came in different configurations and were an addition to internment, thus legitimizing the internment itself (post factum). Between 1946 and 1950, more than 60,000 Dutch were subject to special investigations. A third of them were punished and lost certain rights.
Looking back today, some people say the Dutch policy towards Nazi collaborators was too harsh, even cruel. But those who disagree have a counterargument: it was a necessary evil and now nobody can blame the Dutch for covering up for people who were guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or just being a Nazi supporter. And that makes sense. But you can find a weak spot in every assertion, and in this one, it’s the children of “incorrect” parents.
“I was born in Rotterdam and was the second daughter of a couple where the woman was a housewife and mother, and the man earned a living designing ships. Our home faced Feyenoord Stadium, which was in South Rotterdam which was often targeted in the bombardments of May 1940. My sister was born in February before the war. My parents had been married for almost two years at the time….
At the moment of my birth, my father was sitting at the foot of the bed, dressed in his NSB uniform. I was literally born in the shadow of a swastika and for years wondered how I was able to escape that shadow…”
The name of woman who wrote this is Gonda Scheffel-Baars. She was one of the first members of Stichting Werkgroep Herkenning (Foundation for Recognition) – an organization established in 1981 to help the children of “incorrect” parents. And, as you can see from her own words, she herself was the daughter of a collaborator.
Gonda’s father joined the National Socialist Movement of the Netherlands in January 1942. It’s difficult to say what motivated him: maybe he made this choice because he agreed with some of the new German ideology. Gonda remembers him being a racist and an antisemite who “continued to curse the Jews for years after the war.” Perhaps he was tempted by the economic dividends that came with membership in the party – the only one not banned by the Nazis. When the turning point came on the eastern front and the Soviet Red Army began pushing German troops out of the USSR, he volunteered to fight in the war because, among other things, he was rabidly anti-communist.
In autumn 1944, her father instructed her mother to take the kids and escape to Germany. She wasn’t the only one: 65,000 Dutch refugees, mostly families of NSB members, traveled there by special trains. But this didn’t save them – most returned a few months later. Some, like Gonda’s mother, ended up in the Hoogezand internment camp.
Locals stood alongside the road, shouting, and spitting at the women and children as they walked to the detention camp.
“They didn’t ask whether the women were guilty or not, or that maybe they opposed their husband’s political choices, as my mother did, but to no avail. They didn’t see us as children. If they had accepted us as children, they would have realized that we were innocent because we were beyond any political choice. But the suffering of five years of occupation clouded their vision…
This was the moment I was rejected by my own people when I stopped belonging to the Dutch people. We became exiles, and since then I have been emotionally without citizenship, although of course I still have a Dutch passport.”
Since Gonda’s mother didn’t belong to the party, she was released from the internment camp after about three months. While she was at the camp, her daughters lived with her sister in Amsterdam. They were lucky – if both parents had been accused of collaboration, the state would have taken the girls into custody. The Bureau for Special Youth Care in the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands administered the policy. From 1944 to 1945, 20,000 children of interned persons were separated from their parents: 8,000 went to children’s homes and 12,000 were placed with foster families.
Gonda, her sister and her mother were taken in temporarily by relatives: first by her grandmother on her father’s side, and then, reluctantly, by her mother’s parents. Her father was given a relatively short sentence for membership in the NSB and for making negative comments about Queen Wilhelmina. His imprisonment was shortened through amnesty. He was released in August 1948. The family was reunited but her parents’ marriage had been ruined, “like many marriages after the partners hadn’t seen each other for years.”
They moved to a small village where nobody knew about their past and her father could find a job more easily. The daughters went to school. That’s where Gonda learned “what the letters NSB meant and why we shouldn’t talk about certain things. It was then I learned in history class about the ‘heroes of the resistance and the bad guys who betrayed the country.’ And I realized that my father belonged to the latter. Before, we had been silent around others because we were afraid to say something ‘forbidden.’ But now we knew the reason why it was forbidden. Now we remained silent consciously. We were afraid that we would be rejected, like in Hoogezand. We isolated ourselves…”
Poor living conditions due to the confiscation of houses and property; money problems because of discrimination by social services, the labor department and employers; verbal and physical harassment by relatives, neighbors, teachers and classmates that resulted in social isolation; silence and emotional detachment within families – these were the realities that the children, and sometimes even grandchildren, of the “incorrect” Dutch were forced to grow up in.
Many of them never had trusting relationships with their parents or grandparents. They had fewer educational opportunities and greater difficulties starting a professional career. Insecurity, mistrust of others and anxiety over their origins prevented them from building their own lives.
The Stichting Werkgroep Herkenning was the first organization in the Netherlands to break the wall of silence around this issue. From 2008 to 2011 they recorded dozens of testimonies by descendants of “incorrect” Dutch, which are now available on the National Archives website. There you can find Gonda Scheffel-Baars’s full story.
It took a long time for the country to reach this point. Queen Beatrix – Willem-Alexander’s mother – was the only one to publicly acknowledged the stigma faced by this segment of Dutch society for the sins of their parents and grandparents. In her Christmas message in 1994 she said: “The strict image of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ that so often determines our opinion of the war is based on the past. Some made bad choices: fifty years on, subsequent generations still carry the scars of those choices.”
Queen Beatrix knew very well the possible consequences of a wrong choice made in the past. The Dutch protested when she married Jonkheer van Amsberg in 1966 because he was of German descent and, more importantly, had belonged to the Hitler-Jugend – the youth organization of the Nazi Party.
After this speech, the Dutch government issued the first state subsidy to support Stichting Werkgroep Herkenning. Several organizations representing members of the resistance or other victims of WWII were against this, but their opposition was not upheld – the subsidy was not canceled; instead, it was extended for several years.
There was even greater opposition among the Dutch when Prince Willem-Alexander was to marry Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti.
They met and started dating in 1999, and two years later the royal family announced the engagement of the heir to the throne. Not everyone in the country welcomed this news – the prince’s fiancée was the daughter of a former Argentine government official with a very shady reputation.
“People of the Netherlands!
These days I am often reminded of Hamlet’s words to his best friend: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Shakespeare couldn’t have conveyed my current thoughts any better. I am in a reflective mood, as I have a daughter who was only five when I became the deputy agriculture minister in 1976. A quarter of a century later, she fell in love with your crown prince, and now I am supposed to justify myself to you…”
This is the beginning of the letter that Jorge Zorreguieta sent in January 2001 to NRC Handelsblad, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the Netherlands. He went on to explain that Argentina was always an insane country and that even though he served in a brutal regime, he was never involved in politics – he always worked for the interests of Argentinian agrarians. In short, he spent his time branding breeding bulls – that’s it.
At the time, there probably wasn’t a single person in the Netherlands who wasn’t aware of the scandalous gossip: the father of the future wife of the Prince of Orange was accused of persecuting political opponents and crimes against humanity in his native Argentina.
Michiel Baud, a professor and Director of the Center for Latin American Research and Documentation at Amsterdam University, was commissioned by the Dutch government in September-December 2000 to conduct a special (secret) investigation and answer the following question: did Jorge Zorreguieta have anything to do with the mass disappearances, torture and other violence in Argentina’s Dirty War in the late 1970s through early 1980s.
The military junta headed by Commander in Chief of the Army Jorge Rafael Videla came to power in a coup in March 1976. An important role was played by the then economy minister, who was the direct superior of Máxima’s father. At the time, Jorge Zorreguieta was the deputy secretary of agriculture, and from March 1979 to March 1981 he was the minister of agriculture and livestock.
Human rights groups estimate that 15,000-30,000 Argentines disappeared during Videla’s rule. Some people were unlawfully arrested and imprisoned, where they were tortured and raped. Some were abducted, drugged and thrown from planes into the Atlantic Ocean. The fate of many victims of the military junta in Argentina remains unknown.
In Professor Baud’s report, published in January 2001, he writes that the future relative of the Dutch royal family “spent five years in a high-ranking political post, was actively and passionately committed to a regime that had been condemned at home and abroad for eliminating fundamental democratic rights and for mass human rights violations. It is virtually impossible that Zorreguieta personally took part in repressions or human rights violations during his time in government. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that he did not know about the practice of repressions and the human rights situation.”
“Based on the categories used in the Netherlands after WWII to assign moral guilt, being in a senior post of the military regime in Argentina… would have been considered ‘incorrect,’” Professor Baud said in the report, acknowledging the outrage by a portion of the population in the Netherlands. “The Dutch correct-incorrect designation is a result of concrete historical circumstances when cases of active support and cooperation with the enemy led to guilty convictions on moral/legal grounds.” However, these designations “may have led to a conviction but were not applied fairly and consistently.”
It would seem that the report put an end to all the speculation: Máxima’s father had no direct connection to the policy of state terror, so there was nothing to accuse him of. But soon afterwards, two Argentine investigative journalists published a biography of dictator Videl, based on hundreds of testimonies and documents, in which they claimed that Jorge Zorreguieta was one of the coordinators of the coup in Argentina. Later, as a civilian minister, he may not have known the names of specific people who were targeted by the junta, but he definitely knew what was happening. He knew about it but didn’t say anything, and silence in these situations can be considered a crime against humanity.
In 2001, the family of one of the victims of the Videla regime filed a lawsuit in the Netherlands against Jorge Zorreguieta. It was rejected because the Dutch court didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.
In light of all these vicissitudes actively being discussed in the press, Dutch society split into two camps. One would assume that the “correct” citizens would be against the marriage of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Zorreguieta’s daughter and the “incorrect” ones would support it. But there were actually widely differing opinions, such as this one in a letter to the editorial board of the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad:
“Princess Máxima’s father may not have done anything bad, but he made the mistake of being a member of an ‘incorrect’ government that acted wrongly. Shouldn’t she, as the daughter of an ‘incorrect’ father, like I and so many other children of ‘incorrect’ parents, also bear this burden? Could she later become Queen of the Netherlands given the statement by Queen Wilhelmina? If Prince Willem-Alexander… still wants to marry this young lady… then he must also bear this burden and abdicate in order to honor his great-grandmother…”
The implementation of the solution proposed in the letter was realistic, because some parliamentarians were against the marriage of Willem-Alexander and Máxima, and they had influence over the issue. The crown prince can’t marry without the permission of the States General of the Netherlands. More precisely, he can, but then he immediately loses his right to the throne.
The Prince of Orange’s choice of wife threatened to spark a political crisis. In the end, Prime Minister Wim Kok and Minister of State Max van der Stoel served as intermediaries in negotiations between the Parliament and royal family. The sides agreed that Máxima’s father would not be invited to the wedding, and on July 4, 2001 the United Assembly of the States General passed a law allowing Willem-Alexander and Máxima to marry.
They got married seven months later and in 2013, after Queen Beatrix abdicated, became the king and queen consort of the Netherlands.
Their story has a happy ending. But did it bring Dutch society any closer to reconciliation? Who knows. What we do know is that Willem-Alexander’s inauguration, like his wedding, took place at the Nieuwe Kerk without his unwelcome father-in-law from Argentina. We’ll find out what more this episode will add to the search for reconciliation in another two years. On January 1, 2025, the National Archives will open access to some 300,000 files in the Central Archives of Special Jurisdiction on people who cooperated or were suspected of cooperating with the Nazis.
La fin de la naïveté
“May you not live in interesting times.”
Minus the word “not,” the internet attributes this quote as a curse spoken by Confucius, the Chinese sage who lived in the 6-5th centuries BC. I’m not so sure. I think that could be false since nobody gives an original source for the quote. But right now I’m not concerned with the authenticity of its origin.
One of my professors in the History Faculty of Shevchenko University liked to end his lectures about the Far East’s past with this quote. He repeated it many times over the years, so it’s not surprising that several generations of students associate it with him.
I remember contemplating the meaning of those words when I was an 18-year-young sophomore in 2008. “We live in such a boring time!” I complained about myself and my classmates. “Wars, revolutions, famines – the most horrible, but at the same time the most interesting, events that gave rise to life-altering changes for Ukrainians are in the past. We missed everything! We even literally slept through the collapse of the USSR and Ukrainian independence.”
From day one in school, I kept hearing that history doesn’t allow for hypotheticals. But I was convinced that if I had been born in a different time and place, I wouldn’t sit by idly – I would have definitely been a participant in events like the student protests in October 1990 called the Revolution on Granite.
Fourteen years later, hiding from Russian soldiers in an improvised bomb shelter and tightly hugging a frightened nephew, the conversation with myself took on a different tone. “You wanted to be in the whirlwind of events? Live in an era of change? Here you go – sign up…” Disappointed by my own helplessness and inaction, I berated myself: “C’mon, why are you sitting here? What are you waiting for? March right out of this cellar, go outside. Otherwise, you’ll miss your chance to do something – you’ll miss everything again… You’re one crappy revolutionary!”
The full-scale war that Russia launched against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has revealed people’s true colors. The 34 days I spent under occupation in a village in the Kyiv region gave me another optic through which to view this war. And what I beheld finally allowed me to get rid of the naïveté about myself as well as those around me.
Now that the blinders have been removed from my eyes, the world has become black and white, people are either “correct” or “incorrect.”
“Good enemies don’t exist,” my mother warned my neighbor, in a futile attempt to bring her to her senses. My mom said this after Lesia – for the first and last time during the occupation – handed her a six-liter pot of potatoes and asked her to cook them on our gas stove. The next day she was visited by five “good guys.”
There was no need for my mother to warn me. From day one, or rather from the first shot-up car, I had no illusions about the “lost guys” who “went for training and ended up in a war.” The Russian soldiers came here to kill, torture, rape and rob us, and they are committing these crimes knowingly, deliberately and in cold blood. Because this is the only way they know how to “bring order.”
But I also realized that I was not capable of openly and actively resisting. Unfortunately, I don’t have the courage or willpower of the students who went on a hunger strike in October 1990 on the then October Revolution Square in Kyiv to protest against the signing of a new union treaty with the occupying regime. But the people of Kherson, Nova Kakhovka, Enerhodar, Melitopol and Slavutych – who wave Ukrainian flags as they protest against the Russian invaders – do. They have the courage to resist occupation. I simply waited for my village to be liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
On April 2, when our guys chased the occupiers back to the Belarus border and entered my village, I had another insight. Albeit an unexpected one. I noticed that Lesia didn’t rush to offer the Ukrainian soldiers hot tea. She didn’t even come out of her house to welcome them. That’s when I realized what separates us is more than the two-meter wooden fence between our gardens. I couldn’t wait for the AFU to liberate us. She, however, was probably despondent, because this time the “guys” were gone for good (at least I hope so).
“Why do you care so much about that woman and her tea?” my friend Artem asked after hearing my story. He went to the front in the first days of the war and fought in the Kyiv region. “Marichka, lots of our own have been marking infrastructure for targeting by the enemy and giving up the locations of our military equipment. That’s who you should be worried about…”
I didn’t have an answer for him then, but I have one now. This story matters so much to me because I believe there must be no room for traitors in a liberated Ukraine – not for the obvious collaborators Artem mentioned, nor the less obvious.
Not for Medvedchuk and Kiva. Not for Shariy. Not for the “famous Ukrainian historian” of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine Petro Tolochko, who in 2005 headed the Putin Policy Party, who doesn’t recognize the Holodomor as genocide and gladly participates in events with the president of Russia and the Moscow patriarch. Not for those who eight years ago broke their military oath in Crimea and Donbas. Not for those who did so now. Not for Rubizhne Mayor Serhiy Khortiv. Not for Izyum City Council deputies Anatoliy Fomichevsky and Yuriy Kozlov. Not for the average family – the husband and wife from Babyntsi in the Bucha district – who gave the Russian invaders housing and food and directions on local roads.
Not for my neighbor Lesia. Because good enemies don’t exist, and neither do innocent traitors.
It’s important that we have a strict and well thought out solution for how to punish collaborators. Because as the experience of the deoccupied post-war Netherlands shows, the attempt at reintegration of “incorrect” citizens can have long-lasting and sometimes unexpected consequences.
With that said, I will continue to stand my ground: Ukrainians must be ready not only to fend off the Russian occupiers, but also to confront our own compatriots who, knowingly or not, want to be occupied. We can’t ignore them any longer. We did so for 30 years, naively hoping this wouldn’t do us much harm. But now reality has shown us just the opposite.
Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk
Other stories illustrated by Kateryna Sova