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We survived

Wij overleefden – De laatste ooggetuigen van de Duitse bezetting

Sytze van der Zee

Prometheus, 2019

ISBN: 9789044638424

It seems so long ago already, World War II. Almost 75 years after the German capitulation. But there are still people who lived through it all. The eighty-, ninety-, centenarians. They were there, but before long they will no longer be among us to tell their personal stories. Based on interviews with those involved, Wij overleefden focuses on the specific events that made the Nazi terror the most dramatic and traumatic period in Dutch history. It is one of the last chances to let these eyewitnesses have their say. Everyone has their own memories, chronicled in chronological form to give a face to the occupation. Like the former Jewish hider who wrote a love poem for the farm girl he could watch from his attic room _ when he reads it aloud, he is still moved today. A woman who, as a girl, had to help bury her Jewish mother in a cardboard box at night in the Zorgvlied cemetery. A man who, as the son of NSB leader Mussert’s chauffeur, got to know all the party bosses. The fried cracklings Mrs Mussert brought for their dog they ate themselves. In total, the author spoke to some eighty men and women whose accounts he recorded. The result is a gripping and important book, thoughtfully written by Sytze van der Zee. Sytze van der Zee (1939) is the author of a large body of work, including Potgieterlaan 7, about his childhood as the son of a ‘wrong’ father, and Verslaggever van beroep, his journalistic memoirs.


For a long time, oral history was ignored in the patriotic historiography of the Second World War. In the 1960s, for instance, Dr Loe de Jong refused to speak to still-living NSB leaders for his television series The Occupation. At the same time, in Germany, an editor of Der Spiegel decided otherwise: he interviewed numerous SS officers. For Sytze van der Zee (1939), this was an eye-opener.

He now accomplished his masterpiece in this regard with We Survived. The last eyewitnesses of the German occupation. The entire war – from the prelude to the liberation (also in the Dutch East Indies), all those well-known events, from the bombing of Rotterdam, the Hunger Winter, Dolle Dinsdag, Auschwitz – passes surprisingly, raw, unprecedentedly expressive and thus vital from a Dutch eyewitness perspective through the voices he allowed to speak. Just in time, given their advanced age. From couriers, students, resistance fighters, Waffen-SS officers to deported Jews – everyone gets a say, mostly ‘ordinary’, unknown people. Van der Zee wrote an important history book – because of the impressive stories. Take that of Nol Koot (1932), the son of W.A. man Hendrik Koot, who was beaten to death during a street fight in 1941. He remembers his father in the open coffin: ‘I did see that a wound on his nose had been stitched with coarse stitches and there was clotted blood on it. From the looks of it, he had also been bitten in his earlobe. His face was blue-blue-blue. Fur and blue (…) I was very shocked and had to cry.’ Or the wise resignation of Gypsy Zoni Weisz (1937): ‘I myself suffered from terrible dreams for a very long time. Always those drab trousers and black boots, the dogs, the crowds at Assen railway station. (…) But you have a small lake in Birkenau. So peaceful and beautiful. You can hear the frogs croaking there. There lie the ashes of tens of thousands of people. I consider that place my family’s grave.’

Van der Zee, of course, could not avoid the question of how reliable memory is in this project. His rejoinder is convincing: ‘The determining factor for oral history is how dramatic an event is for the person himself. (…) with a war child, all the senses are constantly on edge.’ The war turned out to be more horrific than thought.