How It Was, II
This is a short story related to me by a young Dutch girl, shortly after the liberation of Heerlen, The Netherlands, in the latter part of September 1944.
A previously written article spoke briefly and vaguely about the plight of the Jews during the occupation by the German Nazi regime in WWII, but this story is an elaboration and confirmation of the life of the Jews during the occupation.
Shortly after arriving in Heerlen in the latter part of September 1944, I met three young men and their sister, of the Saelmans family, and they invited me to come into their home, and over a period of time, we became close friends, and they confided in me and told me the following story.
First of all, the father, Martinus Saelmans was the owner of a bicycle shop on Noblestraat in Heerlen. The family lived in the few rooms above the shop. The three sons were, Cor Jr., Karl and Jacques. All employed by their father in the shop repairing and rebuilding bicycles. Some were brought in badly damaged, worn out, and some too badly damaged to be repaired. With new parts not available, every piece possible was cannibalized from these bicycles, and were used to repair other bicycles, and to rebuild some into a usable bicycle. The young daughter, Mia, was primarily her mother's helper in keeping house and shopping, as well as going to school.
The German soldiers were confiscating any bicycles owned by Jews, without any remuneration, so the Jews would bring their bicycles to Mr. Saelmans and exchange them for a small quantity of food rather than surrender them to the Germans. Their food rations were extremely small or non-existent, so this bartering was better than losing their bicycles outright with out payment.
Consequently, Mr. Saelmans built up a very good business repairing and rebuilding bicycles, and in turn re-selling them to the German soldiers, but only after putting sand in the bearings, and installing other faulty parts that would last only for a short while, thus requiring early return repairs! (Sabotage !!) This was also at the expense of the Jews, but he had compassion for them, as they were his lifelong neighbors, and he would have been fined heavily and perhaps jailed, if he had been caught dealing with them and supplying them with the necessities of life.
As time went on, and the Jews were being "eliminated", most of whom were their nearby neighbors for many years, Mr. Saelmans continued to have compassion for them and assist them whenever he could, at the risk of his own welfare.
Mr. Saelmans became a member of the secret underground organization, which engaged in all sorts of sabotage against the Germans, and was a member of the "underground railway" system which helped to hide the Jews and assisted them in eluding the Germans, and eventually be spirited away in the night to "the next stop"enroute to Belgium, France and eventually to England.
This was a very dangerous activity, and if found harboring Jews, it meant instant death to the entire family ! This was a choice that they had to make of their own free will.
At a pre-arranged time, a Jewish family would be delivered to the Saelmans' shop, via back alleys to the back of the shop. Inside they were led downstairs to the basement, used for bicycle storage and a storage area for many, many boxes of bicycle parts. In the center of the basement floor, there was a trap door leading down to another level, previously used as a bomb shelter for the family. This was a small room about 10' x 10' and about 8' high. This was just barely large enough for 4 persons to exist during the short periods of bombing when necessary, but now this new utilization caused this area to be used as a total living quarters for a Jewish family of 3 or 4 for a much longer and indefinite time, perhaps 2 to 5 days, until the moment arrived for their movement to their next station of the "underground railway". And so it went week after week, coming and going at all hours of the night, when the coast was clear for movement. It took a great deal of cooperation among the members of the underground, to learn the routine of the German patrols in their area, the area along the projected route to the next site, and in the immediate area where the Jews were to be moved to, for their next "rest stop".
In this new overnight clandestine location, the Jews had to live almost like animals. It was either this, or deportation to a slave labor camp and the prospects of almost certain death. In their hiding place, they were furnished by their host protectors, a few blankets to lay on the floor for their bed, make-shift pillows, one or two stools, a flashlight or battery powered lantern, and a bucket to serve as a toilet. This was their living quarters for an indefinite period of time. If discovered, it meant instant execution for them, as well as the family harboring them.
When the Jewish family went into their new hiding place, the trap door was closed and a heavy carpet rolled over the door, then a workbench and stools wereplaced over this, so that the "hollow sound" of the trap door given off when walked on,would not be detected.
During hours when the German soldiers were not patrolling the area, the Saelmans family, all taking turns, would watch for patrols and signal to the downstairs persons when soldiers came into the shop for business, or frequent "inspections". One or another would have the duty of removing the table and stools and carpet,, and remove the "used" toilet bucket and replace it with a fresh one; lower a pail of water for washing, and a small quantity for drinking, as well as a small quantity of food. Contact and replacement of supplies could not be done on a regular schedule, but only when they had the opportunity to be "safe" in carrying out this duty. Food was severely rationed, so each member of the family had to forgo a small portion of their daily food ration.
Mr. Saelmans had many relatives and customers who lived outside of the City of Heerlen, and he often visited them on the pretense of business, and would be able to secure small quantities of farm produce with which to supplement their rations, and to help feed the Jewish "visitors". (Butter, eggs, milk, meat & vegetables).
Everything that they did, every move that they made was closely watched by the Germans, but over a period of time, by doing "favors" for the German soldiers and gaining their confidence, he was able to more easily travel from place to place without too much interrogation.
Many times during these clandestine visits, the Jewish wife, mother or daughter would have their periodic monthly health problems, and the young Saelmans girl or her mother would have to go down "in the hole" to administer and comfort them as best that they could. It was too risky to even call a Doctor, who in fact may be a German sympathizer - no one knew.
So, supplying the Jews with a hiding place, feeding them, caring for them and their health needs and sanitary conditions, it was a tremendous burden on the family, but it was the humane thing to do and at great risk to all of the family.
It was rare that the family went for one week during the entire occupation period of 4 years, 4 months and 4 days without having a Jewish family in hiding in their home.
In hearing this story, and seeing the sub-basement beneath the trap door, I was in awe that these people who had so little for themselves, would risk their lives and share what little they had with perfect strangers over this long period of time, for nothing in return.
"They were Heroes during the German occupation." Upon a return visit to Heerlen in 1978, I found this family, although Papa Martin and Mama Gertruda had died. I was able to meet once again with the four living members of this "Heroic" family, and we reminisced about those harrowing days of the occupation and the wonderful days following their liberation on 17 September 1944. Their only regret is the fact that they have never heard from one of their Jewish families, and they have always wondered if they made it to a safe haven, if they had been apprehended, or if they had no way of knowing who their "saviors" were, so as to be able to get back in contact with them.
To this day, I still remain in contact with the one remaining member of this heroic family, for whom I have the highest regard and respect, Mia Saelmans- Slangen, the young daughter, now married with her own family, and their families.
Written from my recollection and diary notes:
| Ardennes | Awards
| Calendar | Combat
Medics | Command Posts | Contact
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| Ardennes | Awards
| Calendar | Combat
Medics | Command Posts | Contact
| Dates | DSCs