Caught In the Grip Of Fear

            The Nazi soldiers burst into the small living room. 

            Surprised, a middle-aged stocky man in a police uniform spun around and faced the soldiers.  His mouth parted slightly in astonishment as he recognized that these were not ordinary Nazis, these were the Gestapo. 

            Wide-eyed, with one hand drawn to her mouth, his wife stared at the intruders.  Silence descended like a blanket as the couple’s children, mostly adults, stared intently. 

            Unnoticed, a small boy of 11 was playing under a table in the center of the room.  A heavy cloth hung from the top of the table to the floor, hiding the boy from view.   

            A grim-faced soldier spat, “Herr Meyer?” 

            “Yes,” the man in the policeman’s uniform answered politely. 

            Suddenly, without warning, the soldiers raised their weapons.  Pop, pop, pop, the deafening roar of gunfire erupted in the small room.  At the sound, the small boy startled as screams of astonishment and pain pierced the curtain of silence.         

            Then the boy trembled and curled as small as possible inside the cocoon of safety that providence had afforded him.  Terrified, but thankful for the tablecloth, he prayed that the soldiers had not noticed him.  Fear overwhelmed him and blotted out thoughts of even his family - only survival mattered. 

            Behind his fragile curtain of safety, a heavy silence replaced the staccato bark of gunfire.  The smell of gunpowder and burnt flesh mingled with the moans of the dying.  He held his breath in terror as the soldiers shouted at one another. 

            Staring through unseeing eyes, his mind simply refused to process the sudden aggression and brutality.  His young mind couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what these soldiers where snatching from him.   Deep within, unnoticed by his stunned senses, he was descending into the dark realm of anger, hate, and bitterness. 

            He followed the sharp click of the soldiers’ heavy boots as they searched for other members of his family.  With the slam of the front door, a fragile, unsettled, stillness descended.  All was quiet save the beating of the 11- year-old’s heart.  Terrified of leaving the safety of his hiding place, and worried that the soldiers would come back and discover him; he lay helplessly entangled in the paralyzing grip of fear.

            Then with a start, he suddenly sat bolt upright as his mind once again engaged and began to process reality.  Someone would surely return, discover, and perhaps kill him.  Finally, with great mental effort, he pushed back the cloth that had saved his life and entered into a scene that would become forever etched in the dark corners of his mind, never far from consciousness, and impervious to the passage of time.

 

            Now, in 2007, the 75 year-old man who sat across from me gave no hint of the tragic life he had experienced.  His accent added to the authenticity of the dramatic story he was telling me.  It was obvious that retelling his story brought emotions to the surface that would haunt Bill in the days ahead but regardless of its effects, he was determined to tell it.  I could sense the indomitable spirit that still ticked in his heart.

            As a young boy, Bill loved to escape to the Dutch countryside on his bike.  He would peddle rapidly as he moved swiftly atop the dikes, where a slight breeze tousle his blond hair, and there would be just a wisp of smell from the great North Sea that this and other dikes had tamed.  His young blue eyes would sparkle with excitement and adventure.  Holland, at that time, was a peaceful land, a land that one could learn to love and feel comfortable in. 

            Escaping from the grasp of his tyrannical father, if only for a day, had given him an exhilarating sense of freedom.  Pedaling swiftly, he would breathe in the fresh air and dream dreams that come naturally to young boys bent on adventure.  Perhaps it was best that he couldn’t know the future.  Why worry about events he could not have changed or controlled.  In his case, ignorance was definitely bliss.

            Bill’s home was tiny by current  American standards, it occupied the second floor of a narrow, three-story Dutch house and had a living room, kitchen, and several bedrooms that were shared by his parents and those of his brothers and sisters who still remained home.  As soon as breakfast was over, Bill, the youngest of the lot, would leave the crowded house and venture into a world that was bounded only by blue sky and the North Sea. 

            Many times, he would go down to the corner clock shop that was owned by the Ten-Boon family.  He would roam around the shop enchanted and somewhat mystified by the many clocks that cluttered the shop.  There was something else about this place that drew him, some refreshing warmth, unseen, but obviously present.

            Bill’s mother was a sweet-natured woman and most of his sisters were kind to him, but there was a hostility that seemed to permeate his small home.  His father was a Nazi sympathizer, a local policeman, and a hard and unfeeling man who ruled his family rigidly.  Whatever his father stood for, Bill was determined to embrace the opposite.

            The Ten-Boons, Papa, Betsy, Corrie and several other children, lived above the clock shop they managed.  Bill was drawn by the ticking clocks and the loving, accepting environment that radiated from the Ten-Boons.  Many times, they would take him aside and read the Bible to him and challenge him with a lesson.  Tolerating these sessions, it was the cookies and milk he received at the end that reinforced his patience.

            “Good always overcomes evil - evil may win for a while, but eventually good will win in the end,” Corrie would say over and over.

            Living in a large, poor family, a cookie and milk was a rare treat, one for which Bill could easily tolerate a short Bible story.  Little did he know that these sessions of Godly stories were penetrating far deeper than his stomach.  A dark and evil cloud was beginning to gather over his homeland and the stories he was hearing would one day prove an eternal escape from its evil effects. In May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland.  Though the Dutch put up resistence and many people were killed (thousands of people were killed in Rotterdam alone), it was short-lived.

            “The first year after the invasion, life went on pretty much as usual.  The biggest changes were the teachers at school.  They were all replaced by Germans.  If you wanted to have any position of authority or influence, you had to join the Nazi party.  It was a little like joining a political party.  Most people who joined it did not really agree with it but it was the only way to get ahead,”  Bill says.

             The occupation did not interrupt Bill’s journeys to the clock shop, nor diminish his desire for cookies. 

            “Bill would you take this package to . . . ?”  Corrie would ask. 

            Bill would do almost anything for the Ten-Boons.  He especially liked delivering clocks and parts on his bike.   Of course, having little else to do, and desiring to stay away from his father, he enjoyed this diversion.  The culinary treats he received just fattened the pot.

            “The second year of occupation was a different story.” he said.  “The Germans began to bleed the country and it became harder and harder to get food and supplies.  They took all the rubber and most of the other resources.  We lived on so little.  With no rubber available, I had to put old socks and clothes on the bare rims of my bike, which made for a very bumpy ride.”

            The resources of conquered countries such as Holland were being sucked out to feed and equip the German war machine.  The Germans were also becoming more overtly hostile and brutal in Holland and other occupied countries.

            “All the Jews had to wear a yellow star patch with the word (Jew) stitched on it.  They were not allowed to own a business and were given only yellow cards for food, which restricted their diet to bread and potatoes.  Besides being stripped of the normal ration cards, they were no longer allowed to travel,” he describes.

            Along with the scarcity of food came increased persecution of the Jews and Jewish sympathizers.  Eleven-year-old Bill witnessed Jews being beaten in the streets.  The Jews were commanded to register with the local German authorities and those that registered began to disappear. 

            The abuse the Germans were dishing out to the Jews and others was not going unnoticed by the Dutch people.  It began to produce a spirit of resistance toward the Germans and compassion for the abused.  The resistance grew and stiffened.  Some of the people began to help the Jews and other abused individuals, especially in the rural areas where there was less of a German presence.  Of course, there was a price to pay for helping Jews, a big one.

            “Some of the more naive Jews complained to the authorities and were shipped to concentration camps.  The smarter Jews fled to the countryside, away from the German patrols.  There they were hidden by sympathetic farmers, who received  counterfeit ration cards and other necessities from the underground.  Many of these Jews were able to make their way to northern Holland where they could get a boat to Denmark and eventually end their desperate flight in England,” Bill says.

            “The Nazi leaders justified their brutal treatment of the Jews by quoting portions of Martin Luther’s writings that were ant- Semitic.  Millions of good Germans and others listened and agreed with Hitler.  He didn’t actually say to kill the Jews, but to dispose of them.  We thought he meant to send them to labor camps or something, not to kill them.” 

            The Germans thought that they were doing God’s work in killing the Jews and they quoted  Luther’s manifest as justification.  With this moral underpinning the Germans could participate in the most vile deeds to Jews, Jewish sympathizers, and other undesirables while viewing themselves as good citizens, good fathers, and even, unbelievably, good Christians.  They lived two lives.”

            Bill gradually became aware that Corrie and her family were helping the Jews.  He hadn’t realized it at the time, but they had been hiding Jews in their home, in the very building that housed the clock shop.  They had been willing to take the huge risk because of their Christian faith. 

            The biggest danger they faced was being exposed by friends and neighbors.  Everyone was hungry and the Germans were masters at manipulating the people with food and ration cards.  It is difficult to understand the allurement of food to a people who were slowly starving.  With hunger stalking their families, some parents yielded and secretly turned others in. 

            “Would you take these papers and ration cards to the country for me, Bill?”  Corrie asked one day.  “The farmer you give them to will give you a full meal.  You will be helping Jewish families.”

            Bill knew his father would disapprove of helping the Jews and perhaps, at least to some degree  to spite him, he agreed.  Bill had always found the idea of a few people ruling the lives of others, distasteful.  What the Germans were doing sowed seeds of defiance in his young heart.  He would resist them any way he could.  The seriousness of what he was doing never really registered in his young mind. He never really understood the possible consequences of his actions on himself or his family.  Of course, the promise of a big meal that awaited him at the farmer’s table made his mouth water in anticipation.

 

            Still numbed by the callous killing of his family, young Bill Meyer had surveyed the bloody carnage the German soldiers had made of his family.   Stunned and confused by the brutal scene he had just witnessed, feeling the cold tentacles of fear, he stumbled out of his home.  Fear gave his feet new energy.  As he plunged down the street, he could think of only one haven: the clock shop.  Irrational as it was, his heart desired the security and safety he had known among the Ten-Boons.  Entering the shop, he gave a start as he ran headlong into the arms of a Gestapo agent.

            “They put me on a bus with other prisoners, Bill says.  “Many of the prisoners didn’t want to go on a bus because the Germans had outfitted some of the buses with tanks that held poison gas.  This gas was piped into the main passenger area, which made for a deadly ride.  We found out that our bus was OK.”

            Taken to Scheveningen, the only national prison in Holland, Bill was constantly interrogated about his connection with the Ten-Boons and the people who housed Jews.

            “I made up names for them and didn’t tell them the truth.  The German officers carried riding whips and they knew how to use them.  When they beat me with these whips, I learned to scream and yell as soon as possible.  If you didn’t, they would beat you until you did.”

            Bill was always hungry and cold at Scheveningen, a reality that would be his constant companion in the years ahead.   He was fed one meal a day, usually bread, beans, or some tea.  His three month stay, though thoroughly unpleasant, was a precursor for the future. 

            One day, he was abruptly herded into railroad cattle car for a trip to a processing center and then onto Vught.  Vught was a political concentration camp in the southern part of Holland near the German border.

            “There was standing-room-only in the cattle car.  We were packed in like sardines.  You could barely move and had to sleep standing up.  There was no bathroom and not being able to move, we had to relieve ourselves while standing, into our clothing.  We had nothing to eat or drink for several days.  I learned to slowly squeeze my way through the press of prisoners to the side of the car.  There were splits in the wood on the side of the rail cars that collected a few drops of water that you could suck out of the wood.”

            The processing center was a very large stadium.  The disoriented prisoners shuffled aimlessly around this structure staring vacantly at the floor.  There were Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners, like Bill.

            “The Germans would keep asking questions like what your mother and father’s name were and their religion.  They watched to see if you changed any part of your story.  They had buckets for toilets and a long, rusty latrine outside.  This latrine had smelly water that trickled down and was the only water we had to drink.  When they called your name you were given your prison clothes, a light cotton long-sleeve-shirt, and pants, no coat or blanket.  The clothes had stripes with a different color for different offenses.  I was always cold and hungry,” he says.

            After processing, the prisoners were again packed in railcars bound for Vught.  Though was Vught only a few hours’ ride from the processing center, continual strafing by allied aircraft and problems with the equipment slowed the progress of the trains and made for a two-day trip.  

            “At first, I was left alone to roam the camp at Vught while the others went to work,” He says.  “Then they assigned me to work in the Philips factory that made some of the electronics for the German Messerschimdt fighter planes.  I carried parts to the older workers to solder and when they were done, I took the finished parts to another area.  Many times, I would pull some of the wires loose as I carried them.  These parts determined how high or what direction the planes would fly.  I hope I caused some problems for those planes.”

            The barracks at Vught were filled with bunks three levels high.  Each level contained five individuals packed side-by-side.  The quarters were so tight that the head of one prisoner had the feet of his neighbor next to him and so they alternated until all five were locked in together. 

            “We each had one filthy, small blanket with so many lice that some blankets actually moved on their own.  In the unsanitary conditions, many prisoners developed diarrhea, adding to the smell and squalor.”

            The inmates were fed once each day late in the evening after returning from work.  The sole meal for the day usually consisted of a cup of watery soup with some rotten meat in it.  Hunger and cold became a way of life, a life that was endured minute by minute.

            “Roll call was at 5 A.M. no matter what the weather.  In the winter, a cold wind from the North Sea would go right through our thin cotton shirts and pants.  We stood in blocks and every last person had to be accounted for before we were allowed to leave,” He says. “First they went into the barracks and dragged out those who had died in the night to make sure they were counted.  Sometimes roll call could take hours.    Many people lost toes and fingers to the cold at roll call.”

            “Punishments were always handed out at roll call and those singled out were made a public spectacle.  The beatings were terrible and sometimes the inmates died.  The hangings were the worst.  It wasn’t like I see in the movies today, a quick death.  The guards would slowly pull the individual up and make us watch as they struggled and were slowly strangled.  It could take up to half an hour before they finally died.  We had to watch and if we turned away, we would be beaten severely.  The guards didn’t show any remorse or sympathy.” 

            “As I watched the brutality, my only thought was that I was glad it wasn’t me.  There was no compassion or empathy.  All I could think of was that I might survive another day.  We had descended so low that all we could think about was ourselves and surviving one more day, one more hour.

            Hope began to fade, leaving behind a shallow, hollow existence that revolved around food and staying warm.  Bill’s soul had shrunk to its most basic level, survival.  People were  emptied of the common decency and  virtues that make life worth living.  The everyday events and issues of the “normal person outside the camp” were lost in the maze of brutality and inhuman treatment.  Bill was not aware that he had descended so low.  His soul was awash in the poison of hate and indifference.

            Occasionally, Corrie’s words would peek through the haze that clouded his heart: “Evil may win for a while but good always overcomes evil in the end.  Those that choose to remain bitter and unforgiving will be consumed by it.  They will never be free to live a normal life.”

            In one of his more insightful moments, Bill came to the conclusion that if he did not escape he would not survive.  So he devised a plan to hide among the dead bodies carried out each day and dumped in a common trench.

            The weight of the bodies above him, the bodily fluids spilling over him, and the overwhelming smell pushed Bill’s endurance to the limit.  Lying among the bodies, quietly as possible, was more punishing than Bill had anticipated.  He waited for dark to provide cover for his escape from his gory refuge.

             Ever so slowly, the sun etched out its familiar arc in the sky.  After an immeasurable length of time, the sky darkened and he finally emerged from his living grave.

            “I ran into the woods and eventually found a farm.  I tried to milk a cow in the barn, but couldn’t get any milk.  A lady with a gun, the owner of the cow, came up behind me and held the gun on me.  When she saw that I was only a half-starved boy, she tried to help me.  She had very little food, and what she had, she was sharing with two American airmen she was hiding.  She did give me some clothes to rid me of my striped uniform,” he says.

            Bill had survived two years at Vught.  Now 13-years-old and weight 65 pounds, he wandered from farm to farm trying to find the impossible, something to eat.  He slowly drifted toward his hometown of Haarlan.  He did find some flower bulbs and nettles that he dug up and ate.  Little did he know, or care, that the acidity from these bulbs, and other food he was eating, was dissolving the lining of his stomach. 

            Even the rats were gone, victims of a starving people.  Desperate, he discovered that horse manure still had undigested oats that he could dig out.  All his thoughts revolved around hunger and the cold, his constant, unwelcome companions.

            Bill slowly and painfully made his way back to Haarlem.  All the living members of his family had left.  He found one sister, a prostitute in Rotterdam, who did what she could to help.  The Germans had pilfered the land so efficiently and completely that the people of Holland were starving.  They had also sucked much of the love and goodness out of the people and left a standard of brutality and indifference that permeated the victimized country.

            ”The brothels in the big cities kept me alive,” he remembers.  “Believe it or not, in Holland, prostitution was an honored profession, like nursing.  They were the only ones that had anything, and it was meager.  Since my sister was a prostitute, the others helped me for her sake by giving me a little, very little, food, and a warm place to sleep, usually in the hall.  It may sound strange but I have warm feelings even today for these prostitutes, they kept me alive,” he says.

            “When I got out of the camp, I would kill anyone.  I didn’t have a conscience and hate was eating away my insides.  Any German soldier that entered a brothel, which they were forbidden to do, was a dead man.  The first German I found in a brothel I shot with his own Luger.  A Luger was a big pistol, and the recoil kicked back the gun and broke my nose.  I sold his gun and uniform to the resistance for a small loaf of bread and some ration cards.  Killing Germans caused me no distress I hated them and everything they stood for.  Some of the Germans were probably victims of their own system but I had lost my ability to feel compassion for them.  My hatred, coupled with the promise of food, overwhelmed my senses.  I was past caring.”

            “The buildings in Holland rest on the banks of canals.  The naked bodies of the Germans we killed would be thrown out the window of the brothel into the canals.  The problem was that when the bodies were discovered, the Germans would select 10 or 20 innocent Dutch, randomly off the street and shoot them dead in retaliation.  Today, this bothers me to think that I was in some way responsible for the death of innocent people but in those days, we were so desperate and desensitized, we thought - if we thought  at all - who cares?”  

            In 1945, Canadian troops liberated Northern Holland.  The Dutch were desperate for food, but had not had solid food for so long that it was dangerous for them to eat too much too quickly.  Their stomachs needed to be coaxed back to health, slowly.

            “The Canadians took me to a large tent and fed me intravenously for a while.  If I had eaten right away I would have died.  I also had TB which they treated and I began to recuperate.  I was a liar, thief, murderer, you name it,” he says.

            “The cruelty, lack of regard for others, hate, and ill treatment had almost, but not quite, destroyed me.  For at times, I would still hear an echo from the past.   ‘Those who forgive will be set free to live a normal life, but those who hold onto their hate will become even more bitter and disturbed.’  Corrie’s words rang from the corridors of time, ‘Good always overcomes evil.’        

            “The proof that Corrie really believed these words was evidenced to all when she commandeered one of the German’s own prison camps.  She would help the defeated Germans, the very ones who had built these evil camps.  They were now the ones that were vulnerable and open to the hate, and revenge of others.  She gave them a second chance.  She really lived what she preached.  Remarkably, her faith in God purified her heart and she had no hate.”

            Bill now had a full stomach, and reasonable health.  But he was only 14 years old, with no family, and only a third grade education.  He needed a job and registered for the army but his physical condition, along with his psychological state, disqualified him.  He simply had too much hate and anger, which could erupt at any time with catastrophic consequences.

            “I had no skills except to run, steal, and kill.  The counselor did make a call and was able to get me a job as an honorary marine.  Of course, I wasn’t given a weapon,” he says.

            The marines in Holland differed from American marines.   Their only mission was to protect and assist the royal family.  They were highly respected by the Dutch people because they had held a bridge over the Rhine when the Germans had invaded.  There had been only 20 marines and they had fought to the death against 500 German soldiers. 

            Remarkably, the marines allowed young Bill to transport and help the children of the royal family.

            “My main job was to drive the children, Juliana and Beatrice, to and from school, and to raise and lower the flag and other such chores.  Since there were few civilian vehicles, I actually drove the children around in an armored car.  Of course, it wasn’t armed and though unique, worked well in driving them to and from school.”

            By the time Bill had fulfilled his tour of duty, he found one of the greatest assets of his life, a young lady named Josephina. 

            “Josephina’s father was a tram conductor and got me a job as a bus driver.   I spent a lot of time with her but I wasn’t faithful.  I drank heavily and ran around.  I had a bad stomach, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol and was told I was attention deficit.  We were married and I still continued to run around and get drunk.  Josephine never told me I couldn’t drink but I was spending too much money on it and it was starting to hurt my family,” he says. 

            “One day, she told me that she needed to have more money for the family and that my drinking was depriving them of the basics they needed to live.  She never said I couldn’t drink.  She just looked at me for a long time.  I could take an argument, but not that look.  I decided not to drink, and I stopped.  I think my wife is one of those rare people who are saints.”

            Bill, Josephina, and their family migrated to the United States in 1957.   Living in the heartland of America, Indianapolis, Indiana, offered new opportunities.   Bill began to let go of some of the load of hate he carried, but not all.  He continued to have major stomach problems, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.   Not knowing the language well, he found adapting to a new culture a real challenge, comical at times.

            “One day, a little lady knocked on our door and asked if we went to church.  Of course, the answer was no.  She asked if her church, a local Christian Church, could pick up the kids on Sunday morning and take them to Sunday school.  We were willing to let the children go to church.  This way we could sleep in and have a free babysitter for a good part of the day. 

            “Then one day, in 1960, she again appeared and invited us to church for a program that our children were to be part of.  We went and decided to continue going to church on Sunday.  We felt the children needed parents that went to church.”

            It was shortly after this that Bill gave his life totally to the Lord and was baptized.  As he started practicing his faith, he noticed that a new peace was spreading throughout his spirit.  The bitterness was melting away and in its place was a freedom of spirit that was new to him.  The Lord was completing what Bill had begun, but had not adequately completed - full forgiveness of others. 

            “Corrie was really right about hate and bitterness.  I think God started to work on me seriously when he gave me a good wife.  Then dedicating myself to His leadership, completed the transformation and today I am free.  Personally, I don’t have anything against anyone.  Where there is love, there can be no hate.  Where there is light, there can be no darkness.”

            As I listened to the conclusion of Bill’s story, I struggled to understand, to project myself into the situations he was describing to me.  He was positive, albeit intense, and had grave doubts about the direction of our modern culture.  Perhaps it takes a man who has lived through hell to see the excesses, permissiveness, and over-tolerant bent of our culture.  He had the fire and focus of a man with a mission, and one who was determined to carry it out. 

            “Those of us that have lived through those terrible times must never forget.  We need to be a voice to the rest of the world, warning them that it could happen again if we are not alert,” he says.  

            Unconsciously, I wondered whether it was possible for the great principles on which our nation was built, love of freedom and justice for all, to be swept away.   It seemed impossible but then . . . .

            As I looked out the window, I was reminded of what a fine summer day it was in Indiana.   It was probably a lot like the pleasant summer days of Bill’s youth with the sun blazing from a blue sky as he peddled swiftly along the dikes of Holland.  I could again picture his wind-blown hair and the sparkle in his blue eyes.  I could almost feel the sense of adventure and exhilaration, the raw “all is well and I can do anything” emotion that can flood the heart of a young boy as he travels far and wide in search of adventure.

            As I looked closer at this picture, I began to feel a sadness creep over me.  This young boy had been enjoying life without an inkling of what it held for him.  I now knew what he must one day face and I decided that, even if I could, I would not have told him what fate had in store for him.  His childhood was to be brief and it was good that he could experience as much of it as possible.  Soon enough, he would be robbed of this precious gift and face trials and situations that few of us today can imagine. 

            Try as I may, I simply could not picture or feel what it would be like to endure relentless hunger and cold, to see my family slaughtered before my eyes, to be dominated by brutal, evil men, to hear the cries of despair from people who suffered terribly and, worst of all, to be deprived of love and acceptance that we all desperately need.

            Having gone through all of this, Bill was a man who had learned to lean on his God.  In the place of anger, bitterness, hate and unforgiveness, I saw a thankfulness and peace.  The emotional and spiritual bars of his mental prison had been destroyed and replaced by a love for God and his fellow man. 

            Then, above the rattle of dishes and the voices of those around us, I could almost hear the Ten-Boons softly whispering, “Evil may win for a while but good always overcomes evil in the end.”