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Brute force hit small Dutch town fifty years ago
Nearly all of Putten's captives perished in labour camps
Tags: World War II
The central Dutch town of Putten always will remember its men who died at the hands of their Nazi oppressors. On October 1st, it was fifty years ago that Hitler's henchmen herded 661 men to the town's railway station from where they were taken to the concentration camp at Amersfoort. Thirteen men managed to escape earlier while 58 were sent home shortly after arriving at the camp. Belong long, the 590 of them were sent to camps in Germany where 541 of them perished or went missing without a trace. By June 1945, when thousands of other prisoners straggled back into the country to rejoin overjoyed loved ones, Putten's churchgoers dreaded to hear the consistory announcements of long lists of casualties among their men, the fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews who last were seen alive eight months before. Putten's women stoically carried their deep sorrow and grief, and the three Dutch queens since then publicly expressed their sympathies when attending remembrance ceremonies over the years. The town's survivors - the women and the fatherless - faced a lonely future. The drama of Putten was deeply enshrined in the consciousness of those who were left behind. Putten remembers, then, now and for a long time to come.
Even before Putten's drama struck, the town and its surrounding rural area (on the 'wrong' side of the river Rhine), had been on edge for two weeks as hopes were raised for an imminent liberation. Allied forces were so near in their battle against Wehrmacht units a short distance to the south. Instead of freedom, the iron grip by the oppressor weighed heavier then ever..., dashing hope for a quick release.
The people of Putten - largely orthodox Reformed - had little sympathy for Nazidom. In many homes, hide-away places harboured those not safe on the street: men between the ages of 18 and 50, who were being sought for forced labour in Germany; Jews, and others who had been indiscrete in their opinions. Dozens belonged to small regional resistance units who recently had been put under the command of 30-year-old Ab Witvoet, a former military policemen, who had faked an excuse so he could resign from the Marechaussee without raising suspicions among his peers.
Contrary to the French and Balkan resistance movements, Dutch groups largely had to secure their own weapons and explosives, and lacked access to trucks, cars and motorcycles. As well, they were not of one mind: some acted as para-military units while others served the growing needs of the ever-swelling number of people in hiding from their tormentors (the 'KP,' 'knockploegen' or strong arm groups, pulled off spectacular raids to free prisoners from jails, and robbed town halls of ration cards and coupon for food distribution to those in hiding). By September 1944, after Prince Bernhard as commander of the Dutch forces had ordered all resistance groups to accept a single command structure, the British increasingly armed them through weapon container droppings behind enemy lines, making resistance groups in effect an army behind enemy lines.
Pre-war Holland only had used a limited number of vehicles, most of which long had been 'requisitioned' by the enemy. If Putten's resistance group was to obtain such transportation, they pretty well had to steal it from the Germans. Plans were made to set up an ambush near a bridge in the area's highway. Strong lights mounted on a truck were to blind the driver of an oncoming vehicle, causing him to stop. Within five minutes of positioning themselves, an approaching car was caught in the lights. The resistance fighters quickly discovered they had engaged a battle-hardened enemy - officers of the Herman Goring Division (Waffen SS) who opened fire at once. In the ensuing exchange people on both sides were wounded. An official post-war evaluation of the incident suggests that the resistance group lost control of the situation when they panicked, allowing two German officers to escape in the confusion. The Dutch lost one of theirs, who was buried in a farm yard; the Germans also lost one soldier, another was taken hostage. When informed by the escapees, the German command set the scene for reprisals.
Within hours, the Germans responded by sending troops to search the area between Putten and neighbouring Nijkerk for their missing officer. Soon the search was expanded to Putten itself since the ambush truck had been seen heading that way. The Wehrmacht sealed off the town, blocking all all access roads. All neighbouring farmers had been herded together in a field. Later, women and children were ordered from the farms and marched there as well. In this frightening situation, Putten's first civilian casualty - a young woman who tried to escape - was murdered here in cold blood. In their fanatical way, the Herman Goring troops killed eight unarmed civilians during that round-up.
In the town itself rumours ran wild. People knew something was terribly wrong but had no details - few households had a telephone and radios had been confiscated long ago. Men who went to church that morning were advised to go home and hide. By mid-morning, the German commander ordered the local police chief to propose ten hostages. To his credit, the Dutchman refused but a town clerk complied only to learn that the Germans now wanted thirty names! Lined up against a wall, able to see the remains of an executed man on the ground and with guns trained on them, the captives were forced to wait for hours. Meanwhile, the entire population had been ordered from their homes; the men were sent to a lot next to a school, the women and young children were herded into the centuries old Reformed church. The German troops, accompanied by - some were unwilling - Dutch policemen, searched the empty homes but could not locate the abducted officer.
By mid-afternoon, the crowd in the field which had grown to about 400, was marched off to town where the men were sent to the schoolyard and the women to the church. Those who had attended church that morning had been held at the town hall but now were being segregated as well and herded to the two locations. In the church, machine guns had been mounted on the balcony and trained on the hapless crowd below. This situation lasted until evening when a German officer for the first time publicly announced what was on their mind: the safe return of a missing colleague. Then, the women were allowed to go home but had to report back the following morning. They were ordered to bring food along for the men who were then locked up in the school... The men also heard what bothered the Germans so much, and were warned that the hostages would be shot if the officer man would not be returned.
The German command meanwhile debated what to do. General Christiansen, Commander of the German Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, was said to have been very agitated. 'Put them all against the wall and burn the place down,' was the general's reaction. When informed of the general's intention, officers of the German army tacitly agreed with the order as long as the SS would take the responsibility. The debate continued until it was resolved that since Germany needed manpower, the men - all those between 18 and 50 - were to be send to labour camps. The town was to be burned, with the exception of homes owned by Nazi sympathizers (one of them Putten's mayor).
News of what was happening in the town also had trickled back to the hiding place of the resistance group. There too, the situation was discussed vigorously and no doubt heart wrenching. Would they turn themselves in to the Gestapo, the German police, and if so what would be the consequences. The second in command, a man named Oostenbroek, in effect an officer of the Internal Forces (BS), ruled against that idea but made a deal with their prisoner - Eggert - to remain silent if set free about what and whom he had seen. German records make no references about Eggert ever having given details to his superiors about his involuntary stay on the farm: he apparently kept his word. Unfortunately, his release remained unknown to the Germans at Putten.
Fullriede, the commanding Wehrmacht officer, gave the dubious task to inform Putten's men about their destination to Reverend G.B. Holland who also had been locked up in the church. The pastor used the opportunity to encourage the men by pointing to God's merciful ways which also in adversities offer comfort and strength. After his prayer he requested all to sing the stanzas 3 and 4 of Psalm 84: How blest are those whose strength Thou art, Who on Thy ways have set their heart - and From strength to strength God's people go, And He to them His face will show… A survivor later remarked that while they sang, the realization of the severity of the situation began to dawn on them. It was a very moving scene with many trying to hold back tears. That morning, the subsequent solemn march through town, with loved ones looking on in bewilderment was no less emotional; the faces, the uncertain walk, the emotions, it was forever engraved in the minds of young and old who said farewell without really being able to express it the way they would have wanted to.
No words ever can describe adequately the situation Putten faced as the days, weeks and months went by and the liberation day drew nearer. Of the 661 men taken away, 58 were released from Amersfoort to return to a damaged town (the order to burn the town was sloppily carried out - 94 yet homes were set ablaze - and the surrounding farms were not even affected). Simply put, Fullriede - an immigrant to South Africa, who escaped major punishment after the war, stating he had to bow to the wishes of the SS - seemed to have lost all appetite for revenge and destruction. From those who were being taken to Germany, a few managed to jump from the train. The overwhelming majority died from illnesses and starvation in German concentration camps. Of the 49 who returned, 5 died soon after. After fifty years, the men - many families lost more than one - are still remembered. This year, Queen Beatrix attended the solemn ceremony, sang the town's best known Psalm and spoke with several survivors. Among those who traveled from abroad were a number of German citizens who have been coming for years to share in Putten's sorrow.