Friday, September 28, 2012

The Putten Massacre of 1944

It could be anywhere in Holland. A weak summer sun shines from an almost liquid sky, illuminating a  population of multi-cultural shoppers along a small main street that is lined with the usual chain-stores: Hans Anders, Blokker, V en D. Those in a rush, cycle between the pedestrians. Trianglular orange flags flap  sadly in the breeze, a  reminder of the dashed hopes during the recent football European Championship - yet another battle or three lost.

At the end of the street stands the Old Church, surrounded by typical brown cafes where the locals and German tourists sit at tables on the square and enjoy coffee and apple tart with cream, their bikes piled against walls. On a sidewall of the church stands a non-descript monument, put here in 1947.  It says simply: “From here they were taken way: 1 and 2 October 1944”.

We walk from here to the nearby graveyard and traverse most of the town. The sign on the cemetery gate says it includes Commonwealth graves, though only one  British soldier lies here, one victim among millions, far from home, buried in a piece of England far from England. The graveyard has a simple monument: Five upright stones slabs.  It says: “Remember those who sacrificed their lives: 1940-‘45”.

As we are leaving the small town of Putten, near a busy roundabout, we see a woman carved in stone, standing alone.
Her face looks sad. She is mourning for the men who have left and not returned, the husbands, father, sons, cousins and neighbours. For this town of Putten was once a town of women only; women mourning their murdered men.

Across the road we find this modern building – the October ’44 monument. 
 As far as war monuments go, this one is modest. There is no whiff of triumphant militarism. We walk to the door, press a button and the door opens automatically.  It closes and locks behind us.  Inside, we find ouselves alone in  a tiny museum.  Photographs and Dutch language text tell of the awful events that occurred in this country town in October 1944.
The Dutch resistance carried out an ambush on a German vehicle in the forest nearby on the night of September 30th, 1944. The Germans, fighting a losing war, responded promptly and visciously.  On Sunday, October 1st, all the women and children in Putten were rounded up and locked in the Old Church. The men and youths were rounded up too, and sent to the nearby concentration camp at Amersfort. On October 2nd the women were given two hours to empty their homes and then, supported by Dutch Nazis, the Germans torched 110 homes.  The clouds of smoke could be seen for miles.

Seven men had been killed while resisting arrest. Of the hundreds held in Amersfort, a handful were released. The rest, over 600 men and youths, were packed into trains and sent to Germany.  Some went through the gates of hell on earth itself, Auschwitz, where they died. In total 540 men and youths of Putten would die in Nazi concentration camps, all of them innocent of any crime.

A little over six months later the war was over, and the waiting for news of their loved ones began. Only 49 of the 602 deported returned to their women. Gradually the local newspapers filled with the death notices.

Five hundred and fifty-two men and youths from Putten were murdered by the Nazis.  Their names fill a wall in the memorial.
The lists speak of incredible suffering. The names are of fathers and sons; uncles and nephews; brothers and cousins. Jan Polhond died when he was 22, his brother Gerrit died, aged 21, and their younger brother Peter died at the age of 18; Hans Snippe died in Neuengamme concentration camp in December 1944 and his son Willem Snippe died there two months later, aged only 17; Cornelius Stoffer died, aged 33, his brother Aart Stoffer died aged 44 and Aart's 17 year old son Jan Stoffer died in June 1945, a month after the war's end.
How does a town without men recover?  How does a community of widows raise their children? How do young girls and  boys grow to adulthood without any men, knowing that all of their fathers and uncles and older brothers have been murdered?  Ironically, it isn't a question that only the women of Putten could answer.
Of course we think "Never again", but as long as men go to war, it will happen again and again.  Two years after the war, tens of thousands of young Dutch men were sent to war in Indonesia.  There, in 1947, Dutch soldiers rounded up all of the men and youths in the village of Rawagede, and murdered them.  The widows of Rawagede must know how the widows of Putten once felt. 

More recently, in 1995, Dutch soldiers had been mandated by the UN to provide a Safe Area for the muslim inhabitants of the Bosnian town of Srebrinica. Instead they handed the town over to Serbian irregular forces.  The Serbs, led by General Ratko Mladic, then proceeded to murder every man in the town. In a massacre that dwarfs Putten, nearly 8,000 thousand men and youths were killed under the noses of the Dutch. Srebrinica became a town of widows and children. Last year a court in The Netherlands found the Dutch responsible for the killing of some of the men who had been under their care. Ironically, today the killer, General Mladic is a prisoner of the International Criminal Court in The Netherlands.

We must remember the victims of Putten because they deserve to be not forgotten. But in itself, Putten, like any event in our dark history, has nothing to teach us as long as we think it is alright to send men to war.


  1. I am very pleased the men were remembered individually, by name and date. Otherwise, after 20 years, a plaque saying "they left from here and did not return" or "God bless their souls" will mean nothing to the next generation.

  2. Thanks for your comment Helen. Yes, I agree. And that is why I wanted to mention some of them by name in my post, their names and ages makes it more real.

  3. Hello:
    this is a most tenderly written and beautiful tribute to the townspeople of Putten and, indeed for those who have lost and continue to lose their lives as a result of war. The war memorial looks to be incredibly powerfully done, with each individual remembered.We can well imagine that this must have had a strong impression upon you when you visited.

    On a visit to Krakóv this summer, we decided that we could not ear to see Auschwitz. We feel that much as we applaud that this place is kept as a memorial to the most dreadful of deeds, we could not face seeing it in person. The images which we imagined would be indelibly left on our minds we found too hard to contemplate.

    1. hi Jane and Lance,
      By coincidence I was in Krakow this summer as well - a beautiful city. I did visit Auschwitz for a day, a powerful experience.

  4. This is a thoughtful and poignant tribute to the people of Putten.

    I visited Auschwitz years ago when I visited Krakow, as you say a very powerful experience.

  5. So sad, and as you say, we never seem to learn.

    I met some refugees from the Bosnian massacre; the husband survived only because he had given the young Serbian soldier a chocolate bar from his shop some years before - or so he believes. Most of the men in line were sent in one direction - ultimately to death. A very few were spared; he was spared. In some ways the whimsy of the decision makes it all seem even more grisly.

  6. How does this constitute to murder. Surely the term is man-slaughter!

    1. It legally constitutes murder - the German commander at Putten, Friedrich Christiansen, was put on trial for war crimes. Manslaughter is not a war crime. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

  7. Thank you for this tribute and the photos. Two of the men from Putten were my cousins. They're among the names in your 8th photo. Dirk Cebes Van Essen was my 1st cousin once removed, and his son Pieter was my 2nd cousin.

    1. And thank you for reading my post and for making a comment. Today's Putten is such a peaceful town, it is hard to believe the terror that happened there. My condolences for your family members, and thanks agian.