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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

David Holler: Odeon

It's a great honour.

Some time ago American singer/songwrite David Holler read my post on Zurich's Cafe Odeon.  He was inspired to write and record a song about the city's most famous cafe, meeting place for all sorts of bohemians and literati. This week the song has been released, which you can download on iTunes. The official video has been released too, and I'm honoured to be listed among the credits at the end.  David has done a fantastic job: charming, punchy music with a great sequence of historical photos. I love how he rhymes "literaries and Mata Hari's".  And not many contemporary pop songs can boast of lyrics like these:
"Artists painters, sinners and sainters
People paradin’ on the sidewalk down the boulevard
We’ll drink espressos, write manifestos
Chill with Dadaists, expressionists and the Avant-garde"

Enjoy the video.