Christmas 1944

The small photo shows three children smiling, each clutching a book, waving to someone behind a third-story window. It is Christmas 1944. My two younger brothers and I are nine, eight, and almost five years old; war children, hungry children—I think. Years later, I will not remember how it feels to be hungry. But I know that for four months the cities of western Holland have been caught in a full-scale, wartime famine. We younger children are better fed than our older brothers and sister, but still not enough to keep us from losing weight. Within four months the middle one of us will be at death’s door, and I a refugee, my whereabouts unknown to my parents. But on this day, we are happy. One of our older brothers, Bram, the funny one, has taken us to visit his fiancée’s parents, and now he is taking our picture.

We had gone to church that morning. It was very cold; the church was not heated. There was no fuel anywhere in Amsterdam, no wood or coal to heat a building. People had improvised small, wood-burning stoves for their homes using old cans and pipes. My father, miraculously, had found a small wood stove with which we could heat one room in the house. My mother cooked the little food we had on it. It was a cruelly cold winter. The trees in the city had all been chopped down surreptitiously at night for firewood. Empty apartments had been stripped of doors and window frames. There were no Christmas trees that year, and since electricity had been cut off since September, no lights either.

We children had received our gifts on the fifth of December, the gift-giving holiday in the Netherlands. In all the families we knew, Christmas was celebrated by going to church, and with special food, music, and family visits. Our family, however, had a special tradition begun 20 years ago when my oldest brother was a young child: each child in the family would memorize a part of the Christmas story from the Bible. After church on Christmas morning, the grownups would form a circle around my father’s chair by the Christmas tree, and, one by one, we children would step forward to recite our text. Father would then give each of us a book. We all loved to read, and my father sometimes jokingly said that he had started the tradition so he would have a quiet holiday. But it was a beloved tradition, which has been carried forward by almost all of my brothers in their own families.

So the tree was missing this year, and although Jaap, Lo, and I had memorized our Bible passages, we weren’t sure if there would be any books. Bookstores had been virtually empty all year. There was no paper for printing. At school we used the meanest pieces of scratch paper to do our work, paper with pieces of wood still embedded in it. And if you had not filled it crosswise and up and down with every square millimeter filled in, you wouldn’t get a new piece from the teacher.

Would we receive a book this year? I knew that adults were able to do many things; but could they perform miracles? Yes, my father had performed a small miracle; he had found three very thin booklets with stories written by our favorite author, W.G. van der Hulst. The little stack was waiting on the table by my father’s chair when we returned from church. When all the grownups had pulled their chairs in a circle, Jaap, Lo, and I stepped forward one by one to recite the lovely text from the Scriptures.

I must have been four years old when I said my first piece, Simeon’s song from Luke, set to a simple tune and sung in church as a hymn—four or five lines of poetry. I am sure my brother Ruud had helped me since I couldn’t read yet. When I was five I recited the song of Mary, also in a rhymed version. The next year Ruud helped me with Luke 2:1-7, the story of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, and how Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus. From then on I could read, and in the following years I memorized the story of the shepherds and Matthew’s story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem.

This year my father had given me a passage from Isaiah 9 to memorize, the one that starts with the words: The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Reading it now, 60 years later, I am struck by how accurately it described our condition. War was all around us. The city was literally in darkness. When the sun set a little after four in the afternoon, we would have only the feeble light of an oil lamp set on the dining room table. It wasn’t strong enough to read by, so at night all of us would sit within that small circle of light, and the grownups would tell stories. The grownups were my parents, my older sister, and four of my older brothers who had not gone into hiding. They were all great storytellers; there would be much laughter at the funny tales by Father, Bram, Ruud, and my sister’s boyfriend, Kees. When it was my bedtime, I would hide in a dark corner, not wanting to leave that warm circle of laughter. A year later, when we were all back home and there was again food on the table, my mother would weep remembering the trauma of not being able to feed her family, and then she would say, "But it was also the most wonderful time when we sat around the table and told stories and laughed."

For the yoke of his burden . . . the rod of his oppressor thou hast broken. Even I, a nine-year-old, was aware of the deep hatred of the Nazi oppressors. Once, when my father was running a high fever, he spouted the ugliest and most contemptuous language about his Dutch-Nazi neighbor. It wasn’t something he would ever do when his mind was clear. A year earlier, my mother had been riding the streetcar one day with my then seven-year-old brother. When they passed the headquarters of the SS, the dreaded Nazi police, Jaap said loudly, "Look, Mama, that’s where all the bad and naughty men live." The streetcar erupted in laughter. But it was also a scary moment for my mother, because you never knew who might be listening to this child’s prattle. An informer perhaps? The hatred of the oppressor was a fact of life for us children. I knew the adults were waiting for the yoke to be lifted and the rod to be broken. They never doubted it would happen. It only took a bit longer than expected. Would it happen in time for all of us to survive?

And every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. Now, 60 years later, I understand these words to signal the end of war, but then I didn’t. The words and every garment rolled in blood were the echo of a cruel reality. I was nine years old and didn’t dwell on it, but from time to time the horror would creep to the surface of my consciousness. The nightly air raids on German cities had been going on for two years now. Hamburg, Kassel, Bremen—all destroyed. The day after each bombing, word would get around, triumphantly: another city razed. I would be perturbed by the joy; there were so many people living in those towns, so many killed. I would ask my father: Why? "Because they bombed us first—Rotterdam, London, Warsaw." I loved my father and I would push the questions away— . . . and every garment rolled in blood. Sometimes, when bombers on their way to Germany flew over the city, I would notice one of them caught in a searchlight scanning the night sky. From the window of our fourth-floor apartment, I watched it trying to escape the trap. I felt a cold hand around my heart, panicking—it is going to be shot down, there is someone in it!— . . . and every garment rolled in blood.

Yet another time, my sister came home upset. She had just passed a small park where, moments before, several men had been executed, the bystanders forced to watch. City workers were cleaning the site. I knew of those executions. The executed were heroes, of course; men and women— but mostly men—who had done illegal work, helped to hide Jews, falsified ration cards for people in hiding, hid pilots whose planes were shot down. I was not aware at that time how much violence had been "necessary" to do that work— . . . and every garment rolled in blood.

One Sunday news came that a minister of our church had been executed. He had prayed for the Queen (who was residing in London at that time)—a capital offense. A Dutch Nazi who happened to attend the service reported him to the Grüne Polizei, the German green police. The minister and the warden of the church were taken from their homes, set against the wall of the church, and shot—. . . and every garment rolled in blood.

One day I was walking with my mother over the Ceintuurbaan, one of the major streets in our part of town. A dreaded green truck with wooden benches sat by the curb. A soldier had found a family of Jews and, with a gun drawn, took them to the waiting truck. My mother pulled my arm, panicky, "Don’t look, don’t look."

Why not? I didn’t understand her; I only knew something terrible was happening and it was dangerous to pay attention—. . . and every garment rolled in blood.

My recitation that year ended with the beloved words: For unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. During the dark days of that winter war, these words must have rung a deep and abiding promise. Every Sunday our church was overflowing, people sitting on the floor, in the aisles, and on the steps to the balcony. Church was not a safe place; young men would sometimes be warned to leave because a roundup was happening in a church three blocks away. But the church was a place of hope. Even a nine-year-old could understand that.

Looking back, I wonder how it was possible that through all the darkness, my parents and older siblings were able to give us little ones a sense of warmth and joy. I know they were deeply religious, blessed with a sense of humor and the ability to tell great stories. And my older brothers were very fond of us, the three little ones who had been born into the family after the trauma of their mother’s death, my father’s first wife. Children suffer during a war, but adults suffer doubly. They are responsible for the well-being of their children, but cannot give them what they need: food, warm clothing, or absolute safety. As an adult and as a Quaker, I have come to realize that God was absolutely present in the life of our family during that winter of 1944-45. In their vulnerability, the Spirit was able to enter and sustain the grownups who had to care for us.

I do not remember much else from that Christmas in 1944. I do not know what we ate—it couldn’t have been much —but I am sure my mother had made something special with whatever she had. I know that I had to recite my piece several times for visiting aunts and uncles, and the next day for my grandmother. And every time I was perturbed by those garments rolled in blood.

Our family was one of the lucky ones; we all survived.
This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of The Carillon, a monthly publication for Quakers in Arkansas for which she is the editor.

Tina Coffin

Tina Coffin moved to the United States at the age of 34 with her (American) husband and children. She is a member of Little Rock (Ark.) Meeting and is clerk of Wider Quaker Fellowship. She and John met in the '60s when both were teachers at the International Quaker School in the Netherlands. After their move to the United States, they joined the Religious Society of Friends in Nashville, Tenn.