Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Oral history of the Battle of Arnhem

During World War 2 (WW2) there have been two massive evacuations in The Netherlands. During the bombardment on Rotterdam on May 14, 1940 ca. 75.000 people became homeless and ca. 23.000 left the city. The evacuation of Arnhem was really massive as more than 150.000 citizens had to leave the city for the battle of the bridge over the river Rhine in September 1944.

The battle around the bridge of Arnhem has been well documented by memoires of generals and war experts and was the subject of a real Hollywood movie The bridge too far (1977). And some stories of the Arnhem citizens were usually published as memorials around the month of September. But from last year onwards a drive for stories of the ‘evacuees’ was organised in the oral history project I WIIL BE BACK (IK KOM TERUG). Central in this project are the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek near Arnhem and Bureau van Kessel, based in Arnhem.

The project collects the memories of civilians who had to leave their homes after the Battle of Arnhem. This impact of the war past is collected, recorded and shared in the Airborne Region. In this way, the memories will be recorded and passed on to present and future generations.

Already more than 180 evacuees, surviving relatives and host families have already donated their stories and hope to reach out to other evacuees to start sharing their stories now as well. "Because when we are no longer here, no one will know how bad it was". These stories of the evacuees were recorded and condensed to interviews of 1200 words. Out of the 180 stories 20 stories were selected for presentation on a website, in an outdoor exposition and a podcast. 






The project 

On the website every selected story tells about leaving home, the flight, the return to Arnhem and the rebuilding of the city and the lives. The stories are illustrated with pictures from the family album and drawings.










The outdoor exposition consists of five venues in and around Arnhem (2x), Renkum, Ede en Overbetuwe. Per venue five stories of evacuees from that region tell their story on a panel in the Dutch language; on the back of the panel the story can be read in English. The stories are compact and have been illustrated with historical photographs and drawings.

Arnhem - The Dutch Open Air Museum

Arnhem -  Evacuation monument

Oosterbeek -  Airborne Museum

Elst -  Monument the Wing

Ede -  Airborne Monument















The Boumans Brothers talking with Igoné (11 years) during the podcast recording

The podcast series consist of twenty live interviews with the evacuees, who tell about their memories. In the podcast a connection is made with the youth. Teenagers listened to the stories, reacted to them and translated the flight stories into drawings and poems, which were presented to the evacuees. Our podcast has been listened to by Igoné (11 years). My brother and I met her in the Open Air Museum in Arnhem and had a talk about the flight story of my parents. She had illustrated the fragment of my pregnant mother climbing a ladder in a haystack on a plate.
















The English translation of the family panel in Elst, near Arnhem. On the left bottom is the plate painted by Igoné. (Tick on the picture for enlarging the photograph)

 The Boumans Brothers (Wim 80 years and Jak 78 years) offered the family evacuation story, which was selected as one of the twenty. We researched the family story already in 2020 in the framework of 75 years of liberation of the Netherlands. Earlier I had had produced the lifetime book of our parents in 1999 and lifted the chapter with the war time story from the book to start the research. We plotted their flight from their house which was within 500 meters from the bridge. It took my father and mother, pregnant from me, 69 days and 105 kilometres before they found a lovely family in Varsseveld that took them in and hosted them till the end of the war. During the stay in Varsseveld I was born in a temporary hospital next to an old folk’s home; five months after my birth was announced by a classified advertisement in a regional newspaper. And we found a daughter of the hosting family, who recognised our family name. 

So, now our family story can be read on the web as well as the panel of the open air exposition in Elst (in Dutch and English) and can be listened to in the (Dutch language) podcast IK KOM TERUG on the Apple Podcast, Spotify and Google Podcast

UPDATE (August 12th, 2023): The podcast of our family story (sorry in Dutch) can now be listened to:


The letter statue with the Dutch word vlucht (flee) in the centre of Arnhem

In this blog I have used the terms evacuee and refuge interchangeably. In Arnhem the term evacuee has been used till 2022. In that year a letter statue was unveiled stressing the role of the people fleeing for violence(in Dutch vlucht). I personally rather use the term refugee for my parents. In order to indicate the difference between the terms, I use the family story of my father and his brother, my uncle Johan. Both had come to Arnhem to work in a brick factory. Johan got married before the war and had a house close to the central railway station in Arnhem. My father got married during the war and got a home at the southern part of the river Rhine. When people had to flee from Arnhem in September 1944, Johan went to relatives of his wife with his family of 4 people. He had a rather quiet stay there and when the signal for return was given, the family could return to the house and continue with their life. Our family, by contrast, lost their home, walked more than 100 kilometres in 69 days to find a hospitable family, returned to Arnhem with no home to go back to and had to live-in for three years before they could pick up their lives again with a rented house and a job. My uncle could be labelled as an evacuee, while my father was a refugee.

More information

If you want to know more about the flight story of my parents go to the blog with 32 instalments: The site is in the Dutch language, but use Google Translate or other translation programs. For more information, post a reaction to the blog.