Interview with Thea Coleman


Interview with Thea Coleman


Thea Coleman was born in 1933 in Holland. She experienced the invasion of her country and the increasing restrictions. When walking once with her father they were forced to stand and wait while prisoners were brought out of prison and executed while they were forced to watch. Thea’s family were involved with the Resistance and she was forced to go into hiding with various people until she finally went to live in a Children’s Home. The RAF bombed the Registry in the town and so her father and others were able to change their identities and obtain new documents. The family hid Jewish people. One Jewish woman who was hidden by the family told them she had hidden the Menorah in her garden and to please dig it up if she did not return. She did not return and Thea still has this in her possession as a reminder of horrors of that time. Thea was so hungry that she ate the food from the dog’s bowl in the Children’s Home where she was living. Operation Manna saved her life because she was severely malnourished. When the people thought that Liberation had arrived they gathered at the Dam Square in Amsterdam. German soldiers were hiding on the rooftops and opened fire on the crowd killing and injuring a large number of civilians.




Temporal Coverage





01:47:23 audio recording


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TC: To be awkward.
CB: That’s ok.
TC: Because I’m going to start with that one.
CB: Ok. That’s fine.
TC: I’ve already —
CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 14th of September 2017 and I’m in Rugby with Thea Coleman. And she was in Holland during the war because she’s Dutch and she’s going to tell us her story. So, what are your earliest recollections of life, Thea?
TC: Very very happy childhood with a fantastic family around me. And we were so close it was really super. I had already a brother and a sister. They were already born. One was born in ’22 and the other in ’24. So they were quite a bit older. So that was for me rather nice. But to them I was a pest [laughs] you know. I pinched their roller skates and their things but when I was a bit older. But we had a very happy family. Yeah.
CB: And what did your father do?
TC: He was an accountant. Eventually.
CB: And where did you live? Where did the family live?
TC: In the Hague.
CB: Yes. Ok. And what sort of house was that?
TC: Well, first of all there was this house and then before long when I was a bit older, about four maybe we moved to the place that I’ve just shown you here with the beautiful view.
CB: That was on the outskirts was it?
TC: That was on the edge. Well, it was overlooking the park. As far as you could see it was a park and eventually when Rotterdam was bombed we could see it burn at the horizon. So, yeah. It was quite, quite a place.
CB: So moving house meant moving school, did it?
TC: Well, I didn’t go to school before.
CB: At all.
TC: No. Because I had to go from this place. Find school. Now and again I got a lift on a bike because it was quite a way to walk but for the rest that was.
CB: And you enjoyed your schooldays.
TC: Yes. I think I, from what I can remember but there was so much going around or going on around me that, well school was just taken as a matter of whatever.
CB: So, you were born in 1933.
TC: Yeah.
CB: The war started in 1939.
TC: ’40 in Holland.
CB: Yeah. Ok.
TC: That was, that has a story actually.
CB: Ok.
TC: That is very interesting because that is, if I may I would like to start with the story about a Peace Palace that was Alexander the 2nd’s, Czar Alexander. He was so fed up with all the money waste on the wars that took place in the beginning of the century that he wanted to do something about it and had the idea of building a palace. A Peace Palace. And Carnegie, this started I think in 1907. His idea. And Carnegie said, ‘Right. I’ll, I’ll finance it.’ He chose Holland because Holland was a peaceful country. And the, all the countries contributed something towards it. Like Britain contributed the gardens. Switzerland. Italy, I think it was the marble. And so every country got together with bits and pieces. Then eventually then it was opened exactly the date it says there. What was it? The —
Other: Here you are.
TC: Yeah. August the 28th 1913 the Palace was opened. International Court of Justice. Everything was in there. And what happens? Within a year we had the Second World War. Wasn’t that ironic? So, this is really not a very good start for the peace. But nevertheless, then let me get my story back.
CB: I’ll just stop for a mo.
TC: Yeah.
[recording paused]
TC: Now, then we get in 1933 we get Hitler. So that is, he was very war minded and of course in those days you had better weapons. There were aircraft and what have you. So then there was war coming up on, in 1940. But Holland, and I forgot to just mention that before during the First World War Holland was neutral. And they didn’t want anything to do with the war. So the second time Holland said no. We want to be neutral again. Not in the German’s point of view because they said that they wanted Holland to capitulate and Holland refused. So that went on and on and on. And then you get here fortunately later on document of my sister where she describes the time between the two wars. How socially it was hard work although Holland was, had been neutral they had a difficult time of making ends meet. There were no social services or anything like that. So what we had that is very important. We had to have a lodger. And this lodger eventually appeared to be Nazi minded. Because that was another thing that was happening all around. You see the Dutch were a bit afraid from, you know, what is Hitler up to? And we better be on the winning side than on the losing side. So, therefore this fellow who happened to be a lodger that was Nazi minded also we had neighbours who were. It was called NSP. You know. National Socialists. So we were already from knee high told, ‘Keep your mouth shut. Don’t say anything and be very very careful. And be aware. Never tell them anything.’ Because you couldn’t trust them. So that was the situation that happened in the beginning of 1940 when Germany said, ‘Right. We want you to capitulate.’ And the Dutch said no. So what they did was they threatened with bombing Rotterdam. And they flattened Rotterdam, you know. Pretty severely. You can see here [pause] you see. And then the Germans said, ‘Ok. We’ll give you two hours. You capitulate or else all the other cities in Holland will go like this.’ So they were, unfortunately they were blackmailed and they had to capitulate. There was no way out. So that was a rather a shame because in the meantime they were also very busy. You know, like we had them on the coast a beautiful pier where you could visit. That was an obstacle. So that had to go. They built bunkers. Well, they were absolutely amazing you know. And then on also outside. No. There’s not a picture here. Where they had mines. Oh, it was so, although we always went lovely you know to the beaches and we had the super youth it was all gone for a burton because it was all mined. And as I say there was Rotterdam was here. We could see it burn. This was rather nice because this is a park where kids could have a plot of land where they could grow vegetables. It was rather nice. But as I say, but oh gosh and that was really my first reaction. My first memory. Looking out on the balcony and then these aircrafts. German aircrafts. Because it was still not officially capitulated. Capitulated. They would dive bomb and drop parachutes. It was really a frightening situation where people were getting frightened to such an extent that some thought that we had better be on their side. Which was not very favourable was it? So, there you are. Then, as I say I had Willie’s memories how she then describes. It’s in Dutch unfortunately. I think I will go and translate it. Where she describes the situation of fear. Short of money. You didn’t really know what was going to happen. You saw all these aircrafts. So that was really physically the frightening bit but also as fun because if there was a bomb thrown then the windows would shatter. So we taped them with Sellotape or whatever and it was quite an exercise because it was artistic. You know, to try and preserve the windows that you wouldn’t sit in the cold. Yeah. Now, let me just —
CB: What you might call practical artistic solutions.
TC: That was definitely it. Yeah.
CB: We’ll pause for a moment.
[recording paused]
CB: Ok. Fire away.
TC: Hitler.
CB: The invasion. Yeah.
TC: Yeah. Hitler, in ’33 he was very war minded. And then you get the invasion in 1940. Incidents with mines. Complaints. Spies. And then in April, oh God the fear. You know. You were so scared. And then on the 10th of May Germany attacked Rotterdam. That was on the 10th of May. Without a warning. Nobody knew about it. And then they were given two hours to give in but the problem was when they sent the letter they didn’t just accept it. They said, ‘Hey, hang on. Who wrote this letter? Where does come from?’ So that was delay. And although the two hours were given they didn’t give the two hours. They took less to just flatten Rotterdam completely. Yeah. So, Rotterdam destroyed and Holland had to capitulate. In other words, other words the other cities would have the same fate. Not very nice. So, life goes on. My brother goes to school. He is ten years older than I am so he had a job given when he was about seventeen eighteen. And then of course they said, the Germans said, ‘Hang on. We want you in the army.’ So he had to be signed up. So he did go to have the interview and he came back in a uniform. One of these little [unclear] things with a little tassel I thought was wonderful. And then of course he would be called up and go to Germany which of course was the last thing he wanted. And that petrified my mother. Willie, she was two years younger than he was. She studied hard at school, you know. She went to the Grammar School and eventually she got a job at the factory that belonged to the Jews but then was taken over by the Germans and, so she worked there as a secretary which was useful. Not Germans because later on as the war goes on my father finds there a place to hide. So that was useful. My brother meantime, well, you know he had his uniform and he was called up. We took him to the tram and he said goodbye. My mother cried her eyes out and off he went. And nobody knew he didn’t go. He went into hiding. Nobody knew except my father and Willie. Willie knew as well. I didn’t. So later on, during as time goes on they said, ‘Well, we have a surprise for you,’ and I saw him [laughs] He was hiding not so very far from where I, where I then was living. Yeah. So that was — I’m sorry. I’m getting a little bit of a muddled story I reckon.
CB: That’s alright.
TC: Can you select?
CB: We will stop just a mo.
TC: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: What was your brother doing do you think? Or do you remember? When he was in hiding.
TC: I can’t remember. He had, he was with a family with two other chaps of his age. And maybe they did some farming or whatever. But I know that at one stage the house was encircled by Germans and he escaped through a toilet window. Fortunately there was a cornfield so he disappeared in the corn field. But the two other chaps they were arrested. Whether they survived I don’t know. You see that was another thing that you had to get used to. Sometimes you would go on a walk. One day we went on a walk near the prison and suddenly we were stopped and five young chaps came out. And they were executed. And we had to watch it. I mean those sort of things is unimaginable. What you had to as a kid had to absorb really.
CB: This is an important point. And could you just describe how that happened? So, you were stopped. Then what? How did they do this execution?
TC: They just set them against the wall and shot them. And we had to watch. We had to stand there and watch. There was no way of hiding or running away. No. Otherwise you would be the next.
CB: So after they shot them then what happened?
TC: I don’t know whether I can remember that one because you were so absolutely numbed by the occasion. That they were just picked up and taken inside.
CB: And when you got home what did you do?
TC: Cry. And try to forget. And my parents were very good because they were trying to, you know distract your attention and, with other things. Play a game or whatever. Yeah. And, and this was all physical. This had nothing to do with food yet. Because there was another thing. The Dutch are very very careful because they were always thinking well, you never know. You never know. So they started to preserve food. Bottle it and what have you. We were always trying to save the food for, for whenever. And the same with clothing and so on. And even in the, from the government point of view you know they were trying to store. It was really store. And then of course the Germans said you are not allowed to store any more. So it had to be done secretly. So, you know then this ideal if you need it that it is there. But we had to hide so you know we lost all the stuff that we had preserved. Somebody else ate it [laughs] Yeah. So, I don’t know.
CB: We’ll stop there for a mo.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
[recording paused]
TC: Do you want food or what?
CB: Yeah. No. We’ll just carry on more with the living at the time.
TC: Ok.
CB: Once you —
[recording paused]
TC: When this particularly pro-Nazi lodger left the house was open for people come and go. So we always had visitors. The beauty of it was that people didn’t think it was unusual that we had lodgers and that was a fantastic cover. So now, this particular time we are getting Willie she has been very busy getting, because we have rations to supply these people with rations. To find accommodation for them or you know really generally looking after them and finding places for them to stay. And so we were virtually called a through house. Well, then also people above us, you know, going up the stairs. The flat above they, he was a policeman and they also got involved. So it was our family and those two and we had just coming and goings. Comings and goings. And then one day we got a family with three boys. One was about my age. One was my brother’s age. Three boys. They were Jews. Because then suddenly the whole war started to change because it became anti-Jew. And that was one of the worst decisions that ever could have made. Been made. Anyway, Willie was very very busy with, you know trying to find them. Anyway, this particular couple came with their three boys. Fred, the eldest, was my age. He stayed with us permanently. The middle brother he went to my aunt. And the youngest went to my grandfather. Unfortunately, and Willie was always on the, on her bike and finding things and she has an awful lot of information. And one day she heard that the younger boy, Fritz with my grandfather that the Germans were after him or whatever. You know, they, they had the German attention was on that house. So Willie went to my grandfather and said get him in to cloister. He said, ‘Ok. Tomorrow.’ But that was too late because at lunchtime this four year old, he was kidnapped out of my grandfather’s garden. Taken to Auschwitz. Never came back. So you can imagine that was what my grandfather must have felt. Absolutely horrendous. So, yeah. That, that went on and as we say the other boys, you know. That is Fred. He is with us. He went on a holiday in a cow’s stables. The cows were outside and we got fresh straw. So that was rather quiet and, and a treat. And then here somewhere we have [pause] Oh, there’s my father with, I’ve got that there. His false passport. Oh, and here’s Wim. My brother. We didn’t know and I was told, ‘You’re going to see a visitor today.’ Somehow. And that was him. The first time after all those years that I actually met him when he was hiding there. Then he told the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I can still remember that one. And this, I have to go to a Children’s Home. This is coming later. First, see if I can find the boys. Sorry about that [pause – pages turning] There’s Wim. Oh, yeah. Here we are. Here is the middle boy on the lap of a German. Fancy that. That was, but that is again. I hope you stay another week.
CB: It’s interesting that these pictures were taken in the war.
TC: Yeah.
CB: So there was no restriction on picture taking at that time if the German is in that picture.
TC: No. No. That is very true. No. Because, well this is [pause] yeah. Now, I I think I’m now going to skip to — is it a bit higgledy piggledy or not?
CB: I’ll just stop for a mo.
TC: This is —
CB: At the back we’ve got a drawing.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Right.
TC: That is the bug tug. The tug bug that is the German. And where you look at his picture his arms and legs are like a swastika.
CB: Oh right.
TC: And he is emptying Holland of all the goodies that Holland, that the Dutch had tried to preserve and hide for just in case for a rainy day.
CB: So in this cartoon he’s got hanging on him all sorts of things that he has requisitioned.
TC: Yeah. Exactly.
CB: Yes. Right.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Ok. Stopping again.
TC: Right.
[recording paused]
CB: We’re just looking at a candlestick.
TC: Yeah. That was from one of the Jews who hide, hid in to our, in our house as well.
CB: Yes.
TC: And she said to my father, ‘Look, you know I have hidden the Menorah in the garden. I’ll show you where it is. If anything happens can you dig it up?’ She never came back from Auschwitz. So my father dug it up and I’ve got it. So —
CB: An amazing bit of history.
TC: Yeah. And very [pause] and you look at it and you think not everybody was as lucky as I was. That is the thought that goes behind it, isn’t it? Yeah. Now, and then of course we get the [pause] Yeah. Before anything else can I just have quickly then we can put this one away.
CB: Ok. We’re looking at a photo album.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Yes.
TC: And then just to show, this was the house I was born and this was just to show the love that comes out of the photos and the absolute fantastic childhood I had with a lot of fun.
CB: Yes.
TC: My father put me in a waste paper basket and things, you know [laughs] But yeah, I, when you look back this is so important that you see how happy. This is an uncle of mine. He was a fantastic piano player. And this is just to reminisce of a happy childhood. This is again the balcony with that house there. Here I go to school. Very happy at school.
CB: This is the green album we’re looking at.
TC: Yeah. That is me getting a bit —
CB: Dressed up.
TC: Dressed. I’m a bit older. Going out on a holiday camp. That was possible.
CB: Where were the holiday camps?
TC: That was central Holland.
CB: Right.
TC: Yeah. Yeah. And then my brother is born in 1939. And then we are getting here a series of photos of the war. Here is my mother. You can see how old she looks. Attacks from the Germans. There again. The pier. You’ve just seen that one and the other one. And going on holiday in, at the farm. But still —
CB: And where was the farm that you went on holiday?
TC: Barneveld.
CB: How far is that?
TC: That is near Arnhem.
CB: Right.
TC: Yeah. And then you see we had beach walks. We could go and walk on the beaches.
CB: Yeah. This is all before the war.
TC: All before, well at the beginning of the war.
CB: Yeah.
TC: Because now we are getting to, that’s why I wanted to get rid of this album.
CB: Yes.
TC: To [pause] Oh, this is me a bit.
CB: I think, just to clarify the point Holland was neutral when the war started. In the early stages. And it wasn’t until the Germans invaded it in May 1940 that it became, that the war started in Holland.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Although in other, in Britain it had started in September 1939.
TC: Oh yeah. No. No. This was the 10th of May wasn’t it?
CB: Yeah.
TC: That I said.
CB: Yeah.
TC: The 10th of May.
CB: Yeah. So, we’ll stop there for a mo.
TC: Yeah.
[recording paused]
TC: The government. You know, once Holland had capitulated the Queen went to England. Her family went to Canada. So this. And then you get the Atlantic Wall. That was in 1942. Now, that was completely haywire because you could hear the story. We had already people hiding and then we get here the family. He was a Jew. I forgot to say that. Wait a minute. She was a Jew and that were a couple visiting and then there’s my father. It was just a family gathering. Because what had happened with the Atlantic Wall. All the people within this [pause] where is it? Yellow line.
CB: Yes.
TC: They had to vacate their houses. The yellow line was about two or three miles wide.
CB: This is a map of Scandinavia and the continent showing the yellow line being the Atlantic Wall.
TC: That’s it. Yeah. That was the Atlantic Wall. The Germans hadn’t done that. Spain was neutral so that didn’t have to have a wall. But now you can see why Germany was so extremely keen for Holland to capitulate.
CB: Yeah.
TC: Because when they were neutral there was a gap. And the British and the Americans could enter.
CB: Yeah.
TC: And that was the one thing that Hitler was against. He wanted it hermetically closed.
CB: Yeah.
TC: So therefore it was essential that Holland had to be conquered. So that the line was continued. Now, within these two lines I had my grandfather and my aunt who lived near the coast in a beautiful place. And what happens? They had to get out of their house.
CB: Because of the exclusion zone that was the Berlin wall err the Atlantic Wall.
TC: The Atlantic Wall.
CB: Yes.
TC: Everybody had to be out.
CB: Yes.
TC: All the civilians —
CB: Right.
TC: Were not allowed to live there anymore. So you had your house and you had to go. Leave everything behind or, well what would you do with it? You know. It’s very difficult. Now, my aunt was very lucky. That’s another story. My aunt, and there’s my aunt and my grandfather. That’s not the best place.
CB: I’ll just stop a mo.
TC: Yeah.
[recording paused]
TC: We were so lucky. Is that the word? She was so lucky. To the west of Amsterdam, in the middle of nowhere she found this place.
CB: A house.
TC: The house, built in about 1934. Empty. So, obviously in you go. There was, there was nothing there. Later on we get a little bridge to get there over the ditch and so on. And yeah, that was fantastic. So then the Germans thought now that is nice. Let us have a few rooms in this house for us. And they said, ‘You must be bloody joking,’ [laughs] You see, eventually they get a little bridge there and they, they wanted in the house. And they said, ‘No. We have a shed. Listen. If you want accommodation you go stay in the shed and leave us alone.’ And we had a little terrace built and it was great. So, what did the Germans do? On this tree they hung a steel bar and that steel bar was an indication that if there was a raid they say, ‘Don’t worry about here. We are here. Nothing there. So you can carry on.’ So, we were safe in the lion’s den weren’t we?
CB: Yeah.
TC: So, yeah. That was, that was great. And the boys, my brothers amongst them this is middle boy of these three boys that —
CB: This is a picture with a German soldier.
TC: Yeah.
CB: With his arm around him.
TC: Yeah. Ironic. And the boys were, you know, given the helmet to play with and what have you. Yeah. But as I say they were in the shed and the shed was full of rats so it was just the right place for them. Yeah. This is just the by the by one.
CB: Right.
TC: That this, where you had the bicycle. Don’t have tyres on your bicycle because if you have the Germans confiscate it. Any bike with a tyre was a loss. So for miles and miles and miles even my mother had to travel by bike without tyres. That was [unclear] Yeah. So anyway that’s [ ] I thought I had a picture. If you give me one second. Can you manage?
CB: Now, one of the ways as I read it the Germans kept control was to have raids.
TC: Oh yeah.
CB: So, how did that work?
TC: Well, they would close the road. Nobody was to go in or out of their houses. They would enter your houses with the guns and they would go through every room. I can remember having to spend a couple of hours in between floorboards and being as quiet as possible because the Germans were walking on the, on the floor above you. So, do you see what I mean? The fright that was almost second nature. So eventually when I felt that I needed to write it down I wanted to get it off my chest really.
CB: So, just putting this in to context of your age. You were born in 1933. So by ’42, you were talking about earlier you were nine.
TC: Yeah.
CB: So in ’43 you were ten. So when the —
TC: Very aware of what went on. Yeah. Sorry.
CB: That’s ok. Yeah.
TC: Yeah.
CB: So, what was the reaction of families to these German raids?
TC: Fear. [laughs] And they would march through the streets. And then they would you know sing. They had songs. And one of the song was “Und wir fahren gegen Engeland.” “And we sail to England.” And then the people on the pavements watching them, they said, ‘Glug. Glug. Glug. Glug,’ in answer to that. In other words, ‘If you are going to England, drown.’
CB: Oh, I see. Right.
TC: And they were furious when people said that. You know, ‘Glug. Glug. Glug. Glug.’ You know, when they were singing that they were going to England. Marching up to England.
CB: And did they have a threatening approach to the public? The public in general?
TC: No. Not that I can —
CB: Or were they trying to be friendly?
TC: No. No. They were not friendly. It was just a different race. You know, this — we were told to stay away. Not say anything. We had to really be so careful, you know not to upset them because that was life threatening. So we were under very very high discipline not to say anything. Not to do anything. So, well, you had to abide by that.
CB: And when they did the searches of the houses did they confiscate people belongings? Or did they just —
TC: Themselves. People themselves. Oh, they would be marched out of the house if they thought you know were not you were of the wrong age or — oh yeah. People would. And that was also a sign. You saw these vans outside in the streets. And then I can still visualise it now where people were dragged into those vehicles and never be, in many cases never heard of again.
CB: What sort of people were they arresting?
TC: Anybody.
CB: And taking away.
TC: The wrong age.
CB: The wrong age being what?
TC: Military age, you know.
CB: Right.
TC: Old people they were not interested in. Unless you had an association with their enemy if you like. Or if you were a Jew. Oh, you were, then you were definitely out. Yeah. And, and that was very very difficult for me to to absorb really until I went to to Lincoln and I was teaching in Dogdyke. No. Tattershall. Was it Tattershall? Well, where ever it was and somebody said he was a veteran. They had a meeting with somebody who was going to give a talk and unfortunate they were let down. He heard my accent and he said, ‘Do you think you have a story to tell?’ I said, ‘By Jove, have I got a story to tell.’ And I was invited and it was a thundering success. And after that they wanted more and more and more. ‘Can you come to us?’ ‘Can you come to us?’ [unclear] You know how that goes. And then somebody said, ‘Do you know what? Why don’t you write it down?’ So when I moved here I thought, ‘Yeah. I’ll do that. I don’t know anybody so this is the ideal opportunity. I’ll start writing it down.’ That is, you know this one. And then a colleague of mine read it and he said, ‘Thea, that’s far too good. That has to be published.’ And they published it literally the same as this. So that’s how it came about.
CB: That’s what the book is.
TC: That’s what the book is.
CB: And what’s the title of the book?
TC: “Evading the Gestapo in Holland.” But here I just called it, “My story.”
CB: Yes.
TC: But it’s the same one.
CB: What was the — going back to your comment about people being carted out of houses. What was the reaction of the population to the Germans arresting and deporting people?
TC: Very little because they were so scared that if they would say anything they would go and join them. So you couldn’t say anything. But there must be so many people with still those memories in the back of their minds. Because there’s nothing worse than seeing somebody thrown in a van for [pause] well you couldn’t ask for law or rights could you? That was it. And often they were Jews. Yeah.
CB: You mentioned that up in the upstairs flat was a policeman. How did he manage his life working with Germans?
TC: Very carefully. Yeah. Very carefully. Yeah.
CB: Now, all occupied countries had their collaborators. In Norway they were called quislings. What was the title given to Dutch collaborators?
TC: I can’t think at the moment. That will come back.
CB: Ok.
TC: NSPer’s. Well, NSPer’s I suppose. National Socialists.
CB: Yes.
TC: He is an NSPer. Yeah. NSPer.
CB: Right. And did they have something distinctive that they wore so that the Germans didn’t worry them?
TC: Well, that was with one of the lodgers we had. He suddenly came with an NSP pin thing on his, so we knew that he was from the wrong side. Can you just stop it a minute?
CB: Yes.
TC: Because —
[recording paused]
TC: Do you want to read it? No. Do you want —
CB: So, now we’re —
TC: You —
CB: You tell us what we’ve got there.
TC: What the Hunger Winter —
CB: Yes.
TC: Was like.
CB: So when was that? When was the Hunger Winter? In 1944.
TC: Yeah. 1944.
CB: The end of ’44 was it?
TC: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
TC: Well, there was [pause] yeah ’44. Here we are.
CB: Ok.
TC: What we didn’t have. No radio.
CB: Right.
TC: No electricity. No more gas. The first hunger fatalities. Twenty thousand people died.
CB: Of?
TC: Of hunger.
CB: Right.
TC: And ninety eight thousand were starvations. Or was it that? Yeah. Then what is to say?
CB: The bread.
TC: The bread rations. Yeah. No bread. Oh God, it was just gloop. No electricity at all. No gas.
CB: So, there were beggars on the streets.
TC: Oh yeah. I can remember when I was in a Children’s Home there was a dog. It had the dog bowl. And I had to look after the dining area. That was when I was in the Children’s Home. And the dog had better food than me. So I licked his food as if it was a dog. So they couldn’t see that I had eaten it. Can you imagine?
CB: Extraordinary.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And the dog belonged to who? The Germans or to the owner?
TC: No. No. That was from the house. But they were pro Germans anyway so.
CB: Right.
TC: Well, they had the German religion.
CB: So what type of Children’s Home was that? What sort of [pause] Were they orphans or what were they?
TC: Usually of parents who were missionaries in Africa and the kids couldn’t go with them. So they stayed in that home. So that was eventually where my brother found me a place. Ah, because now you can really get to the story about my father’s —
CB: Right.
TC: Go back to —
CB: Keep going.
TC: Yeah. Go back to the lodgers. We had a lodger and his name was Mr Somners. And Mr Somners was fantastic. We used to call him Mr Ringaling. He had gold rimmed glasses. And he had a secretary. She was a beauty. And she stayed with that policeman upstairs. And then suddenly they decided they loved one another and they would like to live together. So they decided then that he would move with the girl but the Germans got hold of that and they arrested her mother. And they said to her, ‘If you play,’ Mr Ringaling, ‘Mr Somners, into our hands we’ll free your mother.’ So they made an appointment, these two at the Square in the Hague. And she said, ‘Well, the one I kiss is the man, and — ’ Because she had to choose between her mother and her lover. So she, the moment that she kissed him he got arrested there and then. And so did she. And then they were taken to the Gestapo headquarters and then Mr Somners walked in. They got a fright because amongst the Germans were Resistance workers undercover. They jumped on their bike and they went to all the houses they could remember and when it was 9 o’clock in the morning there was my mother. I was at school and she said, they said to my mother, ‘You get that child and out of the house now. You haven’t got time to pack or anything like that. Five minutes. Out.’ So she did. When I came back from school at lunchtime, because in Holland you don’t stay at school you always go home, there was nobody in. The house was already then confiscated. And then what I found out from Willie here what Mr Somners did and also consequently my father. They were involved in smuggling Jews to Spain. Or for that matter to Norway. I think. Yeah. Those two. So, and they recognised him by his teeth afterwards and she was [unclear] to death. And her mother never heard of any more. Also died. So you can imagine that was for us suddenly the end. You know. I come from school. Then what do you do with a girl of my age? So Willie took me by the hand and she had just been confirmed by a vicar so she went to him and she said, ‘I’m stuck with her. What do I do?’ So he said, ‘Well, leave her with us for a fortnight and then we’ll see what we can do.’ But the problem was when we went to church people would say, ‘Who’s that kid?’ And then I overheard somebody saying, ‘This is a child of a family on the run.’ Well, I was adult there and then. I matured. There was no childhood for me anymore. That was it. So I, and then I went from the vicar. He had two girls who ran a farm so he took me to them. One was a teacher and one was a nurse so at least I got eventually a little bit of education. And then of course they had the mill next door with seven kids but I was not allowed to play with them. Then they got diphtheria so that was danger. Out. So then I went to an egg farmer and I’ve never seen so many eggs being processed. Processed. And I didn’t stay there for very long either and then eventually I, Wim, my brother he was then discovered as being about and he said, ‘Well, I am here. Very close to a Children’s Home. Try it.’ So that is where I went. And thanks to my brother, you know. As I say, you know he just carried on. And I went to the Children’s Home. But then of course my brother, my father was then also being spotted, you know through this arrest of this Mr Somners. So he had to find [pause] Can you just switch it off a minute?
[recording paused]
CB: We’re talking about your father.
TC: Talk about my father. My father had then been given a new name. [unclear] . My brother, my little brother lived with my mother. Sometimes they met with my father as well. Not very often. And then Hans had to say, ‘I’m not Hans Tielrooy. I’m Hans [unclear].’ He said, ‘That’s not my name.’ So he became a danger and had to go. So, but then my father had a new passport. Where again the RAF came in useful with the Peace Palace because behind the Peace Palace was a huge villa with all the ins and outs of the population of Holland. You know. Register Centre. And they were asked to flatten it and they did. And that is where people like my father finally had now a chance to have a new passport. And that’s it. And the beauty of it is you see he puts a pair of specs on. His hair is slightly different. And then he, yeah he was well you can see he was really very scared but the beauty is his date of birth could not be traced because they made him a false passport with his birth on. Birthplace Surabaya in Indonesia. Because we were at war with Japan and they couldn’t check it. So at least he had a little bit of freedom of moving about. Very precious this. Yeah.
CB: We’ll just stop there a mo.
[recording paused]
TC: Heavily involved.
CB: So your sister Willie was ten years older than you.
TC: Yes.
CB: So her perspective was quite different and she was more mature. So what was her position?
TC: She was very very heavily involved in the Resistance. Together with my father as well. I didn’t know. Neither did anybody else in the house know that in this Mr Somner’s room was a German uniform. Yeah. But it has, but Willie has used it and she got somebody out of prison in that uniform. So a young chap that otherwise would have probably been executed or whatever. But in the end, as I say she was so heavily involved that Queen Wilhelmina invited her with about twenty other Resistance youngsters and she was invited to stay in her palace for about nine months to recuperate. And I can remember going through the gardens saying, ‘Oh, Willie, that’s your room.’ [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. That was quite a crown on the [pause] jewel on the crown or whatever you call it and, yeah.
CB: How did she come to be in a position where the Queen invited her to do this?
TC: Oh, that’s a difficult question actually. I haven’t thought about that. That must have been from the group that she was working with for the Resistance that they recommended her. Or that there must have been something like that.
CB: So, what sort of recuperation? She would have been short of food but mentally was she exhausted?
TC: I think that that was the case. Yeah. Yeah. She was a very intensive person. Yeah. And Queen Wilhelmina obviously. Even though she lived in England she decided with the Arnhem business to go on to make sure that the Dutch went on strike with the railway. And that made the Germans so angry that they’d made the worse, the war worse. But they weren’t. Oh, here it is. Look. Here. They, she invited and strike and they said, ‘If you strike it will only bring horror to yourselves.’ But they carried on because again with this army lot, Arnhem lot, she because there was so much Resistance that the Germans didn’t get through to drop the food because they said, ‘Is it really food you’re going to drop or is it bombs and people?’ And then eventually, very late in the day did they get permission. I think it is the 29th of April. Well, you can imagine.
CB: Let me just stop you a mo. Just to put this in to context we’re now talking about later. At the end of the war.
TC: Yeah.
CB: What is termed over here Operation Manna.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And so the RAF and the Americans dropping food. And that’s what you’re talking about now.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So —
TC: And there was also —
CB: What was the date it started? 28th of April 1945.
TC: It could be. Yeah.
CB: Right.
TC: I don’t know. I have —
CB: But you were saying about the German’s reaction.
TC: Yeah. Because they were dead against the RAF flying over to drop food and they said we will give you a channel and this is the channel that they were allowed. If they were slightly out they would be shot dead. Shot down. And here are the areas where the food drops would take place. The red is from America and the other ones are with the RAF.
CB: So what were they dropping? What sort of things were they dropping?
TC: Gee whizz. This you saw. You sort it out. Look.
CB: Yeah.
TC: This is one drop.
CB: Right. So that. This is a photograph of a field.
TC: Yeah. Near Rotterdam.
CB: And it’s bags. And so the challenge with the bags was whether they would burst.
TC: Some did.
CB: On landing.
TC: Some didn’t. And then of course they needed so many people to collect it all. And do you know nobody stole. Everybody was starving hungry. Nobody. It was all centred at the place where then it was properly distributed. Which I think is admirable because if you were starving hungry well — you eat. Well, like me eating the dog food.
CB: How was the food distributed after it was collected? Was your father involved with that?
TC: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think so but it was all done from a central area. You had to queue. Oh God. When, for the Swedish bread the Germans stopped that. We sometimes queued for two and a half hours. Two or three hours for one loaf of bread.
Other: God.
TC: And it was worth it because you were so, so hungry. And as I say I was so underfed that they had to spoon feed me with a teaspoon. Hans, when we came out of the Children’s Home, Hans, my brother, he had frozen feet. And I was, well near death really. So as I said then and that was [unclear] where Willie had her first job. But originally it was from a Jewish barrel maker and that is where my father then found refuge when he needed it after, obviously he was looked for. When he was more or less after this incident of the [pause] Yeah.
CB: So what we’re talking about here is the western part of Holland.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Which had been bypassed by the allies as they moved — North Holland and into Germany and the population was starving. At what stage did they shortage food really start to bite?
TC: That started already quite early. Here, you see this is the last bit that was still being occupied that because this of Holland was already liberated.
CB: Yes. The eastern side and the south.
TC: And then of course you get Arnhem.
CB: Yeah.
TC: The big battle of Arnhem with the disasters of that one. And then. Yeah.
CB: As they pushed past that.
TC: Twenty two. Twenty two thousand people died. And nine hundred and eighty thousand were classed as malnutrition and I was one of them.
CB: Yeah.
CB: So this is September 1944 that the Arnhem experience took place. But this drop of food is six months after that in April.
TC: Yeah. Indeed. Yeah. There’s the battle of Arnhem. Twenty two thousand dead. Back to [pause] why did I? Oh, I don’t know what that is. Obviously, you read that too.
CB: So my question really is that the distribution of food had already become difficult.
TC: Oh yeah.
CB: But when did it become extremely serious? Do you remember?
TC: That must have been, oh [pause] the year before, I reckon. Yeah. Because when did I leave the Children’s Home? [pause] September ’44. Yeah. That is when it really started to bite.
CB: As the west of Holland was isolated by the allied forces pressing on past the western part of Holland.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: We’ll stop there just for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: The cooking.
TC: On this tin.
CB: Doing the cooking.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. So what’s the tin?
TC: The home-made tin. A plaster tin. You know, the plaster was inside. You just —
CB: Yes. But what did you put in it to cook to create the heat?
TC: A bit of wood.
CB: Yes. But where did you get the wood from?
TC: Find it everywhere. Tiny little bits of wood in [pause] well anywhere. Maybe in the shed or — but they were no bigger than so.
CB: Yeah. And did you increasingly then have to forage around for wood to burn because it must have run out in the local area?
TC: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So what did you do then?
TC: We looked for it. Go for walks.
CB: Did you go out in parties of walking?
TC: Yeah. Or look in the sheds. Anything that would burn you made to size and then burned it in that.
CB: Yes.
TC: I wish that I had bought one. A cousin of mine has got a real one.
CB: Oh right.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And then no electricity so how did you see in the night?
TC: You didn’t.
CB: In the evenings.
TC: You didn’t. No radio. Nothing.
CB: No candles.
TC: No. No. No. Candles were very scarce. Begging for food.
CB: So, tell us about the food. How did you get hold of food?
TC: You didn’t. You, you queued for hours if there was any in the shops. But there were no more potatoes. The only one was stinging nettles, tulip bulbs and sugar beets.
CB: So, how did you cook those stinging nettles?
TC: Well, they were mostly raw. You know. You put it in hot water and then it softened it a bit.
CB: Yes.
TC: And, and then in the end well you just didn’t eat. Nothing to eat.
CB: You mentioned begging. So how did that work?
TC: Knock on the door. ‘I’m hungry.’
CB: So children did the begging or did —
TC: No.
CB: Adults did it as well.
TC: Adults did. Children didn’t come in to this at all. No. Yeah. Even first food aid from Sweden. That was white bread.
CB: So this was the beginning of 1945.
TC: That was February. Yeah. Yeah. Because that bread, I’ve never seen white bread like the Swedish bread. It was whiter than white. Amazing. And then of course the Germans stopped that one.
CB: So where did that come in from? How did that come to Holland? Did it —
TC: By train or —
CB: Somehow through the German lines did it? Or did it —
TC: It must be —
CB: Come in by sea.
TC: No. No. Certainly not by sea. No. First aid from Sweden must have come by road.
CB: Through Germany.
TC: Through Germany. Yeah.
CB: Right.
TC: Because the Germans had to agree to that and they did.
CB: Right.
TC: And then the Germans were food dropped because they were afraid that they could be combined with bombs. Which is logical.
CB: This is the RAF.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Supplying. Yeah.
TC: And the Operation Manna starts there. Oh God, that was — I can still see them. Oh, you could see the, they flew that low you could see the pilot’s face. Oh, that was a miracle. Absolutely fantastic. Yeah. And that was so interesting when we met last year or the year before when you could say, ‘Well, this was our reaction what was your reaction?’ And they all cried.
CB: This was in Lincoln when some of the aircrew were there.
TC: Yeah. Yeah. They were so impressed and like we didn’t know in how far they would, the Holland has so many flat roofs so we could spread the flag. And the flag was forbidden but we put flag on. Thank you, Tommies. Or we just waved. Oh gosh. Yeah.
CB: The man I interviewed the other day said how the Germans were shaking their fists at his aircraft flying at a hundred and fifty feet.
TC: I can well imagine. But we were kissing.
CB: Exactly. And he then went on to the Dutch people waving. Yes.
TC: Really? Oh yeah. And sometimes you really took a risk. Yeah. And that was the same when we had the Liberation in Amsterdam. I’m going a bit —
CB: That’s alright.
TC: Higgledy piggledy. And so when the war was declared finished they thought hooray. So the heart of Holland is the Dam in Amsterdam. But everybody gathered together and they were all standing there, you know, pale and hungry and very tightly together because the air force err now the allies were coming in their tanks. And when they came around the corner full of flowers and girls and what have you and the whole of the mass of people went berserk with hooray. We had all dyed some pieces of material in orange or whatever. But the big buildings around this square there were still German soldiers on there.
CB: On the roof.
TC: On the roof. And what did they buggers do? They shot on the main, on the people. Absolutely. When we asked, ‘What did you do? Why did you do it?’ And they said, ‘Well, why didn’t you cheer like this when we arrived?’ Can you imagine? The nerve. And the tanks were immediately closed and, oh that was horrendous and we all had to fled, flee down side roads. And there were nineteen people killed. Yeah. And that was Liberation. ‘Why didn’t you cheer like this for when we arrived?’ How big headed can you get? You never learn do you?
CB: What happened to them? So clearly they survived. So they weren’t killed by the Dutch.
TC: I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t happened on the quiet. Yeah. Because they, they, well they couldn’t stay there could they?
CB: No.
TC: They were still the enemy. And we had the liberators coming in. Oh, I can still remember this. That was frightening. And we were standing all like this because it was packed. Absolutely overpacked. Amazing how little flares of —
CB: Memory.
TC: Memories come back.
CB: So you were still starving effectively.
TC: Oh yes. Yeah.
CB: How did the food get distributed then? At the time of the celebration was there, were there food trucks with the tanks or did you get the food later?
TC: Later. Yeah. It was, it was a slow coming of food. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: And that was distributed by the local authorities.
TC: Shops. Yeah. Shops.
CB: Through the shops.
TC: Through the shops. And you all had issues. You know. What do you call them?
Other 2: Ration.
CB: Ration cards.
TC: Ration cards. Yeah. Yeah. And with, and then you stand there queuing. Not just for ten minutes. Hours. Yeah.
CB: And how did society return to normal after that? If ever.
TC: With great difficulty. Yeah. But you know then once it was done and over with you know you all got together and put your shoulders on it and made the best of it.
CB: So, your family returned to your house.
TC: No.
CB: Right.
TC: No. Because our house there, that house there that was completely occupied because you very rarely owned a house. So it was always rented. So when we came back to the Hague my father was allocated this house through the Resistance. And that was a whacking big house. Fantastic. Until about six months after. There was a ring of the bell and she said, ‘This is my house. I’ve survived and I want my house back. So, we want you out.’ So that was another problem. So then the Resistance was still very very much active in that work and they found us this house that we lived in where you have been. And yeah, that was in [pause] that had been in an area that was evacuated for a long long time so there were no roads. No pavements. You know. That was all very, well pre-historic as it were.
CB: In the countryside this was.
TC: No. That was a part of the Hague.
CB: Oh, it was.
TC: Yeah. And that is of course where I went to school and so on. And that’s another thing. Talk about going to school. When we lived in that nice house there and this was still pre, after I had just been about five or six years of age.
CB: Before the war started.
TC: Yeah. Well, no. Yeah. But there was an awful lot of water. You know that house with the beautiful view? There was a lot of water about and Hans my brother he almost drowned in it. So, and Willie and Wim, my brother they had to take me before school to the park where there was a swimming pool because I had to learn to swim. And that was their task. To take me to the swimming pool regularly during the week. Every other day or so. To teach me how to swim. And I can still remember the lady who had ginger hair and her body was purple with cold because it was an open air one and but I learned to swim and once I could swim that was it. That was them finished. That’s another flare of —
CB: That’s alright. We’ll just stop for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So, thinking of the drops in Operation Manna. The dropping of the food and what was it? What — did you see that or did you just hear about it in other ways?
TC: Maybe in the distance but that was a, that is a little bit vague memory at the moment.
Other: Yeah.
TC: But I can remember once it was put to the central areas where it was distributed. There was the egg powder. Oh God the egg powder. Milk powder. Bread. All sorts of vegetables and, yeah stuff really to go into the larder. That is the stuff that was generally in the bags.
CB: So it was flour but was there baked bread as well?
TC: There was also baked bread. Yeah.
CB: Right.
TC: But very rare.
CB: Yes. Because it’s very bulky.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: And how did the population hear about the deliveries of these?
TC: Well, they either saw it or they knew where the Centres were and then you could go to the Centres. On your bike of course.
CB: Yes.
TC: Or walking. To collect your goodies.
CB: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.
TC: And as I say sometimes there were little parcels, but from the pilots themselves who had wrapped it up for the kids.
CB: Really? Yeah.
TC: You know. Chocolate or sweets.
CB: So the delivery was in bags or was it in other items as well?
TC: All sorts. All sorts. It was in containers and bags and —
CB: Containers so it wouldn’t break.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Large.
TC: Yeah. Large. About that size. Yeah.
CB: Good. I think we’ll stop there for a mo. Thank you very much.
[recording paused]
TC: Even that’s true, and how much is still to think about. To remember.
CB: Yes. It’s an extra.
TC: At that time you just took it, well as a surprise. You couldn’t get over it. I mean, if you look at this you can see what sort of baggage.
CB: This is the picture of the dropping area.
Other: This is the drops. Yeah.
TC: That’s near Rotterdam. And they needed hundreds of people to collect it all. And they didn’t leave a scrap. They picked it all up. Nothing was wasted.
CB: And the Germans didn’t come and confiscate any of it.
TC: No. I don’t think they dared. Because by that time they knew that the game was up.
CB: Yeah. We’ll stop there. Thank you very much.
[recording paused]
CB: We can —
Other: We still want to record this don’t we?
CB: Now, we talked about a lot of things to do with the Operation Manna drops. We then went on to how the food was distributed.
TC: Yeah.
CB: We haven’t really talked about how it was consumed. Because people are not just undernourished. They’re actually starving. So there’s a danger in that. So how did you start eating when the food came?
TC: Because usually there was somebody in charge of a person who is that underfed that they, like for instance myself. When I came out of the Children’s Home they sent me to this place where my father originally hid and where Willie originally had her job where they made these barrels. You know, the Jewish firm that was taken over. Anyway, so they sent me there for about a fortnight before I was then joining the rest of the family in Amsterdam and she, the farmer’s wife next door she said, ‘Thea, come in the morning. I’ll feed you up.’ And then she would feed me on cream and things. And I stayed there a fortnight and was fine. So that was ok. And then we went to Amsterdam where of course again we were at a loss because you saw how busy that house of my aunt was in, outside Amsterdam. Willie, in the meantime hired a room in the middle of Amsterdam South with a Jewish family. And she hired a room because sometimes there was an opportunity, no a necessity for getting your breath back. So, and that was of course also in the Hunger Winter when you were outside trying to collect little bits of wood and things like that. So that is where we were then. In that room. And that was very very nice indeed because it was peaceful. We all got away from each other for a while because otherwise you were getting on each other’s nerves. Especially with my aunt falling ill. She could be course in her legs and in her neck and so on. It was just tubercular disease. So we were a little bit in the way then. And so now and again as I say we needed a breather. And Willie had particularly access to that. To that room. And yeah. I, that was, that was very nice and the people downstairs were fantastic, you know. She was a Jewish. And we had yeah happy times there. From there, well, then of course the Liberation that we went to the dam with all these people. Squashed together. There was no other way to call it but squashed together. Yeah.
CB: And how were the people feeling at that time?
TC: What did the people we hired from?
CB: No. The people that went together to Amsterdam. What did they actually feel about what was going on?
TC: They wanted to celebrate. There was liberty you know. And they, they wanted to well share the condemnation for the Germans. And then of course these. I can still them on the rooftop you know. With their guns still. That they didn’t prevent this by getting to them and saying, ‘Hey, give me your gun.’ That they just opened fire on them. Must have been a mad moment in their lives. Of frustration, or what I know, whatever. But it was and then of course as I say Liberation. Freedom. Yeah.
CB: You talked about some families being half Jewish. So, how were they handled during the war?
TC: They kept it quiet. You know. Not — and that was another thing. You see in the beginning they wanted everything up in the open. So the Jews were persuaded to wear a star with the word Jew on it. And they said, ‘If you wear that you’re safe from prosecution.’ That is an indication. Forget me. Isn’t it? Stupid. And people fell for things like that. Anything for easy going, you know. Getting out of awkward situations. And it was —
CB: It was the beginning of the learning curve about the German reaction to Jews.
TC: Yeah. And why would the Germans be so anti-Jewish? Maybe because of business because the Jews were better off than they were. You don’t know what’s behind it all because nobody would open up. But that, that’s the only thing you can do. That is to speculate as it were.
CB: You mentioned earlier about right at the end there were people eating. But there were some Jewish people there. How had they survived all that time?
TC: Just like everybody else.
CB: In hiding.
TC: Yeah. And hungry. Because there was nothing else. All you wanted to do was not to be arrested. Not to be shot. You know. Save your life.
CB: On a lighter note you were cycling without tyres. So —
TC: Oh, my numb bum [laughs] Oh God. At the end sometimes they had a little pillow to sit on but that, Oh God, I can still feel it [laughs]
CB: What did you carry on the bikes? Was it adults and children with shopping or clothes? Or what did you carry on bikes?
TC: Usually it was just to go from A to B. You know, to get somewhere because that was the only transport. There were no trams or buses or anything, trains. So the only way was a bike and if it had tyres you knew that would be confiscated and for the rest you didn’t go anywhere. And if you had to do some shopping I presume you would go walking because you wouldn’t dare. Well, like my mother you know she was laden and then the Germans said, ‘Thanks very much. Now you can go. We’ve got your stuff.’ It is unbelievable isn’t it? That they got away with it. Yeah.
CB: You mentioned school.
TC: Yeah.
CB: So how, how long did school continue?
TC: Oh God. Not very long because then there were days that they didn’t open. There were maybe one or two hours. And in the end, and then of course was the heating. So they had to close the schools. Oh, and that was another thing. You had staff. Suddenly some members of the staff disappeared. Why? Some of the kids disappeared. Why? Because they were hiding. You know they were obviously [pause] and then school was a dangerous place.
CB: So it wasn’t that the authorities had closed down the school.
TC: They did in the end.
CB: They did.
TC: They did in the end. They said, ‘Look. This can’t go on. We haven’t got the amenities. The money.’ And so then the schools closed and that is why the people in America admired me so for having worked the hours available. That I took so much advantage and courage out of them that they thought I needed a treat. And that was my husband.
CB: So you, you went to America to stay with friends.
TC: Yeah.
CB: How long did you stay there?
TC: About nine months.
CB: That’s in Texas.
TC: Yeah. Dallas —
CB: And then you went to Washington. Was it?
TC: Washington and New York. Because that lady amongst that lot living she had a nephew living there. So she went there. So she was there and I could visit her.
CB: What made you return to Holland from America?
TC: Well, because I needed a future for a job and I was not there for a permanent holiday. It was just a holiday and nothing else. And I was very grateful. Especially because they loved me so much for my courage.
CB: Indeed.
TC: Yeah.
CB: So you travelled back by ship.
TC: Yeah. The Nieuw Amsterdam.
CB: Right. And where did that go from and to?
TC: New York to Amsterdam.
CB: And who was on the ship? What? What —
TC: There was a contingent of RAF chaps who had just been to a course and they were dropped in England somewhere. The south.
CB: Which year are we talking about now?
TC: ’59. Thereabouts.
CB: Right.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Ok.
TC: And then I came to England. Got married in Hull in ’61. So that was about high speed I suppose.
CB: What was the significance of Hull?
TC: It was the only place where I could travel to easily from Holland.
CB: To see your boyfriend, then fiancé.
TC: Yeah. He was then in Lincolnshire somewhere. So, and then I taught in Hull and that is where we got married. And oh, I lived on the top floor somewhere in a — downstairs was the doctor’s surgery. And I lived upstairs in, in the room above.
CB: Yes.
TC: And, yeah.
CB: Then when you were married, where? Then when you were married where was your husband stationed?
TC: Driffield.
CB: Right.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And what accommodation did you have there?
TC: Quarters. Yeah. And then eventually, you know we moved and put a deposit on a house and so on. So —
CB: What other places did you get posted? Did he get posted to.
TC: St Athan. Oh God.
CB: You were in Coningsby or a while.
TC: Coningsby. St Athan. Where have I got that little envelope with all the ins and outs?
CB: I’ll just stop for a mo.
TC: Yeah.
[recording paused]
TC: Heathcote Road.
CB: Where? Where’s that?
TC: That is in [pause] oh God.
CB: Where? Where did you buy the house?
TC: The first house we bought. Fortescue Close in ’68. And we left there ’78.
CB: But was that in Lincolnshire?
TC: Yeah. It’s all Lincolnshire.
CB: Oh. It is. Right. And did you get, did he get a posting abroad?
TC: Yeah. Germany of all places. That is where she came from.
CB: What was that like?
TC: To start with a little apprehensive to say the least. But I spoke the language because obviously in Holland you learn French and German and English. So I could communicate. And we lived amongst the Germans and that was actually a very good therapy for realising they were not all bad. That was, that was usually —
CB: What was their reaction to the British? Because we’re talking about the 60s now are we? Or 70s?
TC: Well, as long as they paid. They were after money. It didn’t matter what they did. And they were not particularly so anti-British. Hey. Would you like this?
CB: Yes please. Thank you.
CB: And so, when you were in Germany how long were you there and what did you do?
TC: Three years.
CB: Yes.
TC: And I also taught there.
CB: You did.
TC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: On the school in the station.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Which station? Where were you stationed?
TC: Gütersloh.
CB: Right
TC: Yeah. That was a nice place. Yeah.
CB: And from there —
TC: England. Wales.
CB: Oh, St Athan.
TC: Speak Welsh.
CB: Yeah. That’s really well done, I thought. Yeah. And then your husband retired. What age did he retire from the RAF?
TC: Normal age.
CB: Yeah.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And then what job did he do after that?
TC: Then we got divorced.
CB: Oh.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Right.
TC: In fact, in between I married him twice.
CB: Right.
TC: [laughs] I’m an idiot. My sense of humour is wicked.
CB: It is but it’s good. Entertaining and generally admirable.
TC: Yeah. But it didn’t work.
CB: No.
TC: No. So —
CB: But you kept on teaching.
TC: Yeah. Right until ’94.
CB: So when you were divorced you were at Coningsby, were you? And then you —
TC: Yeah.
CB: Did you carry on teaching there?
TC: Yes. I have got here. That is the headmaster who said the school has rules.
CB: Oh yes.
TC: And I said, ‘Yes Nigel. I believe you.’
CB: But?
TC: I had my own way [laughs] But when you hear. When you read this I’m in seventh heaven. They couldn’t have praised me higher than this. This is the [pause] he says —
CB: This is the headmaster’s report.
TC: Yeah. I was a headmistress as well for a while [pause] Oh here. “I want you to picture a scene. A dark cold stormy night. The fierce wind was lashing the waves over the top of the dyke. The sails on the windmill were rushing around at a tremendous speed. Suddenly a piercing cry was heard and all went quiet. In England, across the water explosions and bright lights shot into the night to celebrate. Thea Coleman had been born [laughs] Ever since, in England fireworks have been lit off to celebrate her birthday on November the 5th. Little is known about Thea before she went to school but we do know she had a happy childhood.” Can’t have better than that can you? Yeah. So it goes on and on. And even the kids now they are still talking to me. They still phone me.
CB: Is that right?
TC: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Even after all these years.
TC: Yeah.
CB: Where did you become your own headteacher?
TC: Just before he left. Before he came. I was replaced by him. And then in between I had [pause] it was only in here we were standing as it were.
CB: Yeah.
TC: And then there was this one. There’s Jim. Now, he took it from a different point. First, I thought I should begin in true Coleman’s style by side tracking because that’s what I like to do. A friend of mine is a jeweller. When buying an old item, discussing gem stones with him he explained the reason for cutting stones in the ways that they do. One reason is to make a stone catch the light and sparkle. Another reason, rather more subtle is to reflect light into the stone. Anyway, so he compares my person with a gemstone.
CB: Right.
TC: And then he sees me as a friend. And then as a teacher. And then as a colleague. Which is rather nice way of describing me.
CB: Yeah.
TC: And then —
CB: And this is your school report as a teacher.
TC: Yeah. As a pupil.
CB: Appreciation.
TC: Yeah. Which is, which I appreciate.
CB: Where was your last teaching post?
TC: Gee whizz. That was in [pause] Hell’s bells, that was here [pause] Because this one was written of my retirement. Where the hell was it? See, now that’s sometimes my memory goes a bit. How come [pause] gee whizz.
CB: I’ll stop just for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So your last post in teaching was at Coningsby.
TC: Yeah.
CB: And you retired at what age?
TC: ’94. ’33. What was it? Work it out.
CB: Yeah. Quite a few years. Sixty.
TC: Sixty.
CB: One.
TC: Sixty one.
CB: Yeah.
TC: That’s just about right.
CB: Yeah.
TC: Yeah.
CB: That’s very good. And you’ve got a couple of anecdotes there have you?
TC: Well, this is just a postscript out of my book.
CB: Yes.
TC: You know, afterwards you think like one memory that has been suppressed all this time is now ready to be put into words and to add to my story. On one of my many walks in Amsterdam with my father all pedestrians were stopped by soldiers. We were near a, near a prison. In retaliation of an assassinated German five young men came out and were lined up and executed and we had to watch. A vicar who looked at it from his window and praying for them was killed by a stray bullet. So that is one of the [pause] And then there is another one. I should have elaborated on a train journey to Hellouw, that’s where my grandfather lived, with my father. Fancy my fear when he told me, ‘Look, when soldiers enter the train and if I get arrested pretend you don’t know me. But make sure you take that suitcase with you.’ So those were, you know you were only little. Nine. Whatever. And then there is Fritz. I’ve told you about Fritz. The four year old taken by the Gestapo from my grandfather’s house. Devastated. The parents were so grateful for their safety for the other two boys and so that they planted a tree for my family in Jerusalem near the Holocaust Museum. And when I mentioned the crowd on the Dam with the Germans opening fire. Twenty nine people were killed. One soldier was asked, ‘Why did you do it?’ His answer was, ‘Why didn’t you cheer like this when we arrived?’ And then the house we were allocated that had been confiscated by the Germans from a Jewish family had been used as a prison. That’s the first house we came back to after the war. And when we lived in it a man came to the door to ask if his shoes were still there. He had escaped out of the window with the help of a sheet. There’s are just a couple of thoughts that I thought needed remembering.
CB: Yes. Thea —
TC: Especially with my memory going.
CB: Thea Coleman, thank you for a fascinating conversation.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Thea Coleman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 1, 2023,

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