Interview with Johanna Heslam


Interview with Johanna Heslam


Johanna Heslam was a young child when Holland was occupied. The family had to move on several occasions because their area was being used for military purposes. Johanna experienced increasing loss as shortages began of clothing and then food. Even school materials became scarce until finally her school was taken over for military purposes. Two older cousins were hidden by the family who disguised them as old men and also found them a work placement so they would not have to go to Germany for forced labour. To ensure he was also safe from deportation Johanna’s father created a hiding place in the house. One day Johanna’s mother shouted for the children to watch as the low-flying Lancasters drop food during Operation Manna. On another occasion her neighbours mistakenly thought that liberation had come when Johanna describes her mother shouting warnings that soldiers were coming. One man was shot when he tried to retrieve a flag from his garden.




Temporal Coverage





00:35:22 audio recording


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AHeslamJ160519, PHeslamJ1601


JH1: My name is Judy Hodgson and I’m interviewing Johanna Heslam today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We are at Mrs Heslam’s home and it is the 19th of May 2016. Thank you, Johanna for agreeing to talk to me today. Also present at the interview is David Heslam. Johanna’s husband. Johanna, could you tell me when and where you were born and your early years?
JH2: I was born in 1936 in a place called Boskoop. My father came from Boskoop. Now, when I was three years old my father and mother and three children moved to Scheveningen which is the seaside part of the Hague. My mother came from Scheveningen. We lived there and in, when I was three we moved there. Yes. In 1940 the war started. We were told we weren’t really welcome where we lived because that whole area of Scheveningen was going to be defence area. They were frightened that the British would land on the beach so they put tram rails up on the beach to stop aeroplanes from landing and they said, ‘It’s going to be defence area. Soon you will have to move.’ Well, we lived there for about a year and we actually did. We were told we had to go. So my father, mother with then four children moved to the Hague where we found a place to live. And we lived there for about a year. Then we were told, ‘Actually this area is all going to be demolished because we are going to build a tank trap.’ So please move. So there again my father, mother with five children by that time moved out of the Hague to a place outside Leiden. The town of Leiden. There’s a place called Leiderdorp. We were told we could live there in a very big manse. There was a minister living in the manse with five children. We had five children. My brother [unclear] was the oldest of ten then. So we had a busy busy household there but everything worked well. But the minister’s wife became ill and had to go into hospital for an operation. My father would have felt very that we may have become a burden you see. So we searched for a place. And my father found a place next to a farm outside Leiderdorp. A place called Zoeterwoude. And that’s where we lived the rest of the war. And that’s where we experienced all sorts of things. The Hongerwinter and the Liberation. Well, we had to walk to school. That took about half an hour. And when we arrived at school we, we were told to [pause] what to do when the sirens went. Sirens went off at times when there was danger in the sky. So a siren meant, that meant we had to lay underneath our desk at school. Flat on the ground. When the second siren came we had to run and lay under the cycle sheds outside in the playground and wait till the all clear was given and we could go back to our desks. Well, as things became very scarce, more and more of things. We were deprived of all sorts of things. There was no paper. No pencils. In the end we went back to slate and slate pencils. So, that’s how I did my sums in the end. With a slate pencil on the slate. We had a very scary time at times walking to school and there were bombardments. We had to, we knew we had to lay flat. Nobody knew when the war was going to end so you know you think is it tomorrow? Is it next year? Life, life goes on. We — food became short, clothing short, shoes short. You see, my brother and I were the two eldest of five. We were just thirteen months between us. When we grew out of things well the younger ones could have it. There was nothing for us. So my mother managed to sew bits out of old coats. An old coat of hers. She made jackets for us. And then she said, ‘Well, no more shoes for you. I’ve got a pair of shoes from before the war. You can have one shoe. You can have the other.’ Well, we tried that for a bit and we would rather go on our bare feet. So all, all summer we walked on our bare feet to school and back again. And, well you just accept it and everybody else did it. And then in the, yeah life became more and more frightening and we were deprived of, of food. We couldn’t get food. My father got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and went past, drove past farmers and begged for milk. And he had to be very early. Before the milk churns were being closed. So, and that’s how we managed to keep alive. By my father begging for milk and he brought milk home nearly every day for us. Then there hardly was any milk anymore because the farmers were getting short because the soldiers needed, the German soldiers needed the milk. So it was very hard to get anything. Then somebody said, ‘Oh, well, every — we’ll take a child from each family and they can come to this big building here.’ It was a big attic over a pottery shop. ‘All children of the neighbourhood that are bad off can come here. One of the family.’ So I was picked. I could go there for soup. Once a week I could go there for soup. Well, my mother said, ‘What did you get?’ I said, ‘Well, it was just like water with leaves floating in it.’ [laughs] I remember that. Then the school closed because the soldiers needed to use the school as a building. So we couldn’t go to school anymore. So we stayed at home. And things deteriorated. My mother told us to lick our plates which we weren’t allowed before. But then we had to lick our plates. Things got worse and worse. We had to eat tulip bulbs. Then sugar beet. My mother was, could make something out of sugar beets. She made some syrup out of it and little pancakes out of it. And, well, no more sugar beet available. In the end things were so bad that, well it was so bad because the winter came and there was no food at all and sometimes there was no water and we had to melt the snow to get water. It wasn’t all the time but at times there was no water. And then we had to gather buckets and buckets of snow and then that was melted to water. Then my two cousins came to stay with us. They were older ones and the idea was that they had to go to Germany to work in factories but they wanted to escape. So they came to stay with us. And my father found a place for them to work on the farm and he dressed them up as old men and they had to learn how to walk as old men. And my father found a friendly farmer where they could work so they didn’t have to be transported to Germany and work in factories. My father, mother’s fear always that my father would be carted off to Germany because all the German young men were in the army. They had nobody to make ammunition in the factories you see. And so my father said, ‘I’m going to make a shelter.’ And he dug in the bedroom and in the corridor a passage underneath the floorboards where he could crawl into. It was very difficult for him to do because he didn’t want it to happen when the children were awake because they would you know perhaps query what was happening. So he hid there at times when there were times that they just gathered all the men that were quite young enough to go and work in German’s factory. So, we had some scary times when the house was surrounded by soldiers trying to find my father who had disappeared. My [pause] the worst time was 1944, 1945 and there was literally nothing to eat and it was called, it was called the Hongerwinter. In the towns people died by the dozen. Twenty thousand people died in Rotterdam, the Hague and all the big cities but because we were in the country we always had a bit of a chance to find food somewhere. But it was so bad that my father even got ill while he was always the strong one. And he was in bed in April, May ’45 when my mother told, had just told us, ‘Well, stay in bed as long as you can in the morning because then you don’t waste any energy.’ And then suddenly she shouted, ‘Come. Come and have a look. Come and have a look.’ And we, ‘What look for?’ She says, ‘Aeroplanes. Well, we weren’t allowed to look at aeroplanes. We had to lay flat always. But she said, ‘Come and have a look.’ And then she made us go into, into the garden and we saw aeroplanes that were dropping food. She said, ‘They’re dropping food.’ They were flying very very low and we saw the food coming down. And that was brilliant. Now, we were given these biscuits from England. A like, bit like rich tea biscuits or Marie biscuits. Those sort of things. I remember. And they came in big silver coloured tins. This shape. And thereafter these were tins were used later on to make, boys made drums out of it. Anyway, we were saved just in time by the RAF that flew low and saved our lives. My father was given the first slice of bread in the neighbourhood because he was, certain people in certain areas were given the first slice because he was ill. But he picked up soon enough when food came in abundance. Yeah. Well, there are so many stories to tell. We were given chocolate. Great big lumps of chocolate they were. And we didn’t know what it was but anyway we could eat it. And then the tanks arrived with Canadian and British soldiers and everybody was terribly excited because the war was over they said. May ’45. The end of the war. So that was a big relief. And yeah, I was, I was allowed to come to a big meeting hall in the, in the town of Leiden and people were singing. Just folk songs because they were so happy we were liberated. And people were, men and women were just dancing about singing. They were so happy. And there were just tears coming down their eyes. Yeah. And flags flying everywhere. And the orange. The banners of the House of Orange. Our royal family. And after a few weeks I was given my first pair of shoes which was very nice. And I was so pleased with them I took them to bed with me and cuddled them and kissed them. And then after a few weeks of walking on my shoes I could pull the skin at the bottom of my feet off like a sheet because I think the bottom of my feet had become really tough. The skin had toughened up because of walking on bare feet. My father had made us some emergency shoes by having bits of wood and then he nailed some straps on it. So a bit like sandals. We could walk on those. Have I got any more? Stop.
[recording paused]
JH2: Well, what was very awkward was that there were Nazi sympathisers here, there and everywhere. And actually the farmer who we lived next door to had four girls and two of those girls were about the same age as my brother and sister and I. And we used to go to school together but we were told never to open our mouths because that’s especially why we weren’t told anything if they could help it. There was so many. And we didn’t know about the food coming but my parents knew because there was a whole underground world. And they were called Underground world. And you weren’t allowed to have a radio but there were people who had a primitive sort of radio rigged up in their attics and listened to the BBC. And they knew what was coming. And they knew what was, how the war was getting on. They even, some of them even printed some leaflets and distributed them which was very very dangerous. And, well we weren’t allowed to mention the name Hitler. Of course they did at school. The schoolboys. And always be hush hush and not to talk. Especially not to our neighbour friends. Which was very awkward when you’re children. But my parents didn’t tell us much so we didn’t know much but we, the little bit we knew [laughs] you mustn’t talk about.
JH1: What happened —
JH2: Yeah.
JH1: When you went to church?
JH2: Sorry?
JH1: When you got to church?
JH2: Oh yeah. That was not towards the end of the war but kind of in the middle of the war. When we went to church we brought a blanket with us. And when you arrived at church you were given a little wooden box with holes in. And in the entrance of the church was a great big stove burning. The hot coals in. And the warden picked with some iron tongs a piece of coal and put it in a little earthenware dish. That little earthenware dish was put in this wooden box. I’ve got one somewhere. And of course there was a hole in the front. Put it in there. Then you carried that wooden thing to your seat where you were going to sit. Put your feet on it so the heat came through those holes. Put your blanket over the top and that’s how you kept warm. The rest was freezing cold but somehow [laughs] So, I don’t know whether other public meetings were like that as well but yeah. And that’s — my son gave me a painting of [unclear] I mean a copy of a painting of a girl sitting. And it’s hanging up there near the front door. And there’s a girl sitting there knitting and she’s got her feet up on one of these things. So it was in the, even in houses even before my time they were used to keep warm. A little earthenware pot. Glowing coals in it and then in a wooden box with holes and that’s how you kept warm. Yeah [pause] But the hunger was, was bad. It was bad because even if you had food it was taken away. We had rabbits and goats at one time but they were just taken away. The Nazis took them away. The soldiers needed them, they said. So that that was really bad. But fear was the worst thing because nobody had food. Perhaps the Nazis sympathisers had but we never knew. We kept away from them you see. But we didn’t smell food. Didn’t see food. But the fear stays with you when the hunger is stilled.
JH1: You knew who the sympathisers were then? Was it fairly —
JH2: Well, we happened to know that we had to keep very quiet. That big farmer next door to us. It wasn’t right next door but it was a field. Yeah. So, yeah, my parents knew quite a few. Yeah. And the funny thing is after the, my father worked in the church and he cycled from Zoeterwoude where we lived during the war to Scheveningen where his job still was open. Well, when I say Scheveningen his congregation was dispersed outside Scheveningen. Several places. Because they were cleared out of Scheveningen as well. So we were on the border of Scheveningen and here and there he visited these people because, well they needed comfort when somebody had been bereaved and any life went on. So he visited them and talked to them. And actually at one time at the beginning when we first lived there he managed to find a very kind farmer who gave us a ship full of sugar beet. And he rode it with a friend to the Hague’s Scheveningen. Well, the border of Scheveningen where people were very hungry. But later on my father still cycled everywhere and his bicycle he didn’t have tyres. He had rubber strips. There were no tyres any more for sale. So he had cycled on an empty stomach quite often on a very uncomfortable bike and visited people. But after the war he became chaplain to the prison in, when we moved back to Scheveningen. He became chaplain to the prison. And all the people he feared so much during the war in that prison was quite funny. Well funny if you think it.
JH1: Yeah.
JH2: Yeah. He thought — I feel quite relaxed now with them all behind bars. Yeah. They had a hard time after the war. And also girls that went off with the soldiers they were treated quite badly after the war. They shaved their hair off and then they painted the swastikas on their head. Yeah. That was naughty. That was forbidden afterwards but the reaction was so intense. People who sympathised with the enemy was bad. Yeah. That finished. David what else can I tell about?
[recording paused]
Well, when we lived in the country we had quite a big garden at the back of our house. And then there was a big field and then you could see a railway line and occasionally a train came across. Well, that railway line became very important because the British thought, well they knew that the Germans would bring ammunition by train from Germany. So, at night the British came and bombed that railway line. And so we weren’t only frightened in the daytime of bombings. And at night the railway line was bombed there and it was quite close to us. And in the morning we could see the railway line being up and downish instead of a straight line. It was really funny what had happened there but to our eyes it looked as though there was a kind of a hill on the railway line. So, it was bombing in the daytime and bombing at night and a really scary life. Well, in ’44, at autumn ’44 people who secretly listened to the secret receivers, you could hardly call them radios but they were kind of primitive radios, in the attics they listened. These people listened to the BBC. Heard that part of France was liberated, Belgium liberated and the southern Netherlands was. Oh liberated. Oh the enemy is going. He’s leaving. So, when I came out of school that time with a group of youngsters we saw people’s front doors open. Orange. Red, white and blue flags. All, where they got all the things from I don’t know but suddenly people had opened their hidden, secretly hidden stores of material that was not allowed by the Germans. They were, it was on display and people were so happy. The war. And I remember my mother came running. She had heard via a secret radio that we weren’t free. That actually the tanks were on their way. And my mother said, I remember my mother, like a mad woman said, ‘Away. Away. Orange away. Flags away. Away. Away. The Germans. The tanks are rolling in.’ People quickly put things away. They ran indoors, shut their doors again. There was one man not so far from us who had an enormous post. A pole in his garden. Enormous flagpole and he climbed. He was climbing up it to take the flag away and he was shot. Father of three boys. It was terribly upsetting. Terribly upsetting. So the war wasn’t finished. And that’s when the cold winter started. After this autumn. That’s when our worst winter when so many people died. You called that, they that we thought we were free and we weren’t free dolle Dinsdag which means, “Mad Tuesday” because everybody went mad. Mad with happiness and then mad with not happiness. Sadness. And lots of people being shot as well for hanging out the decorations. Yeah. That’s it.
JH1: And what, what happened to you after the war?
JH2: Sorry?
JH1: What happened to you after the war? How did your life move on?
JH2: After. After the war we gradually, yeah we gradually packed up our belongings and we went back to Scheveningen where my father was still supposed to be working. And all during the war whenever he could he’d cycle to Scheveningen or nearby where members of his congregation lived and he was telling once this story. He said once there was a funeral of a man expected but my father was waiting and nobody arrived. And he was just about to go back on his bike and go home when he saw a horse and cart. And on the cart was a coffin. And over the coffin was a blanket draped over the coffin. And he thought well that’s strange there’s nobody there. Only the coffin and the person who drives the cart. And then he saw that the blanket was lifted and a little old lady climbed down and she says, ‘That’s the only way I could be certain I’d be there with my husband to bury him.’ And my father was very touched by her braveness and he led the funeral and she shed some tears but she said, ‘I’m alright. I can walk back again. I’m not in a hurry now.’ And so she walked back home again on her own. Yeah. That was a touching time. Yeah. He often had to have, in one day six people had died either from starvation or been shot or been hit by bombs or whatever. He had a busy time at times. That’s it.
[recording paused]
JH2: Oh, well after the war we went back to Scheveningen because that’s where my father worked. We couldn’t go to the same house. We went to a house nearer to the Hague to live in a house nearer the Hague and it was in an area where the quite nearby was an area with big villas. And these villas had been boarded up during the war because people had fled. But they had been broken into by the inhabitants that were left here, there and everywhere. Even people who came out of the Hague to just to get wood. They needed wood to keep warm. To also to cook their meals because during the war we didn’t have a cooker. We just cooked on the little stove that gave you heat. And that’s where you put a big pan on to cook whatever you’d got and what you hadn’t got. Anyway, these houses were stripped of panelling, stripped of staircases, stripped of doors. Anything wood had been taken away and been burned by people from the Hague. And we had a whale of a time going there. Going in these gardens and pretend that we were thieves and robbers and made dens like children like to do. And there would be folks around in those houses. That was, that first summer was really nice. And then people started coming back, ‘This is my property,’ so they put wire around it. We couldn’t go there anymore but, and then we then school started again in September. I suppose. September time. Yes. And then we had to go back in the routine and different school and get used to sitting down at a desk again and learning to read and write and arithmetic and history. But we didn’t have a very good name. We were all branded as difficult children. We were war children. Nearly all the children in the class were difficult, and never, oh terrible children, ‘Oh these war children. One after the other causes problems for the school.’ But not just our family. It was everywhere else. The families were, couldn’t concentrate. The children couldn’t concentrate very well. They’d experienced such horrible things. And yeah, it’s not often that a child sees a dead soldier floating in the river. Well, we saw that because he must have been killed and then thrown in the river. And yeah. You go and look at him because the other children are, ‘Oh you have to go and have a look.’ Of course you do. Although you don’t want to see it but you do see it. And all sorts of things like that happened. Yeah. And my father went back to his job working for people who were coming back to Scheveningen and built up the congregation and built up the houses again. And then he still worked as a chaplain part time in the, in the prison. And there he met people who he’d feared during the war but now were behind bars and he felt quite relaxed for a change. And he, he made one or two good friends there actually. There was this painter who painted pictures for the Germans and he was put behind bars but not very long. I think it was nine months. Perhaps to a year. And his wife had sung for the Germans. Well, they needed money so they they were punished for it but not very long. But some people were assassinated. Some people were taken. Were put in prison a bit longer because they caused [pause] yeah, their fellow countrymen to be betrayed. And some were put in prison for about fifteen years because they were the cause of some of their countrymen being shot dead. And some people were hiding people. That was so incredibly difficult during the war for people who were hiding somebody. They, quite few people lived as nervous wrecks because they knew if they were found out the whole family would be in for it. Well, my parents only hid my two cousins but that was only for a weekend. They dressed them up as old men and sent them off to a farm. But if they’d been found out they would have been shot or something would have happened to them. But there were people who hid Jewish people and they, and of course then people needed coupons. Food coupons. So there were some very brave people who then raided at night the offices where they distributed coupons so that they could feed the Jewish people who were hiding in all sorts of places with extra coupons. Oh dear. But that was before the Hongerwinter. ’45. ’44-’45 — that winter we called Hongerwinter. And that is set apart in my mind as the worst time of the war. That’s when we were starving. My mother. The last thing I remember she made well, she tried to make some porridge out of chaff. Now, chaff is the husk of grain and it’s really [pause] And all I remember of it, I can’t remember what it tasted like, I only remember my sister Lydia cried, she said ‘I cannot swallow it. I cannot swallow it.’ And mother said, ‘Well, it’s the only thing I’ve got.’ I don’t know if it did us any good. I suppose there may have been some goodness in it. I don’t know. Yeah. That’s it.
[recording paused]
JH1: And also, do you feel that you’ve got any lasting effects from the war?
JH2: It’s difficult to, to think that way but I’m sure it has had an effect on me. For example I’m always frightened. Especially in the wintertime. In the dark. And when I’m at home I always close the curtains as soon as it is dark because I keep thinking somebody is going to shoot me or some bomb is going to explode. Yeah. And I am frightened. But it’s not that I lock myself up in the house. But I’d like to. But I can, I suppose I can cope with it. What else?
JH1: So you’re not really — you don’t like sudden, you know, movements or —
JH2: No. What happens to me and it’s not me really. It is a reflex. If suddenly something happens or if my husband suddenly stands in the room and I thought he was in the kitchen I suppose, I scream. Anybody who comes. The grandchildren are used to it and they know that scream doesn’t mean anything. I will let out a loud yell but I’ll always say, ‘It’s not me. It’s a reflex.’ So they’re happy then [laughs] Yeah. So, yes, the war has had an effect on me. And my brothers and sisters as well I’m sure. Just living in fear when you’re a child is not without the results in later life I suppose. Yeah.
JH1: And did you find that being deprived of the food all that time — ?
JH2: I’m very careful with food.
JH1: Right.
JH2: I don’t. I still like to lick my plate at times [laughs] We were so pleased when we were allowed to lick our plates. We weren’t allowed to do it before the war. Then after the war we were allowed to do it. And during the war we were allowed to do it and I still like to do it now [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah and the other thing. There are little things. Yeah, I don’t like waste. But perhaps that’s in my nature. Perhaps that’s a result of the war. You can’t always tell of course. Have you noticed anything else David?
DH: Well, you always empty your plate. Whatever’s on it. It all goes.
JH2: It all goes. Yeah. I never leave anything. I think that’s terrible if you leave something. Yeah. Well, there we are. It is funny I can eat almost anything. I’m not fussy about what I eat. Whether that’s the result of you know eat when you can. Maybe. Yeah. No, no problem. Eat anything. But when I say eat anything hot spicy Indian stuff I can’t cope with very well. But normally speaking. Normal European food I can cope with. Yeah. Yeah. [pause] Yeah. That’s it.
JH1: Well, thank you Johanna for allowing me to record this interview today. Thank you very much.
JH2: It’s a pleasure.
JH1: Thank you.
JH2: Thank you.



Judy Hodgson, “Interview with Johanna Heslam,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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