Saturday, 2 May 2020


I will put out the flag at half mast once more on Monday 4 May, our Remembrance Day for WW2, which is 75 years in the past now. I mainly do so to honour my father’s classmates who were shot by the occupying German forces, because they were part of a resistance group that was betrayed. Theo Polet, my Dad, barely managed to escape with his life.

Theo Polet, my father, in 1946
I have never been properly able to understand what it must have been like for my parents to live under a foreign occupation. Until the spring 2020 pandemic hit us, killing thousands and completely disrupting life.

The Corona lockdown is not comparable to a state of war, because the tyranny and gross violence of the German occupiers was many times worse than the threat of the virus. But it probably feels about the same - aged people, who have experienced 1940-45, recognize it: powerlessness, grief, fear and anger, but also a suddenly rediscovered communal spirit.

Long ago, my father wrote his war memoirs. They fill many pages of a closely typed text, in which I found familiar, but also surprising new anecdotes. He was almost 17 years old, when he saw the German bombers fly over his (then) hometown of Waalwijk,
to hit Rotterdam, exactly 80 years ago. He writes the following:

"... There was a brown-yellow smoke high in the air, which passed over us with the prevailing west wind. A few weeks after the bombing I saw Rotterdam myself. The rubble still smoked, a large department store was a distorted skeleton. The shipwrecks lay in the harbour, the same ships in which I would have sailed if there had been no war. My future changed drastically ... "

The latter was a surprise to me. I never realized that he wanted to go to sea as well as I years later. Fortunately he didn’t go to sea: seafaring was a life-threatening business in WW2.

Burning ships in Rotterdam, May 1940
What followed after May 1940 was five years of ever-increasing restrictions, persecutions and massacres by the occupying forces. A hundred thousand of my countrymen were put on the train, first to the Westerbork camp, then to the gas chambers. My mother told the story of the “evacuation” of the Jewish nursing home in Apeldoorn, which she was forced to watch at gunpoint by the black-uniformed thugs, a 15-year-old girl on her way to school. The memory remained with her until her death.

As a 19-year-old, my father sat up nights with an elderly Jewish neighbour, after the Germans had taken away his family and left him, because he wasn’t yet on their deportation list. He wouldn’t leave him alone. Later they also took the old man away. My father was active in a student’s resistance group in Amsterdam and joined the Underground Army after its establishment by proclamation of Queen Wilhelmina in September 1944. He never said much about that, but it can be read in his memoirs.
The Monument in Westerbork Camp
What May 2020 has in common with May 1940 is our total lack of preparation for a catastrophe. The disarmament drive of the 1930s was prompted by the same lack of vision that has left our economy and health care so vulnerable in 2020. Precautions apparently were no longer necessary.

There is not only a parallel in lack of foresight, but also in the unfeeling attitude of those in power - apparently that goes hand in hand. During the occupation, the Dutch authorities cooperated, at least in part, nicely with the Germans. As a result, a hundred thousand people could be taken away with the greatest ease.

In 2020, our Cabinet abandons displaced refugee children to their fate in Greek camps, where they lead a destitute life and are prone to disease or exploitation. And the Alderman for Welfare closes the municipal shelter for illegal refugees in Leiden, in the midst of the epidemic, nicely according to plan. Seven people walked into the rain with their suitcases, into homelessness. Apparently it couldn’t wait. It is of a different order than actually participating in a pogrom, but the harshness is the same.

The experts seem to agree that this will not be the last pandemic. The future of our young people could also change drastically. How will we prepare better and make our society more robust, less dependent on scarce resources and scarce health care? Some kind of Pandemic Marshall Plan? Have we learned from it, and above all, have our politicians learned from it?

I fear the worst. The first thing those in power lose is the ability to listen.

Edited 28 June.

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