Idiotic times

Last weekend we had another family reunion, though this time only six of us managed to meet in the Quality Inn Motel on High Street in Echuca.

Of the four who stayed away – three brothers had elected not to come from the onset – two offered excuses, one said nothing and the fourth, one of my three sisters, was forced to stay away by the floods. She could have managed the trip to Echuca, she emailed, but she might not have managed to get out again.

It rained all the way from Melbourne to Echuca and we stopped for lunch at Heathcote in a place called the Gaggling Geese. It seemed an apt description, for indeed late at night as the six of us gathered together in one of our motel rooms with at least three extra spouses, we gaggled like geese, though there was less of the hostility of our last reunion to which every sibling came.

This time the angriest folk had stayed away, and yet my oldest brother and I debated the ‘facts’ of history and whether or not we had any right to speculate on what might have happened to our grandparents in prison all those years ago, on the grounds that we still did not know the ‘truth’.

We did not possess a transcript of court details and so far none of us, my brother included, have managed to secure the records.

Earlier when I told my supervisor at the university about the facts Barbara van Balen had unearthed in Haarlem, that both my grandparents had been imprisoned in 1941 for a period of time, my grandmother for embezzlement, and my grandfather on charges of ontucht, she said,
‘Sounds like they could have been running a brothel.’

I had not put the two events together in my mind. Embezzlement, I understand is theft of some sort that involves deception, while ontucht, which can be defined as vice, prostitution, lewdness suggests maybe even more than incest. But I have no evidence.

How could I find out? I spoke to my mother. ‘Were Dad’s parents running a brothel?’ I asked.
‘No. No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Other people would have known about it. He was in the government. He had a good job. I think maybe he got coupons. They could have played with that, got coupons under false pretences, to get more food.’ She sounded impatient.

‘It was idiotic times, not normal at all. It was not like it used to be in Holland at that time. The Germans were there, not the Dutch government. All the good judges had retired. The whole country stopped. Professors at universities stopped. Schools stopped. My own father did not have a job. Colleges were closed.

‘No. No. It could not have been that. It probably had to do with coupons. There were people willing to do work. The NSBs, we called them, Nationalist Socialists. They were with the German government, Dutch people sympathetic to the Nazis. They did the jobs, they were a small group but they were powerful and they spied on us.

‘I remember sitting next to a woman on the tram,’ my mother continued. ‘It must have been the second year of the war. We still had trams. The woman said to me,
“Be careful of what you say. There’s an NSB agent sitting on the tram.”

‘In that first year of the war things weren’t so bad. We still had coupons. But by the third year of the war we had nothing.

‘It must have been coupons, because they had more food than others. That’s what you noticed.

‘Where I lived on the second floor above a printing shop, I noticed the woman who lived below. Her husband was a seaman but I never saw him during the war. Later I understood they were NSB, because she got food too.

‘In those last years the Germans had special kitchens and those people who helped them got food. After the war, the woman downstairs, her husband was put in gaol.
You had to be so careful in those years.’ My mother paused.

I told her then about my trip in 2006 through Haarlem on a bicycle with my new German friend, Heidi.
‘I didn’t know you had a German friend.’
‘I met her at the conference,’ I explained. She lives in Amsterdam and we took the train together from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.’

‘When you’re older you think more about the past,’ my mother said. ‘We called the prison the Parapluie. Of those things I don’t think. I don’t dwell on them but on what was nice. Otherwise you get sad and morbid, if you live alone. So I think only over the happy times. I think about my Haarlem cousins, what happened to them, how they married.

‘With your dad’s family I tried to be good to them and meet them before we married. But they were strange. We let them know when your first brother was born. We didn’t get an answer. They didn’t come to see us. They were very strange and after that I thought if that’s how they feel, I’m not interested.

‘So then I stopped trying to visit. Before then I always said to your father, they are your parents, we have to try. But then I realised they are not much chop.

‘After what they did with our wedding. [August 1942] His father would have performed our wedding, but he didn’t even come. We waited an hour and they just let us sit. We didn’t care about the legal part because that was not what we considered our wedding. But we couldn’t get our coupons till after the legal wedding, then we could get blankets and stuff. So after the legal wedding we could buy the things we needed and then six weeks later we were properly married. That was in 1942.

‘I was lucky to get material for my wedding dress because I knew a man who managed a VD, a big store nearly as big as Myer. I asked him could he get some white silk or satin or whatever,
“Can you get me six metres?” and he got me six metres and more of an orangey taffeta which I didn’t like. I’d have preferred peach, a paler colour but it was all we could get. The manager gave it to me and said, “This is the last, nothing comes any more”.

Then later when she got married, my cousin asked to borrow my wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. And I gave them to her.

‘It was a very hard time. On the other hand everyone suffered. We still gave parties and insisted that everyone dress up. Fellows wore their … we call them smoking, their dinner suits, because you couldn’t go out after eight o’clock till next morning at six. So we had to make the most of it. For three years we had nothing, you had to make it yourself.’

Years later at this our most recent family reunion my brother made a point: ‘Ontucht’ he said, ‘could also mean adultery.’

I did not have the presence of mind to suggest to him that they do not put you into prison for adultery, at least not as far as I know, not in the western world.

My brother also suggested that my grandfather, as the person in charge of births, deaths and marriages in Haarlem held a significant role. He could have helped people to establish their identity, and thereby rule out the possibility of Jewish ancestry, even if they had paid for it, as I imagine some might have done in order to stay safe from the Nazis.

Such a role made my grandfather powerful and it is a power he may have abused.

But this, too, is speculation, much as my mother speculated when I asked her about my grandparents’ imprisonment.

42 thoughts on “Idiotic times”

  1. Hello Elisabeth:
    Such intrigue about your family background. As you peel away the layers, will you ever uncover the truth we wonder?

    It is truly amazing how people during the wars years made so much out of so little. In these days of, at times, obscene excesses,it seems to us that quite the reverse is true. Never was so little made from so much. How times change.

  2. The way you have written the conversation with your mother reminds me of conversations I had with mine and my mother-in-law. I always found it frustrating that they had the in-built urge to cover up any family wrong-doings. If it was something really bad they would just clam up and not say a word so you left imagining the worst. The power your grandfather had would have made it very easy for him to abuse his position – and I beleive alot of people would have found that difficult to resist.

  3. they had nothing and yet the photograph doesn't suggest this. i was thinking just the other day how easy it is for photographs to lie.

    i wonder if the power your grandfather had made him a political target. i laugh. my impulse by association is to have him innocent, but then what is guilty in times like this? (certainly anything associated with incest.) perhaps i should read back a post or so.


  4. ….wow, the details are sort of revealed but there's still so much yet to be discovered.

    Could your grandfather, in his position of power, sought the services of a prostitute (or been offered them as a bribe) and been caught or entrapped?

  5. A very interesting write! Keep digging I so want to know more – its the way you tell your stories I think I hold my breath from the beginning to the end 😀 Family reunions always throw up a lot of stuff *chuckles* I love it!

  6. Some interesting comments about the right to know the facts of the family history and the 'truth'. So often I read that much was hidden by our forbears in pursuit of respectability that this in itself bears looking at. One scratches beneath the surface to find all manner of things – adultery, incest, betrayals of one sort or another. Is it that in a world gone mad the appearance of maintaining personal form was paramount? Or being civilised in the way Norbert Elias outlined, or what?

  7. I tend to agree with your brother's suggestion as the most likely cause of your grandfather's imprisionment. I've seen many documentaries where this has be the case so people can avoid being persecuted because of who they are and what they believe in :-).

  8. Much like your family, my family buries the truth, deep inside, until even they can't make fact or fiction out of what really happened anymore. I doubt you'll ever get an answer that satisfies you, though it's important that you keep asking the questions that the others have long ago stopped asking.

    Idiotic times, indeed. Sometimes I want to shake my family members and scream "The truth will set you free!"

  9. What I know about life under Nazi occupation is limited to the movie CASABLANCA, which, while highly entertaining, is probably not all that accurate, so all this makes me intensely curious. Now, you said your grandfather might have been imprisioned for abusing power. But abusing power from what point of view? If abuse from the Nazi point of view, i.e., he was protecting Jews, that could put your grandfather in the same league as Oskar Shindler or Raoul Wallenberg, or, on a smaller scale, the people who helped shelter Anne Frank's family. Yet it doesn't sound like your grandfather was much of an idealist. At least not in your mother's eyes. Now, if your grandfather was exploiting rather than protecting Jews, by exhorting money to keep their secret, I think he would have been more likely punished for that AFTER the war. Though I suppose if the Nazis found out, they would have punished him anyway. They didn't want people protecting Jews, regardless of whether the motives of the protectors were idealistic or selfish.

    Embezzlement generally means stealing money that's been entrusted to you, usually in your line of work. For instance, a banker who steals from depositers is considered an embezzeler. Did your grandmother have a job where she was entrusted with other people's money?

  10. Love to hear the stories about the past. Of course I heard stories about the war too. My parents always had enough food as they lived in towns and were close to rural areas where they got food from the farmers. Also that part of Holland was freed first and they got chocolate and other goodies from the canadian soldiers.
    About ontucht This means sexually misusing underaged people. In the war your grandparents could have been accused for anything anyway as in the war there was no right system

  11. You might find a search of Google for ‘ontucht crime’ illuminating. I’ve just spent a good while looking at how the word is used in context in various newspaper articles and textbooks and they mostly lean towards sexual offences involving minors, as Marja suggests (one specifically mentions Haarlem), not usually prostitution although I did find mention of it too. It’s one of those areas that, if I were you, I’m not sure how much effort I’d want to put into finding out the facts. It’s like that show, Who Do You Think You Are, a lot can be dredged up that you weren’t expecting to find. Carrie has done quite a bit of genealogical research on behalf of her father but, as you might imagine with me, I have no interest in learning more than I know already. I have forgotten most of my aunts and uncles’ names—there was a Harry, a Lily and a Frank (all on my mother’s side) but when you count up all my parents’ siblings that’s nothing—and I can only remember my paternal grandfather’s first name; John, as it happens and I’ve never even seen a photo of him nor met any of my father’s family.

  12. I love unpeeling the layers of history, especially personal family history. Your grandparents behaviour towards your parents certainly seems strange and cold, but I wonder if there was another story behind it that might put it in a completely different light?
    Perhaps they felt constraint due to their criminal history or something else to do with the war and the effect of living under suspicion that shaped their response.
    Always another story.
    In light of the brothel theory. There was a comment my mother made once about her grandmother that suggested she may have been a "Madam" at the turn of the century. I never believed it would be possible to uncover the truth as I was sure it would have been officially hidden under legalities, but lo and behold, a random search through Google one day revealed Argus newspaper articles confirming everything and more.
    For some strange reason I was deliriously happy. My grandmother ran a brothel! Almost as good as an ancestor deported as a convict.
    Karen C

  13. Times change all the time, Lance and Jane, as you suggest. My mother tells stories of how they ate tulip bulb soup in a desperate bid to get in some nourishment. So different from the excesses of today, at least in pats of the world. War brings its own excesses, and not generally of the nourishing kind.

    Thanks you two, Jane and Lance.

  14. I saw my mother tonight, Jane, and again she presents herself as the supreme optimist. She cannot see any merit she tells me in thinking about the awful things, only about the good.

    To me this attitude makes for a lopsided view of life, but what can you do? My mother is a creature of her times, her personality and her circumstance, similar to your mother, no doubt.

    Thanks, Jane.

  15. A lot can happen over two generations, Ms Moon, but I suspect that migration elsewhere and the fact these things happened during war time contribute to the secrecy as well.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  16. You might need to read back more than one or two posts, erin. The story is embedded not only in this blog but in my past.

    I enjoy your fantasy about my grandfather's innocence and I suspect somewhere along the line he may once have been so, but in the end, I fear he behaved badly, and that's putting it gently.

    Thanks, erin.

  17. It is still such a mystery, Kath, and I haven't mentioned here the mormon influence all those years ago or the idea that my grandfather may have felt entitled to more than one wife.

    Thanks, Kath.

  18. Family reunions, Rose and the stuff they chuck up can lead us along many rough paths, but in the end I'm glad for them, however torrid. Thanks, Rose.

  19. Family reunions, Rose and the stuff they chuck up can lead us along many rough paths, but in the end I'm glad for them, however torrid. Thanks, Rose.

  20. It's a lovely picture as you say, Angela and I'm glad you appreciate it, especially as it suggests so much more than war time would suggest.

    Thanks, Angela.

  21. Being civilised or respectable to me, Christine, are such different notions, and yet they blend. It is as if one, the respectable, namely the appearance of things, can take the place of the other, being civilised, which to me entails behaving in a decently human way.

    Sometimes to be civilised is to be anything but respectable.

    Such is the battle that goes on about scratching the surface as you suggest, to find different truths other than the one 'respectable' truth on display.

    Thanks, Christine.

  22. I'm not too sure, Windsmoke. iI you knew my brother and the depth of his investment in covering the past with sweetness and light you might wonder about the accuracy of his thoughts. Though I suppose his prejudices are not so different from my own, only we base our perspectives on widely different experience.

    Thanks, Windsmoke.

  23. I agree, Tracy, the truth will set us free, and yet there are so many reasons to question the truth: whose truth, what truth and how many varieties of the truth exist?

    Still I will keep searching, even though,as you say I'm unlikely to find satisfaction.

    Thanks, Tracy.

  24. It's mysterious: the difficulty of learning the truth. So the secrets remain, but trying to unravel the past makes for a lively reunion with, I suppose, moments of silence when people stare into space, wondering.

    Thank you for telling us about your family.

  25. what a mystery, and how hard it seems to get at the truth, even though it wasn't all that long ago. What hard times they were during the war. People had to do all sorts of things to survive.

  26. As far as I know my grandmother was a cleaning lady, kirk, but I don't know wether she worked as such during the war.

    I know so little about these things except through my older brother who has more access to the archives than the rest of us. Also, he speaks Dutch certainly better than I do. So it's hard to decipher the truth from his perspective, especially as he's made it clear he doesn't want to talk about these things until, if at all, certain people are dead, including my mother and my paternal aunt. We might therefore wait a long time and even then forever. My brother himself is not young any more either.

    It is fascinating to speculate about these things, but I can only go on the few 'facts' I have and they are open to interpretation.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  27. Thanks for translating the word 'ontucht' for me again, Marja. I agree that during the war my grandparents could have been charged with anything. As my mother said they were 'idiotic times'. I base my belief that they were most likely guilty of sexual abuse, at least my grandfather was, on the basis of what happened in the next generation to my own family of origin.

    And also from my knowledge and experience of my father who was a troubled man, sexually as well as in other ways. People don't behave this way for nothing.

    Thanks, Marja.

  28. That's an interesting approach to the research, Jim, a Google search of the word, 'ontucht'. I haven't done it myself yet but I will now that you inspire me to do so.

    It seems to me some of us are fascinated by our ancestry and others not so, clearly you're in the latter camp. I've been interested in my forebears since I was little, since I watched my father draw up genograms of his forebears. In someways it seems to me he took after his own father's fascination with ancestry. But they were interested in names and dates and maybe even job descriptions, but they seemed to care less about other details.

    Whereas I'm interested in the details, the minds and hearts and even bodies of those of my kin who came before me.

    Thanks, Jim.

  29. That's an interesting approach to the research, Jim, a Google search of the word, 'ontucht'. I haven't done it myself yet but I will now that you inspire me to do so.

    It seems to me some of us are fascinated by our ancestry and others not so, clearly you're in the latter camp. I've been interested in my forebears since I was little, since I watched my father draw up genograms of his forebears. In someways it seems to me he took after his own father's fascination with ancestry. But they were interested in names and dates and maybe even job descriptions, but they seemed to care less about other details.

    Whereas I'm interested in the details, the minds and hearts and even bodies of those of my kin who came before me.

    Thanks, Jim.

  30. I know that feeling, Cheshire Wife, but I'm afraid I simply can't share it for long. I'm as invested in the past as I am in the future, but hopefully always with my feet firmly planted in the present.

    Thanks, Cheshire Wife.

  31. I can understand your delight, Karen, when you discovered the partial 'truth' about your grandmother's past. As you say this peeling back the layers of the past can be fun and exciting and sometimes scary all rolled up in one.

    My husband's ancestors were convicts and he, too, finds pleasure in that but previous generations of his family, my father's father and grandparents for instance, were deeply ashamed of that past and wanted to keep it hidden.

    That's the way it goes, I think. The further away we move the less ashamed we might feel but if we are close by we can feel tainted by the stain of whatever wrong- doing our ancestor might have committed.

    Thanks, Karen.

  32. Reunions are intriguing events, as you suggest, Mim. All of us with our different agendas as regards the past, and our genealogy.

    Thanks for your good wishes.

  33. You're so right, Juliet, even the things that happened as little as sixty or seventy years ago – recent in the broad scheme of things – are hard to discover, not only because of the war I suspect but also because of how people felt about them.

    Thanks, Juliet .

  34. I wonder if those of us who have been denied the important facts of our family histories are particulalry drawn to solving the mysteries? And why this need to protect the long dead? As if any family was without crime, or disrepute?

    It is good to hear your mother's memories, even if edited, as they give some perspective on our current 'suffering'.

    Isabel x

  35. Thanks again, Isabel. The mystery of family life applies to so many of us, and leaves curious children like ourselves thirsting for more knowledge and understanding.

  36. Thanks again, Isabel. The mystery of family life applies to so many of us, and leaves curious children like ourselves thirsting for more knowledge and understanding.

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