Shaped By War: Growing Up In Europe Under German Occupation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: History

Arend Vos (left), Juris Ukstins and Jerry Karter recently recounted some of their experiences growing up in Europe during World War II. They will tell their stories as part of the Eldredge Public Library's Learning Series next month. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The German occupation of the Netherlands in 1940 seemed civilized, initially. The Dutch continued, at least superficially, to run the country, and life on many levels continued as before.

“At first we hardly knew they were there,” Jerry Karter said. Other than hunger – there was never enough to eat – for a child, it was “an exciting time,” added Arend Vos. But as the war wore on, life became more and more difficult, especially for adults.

“They suffered,” Karter said. By 1944, said Vos, “it really got bad.”

The two men – along with Juris Ukstins, whose family was driven from Latvia when Russia occupied the country and spent five years in a post-war camp for displaced persons – will recount their experiences in “Children in WWII: Growing Up In War Torn Europe,” on May 1 and 8 as part of the Eldredge Public Library's Learning Series program.

All three were very young during the war and were sheltered from some of the worst of it; Ukstins said his sister, a teenager at the time, filled in much of the story, and his father, a Baptist minister, kept a detailed journal and took many photographs, which he published in a book, “Our Daily Break: A Latvian's Journal of Escape and Survival as a Displaced Person in War-torn Europe, 1944-1949.”

Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 and some 14,000 citizens were deported, Ukstins said. After the country was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, things were “civilized” for most Latvians, he said, until toward the end of the war, when the Soviets again took over the small nation. His family fled in the fall of 1944.

They ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany. After the war ended, they moved to a camp in the British-controlled area.

“Everyone wanted to be in the American zone,” he said. “It had better food.” The Allies didn't know what to do with the displaced; although they were free to return home, they knew that if they returned to Soviet-controlled Latvia, they'd be shipped off to Siberia because they had previously fled the country.

Karter was three years old and living in the Hague when Germany invaded. Because a German officer wanted their home, they were forced to leave and move into an apartment, where they lived until 1944, when they moved to Amsterdam. Their new home was, coincidentally, not far from where Vos was living. When the Germans invaded, Vos said, every male between the ages of 18 and 35 was required to report for duty in the German Army. Many did not, and were harbored in private homes. Vos said two men lived in his family's attic until one day, German soldiers came and removed one of them. He was lucky, however, and returned after the war.

Both Vos and Karter recalled how food became more and more scarce as the war continued. Tulip bulbs became staples. People chopped asphalt from streets to use as coal. Ration coupons became like currency. They remembered the routine of going to the local high school with their families and coupons, which for children, “was the highlight of their day,” Karter said, because they could all play while the grown ups waited in line.

Yet they didn't escape some of the more horrific images of war. Karter recalled seeing the bodies of men left hanging from streetcar lines for a week.

News was difficult to come by. Citizens weren't allowed to have radios, but Karter said his family met clandestinely in the attic to listen to the BBC.

“That was dangerous,” he said. “If you were caught, you could be taken out” and shot.

Vos said sheets of paper with news stenciled on them were anonymously distributed, and that's how citizens found out about the D-Day invasion. For the first time since the invasion, Dutch flags came out and many German collaborators left. But the Allied advance was slowed in the Arden, and the “country came to a halt,” he said, with food becoming even more scarce. Not long after, however, Canadian soldiers liberated Amsterdam.

Karter said he remembers that day well. “Everything seemed normal,” he said, when Germans began heading out of the city, first in cars, then on bicycles. “Then it was quiet,” until he heard a rumbling at one end of the streets and saw tanks advancing very slowly.

“People started making noise, flags came out,” he said. He was lifted up onto one of the tanks. “It was just like in the movies,” he said. Within a few days, the streetcars had started running again, and he spent a whole day just riding them around the city.

Karter mother was an actress and was offered a role in the James Stewart film “Call Northside 777” in 1947, and the rest of the family joined her in California a year later. “We came and stayed,” he said. After entering the insurance industry after college, he returned to Europe to help set up offices in London and Paris. Now a Harwich resident, he was the executive director of the Cape Cod Symphony for nine years and is now working to build a new performing arts center in Hyannis.

After the war, jobs were scarce and the Dutch government encouraged people to emigrate. The day after he graduated from college in 1957, Vos decided to seek a new life in Canada.

“You couldn't get into the States,” he said. “Everybody wanted to get into the States.” He became a chemical engineer, ran Ford's paint division and worked for PPG Industries (originally Pittsburgh Plate Glass), helping to open branches in Europe. An Orleans resident, he is a member of the Orleans Conservation Trust and the town's architectural review committee.

It took years for displaced people, especially families, to find homes, Ukstins said. Many countries only wanted single people to fill out the labor shortage after the war. His family eventually found a Baptist Church that sponsored them to come to Iowa in 1949. He studied electrical engineering and was drafted; after attending officer training school, he was sent to Vietnam, and ended up serving in the Navy for 30 years.

The experience of living through the war “in some ways hardened us without us knowing,” Karter said. “You get through incredible difficulties, but as a child, you have a lot of support.”

To register for “Children In World War II: Growing Up In War-torn Europe,” or other Eldredge Library Learning Series programs, stop by the library or visit www.eldredgelibrary.org/learning-series.