The dialogue that follows is taken from a conversation I had with two individuals, Irina and Peter Verhage, and their memories of World War II. Irina Verhage was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now know as the Czech Republic) on November 16, 1939. Peter Verhage was born in a small town in the Netherlands (Markalow) July 11, 1940, right after the war broke out. ---Anamika Naik, March 18, 1997
The conversation is about not only the memories of the war but the reaction of the people who were living under German occupation. Though their stories are different, together they provide a broader picture of what it must have been like to live in Europe during the war. The conversation begins with their first memory of the war and continues until the end of the war.
When did you move to this country?
Irina Verhage: When the Russian so called liberated us from the threat of Western civilization (laughing) or whatever you call it...so I basically escaped in 1968.
Did you come by yourself at that time?
Irina Verhage: Yes, I finished my education at the Charles University in Prague and so I was in my late twenties.
Peter Verhage: I came in February of '69 for business reasons, and I met my wife in New York City then.
You (Irina) were about three or so when the war was in full effect in Czechoslovakia?
What was the first image you have the war?
Irina Verhage: I used to live with my family in Prague in an apartment building and on top of the building there were sirens....each time when they were afraid that airplanes were coming, German airplanes, they would put the signal out and we would have to go down to the cellar ...
(Peter Verhage: the basement)
...right, the basement where the whole apartment building went and we would sit there and wait until if would be over and then go back upstairs. But I was extremely lucky because my aunt had the summer house out of Prague so most f the time after that is spent outside of Prague. It was much better because in the cities the food was rationed and we would have a coupon for the month...it was a coupon system...so lets say that you would get three ounces of meat per person per week, three ounces of butter per person per week and one bread per person per week and it was very difficult especially if you had little children...milk was in very short supply. It was a good situation that I was able to leave Prague but before I went to the country I remember there were quite a few attacks by air and when they would start to bomb, even if we would be in a different part of the city we would feel the impact of the bomb strike then of course I remember our city had one of the largest Jewish populations in Eastern Europe and I remember that people were wearing yellow stars of David to show that they were Jewish.
It seems as though the war affected daily life in every way imaginable, but did these changes ever seem normal or did you get to the point that you became use to war or was every day an anticipation for the war to end?
Irina Verhage: Oh, (smiling) yes sure. I remember My uncle was in the Czech underground and they were trying to establish a system of a new government through London so they were always listening to the broadcasts from London on the radio and you would hear this "bum bum bum" ...
(Peter Verhage: the big band)
...to announce the beginning of the broadcast and I would come and say 'Oh, it is bum bum bum' and my parents would say that that was just Germany because my parents were afraid that the children would say something what they hear at home. It was something very secretive that you could not talk about. So it was part of life but we knew that it was a very unusual situation and that the times that would come would be better, we were very hopeful.
Did either one of you have any knowledge what was going on in the rest of the world, for example what was happening in the Pacific?
(Both of them say 'no' several times.)
Peter Verhage: We had no knowledge of what was going on in Japan, for example, because the only sources of information we had, as Irina said, were those English Broadcasts and this was already dangerous to have a radio and listen to those broadcasts and then the Germans would try to interfere and it was very hard to receive these broadcasts.
Irina Verhage: Yes, I don't know what it was called but they would discharge these certain radio wave length.
What was your (Peter Verhage) first memory of the war?
Peter Verhage: My first memory would go back to the underground. As a young child, we were not supposed to know, but my father who was a medical doctor was in this doctors group but this work was very much done by self...in other words, the man of the house would in no case tell his children and sometimes he would tell his wife and sometimes he would not tell because the big danger was that the Gestapo would come into your house and try to find a radio and that case might interrogate the wife and torture her and try to get the information out and that would then open up the network of the underground and reveal who else was listening and so I have limited knowledge of what might have been going on.
Actually, it interesting because my mother who is now in her 80's and I had met over Christmas with one lady who is about my age and who grew up in the same town in the Netherlands. Her father was much more involved in the underground than my father in a kind of a French linked organization because the allied troops were essentially French, English... These groups had the purpose of bringing back pilots that were shot down over German territory or over Dutch territory and since of course they were under German occupation, they would either be exacted or imprisoned so I just learned recently that my mother didn't even know, she knew that her father had been very heavily in the underground, but she didn't know the which part exactly. Everyone felt in their heart that this has to end and that we have to do something about it and were willing to put themselves at risk but not their children or wives.
So it seems as though there was information out there but you in a way had to be trusted to have access to that and then having that information would put you in risk.
(They nod yes)
In general or specific terms, were you as children exposed to any sort of deliberate propaganda on either the occupying forces or the allied forces?
Irina Verhage: I think that at that point we were not even school age children so I don't think that ...
Peter Verhage: We ourselves did not receive anything but I'm sure that our parents did. The first things that the German did was to take control over the media...that is both that radio station (since there was no TV) and of course the newspaper. They essentially fired any journalists that were independently minded and installed, sometimes, people who we would call 'NSB' who were Dutch that sympathized with the Germans...and this was not only in the media but they were in charge of all of the key posts in public service so the general population knew that they could neither trust the public information, the radio station or the media nor the local officials.
So in general, the public information that was given was assumed to he one-sided.
Irina Verhage: Oh, absolutely... unless as I mentioned earlier we would hear it from the English broadcast...that was the only source of information... and the were aware of it and so that is why they would try to infiltrate what was the only type of information... I think that it was towards the middle of the war, allied forces from England would send notes that were wrapped in aluminum foil, we called them 'Churchill mustaches," by parachute and as kids we would always say 'Oh it is a Churchill mustache' and we would bring it home and the parents would say 'Oh , don't let anyone know' because they (German) would search again the area to see who had landed with the parachutes.
What did these notes say?
Peter Verhage: Oh, they would say the allied advancements... North Africa for instance in '44.
So this type of information passing happened everywhere, in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia?
Peter Verhage: The answer to that is yes.
Irina Verhage: It must be because we remember the same thing.
Peter Verhage: So they were basically two media uses that I know in Europe...basically the broadcast from England and the notes that they dropped behind the lines (if you will) and I think importantly there was also the underground network. The verbal information was more important and often kingpins of that information were central figures in these organizations... so how that information flowed exactly nobody knew because the risk was too great.
My mother explained to me, for instance, towards the end of the war, they started to receive some kind of underground information in these short newsletters about the allied forces in the mailboxes (we didn't have mail boxes like here , the were attached to the door and dropped directly through the door) it was printed in the night, it was delivered in the night and distributed in the night. You did not pay for it and there was no subscription list. In other words somebody reported that you were OK and this organization secretly carried out this printing and these were very important sources of information and also trying to keep the population courage until liberation would come because no one knew in the middle of '43 how long this will last.
So they was a strong underground web, it seems, that connected everyone together and then that was the information that was trusted as to what was actually going on.
When the war ended, what was the immediate reaction in the areas that you lived in?
Irina Verhage: It was terrific (takes a deep breath) it was the start of a new life. I remember that they ran out in the street and they took the musical instruments and play and dance and it went on for at least a week. You know it was just...
Peter Verhage: Overjoyed
Irina Verhage: ...like being new borne.
You had mentioned that they was a large population of Jewish in Prague before the outbreak of the war...what was it like after the war?
Irina Verhage: Well many of the Jews immigrated or left country before the German control but a large majority of them went into the concentration camps after the Germans came and whoever was left, left in 1948 when the Communists came. It use to be in our country of nine million that there were three million Jews.
Peter Verhage: And after the war?
Irina Verhage: Maybe less than a million... absolutely less. During the German occupation each family had to present a family tree that was at least three /four generations to make sure there were no Jewish people. Otherwise they would take you and send you to the concentration camps. Lots of people denied they were Jewish in order to save themselves. So it was hard to count how many were really left because those that maybe Jewish were so called illegally left behind.
Peter Verhage: I believe that unfortunately the Germans were gruesomely effective in exterminating 80% or 90% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands. There are famous stories such as Anne Frank, who unfortunately died anyway, but I don't believe that more than 5% were informed enough before the war to be able to go to England or another country and the war was just too long also for those who were hidden by Dutch families also. After four years it became very difficult to hide them. In my time we had only about 60 or 70 Jewish families living in my small town and there were only six or seven left after the war.
How did the community react to this type of treatment... was there fear in communicating with one's Jewish friends on a public level?
Irina Verhage: Yes yes yes at least with us they... let's say if you were walking on the left side of the street, they would have to walk on the right. I remember this because I know that hour family doctor was Jewish and when the war started, he openly proclaimed that he was Jewish and he said that I don't think that it would be good for you or me if I see you and so unfortunately we lost contact with him. (saddened) There was certain divisions between.
Peter Verhage: These divisions were not freewill of the Dutch... it was imposed by the Gestapo, the German and once the Germans got control of the police, the secret police. They treated sympathetic people very harshly, I mean you risked your life and during the war it became more because once the allied force advanced more and the pressure became greater, they would retaliate....if there was a certain allied bombing that was successful and a certain number of Germans lost their lives they tried to kill an equivalent number of Dutch or there was this famous case in the south of the Netherlands were they killed a certain number of innocent civilians. It was outrage.
Irina Verhage: For us, these two villages actually were totally leveled...
Peter Verhage: By the Germans.
Irina Verhage: ...not only population wise but also houses and all of the building and schools.
Peter Verhage: So those people who were hiding Jewish families were risking a lot because the great danger of course was that in a society ...you had may have had it in France or Czech republic ...but the country on one hand was united but it was not a hundred percent united and if you get a half percent of the people who cooperated with the occupying force, it becomes very risky because they may live next to you and you may not know it and then they may infiltrate into your network and then the whole network is exposed as well as the people within the network.
It seems like a lot of hiding and a lot of trust.
(both nod yes and immediately say trust)
Irina Verhage: You trust your family and you fellow citizens... it is commitment.
The fear that was instilled by the Germans, was this a fear that something may happen if one did not "behave a a certain public way" what will happen to you or was this fear due to a reaction that you saw of the real violence?
Irina Verhage: Absolutely.
Peter Verhage: I remember that my town was free in the May of 1945 and it was after the allies were south of the Rhine River and the battle of Arnheim and my town was about forty miles from that point and we had just ended a very difficult winter before that so when the allied troops rolled in it was, as Irina said, it was the over joy of the people. I ran 200 yards from my home to this street were these allied troops were... actually it was tanks and armors and as a young boy I climbed to one of the tanks in the Canadian division. And we did not see during the war any good bread or white bread (sliced bread never) and I was given by this soldier this bread that I do not like very much now (smiling and laughing) it was kind of like that wonder bread and I ran to my mom and said I got a cake I got a cake.
During the war people would trade services for things. My dad was a medical doctor and me might trade an eye exam for bacon or something like that and people in the western part of the Netherlands, in the big cities, people were dying especially during the last winter what we call the hunger winter and it was a severe winter and people were eating all kind of things like tulip bulbs and bark from trees...
Irina Verhage: ...and made bread from the trees...you could not eat the bread but at least you could eat the baked crust.
Peter Verhage: So there was really the memory of the freedom. I do not want to say that immediately after we were liberated that food was everywhere because '46 and '47 were difficult years because the government had to keep things under control and still people had certain rations and needed coupons to buy things. But still, the end was tremendous and it was something that people had in their hearts for a long time.
When the war ended and things were finally settling down, did the information of what was happening in other part of the war became more accessible to you?
Irina Verhage: Everything we knew was oriented on Europe. Let's say the Philippines... we knew nothing about what had happened there.
Peter Verhage: History, the way it was taught in the Netherlands, was pretty much focused on Europe. I mean there was a little on the American intervention and to some extent we knew about the West Indies, (now known as Indonesia) and in the Pacific, there were many Dutch who were sent to Japanese concentration camps and worked on railroads but general information of that area was not known... only where it affected us personally.
Irina Verhage: I know that, of course, there was news about Pearl Harbor, that was famous but it was still one secluded incident not the overall picture.
In America, Pearl Harbor was the event was known to draw the Americans in the war.
Peter Verhage: Oh, yes. It was the deciding event.
And the war ended in America after bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki so it seemed as though the American involvement of the war was surrounded by two Pacific events...what was the reaction of the nuclear bombs in Europe?
Irina Verhage: Yes, we got news of the bombing in Japan...I remember the pictures and the pieces of documentary films that we saw with it. It looked like a little mushroom when it blew up.
Peter Verhage: Yes, but it was awful.
Irina Verhage: But from the perspective of a little child, you could not look to deeply or intellectually in the matter.
Peter Verhage: But you can see that the national holidays (liberation day) in France or in the Netherlands are the dates we know that ended the war...
Irina Verhage: May 9th for us.
Peter Verhage: For us the war ended, according to our history book on that day, well the war hadn't been settled with Japan yet. You can see how history is in a way controlled by the people who write the history that country.
Well that about covers it.
Irina Verhage: Yes, we covered everything from how it began to how it ended... a lot of information. (smiling)
At the end of the interview, a conversation sprung up about the influence of media now on World War II. Irina commented on how when she watched the film The English Patient, the involvement of Africa during the war was something new to her, although Peter knew about it. He also mentioned how at that time the influence that the Dutch colonization had in the East had ended along with some of the British powers in that area. For him, the de-colonization of these places were a direct result of the war. On this comment, Irina noted how it was strange how history went into cycles. For her, coming to America was the second escape. Czechoslovakia was in the hands of one group and then a few years later fell into the hands of the Communist leaders. From both sides, it seemed the issue was freedom, and liberation from outside control meant that the people within those places could once again experience the feeling of control of their own land.