As a kind of preamble and disclaimer to this piece let me start by saying two things: 1. It is not that I have gotten the details correct, I am sure I have not, but a matter of how I have remembered them. 2. Autoethnography involves a researcher writing about a topic of great personal relevance (e.g., familial mythology or secrets); I believe this is some of the most courageous scholarship that we can do.
My story starts with a Dutch nurse, Jacoba Trientje Zeldenrust, meeting an American doctor, George Thomas Laven, while working at a hospital in Haiti. They treated patients suffering from all variety of conditions. Tragically much of the illness is preventable or easily treated in parts of the world with equitable access to resources but can become a death sentence for Haiti’s poor and rural populations. Without their commitments and dedication to helping those in need I would never have been born. They were raised with values in charity and service; Haiti was an opportunity to help people in great need, it was hard work, but my parents answered that call.
My name—Melvin Willem Laven—honors both of my grandfathers. My father’s father was Reverend Melvin Laven, and my mother’s father was Willem Zeldenrust. Wim, my nickname, is short for Willem. Names tell us more about individuals and history than we frequently realize. In my case I have always known that my name and namesakes played significant roles in my development. My sister—Anna Vera Laven—was named after our grandmothers, Vera Briggs and Anna Wijnstra. This ancestral genealogy presents courage in the face of struggle, and I hope I honor it. I was bullied in adolescence, sometimes for being different, my strange name was a source of ridicule, but I’m proud to continue the tradition of moral courage and resistance.
Both of my grandfathers served in World War II, but it was not something courageous… At least not according to them. My father’s father was in the Seabees, the construction unit of the Navy (constructing bases and airfields, and building roads, bridges, and other support facilities), and mostly (or primarily) noncombat. He was injured unloading a ship, and stationed in Alaska. My mother’s father—my Opa—had no choice. Textbooks say that Germany conquered the Netherlands in five days. Opa told me they were overrun in three days… but they were never conquered.
There was a strong resistance to Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. The approach, capacity, and significance of the resistance varied across the country. In the big cities, like Amsterdam, resistance groups engaged in sabotage and frequently fell victim to traitorous subterfuge. The province of Friesland (in the north) suffered from persecution but avoided the so-called “hunger winter” and refugees travelled considerable distances for food and milk.
It is not merely a matter of my family’s mythology; my grandfather’s name is permanently recorded in the memorial honoring those who took part in The Resistance. “The Underground” is a spoken (albeit rarely) tradition in my family. Opa likely suffered some effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, a disease we know more about now than during his lifetime, but which would be consistent with the trauma he experienced and the horrors he witnessed.
I cannot remember when I first started hearing about sacrifice and honor in fighting or dying for one’s family, country, or God. At nineteen-years-old I would estimate several thousand times. So, it was interesting to hear Opa contradicting that narrative. His English was much better than my Dutch, and I had not learned the rules of: “there are some questions you should not ask.”
He pulled out a picture, it was his platoon, and two thirds of the people were crossed out. I asked if those were the people who had died since then, he told me those were the people who died during the three days of resistance.
I asked if he had ever killed anyone. He told me it was a silly question, something to the effect that there was no knowing who was responsible for anything.
Nothing about war was courageous. If you have a choice, you’re a fool for joining; If you have no choice, then you are just trying to survive.
Both of my grandfathers were deeply religious men. They argued over the Bible but agreed (I think) that there was nothing praiseworthy in violence. I was young and I am certain to have missed crucial nuances. I wish I could ask more questions and double check on my memory. I don’t remember how being a Seabee fit with being a conscientious objector. My memory is that Grandpa Laven served in a noncombat role in Alaska as part of his religious objection to violence, but he did not join the ministry until after the war was over.
The greatest story of courage that I have ever heard was of Anna Wijnstra—my Oma.
Her brother Joop—my granduncle—was detained and held in German custody. A scheme was concocted to break him out of detention. Oma went with her mother, and they snuck in an extra set women’s clothing under their dresses. When they met with the Joop, they gave him the clothing and he dressed up like she was.
Afraid of what it would look like for two women to enter and three to leave, two left while Oma waited behind. I am sure the minutes she waited felt like an eternity. She must have known the horrific stories of victimization. She waited according to the plan, and it is not clear how much of the plan was improvised spontaneity, but after several hours when a guard discovered her in the visiting room, she gave an excuse. I imagine something like this:
“What are you doing in here?”
“Have you come to take me out?”
“What do you mean ‘take you out?’”
“I was told to wait for an escort so that I could leave, it has been a while.”
“Just get out of here…”
The Netherlands was a challenging place during occupation and the wars, and my family has shared many stories, but I have always known many more were kept secret. Some of the most remarkable stories have been shared after funerals.
Willem Zeldenrust evaded German security forces while squatting in farms in northern Holland. Much of the Dutch farmland in the central part of the country was flooded, the dikes had been opened in a defensive move. The water was intended to delay or prevent the movement of advancing troops. 6 inches was the optimum amount, it would soak boots and socks but was not enough to make using boats possible. This made the farms in the northern parts of country even more important.
They created elaborate systems for evading detection and making escape possible. Escaping occupation forces in flat and treeless farms was not always an easy task. One story I heard was of a barn that did not have a functioning escape route, or perhaps it was a backup plan for when someone was too tired to keep running…
Inside the barn there was a barrel and hay that was rigged to drop and cover the barrel. The barrel was just big enough to fit a person and covered with hay it was a last-ditch hiding spot.
When I heard the story, I noted the painful attention to detail. The many hours it would have taken to secure enough hay to fully cover and reliably hide the barrel. The uncertainty about what it would look like and the uncertainty, “am I really hidden?”
One day it was used, and the hay piled over the barrel. With only seconds to spare and sitting in the dark inside a cramped barrel the sounds of the pursuing soldiers could be heard. A group (numbered 6 or 20?) rummaged through the barn.
“Ich sah ihn diesen Weg gehen.”
I imagine more sounds in the background provided some relief to the failing efforts to stop breathing or breathe quietly. It is painfully impossible to breathe quietly when you have just run away from someone. I remember hiding once, I decided I could breathe out and take a breath every time I heard a car drive by. But there were no cars—nothing—at this farm. After all, you could not squat at a farm in use.
Everyone in the Netherlands is multilingual, the German, “I know he went this way,” may have been muffled under the hay. Did he say, “Ich weiß, ich sah ihn diesen Weg gehen?” What do you do while you are waiting and fearing for your life? Do you think of a new getaway? Do you ponder taking your life instead of being captured?
Then the words, “Soll ich in den Heuhaufen schießen? Er muss sich dort versteckt haben.”
Certainly, it would seal your fate. “Should I shoot into the pile of hay? He must be hiding there.”
The eternity in those moments must have been unbearable. But they rarely told these stories. In my late 30s I was the young one at the table. Before the story was over there was a pause, it is one part everyone making sure I understand what I am hearing. Of course, I say I understand, but maybe I am missing elements of Dutch culture. It is part a moment for humor, “yes, you Americans know everything, you even know what you don’t know,” and “obviously he survived, so we can all tell it differently.” It is part survivors’ guilt, though I never hear those words used.
I can hear that there is a long history of humility. I understand that it would be in poor taste to boast of surviving events that left so many dead and suffering. Good luck and bad luck are features of the story.
Courage: noun: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.
My family tree was shaped by the response to the question, “should I shoot into the pile of hay?” A “yes,” would have meant the end to the branch I am a part of. The future is a huge casualty in war.
The officer in charge said something to the effect of: “save your bullets, we’ll get him another time.” Luckily, they did not. I wonder if I can use this story as an example to articulate the costs of war; had there not been a need to conserve weapons and ammunition a different outcome would have been much more likely.
I think about courage more than I realize. But I am always stuck on the role of fear. Certainly, they must have been afraid, but then I consider how overpowering fear would have been.
I see courage in everyone; in parents who treated and sometimes failed to save the lives of newborn babies suffering from what should have been preventable diseases but did not give up; in grandparents who served in the theater of a horrific war; most importantly in the commitments to living unselfish lives in the service of others. Courage is not the stuff of comic books and Hollywood movies but of the daily lives of average people trying to rise to the occasion when called upon. Courage is striving for survival in dire circumstances. Courage is understanding life and death consequences but persevering in the face of death. I am grateful that none of these people gave up, even when it would have been easy to do so, and that they had the courage to stick to their values when greed and selfishness would have been much easier.