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Mary Vroom oral history

Mrs Mary Vroom

Mrs. Mary Vroom was born in 1918 at the end of the first world war. She married Henrick and they had two sons, Peter, born in 1944 and Hans, born in 1946. At the time Rotterdam was bombed she lived to the south of the city with Henrick and Peter (Hans was not yet born). Her home was not targeted by the bombs but she was worried about her mother who was in a hospital in the centre of the city.

On the 9th December 2003 I met Mary and she told me about her experiences in Holland during the Second World War.

The story of Mary Vroom in Holland during the Second World War.


Mary Vroom and her two sons.
Mrs Vroom tells me that this photo is a good likeness of them all..

I was 22 years old when Rotterdam was bombed. My family’s home was not in a part of the city which was bombed but my mother was in a hospital right in the place where the bombs fell. My mother was a diabetic and was blind. At the time of the bombing she had been in hospital for two weeks so that she could be given insulin twice daily. We could see the planes going overhead and the bombs dropping but there was nothing we could do. It was very frightening. When the bombing stopped my father and brothers went looking for my mother in the city. The bridges were all intact and they could walk straight to the centre of the bombed city. The place where the hospital had been bombed to smithers.


Mrs. Vroom’s mother who was in hospital during the bombing.

As it happened a cleaner at the hospital was a family relation, a niece on my father’s side. When the bombing started my niece found my mother in the hospital and took her to the basement of a church where people were going to seek shelter from the bombs. The fire bombs still fell into the basement. My mother was injured.

Once the bombardment was over the Nazis occupied the city. They allowed the Red Cross into the city to help people who were injured. The Red Cross asked my niece if there was anywhere safe outside of the city she could take my mother and so they went to her family’s farm. We received a message from the greengrocer up the street that they were safe. We didn’t have a phone but the greengrocer did and so my niece had rung him to pass the message on. When my mother came home I remember brushing out her hair and it was full of glass.

The day after the bombing the Nazis were walking down the street with hand grenades in their hands. They made it clear that they were in control. One day when Hendrick, my husband was on his way to work the Germans took him away. I didn’t know what had happened to him. The German’s took men from the ages of 17 to 40. They were rounded up and held in sports stadiums then taken by barge up to Germany to work. Sometimes they were taken by rail and the carriage would be bombed by the allies. Then prisoners would have to get out and repair the train or tracks – all in the danger of being hit again. Since they had taken my husband the Germans gave me a bit of money to live on but it was hardly enough to stay alive. For nine months I didn’t know what had happened to him until I received a letter from the Red Cross. They told me that he was working in Amden in Germany, and they wanted me to send him things that he needed. Until then I hadn’t known whether he was alive.

Some of the young German soldiers didn’t understand why we hated them. Some times in the trams they would stand to offer me a seat. They had very polite and formal manners. But I always refused and stood in the centre of the tram. These young Germans couldn’t understand but they had bombed our city and taken away our men. Before the war I had enjoyed folk dancing and danced with many young German men and they were fine people but it was all different now.

We would risk our lives to listen to the English radio and hear broadcasts by Queen Wilhelmina (in exile in England). We couldn’t let anyone know we were listening. You didn’t know which side people were on. The son of our neighbours was in the NSB which was the Dutch Nazis party. We couldn’t trust anyone, not even the neighbours.

When the allied planes flew over head I would get the baby and put him in bed with me to keep him close. I was frightened. Sometimes the allies would drop bombs as they passed overhead. There would be dogfights in the sky between the Nazis and allied planes. The Nazis would shine their searchlights in a criss-cross in the sky to target the allied fighters. If it became very bad I would take the baby and go and sit on the toilet. I had been told that the toilet was the safest place in a bombardment because it was under the stairwell. I spent hours sitting on the toilet with the baby in my lap.

I only had gas for an hour a day. During this hour I had to do everything. I would heat the baby’s bottle and bake our loaf of bread. I remember putting a drop of oil on the surface of a glass of water and lighting it. Until this day I can remember my little boy’s eyes following the flame until it burnt out.

There was not enough food. It was a time when the farmers had the advantage over the city people. People would trade the most valuable things for just something to eat. My sister-in-law and I would catch the train into the countryside then walk to a farmer we knew. We sat on the train and then walked for hours to the farm, both there and back. We had made special corsets with stitched pockets that ran down the length of our torso. We would trade our valuables for grain that we could carry back to the city in the pockets hidden in our corsets.

As food became more scarce many people died of starvation. The men dropped like flies. I think that women are stronger. Men need more food to survive. In the houses everything possible was used for firewood. The cupboards wouldn’t have doors, the doorframes would be gone.

By the end of the war I was skin and bone. My husband had also survived. He walked home from Germany. It took him a long time. Many people didn’t return and no one ever found out what happened to them.

There had been a Jewish family that ran a haberdashery shop before the war that I knew. I hadn’t seen them for all of the war and after the war was over there they were back in their shop. A minister had hidden them in a church tower. It was dangerous for all of them. If the minister had been caught he too would have been taken away. During this time a baby had been born.

My three brothers survived the war but later on they all died within 6 years of each other due to diabetes. I must have taken after my father’s side of the family because I didn’t inherit the disease.

After the war we came out to Australia. We lived at Elizabeth, a suburb of Adelaide. We had come from a cold place and wanted to go somewhere warm. We had always been outdoors people, camping and bike riding. We wanted space for our boys. It was very hard but I didn’t expect anyone else to do the work for me. One day I caught a train into Adelaide. There was a woman on the seat in front of me with two young boys of her own. This woman had her hair in a bun and her long hair pin was about to fall out. When I spoke to her to tell her she replied, “Oh, you’re Dutch like I am.” This woman’s name was Cathy van Toorenburg and we have been friends ever since. During the war she had lived on the other side of Rotterdam and her house was completely bombed. But that is her story to tell.

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