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For as long as he has been able to remember, Canada has meant freedom to Bill Van Staalduinen.

 Simone Ponne/THE NEWS As a young boy in the Netherlands, Bill Van  Staalduinen dreamed of living in Canada. -
Simone Ponne/THE NEWS As a young boy in the Netherlands, Bill Van Staalduinen dreamed of living in Canada.
— image credit:

Surviving the Hunger Winter

For as long as he has been able to remember, Canada has meant freedom to Bill Van Staalduinen.

As young boy in South Holland, growing up under the thumb of his domineering father and the fundamentalist evangelical Protestant church his family belonged to, he would dream of travelling to the other side of the world, where we would be free to live his own life and make his own way.

He poured over books and maps and taught himself English, so that one day, when the time came, he would be ready.

His dream was derailed with the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, but it was not dead.

“I always knew that I would come to Canada someday,” he says.

Life in wartime

It was the 17th of November, 1944 when Van Staalduinen’s worst fears were realized.

The word from the Dutch Resistance was that the tiny coastal farming village of ‘s-Gravenzande, where he lived with his pregnant wife Ina, had been chosen for a “razzia.”

All men in the village between the ages of 18 and 45 were to stand in front of their homes, warmly dressed, and equipped with a knife, fork and spoon at nine the next morning. The Nazi troops would collect them and ship them off for slave labour elsewhere.

The Germans had occupied Holland for nearly four years, and their treatment of the Dutch people was becoming increasingly harsh as the war progressed, and the Nazis fortunes turned.

His two brothers, Bert and Jake, had already gone underground, not wanting to work for the enemy.

Bill hadn’t seen them in nearly three years.

For many young Canadians, their only knowledge of the German occupation comes from the pages of Anne Frank’s diary. For Van Staalduinen, it was all too real.

That winter would be remembered as the “Hunger Winter,” with more than 20,000 dying from the famine.

“If you never prayed, you learned to pray,” says Van Staalduinen.

He talked it over with his wife and his in-laws, who lived next door, and decided he wasn’t going to play along, but he was going to play it safe.

He dressed in his sweater and coat and put his utensils in his front pocket. But he didn’t stand outside his door, instead staying upstairs in the living room of their second floor flat.

If Germans wanted him, they could come and get him.

Downstairs, Van Staalduinen could hear the German soldiers searching the flat below. The moment he had dreaded had come. But just he as ready to say good-bye to his beloved wife Ina, the soldiers left.

Moments later, the baker’s wife, a close friend of Ina’s, burst through the door.

“Come with me,” she said, dragging him downstairs and across the street into an alley.

She led him to a barn at the end of the alley, pushed him inside and locked the door.

He was in hiding now.

He was an “onderduiker.”

Close call

Van Staalduinen had close calls with the Germans before.

When he was a potato farmer and under German occupation, everything he produced was to be brought to the auction hall in the centre of town, where the Nazis would have first opportunity to buy it to feed their hungry war machine.

The Germans paid for the food with their money, but as the Dutch soon found out, you can’t eat money.

So Van Staalduinen would let people come to his farm and pick themselves potatoes to eat – but only the very small ones.

Although useless to the Germans, they were absolutely vital to the starving Dutch.

One day an attractive women came to his farm asking for large potatoes. Van Staalduinen told her she was welcome to pick only the smallest ones, so as not to upset the Germans. But she insisted, offering him a good price for his largest ones.

He refused, and she stormed off.

Van Staalduinen, perhaps distracted by her beauty, didn’t pick up on the women’s slight accent.

Minutes later a Nazi soldier, gun in hand, approached him and asked if he had been selling his potatoes illegally.

The soldier approached some townsfolk who were picking themselves potatoes in the field and demanded to see inside their bags.

Van Staalduinen watched on nervously. If someone in the field got greedy and decided to take just one large potato for themselves, and the soldier found it, he would likely be dragged off, and shot.

To his relief, the people stayed good to word and had only taken the tiny potatoes.

Living in the shadows

Without papers, Van Staalduinen was a wanted man, and for the remainder of the war he lived like ghost.

After leaving the barn, he lived under the stairs in the basement of the bakery, and then under the floor of the butchers.

“That was not so bad,” he says of the butchers. “He gave us meat and there was a radio there we could listen to.”

Life was tense. At any time German troops could come bursting through the door informed of his hiding spot by a traitor.

“You did not know who you could trust,” he says.

One day, Van Staalduinen was upstairs of the bakery when the Germans came through the front door of the bakery, looking for him.

He ran into the attic, and through a small opening, climbed inside a long-unused stone chimney to hide.

Covered in dust and spiderwebs, trying desperately not to cough or sneeze or pierce himself on the hundreds of errant nails sticking through the chimney walls, he waited for the soldiers to leave.

When the coast was clear, Van Staalduinen tried to climb back down, but he was snagged on the nails.

The baker and his wife pulled and pulled and finally got him free. His clothes, however, to decided to stay. They were stripped from his body on the nails, still inside the chimney.

Liberation

On the fifth of May, 1945, news reached ‘s-Gravenzande that liberation was at hand. Over-joyed, Van Staalduinen rode his bike to the neighbouring town of De Lier to see the Allied troops for himself.

On the way he spotted a soldier smoking a cigarette by the side of the road and in the English he studied so hard to learn, asked him if he was Canadian.

"Yes," came the reply.

“I can still remember it as clearly as yesterday,” says Van Staalduinen, his eyes welling with tears of both profound joy, and sadness. “It hits you and you don’t forget it.”

People were going crazy in De Lier, he says.

"They were very religious in that town, so they didn't know how to dance very well, but they were dancing."

Canadian dream

In 1954, Van Staalduinen’s dream came true when he and his family arrived in Canada.

He, like many Hollanders who lived through the occupation, are grateful for the Canadian troops who fought and died on Dutch soil.

“Canadians can’t do any harm there,” he says. “They are our liberators.”

While the memories of the war are painful for him to recall, this Sunday, Van Staalduinen will be standing along the parade route in Maple Ridge to honour the men, and the country, that gave him the freedom he always dreamed of.

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