About the Author

Tracy Kasaboski

Tracy Kasaboski and her sister, Kristen den Hartog, co-authored The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland (McClelland and Stewart, 2008), which was selected as one of The Globe and Mail’s best books of the year. She lives in Deep River, ON.

Books by this Author
The Cowkeeper's Wish

The Cowkeeper's Wish

A Genealogical Journey
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The Occupied Garden

The Occupied Garden

Recovering the Story of a Family in the Wartorn Netherlands
also available: Paperback
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The devastation of Rotterdam was visible from Gerrit’s vantage point, and from Cor’s too. Separately, each of them stared at the billowing clouds of smoke. Rige, their eldest, stood on the Tedingerstraat, watching the smoke lift and roll out into the sky, staining the blue day black. Rige’s pulse sped and slowed again with dread and shame. She thought of an old wives’ tale that said picking the koekoeksblom brought thunderstorms, and wondered if she, then, was the culprit. She’d never seen such black clouds.

Within three hours, Rotterdam was in ruins. Neighbouring Schiedam, too, suffered massive destruction. Cor’s cousin Cornelia, who helped in the bookstore, stood with her mother and sister in the doorway of their house, watching bombs explode in the schoolyard while air raid sirens screamed and people fled. Their rucksacks were strapped to their backs in case they, too, needed to run. The destruction multiplied when a margarine warehouse erupted, and a strong spring wind
spread the shooting flames. The intense heat spun into a whirlwind that lifted roofs off houses, shattered glass, and bent young trees to the ground. The blazing streets grew thick with people fleeing for their lives, but the small details seemed to happen in slow motion — a pot of flowers
tumbling from a windowsill, an old man falling. For three days, the core of Rotterdam was black with smoke, and its buildings continued to smoulder; debris rained down on Overschie and beyond. When houses were unlivable but the inhabitants had survived, people left messages for
loved ones in the rubble, and walked to a safer place: We are all right, they wrote, and scribbled an alternative address.

The Posts in Overschie had been spared by just a few kilometres, but for several days Cor had no news of them or of her brother Gerry and his family, who were living right in Rotterdam. When word finally did filter through that all had survived unharmed, Cor learned that the offices of
the shipping company that employed Gerry had been totally destroyed, but that Gerry had set sail just days before the invasion. She was glad that at least he had escaped, but worried for Gerrit as she watched the disciplined band of Wehrmacht soldiers march through the main street. The
staccato sound of their boots on the pavement echoed in her mind at night, magnifying her fear that Gerrit had not survived.

Two days after the capitulation, Cor listened as the radio announced that at various points in the Netherlands, German troops would be entering en masse, and that civilian traffic was to be halted
between 5:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to make way for them. Among the terms of occupation: German “credit certificates” were to be accepted as cash, beer was to be reserved for German officers and soldiers, the air raid blackout would be strictly maintained, and all carrier pigeons would have to be registered, and were forbidden to fly free. Cor remembered the radio reports describing the release of pigeons at the Berlin Olympics, and the announcer saying they’d carried a message of peace to the world. The irony was already astounding — but within two years, the Germans would go further, and order the birds slaughtered, requiring the ringed, severed legs as proof of the deed.

In Rotterdam, there was little time for licking wounds. The bodies, once counted, would number between eight hundred and nine hundred, though the international press estimated much greater figures, reaching as high as one hundred thousand. The New York Times reported that Nazi film footage of the destruction had been shown to correspondents in Berlin, and that the images gave the impression “not a single house . . . was left untouched by fire or some other instrument of destruction.” The voice-over accompanying the footage maintained, “The responsibility for this rests on a government that criminally did England’s bidding and afterward cowardly left their people to their fate.”

Within Rotterdam, the devastation was great, if overstated. Firefighters were called in from other towns and cities, including Leidschendam and Voorburg. People with automobiles were urged to go to the city with food and bandages, and anything that might help with the cleanup of mountains of rubble and charred wood. Meanwhile, the newly homeless flooded out of Rotterdam to surrounding areas like Overschie, and farther on to Leidschendam. Next door to the den Hartogs, the rooms Bep and Henny had vacated were taken over by a family whose house had been swallowed by fire. The couple arrived with a train of little boys behind them. The children looked strangely calm, but the parents’ faces were white with shock, even days after the bedlam faded. Cor, too, was stunned. Almost overnight, familiar surroundings had changed profoundly: Vader den Hartog had seen a German plane in the Tedingerbroekpolder beyond the tuin, its broken fuselage embedded in the soft earth. And she and Moeder had seen hundreds of dead and wounded trucked to the Saint Antonius Hospital in Voorburg — mostly Dutch soldiers but Germans too, and apparently also an English pilot and crew whose plane had crashed in the area. It was said that corpses were stacked in the mortuary, and surgery went on in the hallways. Cor ached to think of what might have happened to her own soldier.

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