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HISTORY (Nov. 2017): A childhood in war-torn Holland

November 24th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Dutch Dreams owner recalls Nazi terror, jubilation after liberation

COURTESY J.L. BLOEMHOF’S AMERSFOORT ’40-’45 “Look at him, I find that so beautiful a picture. He’s from the Polar Bear Brigade, they liberated us. Isn’t that a beautiful picture? You can see in his face that he knows he liberated the Dutch, he’s proud and happy!”

In honour of Remembrance Day, we’re reprinting the story of Theo Aben, co-owner of Dutch Dreams. It first appeared in November 2004.

By Jessica Shulman

Eight-year-old Theo Aben stood rapt as Canadian troops descended upon his town of Amersfoort, Holland. He fought hard to suppress a triumphant grin as he thought gleefully, “The Tommies are coming! The Tommies are coming!” He thinks back fondly on that day. “I was so happy.”

As a child in German-occupied Holland during the Second World War, Aben knew nothing but suffering his entire early life. “I remember how hungry we were. My mother used to send me out to the fields to go and find nettles and dandelions that she’d try to cook. But to cook, she needed wood. She had these beautiful dining room chairs, and [eventually] I had to cut them all up. I was six or seven years old.”

The Germans bombed Rotterdam on May 10, 1940, and after five days of fighting, the Dutch capitulated. Aben was only three years old.

“I remember the Dutch escaping,” said Aben, “running away from the Germans, and throwing all their stuff, their clothes and army stuff, gas masks and pistols and everything out of the trucks. All the streets were loaded with it left and right. That’s what I remember.”

Just over 800 Jews lived in Amersfoort before the war, and only 400 returned. Despite his own suffering, Aben remembers feeling terribly sorry for his Jewish neighbours. “I remember when [the Germans] were picking up this very old Jewish couple. They were bent over with their bags, and they were tired, just standing there.”

Aben stands up to demonstrate the feeble old couple, hunched and exhausted.

“I remember I wanted to go help them to carry the bags, but I knew that if you were close to a Jew maybe you could get yourself in trouble. So I was too scared to go and help them.”

He knew many Jewish families in hiding, and throughout the war watched as Nazis took away families, looted houses, and shot people in the streets.

Aben and his family suffered, too.

“[The corners of] my mouth were torn from lack of vitamins. I had lice, and I had fleas in my hair, and I had three types of worms. Maggots used to just come out of your behind, you would scratch yourself — ’cause it itches like hell — and you’d [come away with] a whole handful.” He holds out his hand as if it were full of the writhing creatures.

Once all of the town’s Jews had been “taken away”, the Germans, who still needed labourers, began to fill their quotas with Dutch men, including Aben’s own father.

“One day,” he says of sometime in 1943 or 1944, “I saw him [coming home] in the front window, and he waved and I waved. I ran to the back of the house [to meet him]…and he never showed up.” Aben and his mother went outside, risking trouble for breaking curfew, to investigate.

“He was standing with some other Dutch people and all these Germans with their guns trained on them. And we didn’t see him back ’till after the war.” His father had been taken to Germany to work in a hotel.

On May 5, 1945, Allied troops invaded Holland. When they liberated Amersfoort on May 7, Aben couldn’t believe his luck. “I could never understand why they would come to liberate us when they didn’t even know us. That was the biggest thing.” He smiles, clearly still amazed at the prospect. “I felt so good that they were coming. And it was the Canadians.”

Aben clearly remembers his first contact with a Canadian soldier.

“He gave me a little green can,” recalls Aben. “I had on one of my mother’s old purple pullovers — I had no more clothes — and I put it under my pullover like this,” (he hugs his arms protectively to his body), “and I took it home.”

“When my mother cut it open, there were mixed vegetables in it. I remember the potatoes, beautiful square pieces. And I couldn’t understand how they got in the can!” Aben had never seen canned food before. “I thought Jesus, they must be so smart, these Canadians! We ate it right away, out of the can.”

Aben’s pale blue eyes gleam as he thinks back on the Canadian troops, who cleaned up the town, picking up garbage and rebuilding bridges.

“They organized parties for the children. I remember once I won this toy jeep. They had a game with a tent cloth tight on the field, and you had to scramble under it and the first one to come out won a prize, and I got my jeep — but I had no more skin on my back! It was terrible! It got infected and scabby….” He laughs. “But at that moment, I was so happy.”

Aben left Holland in 1967. Since then he has lived all across Canada, in Guinea, Africa, and in Iran, working in food services roles. He and his wife are now settled near Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue, running Dutch Dreams, an ice cream parlour on Vaughan Road.

Memories of his war-torn childhood stay with Aben, he says, but they don’t bother him. “What bothers me is what’s going on now. I think about the poor kids in Israel and Palestine and Iraq. It’s terrible for these kids.”



HISTORY FROM THE ARCHIVES: Sculptor marks the lessons of war (November 2016)

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: A long history of activism (February 2017)

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A time of loss, horror and excitement (March 2017)

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Harbord C.I. connects with history (April 2017)

CHATTER: University community stops to remember (November 2015)

Tags: Annex · General · History

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