As Nazi German airplanes flew overhead towards Rotterdam, three-year-old Mineke Spencer, née Koelsag, learned the meaning of the word “oorlog” (Dutch for “war”), and witnessed the chilling effect it had on the people around her.
“They absolutely flattened Rotterdam… All I remember is the fear on the faces of people,” explained Spencer. “Of course, I didn’t know what oorlog is, but I knew it was serious.”
German forces invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, and occupied the country until surrendering to Canadian, British and Polish troops in May 1945.
In the years f0llowing the bombing, Spencer’s family would become active in the Dutch Resistance, defying Nazi occupiers through acts of sabotage, and by hiding downed Allied airmen, helping them escape when possible through Belgium to England.
This continued until the spring of 1945, when Canadian troops liberated Spencer’s home of Laren.
As an expression of her undying gratitude, each year on November 11, Spencer, now 83, lays a wreath for the Dutch Underground during the Remembrance Day ceremony in Sorrento.
“Holland couldn’t have done it without the Canadians. We’re so grateful to the Canadians,” said Spencer.
Spencer was one of 13 children born to Johanna and Albert Jan Koeslag. The Koelsag’s had a farm in the town of Laren, in the province of Gelderland, on the far side of the river from Arnhem where Operation Market Garden (chronicled in the movie A Bridge Too Far) failed in 1944.
That year, though only seven years old, Mineke was well aware of the risk her family and others were taking by hiding Allied troops, preventing their capture by the Nazis.
“The Nazis, they liked to interrogate children too, and I knew where the hiding places around the farm were,” said Spencer. “And my mom took us (Mineke and one of her sisters) aside and said, ‘Now, if you ever get questioned, don’t you say anything.’ And impertinent little me looked my mother in the face and said, ‘Do you think I’m that stupid?’”
Sharing Mineke’s bravery were her older brothers Johan and Albert “Appie” Koelsag (alias Willem van Laren), who Jan Braakman, author of the book War in the Corner and grandson of Mineke’s uncle, described as “informal leaders of the resistance.”
Appie was involved in several deeds of sabotage in and around Laren, including blowing up railways and destroying telephone lines, writes Braakman.
“That was Albert,” laughs Mineke, who continues to admire her brother’s fearlessness. In one story about his role in the Dutch underground, Mineke said Albert was leading a group of Allied airmen out of Holland when they decided to stop at a restaurant for coffee. Before going in, Albert advised his company not to say a word. They were inside the restaurant when several German soldiers entered, also for coffee. Albert and company kept quiet, had their coffee and, when the bill arrived, Albert motioned towards the enemy and said it was on them.
“So the Nazis paid for their coffee,” laughed Spencer. “That’s the kind of person Albert was.”
In November 1944, Albert junior was arrested a second time — he escaped a previous arrest that had him on a train to a German concentration camp. Albert senior shared his son’s fate along with other members of the resistance leaving Johanna and several of her younger kids, including Mineke to operate the farm. Two of Mineke’s brothers were later let go to work the farm which was tasked with providing food for German troops.
In April 1945, Canadian troops with Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, The Black Watch and the 48th Highlanders of Canada, were tasked with taking the town of Laren from the Nazis. As the conflict reached their doorstep, the Koelsags hid in a root cellar behind their house. During the fighting, the Nazis, who had taken over the Koelsag home, also fled to the root cellar. Mineke said they would run out to shoot at the advancing Canadians and then return to the safety of the cellar.
“Eventually, when they were pushed back enough, then it was the Canadians that would come in with us,” said Spencer.
About a month after the Koelsags in Laren were liberated, their imprisoned family members, including Albert senior, were released. On his way home, Albert learned the Canadian troops had burned down the family home thinking the Nazis were still within, but his family was safe at a neighbouring home.
While some of the Koelsags remained in Laren after the war, in 1948 Albert senior, Johanna, Mineke and some of her siblings, including Appie, moved to Canada.
Through one of the Canadian pilots they assisted during the resistance, the Koelsags found someone to sponsor their immigration, and relocated to Durham, Ont., where Albert senior and junior were celebrated when they received the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.
“Durham put on a big feast for us,” said Spencer. “The governor general came and my brother Albert, he had not only the King’s Medal, but also had French and American medals.”
Reflecting on those years between 1940 and 1945, Spencer said not many Dutch people did what she and her family did. For her own part, Spencer said she has never been a fearful person.
“I’ve always had sense of right and wrong,” said Spencer. “I’m not afraid to kick somebody in the shins if they’re wrong.”
Susan Arens, Spencer’s daughter, said stories of the Dutch Resistance are shared among the family to this day.
“We share them and try and keep the family history continuing on to the next generation so they know the stories and their roots,” said Arens.