The harrowing tale of a family who survived both the Nazi occupation and the bitter cold winter of 1944-45 while living in a Dutch barn has been captured by a Saanich author.
The Barn, by Jack Dixon, is a memoir of the Moerkes family during the Nazi occupation of Holland from 1940 to 1945.
It’s the latest offering from Dixon, a history author who is a retired professor from the University of Winnipeg. He lives in Saanich with wife Rika (nee Moerkes), whose family survived the ordeal. The two met in Canada following the war.
“It was a struggle to survive,” Rika said. “Every day we had no idea where our food would come from.”
By September of 1944 Rika’s family was forced from their Arnhem home and had taken refuge in a barn outside Doetinchem. They could hear the Allies fighting the Germans in the distance.
Despite being restricted to a barn, the German army wanted to ensure the family was not a threat and would stop by to torment them.
“The Gestapo were really the worst of them, awful,” she said. “But I look at the world now and I wonder when things will be any better, there’s still so many terrible things happening around the world.”
The book recounts in detail how the family dealt with the cold – temperatures hit -28 C – and how Rika’s two elder brothers managed to secretly run their radio off a connection to a Nazi-erected electric service that ran along the outside of their barn.
At 87 Rika is a picture of health. She still recalls with surprise how her family managed to stave off all illnesses during that fated winter of 1944-45.
“A lot of people got sick or died of hunger,” Rika said. “We would walk 20 kilometres for a glass of milk or two potatoes. I think it’s because we ate so well before that winter that our bodies were healthy.”
Turnip was a common staple for the family as that year’s crop was meant for cattle. But with the cattle depleted in the area, it made some of the turnips available.
There are tales of community, as one of Rika’s brothers returned from the turnip field with a German soldier, clearly on amicable terms. He was a cook looking to offload a pot of soup before his company moved on.
In another sequence, Rika’s brother returned from his work duties in Germany and unveiled a two-kilogram block of cheese.
His family was nearly too paranoid to eat it until the brother assured them he snuck it away safely.
Of all things, it was access to the radio that kept the family’s spirits up.
“They managed to get info of the D-Day landing in 1944 from BBC, they knew what was actually happening, as opposed to the (Nazi-controlled) German news they couldn’t trust,” Jack said. “If they had been caught listening to the radio they’d have been shot or sent to a concentration camp.”
The Barn is the most recent publication from Dixon, who released Dowding and Churchill: The Dark Side of the Battle of Britain in 2009. It’s sold 3,500 copies to date (mostly in Britain) under military history publisher Pen and Sword Books. An updated version will hit book stores in Britain and Canada this year.
Dixon is currently preparing two more works. One is an anthology of Canadian literature from 1534 to 1970. It includes diary and other writings from explorers such as Simon Fraser and little known accounts of the Riel Rebellion (and how John A. MacDonald’s government foolishly prompted it).
The other is another historical military book tentatively entitled Orders are Orders, Like Hell They Are, Disobeying Orders in War.
Jack Dixon’s The Barn is available at http://www.friesenpress.com/bookstore/title/119734000013590104/Jack-Dixon-The-Barn. There is an eight-person wait list for The Barn’s two copies in the Greater Victoria Public Library system.