When you are uprooted the world looks different

Ismee Tames

How would being uprooted from your home make you feel? What might be the effect on your behaviour, actions, and interpretation of the world? War, persecution and economic reasons can all contribute to people being displaced from their homes and land. They are not only confronted with new, potentially strange, experiences, but also they develop fundamentally different perceptions from those people who are left behind or whom they encounter in the new places they come to live. Their home, their current surroundings, their destination and, ultimately, who they are, are all seen through a different lens.

Refugees in the Netherlands

During the 1930s, a great number of refugees – possibly as many as half a million people – arrived in the Netherlands from Germany and central Europe. Their impact on the population figures, which in 1930 stood at only 7,825,000, was significant. Most of these refugees did not have any clear ideas about the country they had arrived in. Many of them had already travelled through a number of countries; others were just focused on the main Dutch harbours that could provide passage to their desired destinations, be it Britain, the US, South America or Palestine.

Some of these refugees, however, remained focused on their country of origin; for example, the large contingent of communists from Germany. But whatever their focus or ideas regarding their hoped for destination, all these people had to interact with the inhabitants of the country they passed through. In some cases, this meant an exchange in ideas, information, experiences and practices with regard to resistance against Nazi-Germany.

Encounters lead to actions

While still living with her parents, Dinie Heroma was deeply influenced by these encounters:

My parents always had people staying over from Germany, who were on their way fleeing to America, there was often no place for them so they had to wait until there was place for them on the boat; in the meantime they stayed at my parents. There I heard a lot about Germany. I felt that if fascism would also win in Spain then all of us are lost and therefore I went. I was a nurse.”

Young adults like Dinie were thus influenced in their perception of the world and in thinking about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. Dinie went to Spain to assist as a nurse – a much needed skill – in the Spanish Civil War. Returning home after the defeat of the republican side, she was soon confronted by the German occupation of the Netherlands itself. Unlike many other former Spanish volunteers, this time Dinie did not engage in resistance activities. Instead, she focused on her job as a nurse. Thus showing that fighting against fascism in Spain did not necessarily mean engaging in resistance later on.

Other Dutchmen and -women, however, who had also been active in the Spanish Civil war had been uprooted at a fundamental level: they now had to live as foreigners in the Netherlands. Registering in a foreign army had resulted in the loss of their citizenship; but what also set them apart was living in a country that had not seen war since Napoleon when they themselves had gained experience in combat. Consequently, they were ‘different’ from others and already on the brink of illegality even before the occupation started. They often moved underground relatively easily, it seems.

Being trapped and reinventing ways to move on

At the same time, refugees moving through Europe became trapped when Holland was occupied in 1940 and so had to rethink their trajectories. Jewish refugees, like the young Zionists from the Hachshara schools, in particular, remained focused on reaching Palestine but had to rethink how they would get there.

Social support from Dutch nationals now changed into help in finding places to hide, or to escape the country. Consequently, help developed towards resistance. In addition to providing people with food, shelter and transport, illegal acts were ‘invented’ to make these things possible: stealing or forging identity documents, robbing so called ‘distribution offices’ or teaming up with petty criminals, smugglers and others on the margins of society in order to help people move on, across the borders.

Some even ended up under the cover of Nazi organizations like Organisation Todt in order to be able to get access to the necessary resources, be it food and transport or connections and official documents. The ultimate camouflage was for young Zionists to dress as Nazi-collaborators. To the outside world, resistance and collaboration thus became hard to distinguish.

Same place, different outlook

People uprooted and on the move have a fundamental different outlook on a given place, compared to those who are rooted there. We can see how in the Netherlands the struggle against occupation, which was mainly a national affair focused on national objectives and ideas of national freedom and patriotism, contributed to how Zionists or German communists were either using or frustrating the Nazi system of oppression.

Although sharing the same enemy, young Zionists, German communists and left-wing Dutch in the end looked in different directions when it came to the question of where and in what kind of world they hoped to end up. A sense of being uprooted held them all in its grip and made it possible for them to encounter and learn from each other, and they sometimes even adopted each other’s dreams and objectives, adapted to their own experiences and views of the world.

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