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Record 44/959
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Oral history interview with Harriet Litjens. Her family was of German decent. Harriet M. Fritz Litjens lived through the Nazi occupation of her country during World War II. They witnessed the fall of the Neterhlands to the Germans in 1940. The family was removed by German troops during the winter of 1944 to the northern town of Groningen. There home was plundered by British and German troops before they returned. Harriet Litjens Interview 24 March 2003 Conducted by Tom Sullivan {T: indicates the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; H: indicates the subject, Harriet Litjens; A: indicates Ann Fisher, Harriet's daughter; empty brackets [ ] indicate a word or phrase that can't be understood; brackets around a word show that one is unsure of the spelling]. T: It's March 24, 2003 and I'm with Mrs. Harriet Litjens in her home at 5020 Lansing High Point in Oshkosh. I'm Tom Sullivan and Harriet is going to tell me about her life in the Netherlands and also in the United States after moving here. Let's begin Harriet, by having you tell me when and where you were born? What was the name of the city or town in which you were born? H: Arcen. T: A-R-C-E-N. H: Arcen. T: And what year were you born? H: 1912. T: The town that you were born in, was it a large town or small… H: It was a municipality, like Neenah-Menasha. Near [Velden]. T: Was it located near the sea or inland? H: In Limburg. {A province in the south of the Netherlands}. Limburg, that's the bottom part. T: Okay. I understand. Were your mother and father also from the Netherlands? H: No. My dad was German. T: Where in Germany did he come from? H: [Dreyfeldt]. That's in the Rhineland. T: What did your parents do for a living? H: My dad was a carpenter. But later on we had a store where we sold vegetables, bulbs, seeds. You know, one of those things that you have in a small town. My mother was always in the store. T: Did you have brothers or sisters? H: Yes I did. [ ] brothers and one sister. T: Are any of them living now? H: Yeah. My sister calls me every morning. T: She lives in the United States then. H: In Holland. T: Oh, in Holland. And she calls you every morning? That must be rather expensive. H: No. That's okay. She thinks it's fine. T: Tell me a bit about your childhood. About your schooling and what you did when you weren't in school. What you did for fun, for instance when you were a kid. H: Well, we had German nuns, German nuns, you know. They're out of it now. That order doesn't even exist anymore. But that was in the time, in the 1920's. I learned German from them. I spoke perfect German. My dad wanted me to speak German, learn German. Then later on, when Hitler came, you know, it was difficult there. Very difficult. T: I'm sure it was. What, how far did you go in school. Did you go to what we would consider high school? H: Oh no. Just grade school. But you had so many extras, you know. If I talk to people here, they think I went to… I read a lot. I still read a lot. The reading is more where I am now. T: When did you get married? H: When I was twenty-four. T: And your husband's name? H: Was Tony. Anton. T: What year was that, that you got married? H: Came in 1946. T: So then in 1940, when Hitler invaded Holland, which I believe was supposedly neutral, you weren't married yet then? H: Yeah, we were married. T: You were married. Because I think you said you got married in 1946. H: No. That's not right. I was 45 when I stepped off the train in Oshkosh. T: So Harriet, what year were you married? H: At this moment, I can't say it anymore. I was 45 years married when I stepped off the train in Oshkosh. No, I was 45 years old. . T: How old were you when you got married? H: I think in my early 20's. T: Early 20's. Okay. Up until the start of World War II, did you live pretty comfortably? Or were things difficult? I've heard that the world depression affected Holland as well as other countries. But you lived fairly comfortably? H: Ann has this book. [ ] take it out and look at the [ ]. T: So the depression that affected a lot of the world really didn't affect you any great amount? H: See, we got this book when we were 55 years married. That's in May '91. So, 55 from 91, that's when we were married. T: When you got married, how did your husband earn his living then. Was he a tailor right from the day one? H: You know what we did? We traded stuff. He made perhaps a coat. They would bring us 4-500 pounds of potatoes, you know. T: What you would call barter, I guess. You traded one thing for another. H: It was very, very scary. T: Well after Hitler's armies invaded the Netherlands, can you tell me something of what it was like during the occupation? I'd be very interested in hearing about that, how your daily life was affected? H: I spoke perfect German. That helped me a lot. They would come in the tailor shop. They would say, "Ist der [Schroeder] hier?" Yes. "Can he put a new [ ]?" they called that. Zipper. I said, "No, we don't have any." That's what you did that time. Speak out and make em believe that you know everything. And it was nothing. See here, that's right. T: Were you forced to cooperate with the Germans? H: No. Oh no. We would do anything to take them off the track. T: Tell me a little bit about the resistance. I'm sure there were no doubt some people who collaborated with the Germans, but I'm sure many, especially later on in the war that did not cooperate at all. In fact they resisted the Germans strongly. H: They would say, "Do you have any empty rooms upstairs?" They had to sleep someplace, you know. We said, "No we don't have any." And anything that we could do, lie, or fool em or whatever. T: Wasn't that rather difficult to do though? Didn't you worry about your safety, your life? H: Oh, yeah. We did sometimes. But we would never trust em with anything. Because, no, if you don't speak their language, then they can do that. But if you speak their language, then they have to explain a little more what they want you to do. T: What happened to the young men that served in the Dutch army? After the, when the Germans came in and took over the Netherlands, how did they treat the men who had been in the army? I had heard that they used them as ah, forced labor. That they sent them to labor camps. Did they do that? H: Yeah, they did. Like we had, we had people for room and board because then we didn't have to take any Germans in, you know. And those people, they worked at a, making an airport. Making an airline where they could land. Because it was all farmers' land, you know. Outside. And we had a guy who was very outspoken. He said, "Today I made, they didn't make any money on me." What do you mean? Well, he had to go and get to a place where they could hammers and little what you call it, that you hit, make wood for the stove. What do you call them? T: I don't know. H: Anyway, he said, "Today, they made money on me again." "What did you do then." "Well, I took a saw and took the hammer off, throw em in the deepest hole." Anything that they could do, you know, anything. Then, lately, my husband during the war, he had to dig ditches for the Germans. T: So he wasn't always allowed to do just do his … H: No. Just [always] the house. And they had, like if this was the river, the [Maas] and that side were the British. And this side were the Germans. Now the Germans had to make those ditches. And if they came over, they would shoot at the planes. Very primitive. But that was all they had. So now, and so in Milwaukee now and in the New York Times, the people who worked for the Germans or were forced to do work for them, that they might have some money coming. And ah… T: The Germans actually paid for some of this labor? H: No, no. They didn't. That's just what I'm telling you now. Then if you write to this address, it was in Geneva, Switzerland, you might hear from them. T: A sort of a reparation, you mean. H: Definitely. And we hear from them. They said you have a gold number now. And we have, I don't know how many billions of money in that… T: I know what you're talking about. I've heard about that. So, but to date, you haven't collected anything? H: No. T: But you're hoping that you will. H: Still hoping. [ ]. T: A part of the resistance that I remember reading about in the Netherlands, was the strikes. They had strikes. Can you tell me about those? What those consisted of? What type of workers went on strike? Was it just certain industries or certain people? H: Anything. They were not afraid of em. They knew them from a long time already. The Germans lived just across the border, you know. They threw it on the bike. And they might have some cheese that you could buy or liquor. But we never drank anything. I never drank anything. I wanted healthy children. I didn't want to drink anything. Ann has that [level]. T: If people went out on, if masses of the Dutch went out on strike, how did the Germans view that? Did they try to get even with them in some way? What did they do? H: They would take whole neighborhoods out to the concentration camps. When we were already evacuated, we had to on a train. We had to walk to Germany because that train didn't come in Holland, you know. T: How close was your town to the German border? H: Oh, from here to, we had to walk there to get on the train. I have a book someplace. There's a picture there. We were all walking. Buggies for the children, you know. Even if they didn't have a child anymore, they put their luggage in. T: Why did the Germans make you leave? What was the reason? H: Later on they said it was all because of plundering. Plunder that they wanted to do. T: So if you weren't there, they could do what they wanted to do. H: And they did, too. We had a dining room set with six chairs. And upholstered chairs. Nice chairs. They took all the legs off to burn in the stove. Anything that you could plunder and ruin. Then Ann had this little bike, you know. And she came crying, "Mom, my bike is gone." I said, "Well, the Germans probably took that." Yeah, they probably did. So I went there, talked German to them. I said, "If you think you can win a war with stealing children's bikes…" That was [ ] you know, but… Then we got on that train. And that was the train that they transferred Russians. And they were all full of horse manure. And I had a little blanket. The three oldest children, we had. T: So it was you, your husband and your three oldest children? H: Yeah. And then we came in that train and it was not just poor people. Rich people were in there too, you know. Everybody. And this one lady said to me, "Harriet, I'm so cold." Her hands were white, you know. I said, "Hold my arm like this." T: Was this in the wintertime? H: Oh, yeah. In January. And I… T: What year was that? Was that in 1945? One hears about the "Hunger Winter" there. It was, I think, one of the coldest winters on record in Europe. H: See this is full of all those things here. I have several, oh here we are. This is how we went, walked to Germany. {Harriet shows photographs}. T: How far did you walk? Could you guess at how far you walked, how may kilometers? H: About at least five kilometers. T: But part of the trip was by train then. H: Yeah. It was a freight train. And like I say, there was manure underneath that straw, you know. And people that were sick that had all, what you call it, T: Open sores on their bodies? H: Sores on their arms, on their faces. Then there was another thing that was going around then, like you have during any war, you know. But that was a terrible time. Terrible. T: Where did the Germans take you? Do you know? H: To the train station. T: But after your trip. After your trip on the train and walking. Where did you end up? Where did they take you? H: We ended up in Groningen. Groningen, that's in the top part of Holland. And then when we came out of that train, we had to go, the first night, you know? We had to go to a big place where they had, where they sold grain. And they had all those samples in little buckets like this, you know. Corn or wheat. Wheat mostly. And I remember that young girls who were unwell, you know? Had to go in the public. In public. A plank over a, some food kettles. It was awful. It was terrible. Then we had to get a place where we could stay. And the first night we stayed in a place and the woman was, I was a good cook, and she couldn't cook at all. So then I went to, I don't know what I did, I don't remember all that. T: If this was toward the end of the war, food probably wasn't in very good supply. It was probably pretty scarce, wasn't it? H: Yeah. It was very scarce. Then this woman, she had made soup. And she didn't have a refrigerator. And Tony was very finicky with stuff, you know. He said, "Look what's standing in that soup." I said, "You know, that's a worm, like." So I called somebody that lived a little, down south, you know. Not far, but they were away from that mess. So we went there and they took us in. And we had a nice place there to live. And then one day, we were at the train station and that was a train that was out of order. They didn't use it anymore. And I had ah, oh I had done some sewing. T: So you were using this train as a place to live? H: No. The train station. T: Oh, the train station. Okay. The depot I guess is what we would… H: Yes. Then I had, then all of a sudden I heard a couple planes and I run to the basement. I said, "Get down in the basement. Get down!" There was this, this ah, like a garbage can, a big bomb laying on the train station. On the, where you stand in the train. And then we were standing there later on and it was all over with you know. Standing far enough off the train. Then the British were putting those bombs there on that rail, on that railroad. I always say that that garbage, that bomb like a garbage can saved us all from death. T: If that had exploded… H: You know why it didn't explode? That's a part of the country where we have this peat. Peat in the ground. And it's soft, you know. The Germans didn't know that, but we knew. T: How did the Dutch people feel about the queen leaving the country? When she left at the beginning of the war? H: Okay. She knew… T: She broadcast to you didn't she, I think it was from England? H: Still [ ]. You still read books about that. Yeah. T: Were you able to listen to the radio to find out what was going on during the war? H: Yeah. Oh yeah. T: It's been said that at some point later on in the war, the Germans took as many radios as they could get. H: Oh, yeah, they did. Anything. T: Did they take your radio too? H: Oh yeah. But we had one left. T: That they didn't know about. H: The Germans were smart but they didn't outsmart us. Us Limburgers like us. T: Well, during the war, I suppose initially things weren't too bad, but toward the end of the war, it must have gotten a lot worse, when food and everything became so scarce. Was life really difficult? H: Yes. Very bad. Yeah. T: Did many people die from starvation or hunger? H: Oh yeah. Later on people came back from concentration camps. The English had bombed there and that the people could get out. There was a priest by us that came walking back and had his shoes in his hands because his toenails were so long that the shoes didn't fit him anymore. T: After the war ended, how long was it before you and your family came to the United States? When did you come here to the United States? H: In '57. T: Between the end of the war and 1957, what did you, your husband and your family do in the Netherlands? H: You know, we bartered like, you know. I make you a suit and you bring me… T: So he went back to his tailoring business. Were things difficult then for quite a while after the war? I know the Germans opened up the dikes for instance and they destroyed a lot of things. H: That's what they said but I don't think it was mostly the Germans that did that. There was this flood in the middle of Holland, you know. We never had anything like that. Then the Americans gave them an extra quota. That they could come to the United States. But the people that had the dams for so long, with a windmill on too, yet; the windmills were for pulling the water through the small rivers, you know. And then they got an extra quota and they didn't use that. So then my husband said, "Why don't we try it?" So I went to the Hague and we had some, we had some people there that we have for room and board during the war. And they worked for Germans and then we stayed always a little in touch with them. So I went to the Hague and I took them to the American Embassy. And he said, "How's your husband?" "Oh, he's this and that." "Oh, that's good. We can always use tailors," he said. "How old are you?" "Oh yeah, we can always use people." [ ] And then when we came off the boat, they said, "You can't go to Toledo, Ohio, but you can go to Oshkosh, Wisconsin." T: I was going to ask you what made you choose Oshkosh? H: I said, "Where is that?" "I don't know," he said. (laughter). T: So you didn't really have an awful lot of choice about where you were going to go. Somebody told you where… H: The Catholic Welfare Conference. That's what it was. T: Yeah. Okay. So you had a choice between Toledo, Ohio or Oshkosh, Wisconsin and you took Oshkosh. H: Yeah. They had already, they took already some. Because in Hungary they had also something like that, you know. They took all those people from Hungary. T: Now when you came to the United States, how many children did you have at that point? H: We had all of them. T: And how many was that? H: Six. T: Six children. That's a pretty good-sized family. What were their ages? Can you remember what their ages were at that time when you came over with them? How old was the youngest child? Was it just an infant or …? H: He was not in school yet. {Pause here while microphone is unhooked and Harriet retrieves photos.} H: Wunderschaft… T: What is wunderschaft? H: They stopped from one place to the next. Would go to [garden] and work there for a little bit. Then they would go ahead. Then he, my dad said, "Then I was so close to [Dreyfeldt] one day, I had to go up to him. And this is the twins. Peter, on this side on the top. T: Those are your children. Your twins. And what are their names? H: Jack and Joe. T: Are all of your children living? H: No. Peter is dead. T: I see. H: Peter is dead. T: Ah, okay. He had a brain tumor. T: That's too bad. H: Here is the house where we lived in Holland after the war. That's grandpa's… T: Was your husband's business in this house? H: Yes. T: What town was that in? Was that in your…? H: That was in Limburg. Just a minute. I have to take that off again. I show you. {Harriet removes microphone to retrieve photo or other object}. T: So what year was it Harriet, when you came to the U.S.? H: In '57. T: '57. Okay. Tell me about your coming to Oshkosh. For instance, did you speak English at the time? When did you learn the English language? H: I'm good at languages. I learn real easy. T: Did you know any English before you came here? H: I worked by Miles Kimball. T: Did you know any English before you came here? H: No. T: So you learned it right after you came. H: Yeah. At Miles Kimball, there was this old lady who was a supervisor. And then people would stand there, "Come and look once. I don't know where to put this. Look at all this stuff. What are we going to do?" And then he said, "Look at Harriet. She knows how to do it." And you know why? I took the longest part, and took the long box. T: You said that you were able to learn English real quickly. How about the rest of your family. How about your husband, for instance? Did he have any trouble with the …? H: He has a problem now. He has a problem. Bad problem. Because we talked Dutch too much at home. And it's difficult now in the place where he is. Hold on to this once. I have to go get something else. T: So you came to Oshkosh and your husband practiced the same profession. He was a tailor. Did he get a job right away? H: Yeah. Right away. T: And where was it? Was it at the Continental? H: Continental. $1.50 an hour. That was very, very fishy like, you know. T: How do you mean? H: Oh, he knew that I would say to him, "Can't you pay him a little bit more? $1.50 an hour - we have six kids, you know. And I was not afraid to say anything. But there was this other man, [Roeder], who was his father in business. And he always saw to it that if I had a, if a salesman came and had samples like, for little shirts, all sizes, he would say, "Harriet, I have something for you." "How much does that cost?" "Oh, not much, that's okay." And then I had that, you know, I brought em home and fixed, if the sleeves were too short. T: Things that you could alter for your kids. H: Right. For the kids, for the boys. And Fritz, he said yesterday, that I said that somebody would come. "Oh, that's neat," he said. Fritz, he likes that, you know. He built a house, beautiful house, beautiful. And you know where they sold it to? To a Russian who came here to the university. $75,000.00 house. Ah, he said, oh no, he liked that. He had those big cloth things that they hang, [ ]. The halls are big and they love it. Without any question. He would not say, "I got to have it for a little less," nothing. T: How long were you in this house here? Did you, was this where you came when you came to Oshkosh? Where did you live when you first moved? H: This is a house, this is the story of my life. I went, I went to a house that way and went walking with a lady on the road here. On Lansing. And I said, "What's this?" "Dr. Peterson." We don't have a Dr. Peterson in Oshkosh. So I went home and this guy came. He said ah, I said, "Is that house at the lake property selling?" "Oh, good," he said. "We listed a nice one." "Where is it?" "Well, it's there. It's from Peterson." I called the bank and they said, "Take it, take it." (laughter). T: Where were you living at that time? Were you right in town? H: On Waugoo. Across from Paul White. T: The optometrist. H: Yeah. Oh yeah. T: I remember him. H: He was a little bit, a little bit strange. T: I guess so. That's what I hear. H: And that house was an antique house, you know. Nice. But ah, you know, we had a tailor shop in the house. We had em day and night coming. T: Your husband never did that though did he? H: He was still at the Continental but had… T: He had a place at home as well. H: Yeah and I helped him. Put the zippers in, shortened the pants and all that. And my sister, if she would have [ ], she couldn't have done any of this. I had a little bit of a knack for that, you know. T: Have you ever gone back to the Netherlands? H: Oh, yes. T: How many times? H: The first time I had to go, KLM didn't come in Chicago yet. KLM? And so I had to go on a train to New York. And then I came back, I didn't have any cash. I just had Dutch money. Didn't have any American - yeah, I had some American money. No, no, I had some Dutch money. T: What year was it when you went back to visit the Netherlands? Can you remember? H: I think it was, '57, '58, '59, '60. T: A few years after you moved here. How did you find it there? Were things a lot improved, were they a lot better? H: Oh, yeah. Yeah, a lot of growth. My sister lives in a new house, you know. [ ] Tony's brothers had good business, real good business. In the cement business, like they make those round things to catch the rainwater. And for the farmers. They would put them in [ ] and use them for feed, for feeding, you know. T: What are some of the big differences that you find between the Netherlands and the United States? What are some of the things that are really different between this country and the country where you were born? H: Well, they took a lot of the good things that they travel a lot, you know. They travel a lot, those Hollanders. I get cards from Sweden, or from Spain. [ ] Spain now, you know. T: These are relatives of yours that are visiting other people? H: The last one I had is from Sweden. See her name is [ ]. And she says to me, "Harriet, can I bring you something? Can I go to Aldi's to bring you something?" "Yeah, you can." So then we talk. He used to the, he used to be in the university, teaching. That was a state college then. Now it's a university. T: Do you ever have any regrets about moving to this country from the Netherlands? H: No. Never. T: You're happy to be here? H: My son Peter [ ] T: Was Peter your oldest child? H: No. The second. Good looking. T: According to this he was inducted into the Wis. Soccer Association Hall of Fame. This was not too long after you moved to Oshkosh. H: No. T: You hadn't been here very long. Did your children have any difficulties with the language when they came here? H: Not at all. English is really simple. German is much more difficult. T: Well, English has a lot of words that come from the German so I suppose that makes it a little bit easier. Do you still have relatives that live in Holland? Are they brothers and sisters? H: No. I have just one sister. T: And she lives where? H: In Arcen, Limburg. And my grandfather was the gardener in the castle. There, that tall there, that's the castle. T: That is a castle that was in your hometown. H: Yeah, in my hometown. And T: Who lived in the castle? H: They were German noble people. T: Why would a German nobleman be living in the Netherlands? H: Well, that's…{The microphone is again removed temporarily}. T: I was asking you about relatives that were still in the Netherlands. So you've got the one sister that still lives in the town near where you came from. H: Yes. She just [ ] T: And he was the gardener in the castle, correct? Is the castle still there? H: Oh, yeah. T: When the Germans were occupying the area where you lived, did they do a lot of destruction or were things left pretty much untouched? H: Awful destruction. T: I know you said there was a lot of looting that they did. H: Lot of destruction. T: I don't really have many more questions for you, unless there are things that you would like to tell me about. H: That's "America." {Shows photo}. That's a Dutch little station. Those were all the Germans. T: This was in the Netherlands that you're showing me. H: [ ] show those. Yeah. T: Ah yes. That was a railroad station that was called "America?" Was it the British that more or less liberated the Netherlands? H: They did. Yes, it says here, "British Soldier." [ ] T: How long were the British in the Netherlands after the war? Did they leave quite soon? H: Oh, quite a while. T: They left, or they were there quite a while. How many years can you say that they were there, and did you get along well with the British? When the queen came back, how was she received by the Dutch people? H: Oh, we were happy to have her back. T: I guess at first there were some that were disappointed that she left, that she should have stayed through the whole thing. But I think that all changed. H: Oh yeah. Yeah. Ann had a book the other day that somebody gave her. [ ] See, that's how people lived during the war. An old shed. T: A difficult time, no doubt. Did you lose many friends and relatives during that period of time? H: Oh yeah. We all did. A: Mother, tell him about that letter from Switzerland. Did you tell Mr. Sullivan about Switzerland? Did you tell Tom about the letter from Switzerland? H: I told him that. T: Well Harriet, I think we've covered just about everything that I wanted to ask you. I really appreciate your talking to me like this and the museum appreciates it I'm sure. H: See, this is where we were, where the Germans were [ ]. We had such trouble. {Harriet shows photo of victory celebration in her hometown}. T: Lots of celebration. A: Yeah, but you also have to add that when the English came, those towns were all empty when they liberated us. We were not there. And they did a lot of looting. Ho, ho! We saw stuff, but they, if you had a wooden chair, they sawed the seat out of it. Just for the fun of it. And whiskey bottles, I mean they partied like, like … There was nobody there. It was like no-man's land because we were all evacuated up north. To other provinces. I can remember going through our house and, wow! And dirty. And our house was grandpa's house but we had a hole in the attic and it had holes in the walls. But like the house across the street, one house was just rubble. And other places [ ] T: I see. A: Of course that's so long ago. You know… But the intensity of the war started in the fall of '44, around Christmas. And then… T: That's when things really got bad. A: That's when the Battle of the Bulge was going, right? And all that, yeah. And now what's going, it's terrible, that war. T: War is never… A: Nobody wins a war. T: That's true. {The interview ends here}
Oral History Interview with Harriet Litjens. -WORLD WAR II -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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