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Cathy van Toorenburg oral history

Mrs. Cathy van Toorenburg with her granddaughter
Erin in the garden of her home in Goolwa,
Adelaide, March 2004.

Cathy van Toorenburg was fifteen years old when Rotterdam was bombed on the 10th of May 1940. The house she lived in with her parents and six siblings was completely destroyed.

I met Mrs van Toorenburg in March 2004 and this is the story she told me about her experiences during the second world war.

The Story of Cathy van Toorenburg during the Second World War

On the day of the bombing there were a lot of false alarms which put people off. We had our midday meal and yet another alarm went off. So, we all rushed downstairs (we lived upstairs) and this time there were bombs falling. No one had anything with them. We had some bags packed upstairs in the wardrobe but we didn’t take them because it was all so sudden we didn’t have time to go and get them.

Cathy van Toorenburg during the
war, around 1943 with a dog that
belonged to her friend. Cathy is 18
or 19 in this photo.

There was a terrific noise because the planes were overhead. It was overpowering. An overpowering sound and you don’t know what it is. A bomb fell on the house next door. A big bang. It put the door on an angle so we couldn’t get out. We were trapped inside. It was scary with seven kids. My father went to get a hammer so he could try to force the door open but then a bomb fell on the house on the other side of us which righted the door so we could open it and get out.

It was impossible really. We didn’t know what was happening. The planes were so big. We could see the pilots sitting there. I saw the bombs fall out and they were chained together. Three of four together. They were big. During the bombardment my aunt was shot by a gunner in a plane. Her son tried to help her and he got shot as well. They both died. It wasn’t enough just to bomb they had to shoot people as well.

A guard said to us that we had to go into the cellar under a building. I have no idea how long the bombardment lasted for. I’ve thought back on it but there are a lot of things I’ve forgotten. It might be in my subconscious but I can’t remember now. With all the upheaval in the ground the gas pipes in the cellar broke so we all had to get out again. It was women and children first but my father wanted to stay with the family. As we had a big family he was allowed to go with us.

This photo shows the view from the
house in Voorburg where Cathy van
Toorenburg lived towards the end
of the war. The house in the centre
of view sold eggs. These houses
were destroyed one night by a
flying bomb that was launched by
the Nazis from the nearby town
of Lepenburg. The bomb was
intended to reach England but
misfired and landed in Holland.

After the bombing it was so eerie. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced snow, the quietness of snow. No echoes, nothing. It looked like snow because of all the dust. The houses on both sides of the street where I had lived were completely gone. It was tragic. I saw Dutch soldiers on their knees praying. There was a bomb on the road which hadn’t exploded. I didn’t know what it was so I kicked it. I found out later it was a bomb. It was as big as a skateboard and shaped like a telescope when extended.

We all trooped out of the town. That was the first time I saw my father cry. I didn’t know where we were going. Just out of town. We weren’t supposed to be invaded. Rotterdam wasn’t meant to be bombed. It was an open city that was against the rules but they did it anyway. Then, the soldiers marched in the streets, singing.

We met a man and a woman, father and daughter I think. The woman was in her forties. The man asked my father, “Where are you going?” My father said, “I don’t know.” The man said we could go to his house. “But I have seven children,” my father answered and the man said that was all right. At his house there were mattresses on the floor all ready for us.

I think the woman in that house was a seer, a psychic because she knew already what was going to happen. She had all the mattresses out ready for us and later she knew when my father was dying. He was forced to work as a labourer at the airport. The allies bombed the airport and he got splinters in his back from the grenades. As soon as they brought him home with his injuries the woman came to our house and asked if he was home. She didn’t say anything to my mother but she knew that he was going to die. Why would she have all these mattresses down? How did she know my father was dying? She knew before anyone.

My brother, Peter was a year older than me, sixteen or seventeen and he was old enough to be sent to Germany as a labourer. We were upset of course. I walked next to my brother as he walked with the other men to the railway. Then they were put on the train. As I walked home I was really sad but my brother was home before me. He got on the train and then just got out the other end. There was a guard but apparently he didn’t see or didn’t want to see. Then my brother disappeared and my mother was anxious but he ended up in England through the underground. We found out a year or so later. He got word back to my mother. He went into the Dutch army in England. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia.

My mother was a great crier, you know? She’d cry at the drop of a hat but then she had good reason to. She’d lost her house. She’d lost her husband. She had seven children. They rounded up the young boys to send to work camps in Germany. One day a group of soldiers came to the house. They had bayonets on the end of their guns but they were young. The leader of them arrived at the front door and looked into our house. The entrance and stairwell was very bright with sunlight and the first thing he said to my mother was “Oh, the sun is shining here.” Meaning that it was a lovely bright room. I thought it was very strange this young soldier making that comment, just chatting really, trying to be nice.

The soldier asked if there were any young men in the house. My mother starts crying, “No, there are no young men here”. My younger brother, Jan was at the balustrade of the stairs. We had known that something was in the air and that the soldiers were in the street rounding up young men. Jan was sixteen and old enough to be taken really but he had a young face and my mother had dressed him in shorts to make him look younger. The soldier pointed to Jan and said, “What about him?” My mother cried that he was only a young boy and so they let him go.

The soldiers were very strict but they were not all beastly, definitely not. But they have to live with themselves. I’m sure that they could see that Jan was old enough but I think being young themselves they let him off. The officers were the culprits and the Nazis. We were scared of the officers because they had the power to do things. If they wanted somewhere to live they’d just take your house.

Once a friend arrived with her brother’s bike. It was a special bike because its tyres were solid and not rubber like the ones most people had. She let me go for a ride and while I was out on the street a soldier who was there with his girlfriend saw me and called me over. I knew what he was going to do. “Your bike?” he asked and told me he’d have to confiscate it. I started to argue with him and an officer appeared and asked what was going on. I tried to explain that it wasn’t my bike and the officer told the soldier to get on his way. “Good,” I thought but now I was stuck with the officer. So, very quickly I said, “Thank you so much, Officer!” And I jumped on the bike and rode away as quickly as I could.

We had to give up our radios so there was no communication with outside. We had a receiver but it was all German news. We didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t think what was going to happen. It was just existing for the now.

After the war I didn’t see one Jewish person that I had known from before the war. I knew nothing at all about Jewish people being hidden. The stories came out after the war. One day I was walking with a group of friends and some soldiers stopped me and said, “Where is your star?” and I said, “I haven’t got a star”. I was nearly wetting my pants. It would have been 1940 or 1941. I was picked out because I had dark hair. Then they asked me for my papers. You had to have an identification paper with a photo and a thumb print. I couldn’t wait to go and I said, “Okay?” and they gave me back my papers and let me go. That was very scary. I can remember that very well.

We knew the resistance was there but it wasn’t spoken about. It was secret. I don’t know how people got involved in it. I’d have to ask my brother, Peter. The contact was probably the doctor because he once helped me. I was working in a factory that made glider planes. The chemicals made me sick but if I’d protested they’d send me to Germany. The doctor wrote a letter which I had to give to the boss and they let me out of there. After that I worked with my mother as a dressmaker for Dutch people. Changing lapels and taking up hems for a little money.

Food was all rationed. There were no potatoes. There was bread and you could get a loaf for the family but inside it was chaff. It was all they could do. They weren’t trying to cheat you it was all they could do. Everyone got that. One day my mother had all our ration papers for a month or so in her handbag. We went to church and she left her handbag on the pew while she went into confession. When she came out all the ration papers had been stolen. We’d lost all our food for a month or so. It was a terrible thing to happen in a church. We ate peelings of vegetables. My sisters were allowed to eat with another family but just the two of them, they didn’t have enough food for any more. The rest of us went to the Gaar Keuken, the central kitchen. We took our little bowl each but the food was so atrocious that I went without.

Because we had lost everything in the bombardment the Germans had given my family some horse blankets. My mother put these in a suit case and took them to farms to trade. We got a sack with grain and a few other things in exchange for the blankets. The suitcase was heavy to carry home. A man on the road let my mother ride with the suitcase on his cart while he and I pushed. There came a point where we had to get off and cross a bridge. There was a soldier there who stopped us and asked what was in the suitcase. My mother started crying. When he saw the little pittance in the suitcase he let us go but told us never to tell anyone that he’d let us go with the food. So we got home with it.

On the canals there used to be lovely grass but they dug it up and gave people a plot of land to grow food. We had a rake and a spade that we carried to and from our plot everyday. One day a man suggested to my mother that instead of carrying the tools with us everyday that we should bury them in the plot of land. Of course, the next day we came back to work the plot the tools had been dug up and taken.

As the war went on there was no food. No bread, potatoes or meat. There were no dogs or cats either. They were all eaten. People starved. We ate flower bulbs, tulip bulbs and sugar beet (suiker beet). I hated it but I ate it. There was a young man, he was a child actually who stole some bread. They made him write on a placard, “I am a thief, I stole bread.” Then, they shot him and put his body in a window with the placard for everyone to see. He would have been thirteen or fourteen, a kid.

My mother couldn’t cope with the six children she had to support and the family was split up. Other family arrived to work out what to do. My younger sister and I went to a convent school at Lindberg near where my aunt, my mother’s youngest sister lived. My two brothers went to the Brothers. My other two sisters went to an aunt who was a nun.

I walked with my aunt from The Hague up to den Helder, all that distance to get food. It took days. We begged. We had nothing. One night we couldn’t find a roof to sleep under and we stayed at the police station. The men there shared their food from the Gaar Keuken with us but I was so hungry I couldn’t eat. My stomach had closed up and I couldn’t eat.

Towards the end of the war my sister and I moved back to Voorburg to be with my mother. Nearby was the place where they launched the V1 and V2 bombs across to England. These were silent bombs and so long as you could hear them you were safe. If they misfired they’d fall on the Dutch. On night a bomb landed across the road. My sister screamed with fright. All the houses burned. Everything was red, the flames they were throwing. That’s how close it was.

Towards the end the Swedish dropped bread. We knew it came from Sweden because of the packaging. My mother was a big woman before the war but by the end she was small. She would try to get some of this bread but other Dutch people fought it off her. My mother lived until she was 94. In her own home in Voorburg until she was 90, then in a home. My father was 45 when he died in the war, too young.

After the war my husband wanted to emigrate to America. I didn’t want to leave Holland but I said that I’d prefer Australia. I felt that if we were to go anywhere we should go where they needed people the most. We agreed that we’d go to whichever country offered us a place first. Australia came up first. I loved Australia as soon as I arrived. Everything was so big and wide. There was so much space between the houses. We had three children here; two boys and a girl.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bridget van toorenburg #

    This story is about my oma. i am very proud of her and all the people who endured the suffering she went through

    January 4, 2011
    • Hi Paul, I interviewed Cathy as research for my novel Hope Bay. We’re not related 🙂 Cheers Nicole

      June 21, 2016

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