Dutch woman survived World War II on little more than water
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
In March 1960, Elizabeth Boomhower came to the United States from the Netherlands on the arm of her “American soldier husband.” Twenty years before, she was 19 as she watched the German army invade her country.
Boomhower: I went through all of World War II in the Netherlands. And in the beginning it didn’t look so bad but it got worse as the war went on, as we went under the German heel. I was 19 when we started out. And in May 1940, the Dutch soldiers came one more time together and I helped peel potatoes for that day, for them to do their last big meal before we had to give it all up.
Over time, there was less and less to eat and there came a day, February 1942, when there was nothing to eat anymore and we lived for the rest of the war on water. It can be done. I show it. I am here.
We tried to find something in nature to eat and one of the first things I cooked was stinging nettles. We ate them. They had vitamin A. I looked after the children of a wealthy family and even they had nothing to eat. I remember chopping dried kale and boiling it in some milk powder that they had. One of the children was sick and had head lice and all I could do to kill the lice was put cloths soaked in kerosene on her head. We didn’t even have soap to clean the kerosene off with.
Gallacher: It was miserable.
Boomhower: Very miserable. Meanwhile, the Germans were all over the place, and very regimented. If you didn’t look at them, they didn’t look at you. And of course, nobody did. Nobody liked to have them in the country. I spoke German, but for me it was a dead language. I didn’t speak any German during that time.
Gallacher: The Germans were the reason you had no food.
Boomhower: Yes. They fed us some slosh in a pan and you never knew what you were going to get. Oftentimes, it was inedible because it tasted like petroleum, like something you would paint fences with. They had us stand in line for that and they called that being fed. They treated us as if we were no more than the stones on the ground.
Gallacher: Do you remember the day of liberation?
Boomhower: Yes! We had been sitting in the closets in our home listening to the news on the BBC when we heard the news.
Gallacher: You were sitting in the closets?
Boomhower: Yes we had to hide in the closets when we listened to the radio. We would have been in terrible trouble if we had gotten caught.
My father, who was quite the defiant one, decided to put the Dutch flag out when he heard the news. Well the Dutch police came by and said, “We don’t want to tell you to do it or don’t do it. But we advise you to take the flag in before there is trouble.” My father was taking a chance because the Germans were still killing Dutch people.
He finally took it in. Earlier in the war he nearly got in serious trouble. He was getting his haircut in a little barbershop in Utrecht. There was a man there who overheard my father complaining about Dutch traitors and the next day he was called to the commandant’s office in Utrecht. We waited at home all day with our fingers crossed, hoping that he would return in the evening. Lucky for all of us he did. The war was not fierce enough at the time. If it had been six weeks later we might have all been in concentration camps.
Lucky for us the Germans didn’t know that part of us were gypsies. Part of my family is Portuguese where there are many gypsies.
Gallacher: So things improved after the liberation?
Boomhower: Yes but very slowly. I was chosen to go to England with a group of dilapidated Dutch children. I had a group of 10 little girls that I was responsible for. They were girls from 8 to 13 years of age.
When we first got there we stayed at an old soldiers’ camp and the girls got deloused and defleaed. Later on, we went to Rutland, England, where we stayed for three weeks. Each of the girls stayed with a family in the countryside, and the family took care of them and nursed them back to health. I would ride a bicycle from house to house to visit with the family and the girls and make sure they were doing all right. They got very special attention. So by the time we got back to the Netherlands they were all feeling much better.
Gallacher: Were these orphan children?
Boomhower: No. They were from good families, but they had all been sick and shaken by the war. I thought I was fine but I was not fine at all and that showed up later.
I went to work in an academic hospital, one of the oldest in Amsterdam. After three years, it showed. The hospital had nothing to feed us but oatmeal porridge and bread with apple butter. There was no meat or vegetables. You can’t eat like that when you work on a ward with 24 patients in beds and you have to do that every day, seven days a week. So by the time I came to the third year, I couldn’t get up the stairs to go to my bedroom. I finally told them what they could do with their hospital and I quit. One of the women who had been a patient in the hospital took me home with her. She said, “You are going to be my guest for two weeks for standing up to them.”
Gallacher: It sounds like you have some of your father in you.
Boomhower: Oh yeah, very much so. That is why I am still here.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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