Dutch immigrant shares WWII stories from a child’s eye
While the older generations of Europeans who experienced the Nazi occupation during World War II as adults have mostly passed on, the stories of that time are left to their children to share from a somewhat different, perhaps more innocent, point of view.
Basalt resident Tilly Maddux has been doing just that for the past several years with her “World War II, Through a Child’s Eye” presentations that she gives to different organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley and around the Western United States.
Born Mathilde Landman in the Netherlands, from the time she was just 2 when the Nazis invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, until the Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) on May 5, 1945, when she was 7, Maddux had a front-row seat in the war-torn European theater.
Her father, Wilhelmus Landman, was the chief surgeon in the town hospital at Roermond, situated at the mouth of the Roer River in the southeast part of the country near the German border. He converted the expansive basement of the hospital into a shelter for the Allied soldiers who were brought there by the underground, so that they wouldn’t be captured and have to go work in Germany.
Likewise, the basement of their home served as a bomb shelter for the Landman family, including Wilhelmus’s wife, Mathilde, young Tilly and her 10 siblings. It also was a safe haven for their Jewish nanny, Bep DeVries, who had miraculously escaped one of the Jewish roundups in the town and ran to the Landmans’ house for cover.
“I always tell people to bring a box of Kleenex when I give my talks,” Maddux said. “I tell it from the perspective of a child, but at the same time I don’t want people to forget what happened in that time.”
Her father was the only surgeon remaining at the hospital because the others had fled after the invasion. As a general surgeon, he performed a variety of operations as well as childbirth, and delivered all of his own children. Maddux recalled that he would do the family deliveries on Saturdays when he didn’t have other procedures scheduled, and would give Mathilde castor oil the night before to induce labor.
“Eventually, our whole family would go to the hospital when the air raid sirens would sound, because it was the safest place,” Maddux said. She recounted one time when a grenade blew up in the garden outside her bedroom window, shattering the window above her head but not injuring her.
“The hospital was not bombed, thank God,” she said.
To protect the soldiers and others who were in hiding, her father would put a skull and cross bones on the doors to the different rooms, indicating the presence of a contagious disease.
“The Germans were afraid to go in, because they didn’t want it to go through their whole platoon,” Maddux said. “So they never entered those rooms.”
She later found in the hospital archives that her father had written up fake medical histories for the patients who were in hiding. After several months, they would eventually find their way through the underground to Switzerland or Spain, where the resistance was still holding up.
Early on during the Nazi occupation, Maddux said she has “very, very vivid memories” of the German soldiers living in a house across the street from theirs.
“When they didn’t have oil for heat, they stuck wood-burning stove pipes through the window,” she said. “As kids we were kind of naughty, so we would put snow in the pipe and run around the corner.
“It didn’t take long for the whole house to fill with smoke, and they’d come running out with their guns to see who did it. We would tell our parents the story, and they got very afraid that we had done the wrong thing and would get caught,” she said. “And, of course, we would all get a spanking.”
She recalled another time toward the end of the war when the German weapons were in stockpiles in the street, and her brother grabbed a live grenade not knowing what it was and took it home.
“When my mom saw it she slammed the door on us and told us to get rid of it,” Maddux said.
Maddux said she doesn’t have a lot of strong memories of her nanny, but DeVries ended up being the only survivor among her family’s Jewish friends in that part of Holland.
The day DeVries escaped she had been called for “jury duty” and was advised to meet at the local theater.
“All of her Jewish friends were there, and the room was very hot and she felt very uncomfortable. So, she just picked up all of her stuff and walked down the aisle without being noticed and came to our home,” Maddux said.
DeVries’ mother and brothers were killed in the Nazi concentration camps, but she was kept safe by the Landman family.
“My father would bleach her curly, black hair so that she looked more Aryan and they wouldn’t touch her,” Maddux recalled.
He also would secretly document what the Nazi soldiers were up to, using a small inconspicuous “brownie” camera to take pictures of them rounding up the Jewish people in the town on his way to the hospital and keeping the photos in the archives.
“We got very hungry at the end because there wasn’t much left to eat,” Maddux said. “So we ate tulip bulbs, which are part of the onion family and have lots of vitamins. My mother would make mush and roasted them to try to make them palatable, but they were still very bitter.”
She also remembers the long nights in the crowded hospital basement with nothing but a wine barrel for a toilet and the constant “drip, drip” from the ceiling because of the moisture.
During the “hunger winter” of 1944-45, thousands of people starved to death across Holland because all of the food was going to feed the German troops.
On Friday, the Netherlands celebrated Liberation Day, a day commemorated by the country folk by wearing the national color of orange for the royal House of Orange. Maddux remembers vividly the day the American and Canadian troops filled the streets.
“There was such joy, and everyone dressed in orange,” she said of that day spring day in 1945. “My father dug up the French wine he had buried in the backyard to keep it safe, and the troops exchanged some of the wine for chocolate, chewing gum and cigarettes for himself.
“We took turns with the chewing gum. My day was Tuesday,” Maddux proclaimed proudly.
After the war, DeVries went to take a job in Amsterdam.
coming to america
The post-war Dutch government determined that Maddux was too skinny and needed to be sent off to “fat camp” in the north of the country.
“It was my first time without my family, and very scary,” she said. “They sent one of my brothers, too. He came back all roly poly, and I was still skinny.”
She went on to study French literature in Paris under noted playwright and author Jean-Paul Sartre, and finished her studies in Dutch college after she had mastered French.
“He was a very stern teacher and not very friendly,” she said. “I got an ‘A’ from him but never really got to know him. I do have all his books.”
She went on to work as a linguist, and to this day speaks about a half dozen languages.
She met her American husband, Parker Maddux, on a Turkish freighter from Barcelona to Istanbul.
“He wanted to go as far east as he could before he had to go back to America and work after law school,” she said.
At age 24, she fell in love and got married to Parker, left her job in Spain and the Dutch government paid to send her to the United States.
“Holland is too crowded, so at the time they would pay to send people to other countries,” she explained.
After stints on both the East and West Coast of the U.S., the Madduxes retired in Basalt 11 years ago where their son, Jackson, had a medical practice at the time. He and his family have since moved to Minnesota, but Parker and Tilly have remained in the valley, enjoying skiing and all that the area has to offer.
Tilly says she enjoys giving her presentation about Nazi-occupied Holland to different groups, but especially high school students.
“In school, they don’t really learn anything about World War II anymore, or it’s very rudimentary,” she said. “They are just astonished when I tell them what I experienced. They had no idea.”
She started telling her story in San Francisco at the suggestion of the Dutch Consul there, and has given it before Jewish community organizations on the East Coast as well.
“It has evolved, because my older brothers and sisters have added to the story and their memories,” she said. “They remember a lot more since they were older.”
Most of her siblings are still alive and living in Holland, except for her oldest brother who is in Canada. In addition to her two grandchildren in Minnesota, she has 39 nieces and nephews.
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