LIKE THE FLIGHT FROM EGYPT
Dutch Reform Church Wijk and Aalburg
At the beginning of November 1944 the Allied advance came to a standstill at the Hollands Diep and de Bergsche Maas waterways. From that moment on the Land of Heusden and Altena became the front line, bringing with it much misery. Almost immediately, all the farms on river were evacuated, the start of a long series of evacuations.
The young priest Harke Harkema and his family had lived in Wijk for only two years when the storms of war raged over his parish. His wife Agaath was expecting their third child as the front approached. The first injured civilians arrived on 4 November, but that was only the start. The arrival of refugees over the next few days was just a precursor to what would happen in the winter. Refugees and German soldiers alike sought refuge with the Harkema family. Mrs Harkema commented in a letter: ‘It might sound strange but you can get used to anything. This is quite rightly a household on the front.’ Because part of the church had been shot to pieces, Harkema held his services in a large garage. When people no longer dared to go out onto the streets, the priest also held services in a bakery or a stable. After all the windows of the rectory were broken, the priest’s family moved to Deacon Wink’s house. Agaath wrote; ‘As long as we can stay together, you learn to put up with things more by the day.’
A dark Christmas
By mid-December the situation had become untenable for the average civilian. Because of the unceasing shooting, almost nobody ventured outside, but the young priest was relentless. He visited the wounded, comforted the elderly, conducted burials and sometimes had to visit the local German commander to arrange something, as he was the only person who spoke German. Winter began early and Christmas, normally a time for homely comforts, was dominated by war. The constant roar of Allied and German artillery replaced the sound of bells. Pastor Harkema held a service in a stable and his wife said ‘We have never witnessed (…) such a dark Christmas.’ But the worst ordeal was yet to come; on 5 January 1945 Wijk suffered a disaster. A British bomb landed close to the Van der Pol bakery. The oven, still alight, collapsed into the basement where people were sheltering. In total forty people were killed.
It was Wednesday 10 January, there was constant snow and a biting wind when the population of Wijk were told they had to leave their homes that same day. The evacuation had been ordered by the German authorities who wanted to have a free hand so close to the front. The only thing that concerned the civilians now was how to save their lives in these harsh conditions.
The Harkema family travelled on Wink’s cart, pulled by unshod horses, with someone in front who knew the way to prevent them from slipping off the narrow icy dike in the half-light. The journey was torturous, especially for the elderly, small children and the sick. That night Agaath Harkema gave birth to daughter Liesbeth under difficult circumstances in Sleeuwijk. The priest commented; ‘The Lord has made this possible. His name be praised!’ His parish was now scattered in all directions. The majority were housed in the area around Woudrichem but many had to make the long, gruelling journey as far as Friesland. It was only after the capitulation of the German occupation that the residents could return to their heavily damaged homes. On 27 May Harkema held his first service in the undamaged choir of the church. A month later he moved back into the rectory with his family. The long journey home had begun.
During the long, gruelling winter of ’44 to ’45, almost a hundred residents in the Land of Heusden and Altena lost their lives, mostly due to Allied shooting and bombing. This region is the only part of Brabant that was not liberated, but still suffered from the violence of war. It is an almost forgotten chapter in the story of the liberation of the Netherlands.
The Harkema family in 1942: father, Sybolt, mother and Joop.
The Dutch Reform rectory in Wijk (Images: Harkema family private collection, 1942)