THE FARMER AND THE VAGRANTS
Marlon van den Bergh
on Toon Graumans’ land in Etten-Leur
For a lot of people, daily life continued during the war. The farmers kept their jobs and worked their land. But most of the horses were taken by the Germans, which made work in the countryside extra difficult. The harvest had to be given to the occupying forces for a “fair” distribution of the food. For the farmer and his family, there was often little left to live on.
Just before the liberation of Etten-Leur, Toon Graumans was busy working the land. Luckily, Toon managed to keep his horses and worked the land for a new harvest. Trains full of provisions slowly passed by just a few hundred metres away. Toon worked hard and kept his head down. The sooner it was all over, the better. Suddenly the horses stood still and looked up. Toon pushed them forward, they didn’t have time to stand still. But when Toon looked up, too, he suddenly saw a man standing on his land. The man was wearing old, worn-out clothes full of holes. It seemed like he hadn’t washed or shaved in years. He waved, but Toon continued his work unperturbed.
Toon made the next round with his horses across the field. When he returned to where he had just seen the man, he saw that five other men had joined him. They looked like tramps, too, all wearing handcuffs. It looked like the men must have been prisoners of war who escaped from the slow-moving goods train.
A matter of life or death
It made Toon a little nervous having six escaped prisoners of war on his land. If someone saw and betrayed the farmer, he certainly wouldn’t make it out alive. Still, Toon decided to help the men. He collected bread and milk for the prisoners. They needed to be strengthened up before they could continue their long journey home. The men were enjoying the delicious food, when suddenly the neighbour came walking by. Toon tensed up, but he told him what happened on his land in the last hour. To Toon’s great relief, the neighbour decided to help him. The escaped prisoners of war were later picked up by resistance fighters. Afterwards, Toon never heard anything from the men again.
In October 1944, Etten-Leur was liberated and slowly returned to the countryside it had once been. And so did Toon, who continued his life as a farmer, along with his horses. He always wondered what happened to the six escaped prisoners of war who suddenly appeared on his land that day.
Some civilians who were not proactively engaged in resistance activities, were unintentionally faced with a choice during the war: to help resist or to comply with the interests of the occupying forces. Both choices came with their own set of consequences. Resisting meant endangering your own life by helping others and opposing the interests of the occupier. But complying with those interests could be seen by the Dutch people as a betrayal of their homeland, and that wasn’t simply accepted by everyone, either. That meant it wasn’t always easy to make the ‘right’ choice.