SIBERIA IS SOMEWHERE EAST OF AARLE-RIXTEL
At the beginning of 1940, Aarle-Rixtel – now in the municipality of Laarbeek – was a quiet little village with 3056 inhabitants. Tracks in the roads led to three places: the church, the pub, or the bell foundry. It’s not known what books its library contained, but the adventures described in Dutch children’s books like Dik Trom, Peter Bell and Little Crumb pale into insignificance compared to those of Johan Wigmans.
He was sixteen when war broke out. In the two years that followed, the young man brooded over His Big Plan. Where he got his courage from is anyone’s guess. Did Johan Wigmans have a confrontational character? Or was it the name of the village band De Goede Hoop (Good Hope) that he put his trust in?
It was 1942 and Johan, who wanted to join up with the Allies, was determined to make the crossing to England, but the Wehrmacht and practical reality stood between him and his dream. He came up with a plan; with a mixture of audacity and rashness he signed up for the Luftwaffe. He did not have a pilot’s licence but simply the prospect of desertion gave Johan his wings.
The German army enlisted him in the infantry. Hoping to be able to desert in Libya, Johan signed up for the African Army under the German Field Marshal Rommel. But even this was no way out for him.
In 1942 he was sent to the Eastern Front. Three weeks after arriving, Johan sought refuge behind Russian lines. He hoped he could use this as a diversion to reach the western allies. Initially the Soviets treated him with respect, even though they held him prisoner of war. But Johan quickly ran into trouble. In Tambov prisoner of war camp he asked a theologian to smuggle a confidential letter, but the document fell into Russian hands. The envelope, addressed to ‘The Dutch representative in Algiers or the British Secret Service’ raised suspicions. The Soviets arrested him on suspicion of spying. In 1946 Johan was sentenced to ten years hard labour. His yearnings to get to the west ended in a detention camp in the east.
After more than six years as a prisoner in Central Asia and Siberia, Johan returned to the Netherlands. The only thing to have survived his adventure was his missal, although some pages had been torn out to roll grass cigarettes. After he returned, Johan visited St. John’s Cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch where it was reported he fell sobbing in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.
He went into retreat for six months in the Achelse Kluis Trappist monastery and wrote a book ‘I was one of millions’ which was subtitled ‘3650 Days in Russia and Siberia’. The book, which told the story of a beleaguered catholic, was translated into German, English and Spanish. It even resulted in a letter of thanks from Chancellor Adenauer. Wigmans also gave well-attended lectures in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, in which he bitterly criticised Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Some people couldn’t get enough of his testimonies. An influential priest suggested that Mary’s appearance in Fatima had predicted the torment that Johan and other believers in the Soviet Union would experience. That would make Wigmans one of Mary’s apostles. But in the opinion of the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN), Wigmans’ lectures were a catholic cover up. The intention: to mask the less than decisive attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards the war. The Party even raised questions to this effect in Parliament.
In 1956 a journalist from De Telegraaf newspaper – which itself had received a four-year ban after the war for collaboration – plunged Wigmans’ book into a sea of scepticism. Were Johan’s actions so naïve? De Telegraaf editor wrote, “It could also be the case that he was just a fascist. It seems most likely to me, however, that he was a young man who was seeking a bit of an adventure.” Was that what Johan was doing? Or was the adventure seeking him? Some questions are followed by lasting silence; Johan Wigmans died in 2014.