I AM VERY FAR AWAY
‘I’m very far away, but my heart is back at home. With my wife, who is alone. All I have now is the memory of the fairy tale of my past. However, the day that I will be with you again, is already in my mind. Because my firm belief in you and the loyalty gives me strength to continue waiting’. – Cees Meeuwis
Sergeant Cees Meeuwis fought at the Dutch defence line in 1940. When the Netherlands became occupied by the Germans, the Dutch military forces briefly became prisoners of war. They were released, but in 1943 they were once again summoned to report as prisoners of war. They had to try to survive the war in German prisoner of war camps. In the first years of the war, Cees led a fairly quiet life in Roosendaal, until he was requested to report in Germany.
Cees complied with the request. Without knowing when he would see his wife and children again, he prepared to leave for Germany on 29 July 1943. He was able to celebrate his wife’s birthday the day before. ‘How would they get through the war? Who would take care of them if the war suddenly became worse?’ Cees took one last look at his children’s bedroom and left. The train was filled with Dutch soldiers. They looked at each other and decided to talk about the weather. Cees rolled a cigarette. The weather was good.
The train stopped at Stalag IV-B, the largest prisoner of war camp in Germany. When Cees arrived and the gates closed behind him, he was surrounded by barbed wire. After a sleepless night he had to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning to report for the daily chores. Life in the camp consisted of head counts, battles against bed bugs and fleas, cleaning the barracks and other small chores. Food was scarce and the number of people with diphtheria grew rapidly. Diarrhoea was ever-present. Over the course of time Cees became malnourished. ‘In September 1944 I leaned, in my dreamlike state, against the barbed wire. The guard shouted and waved at me to move away from the fence. A kind man, he would have been authorised to shoot’.
When the British bombers flew over and the air raid siren went off, the barracks shook. On Monday morning 23 April 1945, the prisoners were ready for the German commander’s visit as usual. He didn’t come. There wasn’t a German soldier to be seen. The prisoners of war were euphoric and Cees lay down in the grass outside the camp. The weather was good.
The former prisoners of war were brought back to the Netherlands by train. ‘We passed places that we knew. Not long before we’re there, lads!’ When they arrived in Roosendaal, the platform was empty. There was no one. Cees left the train, grabbed his belongings and looked around. In the distance, he saw someone cycling towards him. ‘Finally, there was my wife, on the back of a bike, with the two little ones.’
Cees was imprisoned for two years. Sometimes there was a lack of understanding between the Dutch prisoners of war who left their country and the Dutch people who stayed behind. ‘It was impossible for people to imagine what the other had gone through’.
Portrait of Cees Meeuwis, painted during his imprisonment by fellow prisoner Louis Notenboom. (Image: private collection of the Meeuwis family, undated)