JOURNEY TO HELL FOR SEVEN MAYORS
There was no wind that morning, thin patches of mist were lying low on the ground. It should have been a glorious day. Despite that, mayor Fried Manders cycled nervously across the Leenderhei heath on 6 July 1944. He knew the Germans had lost patience with the ‘Brabant mayors’ resistance’. At 9 o’clock he had to report to Commissioner Heinrich Sellmer.
Godefridus J.A. Manders (Princenhage 1901) had fought as a captain in the Dutch army in May 1940. After the capitulation he worked as financial manager in Princenhage and in February 1941 as mayor of Leende. Not an honorary position in wartime, always compromising between duty and conscience, but Manders was a patriotic mayor who helped his citizens cope with the terror of the occupiers.
In the spring of 1944 he was required to provide a labour force of 20 for defence work on the island of Walcheren. Manders ignored the order and also ignored the reminders. By so doing the Mayor of Leende was following agreements which had been made with other mayors in Geldrop; don’t comply with German regulations if those orders are in conflict with Dutch interests.
In May 1944 North Brabant gained a new Beauftragte (Commissioner), the notorious SS officer from Drenthe, Heinrich Sellmer. As the highest ranking provincial authority he had to put a stop to the mayors’ resistance activities. He carried out raids in June in which he arrested not only workers but also several mayors. They were allowed home after a short time.
On 6 July the mayors were once again summoned to report to Sellmer. They were told that nothing would happen to them but the mayors were uneasy about it. One mayor went into hiding, another one reported sick, but most of them went. One of them even took a towel, soap and a toothbrush, just in case…
They came together in Vught at Sellmers’ residence Roucouleur: Harry van der Putt (Geldrop), Theo Serraris (Heeze), Wim Wijtvliet (Bakel), Marcel Magnée de Horn (Bergeijk), Jan Smulders (Oost-, West- and Middelbeers), Henk Veeneman (Son en Breugel), Fried Manders (Leende) and a few council workers. One by one they were interrogated by Sellmers’ subordinates. The mayors who explicitly stated that they would not supply a labour force were detained in Sellmers’ private office; those who made a more accommodating or diplomatic offer were allowed to leave. When Sellmer spoke to the uncooperative mayors, he told them that instead of their local residents having to work for the German Wehrmacht, they would now have to.
The mayors realised immediately what this meant.
They were locked up together by the Secret Police in a stuffy cell, accused of sabotage and threatened with death.
Then on to the Scheveningen bunker in Vught, where they had to hand in their possessions and were kicked and beaten at the slightest opportunity. Next step: the barracks at Camp Vught where until the beginning of September they were subjected to the ‘regular’ humiliating and exhausting camp regime. They never got to hear during this time that two of their freed colleagues, Piet Smulders from Someren and Willem Wijnen from Asten, had been brutally murdered.
As the Allied troops approached the Netherlands at the beginning of September the Germans were getting nervous. Camp Vught was evacuated on 4 and 5 September and 3400 prisoners were transferred to camps in Germany. Fried Manders, prisoner number 10279, and the other interned mayors arrived in Camp Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, after a four day journey in cattle wagons.
That was the start of the hellish journey into the darkest depths of Dante’s Inferno. None of the Brabant mayors had ever experienced such satanic atrocities that the Nazi death squads were capable of.
They would all succumb to it, one by one.
Everyone, that is, except Fried Manders.
He regained his freedom on 3 May 1945. Fried Manders then weighed only 60 pounds. He knew that he could not have survived the hardship for more than another three days. On Sunday 24 June he took his wife Jo in his arms in Leende. She had provided him with a son during his imprisonment: Friedje. Mayor Manders described his ordeal in a crushing document. ‘Not to instil hatred (…) but with the intention ‘that everyone should feel disgusted by a governmental system based on dictatorship’.