THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE SHROUD
She came from a weaving family and was familiar with a needle and thread, but Coba Pulskens had never needed to crochet a bedspread for her marital bed. “The boys don’t think I’m pretty enough”, is how she explained her unmarried status. But actually Coba was married: to Tilburg, her town. Only once would she ever go on a long journey – one of more than seven hundred and twenty kilometres.
There were ten plates on the table in her family home. A catholic nest with very little money. After the Domestic Science School she worked for several years with Jewish families from the diamond industry in Antwerp, but her homesickness for Tilburg was too strong. Coba returned and from then on she made her living as a cleaner. Her days smelled of soda and green soap. But the war would show that her conscience was even cleaner.
It was April 1942. Her brother asked her if she would take Jews into her house. That was no problem for Coba; she would help anyone. So her house on the Diepenstraat changed into a hiding place. Jews, resistance workers and allied pilots all found shelter there. Coba could not resist some reckless behaviour, according to some reports she would drink a glass of ‘oranjebitter’ liqueur in a café on Queen’s Day with the people she was hiding. Members of the Grüne Polizei secret police were hanging around the bar. She was even photographed with four male fugitives in her courtyard.
But in 1943 things went wrong. Traitors infiltrated a resistance group in Limburg which also had members that had spent time in hiding with Coba. After that they misused the address Diepenstraat 23 to trap allied pilots and others. The resistance declared the cleaner’s house to be out of bounds, it was too dangerous.
Had her fear disappeared under cobwebs? Or did she decide that “needs must”? Because in July 1944 Coba agreed to a risky proposal. Two women from the Peter resistance group asked her if she would hide three pilots. On 8 July an Australian, a Canadian and an Englishman took cover with her. The next day the news had already leaked out. Riot troops from the Secret Police forced their way into the house and executed the three pilots on the spot. On their command Coba left to get a sheet to cover the bodies. But people say she returned with the Dutch flag. Coba paid for her courage with her life. On 17 March 1945 she was gassed in Ravensbrück, more than seven hundred and twenty kilometres from her beloved Tilburg.
After the war people in the Netherlands longed for heroism. That was also the case in catholic Tilburg where martyrdom and myth don’t usually contradict each other. The city already had two heroes. One of them was Marietje Kessels. On 22 August 1900 the eleven-year-old was found murdered in the Heilige Hartkerk (Church of the Holy Heart). The perpetrator must be long dead but the mystery still remains. The other Tilburg folk legend was Peerke Donders, the beatified priest who fought leprosy in Surinam and Batavia.
After the war Coba Pulskens was given a place in this honoured company. In the presence of hundreds of people the city council unveiled a memorial stone in 1947 near Coba’s house. Elsewhere in Tilburg a plaque and a memorial stone commemorate the heroine and her last three fugitives. The Dutch flag hangs at half-mast on 4 May, including on the street called the Coba Pulskenslaan, around the corner from the Rooseveltplein and the Churchilllaan.