MEN IN STRIPED CLOTHING
Marlon van den Bergh
In 1940 the Germans occupied the airfield at Gilze-Rijen and during the war they enlarged it to become one of the largest air bases in Europe. Houses close by were demolished and the new neighbours saw what was taking place on the airfield from close quarters every day.
Maria Ligtvoet-Maas lived with her husband Thomas in Molenschot, to the west of Gilze-Rijen Fliegerhorst (military airfield). Tommes and Mie, as they were known to the locals, had no children and Mie spent her days as a housewife in and around the home. Tommes worked during the day at the Noord-Brabander leather factory in Rijen. Despite having a huge air base next to their house, life went on as normal for the couple.
From 30 August 1943 Fliegerhorst Gilze-Rijen also served as a labour camp for 150 prisoners from Camp Vught. The prisoners were required to perform strenuous tasks, such as repair work after a bombing raid. Despite the hard work, conditions were better for the prisoners than they were in Camp Vught. They received better food and drink, roll calls were shorter and the security was less strict.
The German airfield was an important target for the Allies. When the airfield was bombed for the umpteenth time, the German guards and the airfield workers took cover in the air raid shelters. The security guards were so busy running for cover that they did not seem to notice what was going on around them, or where the prisoners were. This gave them the perfect chance to try to escape. Some of them decided to grab this opportunity and headed for the perimeter fence, which had been badly damaged in the bombing raid. They crawled under the fence and ran towards freedom.
Mie was busy with her housework when suddenly a couple of men in striped clothes appeared at her door. Their clothes immediately gave away the fact that they were escaped prisoners from the airfield. She ushered them into the house and asked them to remove their clothes. The men looked at each other somewhat surprised, take off their clothes? Then Mie reappeared with ordinary clothes and the men realised what she meant, they did not attract attention among the other people in civilian clothes. The men began to get dressed and Mie told them that other prisoners had already passed by. She burnt the camp clothes so nobody would ever know that the men had been with Mie
Shortly afterwards, when the men had left in their civilian clothes, Mie was in the kitchen burning the striped clothing. Once again she heard noises in front of the house. More escaped prisoners, or had the men who had just left come back? Mie opened the door and there were security guards from the airfield. They were looking for escaped prisoners. The guards followed Mie into the house where they found the partly burnt clothes on the stove. Mie was arrested.
On 15 December 1943 Mie was transferred to Camp Vught, where she remained until liberation. She arrived back in Molenschot and was reunited with her husband Tommes. She picked up her life where it had left off, Tommes went back to work and Mie did the housework, although she no longer needed to burn any striped clothing. Tommes died in 1965, five years later Mie left Molenschot and died in 1983.
Hardly anyone knew that Maria Ligtvoet-Maas had helped prisoners to regain their freedom during the war. For three and a half months she provided clothes to the prisoners. Only later did it emerge that she collected these clothes from residents in the neighbourhood. She told nobody what she did with these clothes, so nobody risked the chance of being caught
IMAGE: Sketch of prisoner
PHOTO – Thomas and Maria Ligtvoet