Irene van Kemenade
Zuivelstraat, Bergen op Zoom

When the war broke out, Mientje Proost from Bergen op Zoom was a 19 year-old girl. She grew up in a close middle-class family and dreamt of becoming a nurse.

The arrest

On 2 May 1942, Mientje’s brother, Louis, was arrested for resistance activities. Soon after, one of Louis’ friends asked Mientje to deliver a package. She agreed and became a courier, more due to the friendship than her political ideals. Her packages were called ‘cheese’ and they contained fake ration cards, identification documents and microchips. Mientje took her ‘cheese’ by train to places including Bussum and Haarlem. Her resistance group Dienst Wim was soon infiltrated by collaborator Anton van der Waals. Almost the entire group was picked up between 24 July and 5 August 1943. Mientje was arrested in her parents’ shop on the Zuivelstraat. You wouldn’t have thought she would be able to withstand the cruelty of the German occupiers but her arrest unleashed a hidden strength within her.

Her tenacity came to the fore during her seven month isolation in the penal institution in Scheveningen. During the many interrogations, she did not succumb and instead she offered herself up to help her fellow prisoners. Moreover, she created a daily routine for herself to stay strong: getting up, washing, eating, cleaning and doing daily exercises following a set pattern.

A trip full of hardships

When the Germans realised that Mientje would not talk, she was transferred to the prison in Haaren. Putting her own life in danger, she sought out contact with her fellow prisoners through the cell walls with the optician and dentist and by singing protest songs, including the strictly forbidden paratrooper song. The trial against the Dienst Wim took place in Haaren on 21 June 1944. Mientje and part of the resistance group were sentenced to death. Her steadfast belief in the liberation kept her going. After Haaren, she was sent to Vught, Ravensbrück and Dachau and each time, Mientje rebelled. She joined in the strike for better food and sung songs from the fatherland during meetings with the Hitlerjugend (Dachau concentration camp command). On the evening prior to the death march to Innsbruck, she addressed the camp commander directly about his inhumanity and she proposed he release the prisoners. When her plea fell on deaf ears, she warned her fellow prisoners and stole as many bandages and as much medicine as she could for the trip. Many prisoners succumbed during the march, but Mientje survived in the end.

The fight goes on

After her liberation, she provided the American Intelligence Service with information about the extermination camps, she got involved with Red Cross transports and returned home in May 1945. Her health never fully recovered but she continued to fight for the good cause.

This indicative photo is from spring 1946, where that one woman proudly poses among a group of men after the installation of the Noodraad (political party in preparation for municipal elections). It is a powerful image of a young woman who overcame a thousand perils.

Mientje Houtman-Proost (right) during the installation of the Noodraad in 1946 (Image: from the private collection of Mientje Houtman-Proost’s family, 1946).