STUDENT ON THE BORDER OF LIFE AND DEATH
His father was director of the Voba light bulb factory in Tilburg. Even so that could not prevent a lot of darkness in Theo Vogel’s life. He developed diphtheria while still in the cradle; when he was six he suffered severe concussion in a car accident. Eleven years later Theo escaped death. While shooting water rats – a pastime with friends – a bullet penetrated his pericardium and an operation was necessary. After that, Theo’s health remained very weak.
Could he feel the darkness coming? When he was nineteen, Theo wrote a will. Not a legal document, but a hand-written statement. Date: 2 October 1939. Should he die, the Broederschap van de Wulpen (Brotherhood of Wulpen), a small group of friends of which he was a member, would inherit his archive and ‘if available’ the sum of thirty guilders. The devout Theo also requested there be a mass for all deceased ‘Wulpen brothers’.
At the beginning of 1943 his study of economics at Tilburg University came to an end. Like many others Theo declined to sign a declaration of loyalty. He managed to escape Arbeidseinsatz(forced labour) thanks to a medical certificate that his father was able to arrange. The Vogels family who lived in Groenendael Castle in Hilvarenbeek were undoubtedly influential. But even they did not escape petrol rationing. Their car, a Chrysler Royal Saloon 1937, ran on wood gas during the war. It quickly became apparent that for resistance work, that wouldn’t matter.
Spring 1943. The school teacher Eugène van der Heijden from Hilvarenbeek asked Theo if he would take five people from Tilburg to the border town of Esbeek in his Chrysler. Theo agreed unsuspectingly. His passengers turned out to be British pilots who were hoping it would be a drive to freedom. Paradise by the dashboard light? Unlikely, because beyond the border lay the risky Antwerp-Brussels-Paris route.
And so the young student found himself working with the resistance. Thanks to the Smit-Van der Heijden resistance group in Hilvarenbeek, three hundred allied pilots, French prisoners of war and Dutch Jews managed to escape. But all that went wrong on 15 November 1943. From the Belgian town of Turnhout the Germans secretly followed an Italian pilot whose false identity papers had aroused suspicion. In this way they were able to arrest the Brussels branch of the resistance.
On 20 November 1943 Theo also fell into the Gestapo’s hands. Cruel fate dealt a double blow, even a triple blow. His father unintentionally contributed towards his arrest. In order to prevent his two other sons from being captured, Pa Vogels told the Germans that Theo was with his half-brother in Tilburg. He was convinced that his son was hiding somewhere else. It turned out to be a fatal mistake.
In February 1944 Theo and six other students from the resistance group were sentenced to death. But he was given a reprieve in the summer: ten years imprisonment. His family were in the dark as to his whereabouts. After the liberation of Brabant his brother Harrie travelled eastwards with the allied troops, acting as interpreter. Their advance was momenterally halted at the small German town of Siegburg, though American cannon fire did manage to damage the prison where typhoid had recently broken out. The resulting damage to the water supply caused a further deterioration in hygienic conditions. The Americans liberated Siegburg on 10 April. When Harrie unsuspectingly entered the town, he found himself just a few metres away from his imprisoned brother. However this did not lead to a joyous reunion: Theo died from typhoid on 24 April 1945 – Ascension Day. It was only at the end of May that Harrie and his family discovered that he had died – and where.
Theo’s will was executed in September 1945. Just six years earlier he had written in large letters the brotherhood’s motto Estote Parati above his legacy: ‘Be prepared.’