Harry and Fim Andringa have made their mark in the town of Flinton ever since they moved to the community 25 years ago. They have been good neighbours and keen volunteers, and have made many friends.
Harry, who had recently retired from the Toronto Transit Commission when the Andringas moved to Flinton, drove for both Land O’Lakes Community Services (Meals of Wheels) and Friends of Bon Echo (captaining the Mugwump ferry) among other volunteer commitments. Harry has also been involved with local Legions and schools more recently by recounting his experiences in WW2 as a child in the Netherlands.
“When we moved to Flinton we knew no one. We found the community by looking around for a small town where we could retire and enjoy life. And we found it,” he said, when interviewed at his home earlier this week.
A few years after they had retired, Harry realized that he was not feeling well, and that he hadn’t been feeling well for many years. He went for tests and they did tests and found nothing. Eventually doctors realized that Harry was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had been for most of his life. He lived through WW2 in the Netherlands as a young child and those experiences had remained bottled up in him for over 60 years. After 11 months of therapy he felt better and was able to begin sharing his story, which he did through presentations at Legions and at local high schools and Senior’s homes for a number of years.
“I think it is important for people to know what happened, especially now when there are holocaust deniers around. There are even some in Germany now, so I wanted to do my part,” he said.
A couple of years ago Fim began having health problems and more recently Harry has also been struggling physically. The strain of visiting groups in person has become too great.
When Ken Hook heard that Harry was getting older and frailer, he is now 85, he recalled how much of an impact that a presentation Harry had on the participants at a meeting of the Cloyne and District Historical Society a number of years ago. He thought it was important to get Harry’s story on video. A year ago, he conducted a series of interviews with Harry and then applied for a Canada 150 grant to fund the completion of the video. He did not get one, but decided to self fund the project.
“I’ve done a lot of corporate and other videos and people are always a bit shy or wary, and we need to do two or three takes. But Harry wasn’t like that. He didn’t have any notes at all. He knew his story and could tell it off the top of his head.”
Obtaining video clips to round out the story was a more difficult process for Hook, but he did have help from the National Film Board, which allowed him to use newsreel footage. Finding the write footage took many hours, however. When the video was done, edited down to 36 minutes, an opening was arranged at the Northbrook Lion’s Hall on October 25.
To Harry and Ken’s surprise, the hall was filled to the brim, standing room only, for the viewing.
The film itself is straight forward. Harry speaks, there are images and voice overs for context, and his story unfolds.
And what a grim, cautionary tale it is.
Harry was a young boy when the war started, living in a small town north of Amsterdam. It took only four days for the German army to over-run the Dutch in 1940. Harry was 9 at the time. In the film he recalled the night when the German army arrived in his town. He thought it was a thunderstorm but his father said it was a war.
“I had never even heard the word war. I asked my father what it was, and he said ‘you’ll find out’. Did I ever.”
In “Harry’s Story” which is available for free viewing on Youtube and can be easily accessed at Harrysstory.ca, Harry talks about the way life immediately changed under German occupation. The school in his village was taken over and classes were held outside. German was taught and soldiers would come in to the schools and make sure the students were learning the language. Prisoners of war, from as far away as Mongolia, were brought in as slave labour for the army.
Harry talked about seeing the German soldiers eating lunch in their truck, “with thermoses of hot coffee and cheese sandwiches, with not a care in the world” while the slave labourers were out in the cold, wearing rags, with soaked burlap on their feet in place of shoes, sharing a frozen beetroot they found in a ditch by the side of the road “just to have something in their stomach.”
The Nazi regime also targeted Dutch Jews for extermination, and because of the efficiency of Dutch birth and citizenship records they had great success in finding Dutch Jews. As the documentary points out, only 30,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jews survived the war.
Harry’s uncle Cor was involved in the effort to save as many Jews as possible from the fate they faced if captured by the Nazi’s. He coordinated efforts in the region, often using bicycle power by night to ferry individuals and families to safety.
Harry talks in the film about a mother and daughter, Esther and Sonya, who were sheltered in his home.
He talks in particular about one day when a soldier arrived in his house without any warning, so quickly that Sonya, who was sitting in the kitchen, was unable to scurry under the large tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, which she normally did when there was any warning they were coming.
The soldier asked Harry’s mother about the children, and she said they were her children.
“‘What about her’ he said pointing right at Sonya. He picked her right out, and my mother said she was her sisters child who was staying with us for the day. He laughed, and looked at us as if he was insulted by our attempts to fool him, and then he left” Harry recalled, his memory as clear 75 years later as if the event had just taken place.
They thought they were done for, and waited for the truck to come and load them up “never to be seen or heard from again,” which was what had happened to the Mayor of the town earlier, but by late afternoon nothing had happened and Harry said to his mother “I think we are in the clear”.
They never found out why the soldier never turned them in. Harry’s mother said maybe the soldier had a daughter who was about 2 or 3 years old back home in Germany.
“That’s the only explanation we could come up with.”
In the film there are some stories that are more harrowing than this one.
Harry also remembers the bitter cold winter of 1944, which became known as the Hunger Winter or Dutch Famine, when the German’s cut off all food and fuel shipments to the western provinces, where 4.5 million Dutch lived.
Harry talks about ripping door trims for wood, stealing trees, and eating tulip bulbs and nettles.
Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands after the D-Day invasion, a fact that certainly played into Harry’s decision to emigrate to Canada in 1957.
It pleases him to point out how Canadian WW2 veterans are received when they go back to Holland. By a strange coincidence, the last surviving D-Day veteran in our readership area (as far as we know) is Gordon Wood of Flinton, and over the years since Harry and Fim Andriga have been living in Flinton they have formed a bond from being on two sides of a dark chapter of Dutch and Canadian history.
Harry met his wife, Fim, soon after he arrived in Canada in 1957. She is from the Netherlands as well and they were married on Thanksgiving Day in 1959 and raised a family in Toronto before moving to Flinton, where they live with their son.
Fim is younger than Harry, and she was born during the war, and although she was very young she has her own vivid of the war.
When I contacted Harry for a few details early this week, Fim came on the line afterwards.
Her concern, after what both she and Harry had experienced when they were very young, is with the refugees that have been taken in by Canada over the last few years.
“I was 5 when the war was over, and I have memories that no person should have,” she said.
“Canada is bringing in a lot of refugees, and they are coming from war torn countries that are as bad or worse as what we came from. Some of these children are going to have the same kind of memories. These memories that are so intrusive, and Canada should know that these people need emotional and mental help when they come here. We don’t need to coddle the refugees, we weren’t coddled when we came here, but they have seen things and those things don’t disappear. I know that for myself, they come back instantly and without any warning.”
When Harry’s Story was screened in Northbrook, the tears were flowing in the audience in response to the dignified account of horrendous events, as Harry still finds it hard to believe that people could act as the Nazis did in his village and his country.
Afterwards, Harry was surprised and a bit overwhelmed by the response.
“I expected about a dozen people would show up, not a full house like this,” he said.
The website Harrysstory.ca includes information about the film, an embedded Youtube link to the full 36 minute video and a link to the trailer. It also includes out-takes, footage that was not included in the film for time reasons but add much to the story. More outtakes will be added over time as well.
Harry’s story is also being screened in Napanee on Saturday, November 25th at 2pm at the Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives.