Lammie Drenth knows how it feels to be an outcast in a small town. At the age of 16 she was sent out by her family to work in a government office in Stadskanaal, in the north-eastern Dutch province of Groningen. It was 1943 and all over the occupied Netherlands people faced a harrowing choice: collaborate or resist, save your neighbours or save yourself. A teenage girl who took a job with the Nazi regime was making a statement that would define her for life.
There were no secrets in Stadskanaal: everybody knew whose side you were on. People glowered at Lammie as she walked to work parading her NSB badge – the label of the Dutch Nazi party. German soldiers would check her papers before nodding her through, or offer to carry her heavy suitcase. Passers-by tormented her with taunts and muffled scorn, and sometimes worse, when a gang of townsfolk beat her in the street to teach her a lesson. But Lammie never wavered in her conviction that she was on the right side. She drew on her mother’s strong Christian faith and her father’s political resolve, believing in her heart that the outcome of the war would vindicate her.
When Lammie fell pregnant the atmosphere grew even more poisonous. A group of Nazi collaborators had moved in next door to her family and the conclusion was obvious: this farmer’s daughter had given herself up to the enemy not just by day, but at night too. As the war went on and the Germans’ prospects deteriorated, the townsfolk looked forward to the day when they could take their revenge on the moffen-lover and her bastard child.
When Lammie came home in the evenings she would unpack her suitcase and begin her real work. A small room at the back of the farmhouse, no bigger than 20 square metres, was a refuge for 13 people who were being sought by the Nazis. Twelve were Jews, the other an Austrian soldier who had fled the front. The suitcase was packed with food rations Lammie had smuggled home from the office, protected by her NSB badge. Her father, Willem, was a socialist and found her a clerical job as part of his silent mission to thwart the regime as much as he could. So Lammie took on the responsibility of providing an income, food and whatever information she could glean about German bombing raids, to be passed on to the local resistance network.
During an occupation it is impossible to know who to trust, only who to distrust. Lammie bore the curses and the beatings because the refugees’ survival depended on the ignorance of the wider community. She knew the risk she was taking every morning when she walked past the next-door house where the Nazis lived. Three times a week her boss would call at the farmhouse and the sanctuary fell silent. Fifteen people sat confined and motionless, knowing a cough could betray them. Willem had taken to hanging the washing indoors after an alert neighbour remarked that he was hanging out far more clothes than a farmer’s family had any right to own. ‘And if I can see it, it won’t be long before they do,’ she warned him.
A neighbouring farmer named Te Velde grew potatoes for the government. One night Willem noticed the barn was piled high with around 60,000 litres of crops ready to be transported. It was an opportunity too good to miss. When darkness fell Willem took out a wheelbarrow and loaded it up, reckoning that Te Velde wouldn’t miss a few kilos of potatoes. The operation went so smoothly that the barrow went back and forth, ten times in total. Only when morning came round did Willem realise how reckless he had been. His wife, Hindertje, was scrubbing the step when Te Velde came over and pointed out the trail running from his potato store to the Drenths’ farm. Hindertje looked at the scuffed grass and knew she was trapped. There was only one story that could justify such a brazen act of theft between farmers. So Hindertje told Te Velde about the refugees, knowing that in doing so she was surrendering her family’s fate to him. He sighed and replied: ‘Why didn’t you tell me before? I’d have given you the potatoes.’ And from then on, he did.
Ben Kosses was a cattle trader from a Jewish family in the village of Oude Pekelaar, close to the German border. When the Nazis began rounding up Jews in 1941, the 20-year-old Ben went round knocking on every door he knew in search of sanctuary. He was refused dozens of times until he caught word of a family hiding out in the Drenth house. Lammie’s family took in Ben, though they cautioned him that the back room was small and sparse. He was the fifth of the refugees to move in.
Within the constricted space of the farmhouse, a romance flourished between Ben and Lammie. Ben spent the quiet hours teaching one of the four children in the group and the evenings with Lammie. The baby whose arrival scandalised the community was their daughter, Hennie, born in 1944. They would have to wait until after the war to get married.
Liberation came on April 10, 1945. A Polish armoured division including 400 tanks swept through the pancake-flat fields and met with little resistance. Over the winter the dividing lines in Stadskanaal had hardened as thousands of Nazi supporters arrived from the cities, having fled to the country as their grip on power weakened. Anyone suspected of siding with the oppressor could expect no mercy.
On hearing the Poles had arrived Lammie raced into town, where a furious mob rounded on her and chased her back to the farmhouse, baying and whooping. Now at last they could avenge her unspeakable acts of appeasement. As she arrived, a few yards ahead of her pursuers, she saw the refugees standing outside the house, hardly able to believe they were no longer confined to the tiny room. There were 15 now: in the last few months two escapees from the labour camps had joined the party. The howling mob stopped and fell silent, gaping open-mouthed at the strangers who had emerged from the Drenth family farm. And then they melted away. Townsfolk who later tried to make amends were curtly dismissed by Lammie. ‘I don’t need you any more,’ she said.
Ben Kosses died last Tuesday, a few weeks short of his 95th birthday. He and Lammie stayed together for 75 years, an unquenchable love kindled in the furnace of war. They married on VE Day – May 8, 1945 – surrounded by the people who had shared their home during the previous four years. The bride wore bright red shoes, the only good pair she could find amid the post-war scarcity. Within a few years 10 of the refugees had emigrated to the US or Israel; another died in 1949, while his family was making plans to leave.
The farmhouse’s remarkable history was almost unknown when it was pulled down decades later, as the Netherlands modernised, rebuilt and exorcised the trauma of occupation. After the Millennium historians became anxious to capture and preserve the fading memories of the war. Ben and Lammie, by now in their eighties, were invited onto chat shows to tell their story, which also features in books, the Camp Westerbork memorial and latterly a musical. How they resisted both the tyranny of the Nazis and the condemnation of a small community. How love sustained them in those cramped, fearful conditions. And how they put their own lives at risk every day, defying self-interest, to save others from a dreadful fate.
NOS, September 6 2016: De onderduiker van het ‘Andere Achterhuis’ overleden
Dagblad van het Noorden, April 29 2014: ‘Er loopt een pad van mijn aardappels naar uw achterhuis’
Een Ander Achterhuis (musical based on the story of the Drenths’ farmhouse)