Dewey DeVries

Remembering the occupation and liberation

Dewey DeVries, 85, had never heard bagpipes before Canadian soldiers entered Amsterdam 70 years ago.

In the winter of 1944/45, the Dutch were starving.

Like many of their Amsterdam neighbours, the DeVries, living in a narrow townhouse at 84 Zaanstraat, were down to eating tulip bulbs, beet roots and potato peels.

The buoyancy immediately following D-Day the previous spring had long evaporated as the Germans hunkered down for fifth year of occupation.

The Second World War wasn’t over yet for Holland.

Not only had the Allies’ offensive in the south of the country stalled after the battle of Arnhem, the population was experiencing the coldest winter in memory.

Supplies had run out, and the DeVries family, in desperation, gambled on a life-saving quest for food by 15-year-old Dewey and his worn-out bicycle.

Photo: A family photo of Dewey DeVries with his younger brother in 1948 in Abbotsford.

Dewey – “Douwe” in Dutch, like his father – was born in Amsterdam in 1929. He had two brothers and two sisters and grew up in the middle-class neighbourhood of Spaarndammerbuurt.

The war broke out when he was 10.

“Not too many people remember the beginning of the war and end of the war,” says the 84-year-old from his Fleetwood home.

After a five-day battle in May 1940 – including an aerial bombing of Holland’s second city, Rotterdam – the Dutch surrendered.

The occupation was strict but not brutal – at least initially. There were blackouts, curfews, and Dutch history erased from school curriculum.

DeVries remembers the sound of the steel-heeled boots of Germans on parade.

It was meant to intimidate, and it did, although the Germans did find support from some Dutch collaborators.

A DeVries family photo of Canadian soldiers and Dutch civilians on a Bren Carrier in Amsterdam in 1945.

From mid-1942 to the fall of 1944, the Germans deported 107,000 Dutch Jews to the death camps, mostly Auschwitz and Sobibor. Just 5,200 survived. Some 25-30,000 other Jews hid among the Dutch population, and about three-quarters of those survived.

The rest of the Dutch population carried on throughout the war as it could, and resistance increased as time went on.

By June 1944, with the allied landings in Normandy, the Dutch were optimistic.

With British and Canadian forces heading through Belgium towards Holland, Dutch workers decided on a general strike to tie down the German army.

Holland expected to be liberated, but was instead, by the fall, an open-air prison.

“Anything the Germans could confiscate, they did,” recalls DeVries.

He describes the former Jewish neighbourhoods of Amsterdam as nothing but bricks. Already emptied of their people, the homes were picked apart for firewood as winter closed in.

DeVries says people today take things for granted that were almost impossible to find in Holland late in the occupation: salt, sugar, tea, soap, fruit, meat or new clothes.

DeVries’ father made rubber soles for the family’s shoes.

Also unavailable were bicycle tires.

The bike-loving and adaptive Dutch sawed strips of solid rubber from truck tires and attached them to their bicycle wheels.

Photo: Dewey DeVries in school in 1945.

It was on his worn-out bike, with solid rubber tires thumping on cobblestones, that Dewey DeVries rode east from Amsterdam in January 1945 to a farm belonging to his grandparents in Apeldoorn.

It took two days to ride 120 kilometres.

His overnight stay was with a widow in the town of Putten. Her husband had recently been executed the previous autumn by the Germans following an ambush and the killing of a German officer by the Dutch resistance.

Shortly after DeVries arrived at the family farm, he was forced to stay there for two weeks because of heavy snow.

His ride back home was more difficult. He had to bypass roadblocks and navigate his way home in the dark – there were no house lights or streetlights during the five-year blackout.

His parents were surprised by a knock at the door in the middle of the night.

Their son, not heard from for almost three weeks, arrived with a bounty: 50 pounds of grain, some rye bread, one pound of butter (which had to be shared with another family) and some apples.

DeVries’ mother ground the wheat in a coffee grinder and made flat bread – there was no yeast.

The food helped them carry on into the early spring.

DeVries made the same trip a second time, this time by car, in May 2015.

Dewey DeVries in Holland this spring, retracing his past. Photo by Menno Herstel.

In 1948, at the age of 18, DeVries emigrated to Canada and learned how to milk a cow.

“If things ever turn bad…,” he says, with a laugh.

He was sponsored to work on a dairy farm in Abbotsford by his future father-in-law (and an old family friend), and married Canadian-born Dina in 1952.

His father and the rest of the family also lived and worked in the area.

“The farms are still there,” he says.

Later, he went into the construction business in Surrey and had a successful career before retiring.

This month, at the age of 85, DeVries took his four daughters (he also has two sons), one granddaughter and a grandson back to Holland for the 70th anniversary of the liberation.

He retraced his old bike route, and on May 9, stood with the cheering crowds and greeted Canadian veterans in the city of Apeldoorn, just like he did in Amsterdam 70 years earlier.

“To me, that’s a very important occasion.”

Dewey DeVries and his wife Dina in Surrey today. Photo by Boaz Joseph / The Leader.

DeVries remembers as liberation approached, when the Allied bombers – in agreement with Germans now fearful of post-war legal repercussions – dropped food by parachute.

After DeVries retrieved one air-dropped package, his mother cooked her first-ever bully beef, a British staple.

DeVries was also there when the Germans began to panic and fought pitched battles in the streets with the desperate Dutch. Twenty-two civilians died.

A DeVries family photo of the liberation of Amsterdam in 1945.

“The Germans said they would surrender to the Canadians, not the Dutch resistance.”

On May 5, 1945, Canadian soldiers marched in to Amsterdam, their hands slapped by adoring crowds.

DeVries had never heard bagpipes before.

And the country’s relationship with Canada would never be the same.

Every five years since, Canadian soldiers returned to grateful Holland.

When DeVries visited his homeland in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation, there were 7,500 Canadian veterans there.

This year, there were just 100.

Photo by Menno Herstel.