Among the dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland, on North Holland’s west coast, the silvery-green leaves of sea buckthorn are buffeted by the Atlantic’s salty breezes and fearsome gales.
You’ll find the shrub on coasts across Europe, and all the way to Mongolia and northwestern China. Also known as sandthorn, sallowthorn, or seaberry, it is a hardy plant that can withstand temperatures as low as -43 C. The foliage and orange berries are used in certain skincare products.
The park is home to deer, squirrels, hedgehogs… even Shetland ponies and Highland cattle graze the grasslands. The birds and butterflies clearly love it, too, flitting between marsh orchids, meadowsweet, and yellow loosestrife that are sprinkled across the dunes.
But there’s more than fauna and flora to be found among the grasses. The area is dotted with memorial stones to others who now call Zuid-Kennemerland home.
A small path leads from a parking lot to the top of one dune, where the lime-rich sand enfolds the remains of 347 victims of the Nazi occupation during World War II. One of them, the only woman, is Hannie Schaft, the first internment at the Dutch Honourary Cemetery (Erebegraafplaats Bloemendaal) back on November 27, 1945.
Her bungling assassins managed to wound her with the first shot. But the attractive young woman with the flaming red hair, freckles, and blue eyes would not be cowed in her final moments.
‘Ik schiet beter’ (‘I shoot better’) was said to be her response to that poor effort. Then she was finished off by the second gunman.
Before she became a martyr for Dutch resistance, Hannie Schaft studied law at the University of Amsterdam, where she was forced to quit her course when she refused to sign a declaration of allegiance to the Nazi occupiers.
She had already joined a resistance group with close ties to the Communist Party and got very active indeed, especially when it came to weapons. Hannie attacked collaborators and occupying Nazis. So determined was she that she even became fluent in German to enable her to gain the confidence of German soldiers.
She took part in several assassinations and acts of sabotage, including blowing up railway tracks and factories. Spotted at one killing, she was identified as ‘the girl with the red hair’ – a description that was placed on the Nazi’s most-wanted list.
Her exploits read like something from a novel. In June, 1944 she and a comrade from the resistance, Jan Bonekamp, killed Nazi collaborator and policeman Captain Willem Ragut, in Zaandam. Hannie is said to have shot him in the back but Ragut returned fire, mortally wounding Bonekamp in the stomach.
In September of the same year, she wounded a criminal investigator, but her gun jammed and the intended victim fired back, hitting her in the thigh.
In March 1945, just weeks before her death, Hannie and her fellow resistance fighter Truss Oversteegen disguised themselves as workmen to assassinate a Dutch police inspector. The killing prompted a Nazi retaliation that resulted in the deaths of 15 hostages.
On March 21, she was captured carrying a weapon and resistance propaganda. During her interrogation, she was identified as ‘the girl with the red hair’.
But she wasn’t the only woman out killing Nazis, the aforementioned Truus Oversteegen and her sister, Freddie, were at it, too.
Freddie Oversteegen was only 14 years old when she joined the resistance. Two years later she was carrying out assassinations with her older sister on collaborators and Nazis, luring them to their deaths in ambushes.
They were from Haarlem, raised by a mother who took Jewish refugees into the family home as Europe teetered on the brink of war. When the Nazis invaded The Netherlands in May 1940, the sisters and their mother began their acts of resistance by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and posting warnings to those who considered collaborating with the invaders.
Such acts, though harmless in themselves, carried heavy penalties for those who were caught, but the sisters were never suspected, particularly Freddie who looked even younger than her tender years when she wore her hair in pigtails. She and Truus would slip by Nazi controls unnoticed, moving weapons and stealing identity papers to help Jewish people escape.
They eventually moved on from such work to assassination – an unusual development to say the least for teenage girls. Their innocent looks allowed them to get closer to collaborators and Nazis than might otherwise have been possible.
In one instance, Truus used her charms to entice an SS officer from a restaurant and out for a walk in the woods, where resistance fighters were waiting to execute him. In another, she and Freddie flirted with the guards at a warehouse to distract them before burning the building down. Both killed. How many, they refused to say. They would follow targets to their homes and fire on them there or ambush them on their bicycles.
It was the Dutch equivalent of a drive-by-shooting. “My mother drove the bicycle, and Freddie sat on the back and was shooting,” Truus’s daughter, Hannie Menger told the Observer. “Because they were girls, nobody noticed them.”
When they weren’t assassinating Nazis and collaborators they were busy hiding Jews, helping tend patients in an emergency hospital, and blowing up the Ijmuden-Haarlem railway track.
Sophie Poldermans, who wrote about the trio in her book, Seducing and Killing Nazis, recalled how the base inhumanity of the Nazis overrode any qualms the girls may have had about their own actions.
As Truus told Poldermans in her book: ‘Once, I was confronted with an SS soldier, a Dutch SS soldier even, who was killing a small baby by hitting it against a wall. He grabbed the baby and hit it against the wall. The father and sister had to watch. They were obviously hysterical. The child was dead. I shot that guy. Right there and then. That wasn’t an assignment, but I don’t regret it.’
Is it any wonder then that the young sisters suffered PTSD as a result of their wartime activity. Nightmares, screaming, and fighting in their sleep were not uncommon occurrences, according to Poldermans.
Unlike Hannie, who was just 25 when she died, Truus and Freddie lived to a ripe age. The elder sister died in 2016, aged 93. Her younger sibling, Freddie died in 2018, just two days shy of her own 93rd birthday.
“If you ask me, the war only ended two weeks ago,” her son Remi Dekker told the Observer in the days after her death. “In her mind it was still going on, and on, and on. It didn’t stop, even until the last day.”
“She shot a few people, and these were the real, real bad guys,” Remi recalled. “But she hated it, and she hated herself for doing it.”
They had a long inning’s, and they built lives for themselves in the post-war years. For many of those years, though, due to their Communist leanings, they went largely unrecognised for the wartime service they had done their country. However, in 2014, they were each awarded a medal for their war service by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
That they managed to carve out lives at all as mothers and homemakers, is testament to their strong will – a will that enabled them to look beyond the killings they had committed and towards a future free from oppression.
Toughened by their experiences in the resistance, they carried as best they could, the heavy burden their actions had on their own consciences.
They were indomitable, as was their comrade in arms, Hannie.
Like the hardy sea buckthorn buffeted by the gales of the Atlantic coast, her spirit stood up to all the Nazis could throw at her, even using her final words to show her defiance.
Orange is the national colour of The Netherlands, so it is fitting that she lies where she does, close to the buckthorn’s silvery-green leaves and its orange berries… the orange of the homeland she gave her life for.
I hope it also grows where the Oversteegen women now rest, and that their rest is a quiet one.
A small aside…
In my university days I spent the summer of 1985 in The Netherlands. Myself and my three companions took a couple of days out in Amsterdam upon arrival, getting our bearings before someone put us wise to finding work on the tulip farms in the countryside. We caught a bus to somewhere near Hillegom, the centre of the bulb industry. It’s just a short drive from Haarlem.
Our first evening in the area wasn’t the greatest. We were 18 years old – green as saplings – and unable to find a place to stay that night. Undaunted, I suggested we make our way to the beach, where we could bed down in our sleeping bags among the sand dunes. And that’s what we did.
It’s only now as I look at the map of the area that I realise back in 1985 we were probably sleeping in the very dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland… the dunes where Hannie Schaft had met her cruel end 40 years earlier, and where she now lies, close to where the buckthorn grows.