1. MAY 10, 1940
When my father, Boudewyn A. J. van Oort, stepped out of the Chevrolet on Friday night, my mother, Wilhelmina, immediately knew something serious was amiss: he was earlier than usual. He strode up the gravel path to the veranda steps waving a newspaper in an agitated fashion; he was almost unable to express himself coherently.
“Wil, Wil, call Juf—did you not hear the news? Holland has been attacked by the moffen,” he shouted.
As he stumbled up the steps of our veranda, he unfolded the special late edition of the Rand Daily Mail, the paper he usually bought on his way from work in Roodepoort. Its headline screamed, “HOLLAND AND BELGIUM, NAZIS’ NEW VICTIMS—SUDDEN INVASION.” An entire page was devoted to the shocking news and the reactions from various world capitals.
My mother had only shortly before driven home to Lombardy East from an afternoon’s game of tennis and had not bothered to turn the radio on. She hurried to the back of the house to call Juf, and returned to my father saying in an overwrought voice, “We must contact my family—must send a telegram.”
Just then Juf appeared. She was an old-fashioned soul who preferred not to listen to the radio at all and in any case understood no English and only the little Afrikaans that she could relate to Dutch. Besides, we had to be careful with our electricity consumption: the batteries did not have unlimited capacity. When Juf heard the awful news she shook her head in disbelief. “Oh, oh, oh,” she wailed. “It can’t be true. How could the Germans have done that to us?”
“We’d better go right away into town before the post office closes!” my father urged. “Let’s see, Wil, we need to send one to Zwolle, and I must get one to Jurrema, and perhaps we should also send one to Bets.” After a search for the address book, my parents had a short discussion on what should be said in the telegram to Jurrema, the accountant who managed Juf’s pension; my father wondered whether there was time to safeguard those investments.
“What can we say to your parents,” he thought out loud.
“Let’s think about that on the way to town.”
They hurried out to the car and left in a cloud of dust, as my father raced to cover the five-mile trip to Germiston before closing time. When they returned an hour and a half later they could reassure Juf that they had succeeded, but only just, because of the huge lineup at the telegram counter. My father was spluttering about “uncooperative post office workers, who refused to stay on after six.”
“There was a scene when some who had come after us were unable to get their telegram off,” he recounted to Juf. “I authorized Jurrema to do whatever he thought best for the family.”
As if struck by a bolt of lightning, our peaceful life on the Transvaal veld had been shattered by events over five thousand miles to the north. That’s how our adventure began, a story I heard over and over again, years later, when my father and mother reflected on our troubled past.
1. MAY 10, 1940