The Writers’ Circle: Mom and Dad and ‘1984’

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By Hank Slikker
PREVIEW Columnist

Orwell’s book “1984” has become a best seller again. Reading it this past week called my attention to parallels between my parents and the main character, Winston. 

For me, the two most famous people in my life are my mother and father. And, similar to Willie Nelson’s catchy lyrics, they “are always on my mind.” I try to honor them always and thank God that he gave me to them. 

One of my favorite memories in life is of our family in 1960, sitting around the dining table — all 10 of us chatting back and forth. In it, my father has on his white bakery clothes and my mother has a spoon, serving up our plates. We had been in America for about seven years, but Mom’s and Dad’s road there had been tough. 

They were born in Den Helder, Holland, in 1915. The city at that time served as north Holland’s naval base, and World War I more or less dominated the atmosphere at home and in the neighborhood. 

Though Holland had claimed neutrality in WWI, the threat against keeping it never left. When the war ended, my parents grew up like normal kids: they learned to read and write, went to church, helped in the home and the bakery, and kicked soccer balls. My mother’s father patrolled the North Sea as a captain with the Royal Navy, and my father’s father ran the family bakery in a tiny hamlet called De Kooy. 

As teenagers, they met in a young people’s church fellowship group. They became engaged just before World War II and got married during the war as soon as a house became available in the bakery’s neighborhood.

The war changed their life goals. I doubt many ever plan for war, but as Leon Trotsky once said, “You may not have an interest in war, but war has an interest in you.” So it happened. One day life took its normal course; the next day brought bombs and death, and alien rulers.

When war came, my parents suddenly became subjects of a foreign state. Like Winston’s world, their world turned into a “depravity of freedom.” Nazi rules canceled out Dutch rules and took away rights to gather, to speak and to write.

Dutch citizens became slave laborers shipped to Germany, where men, women and children were put to work in the fields, the coal mines and factories. Official numbers show that approximately one-half million Dutch people were transported by force to Germany.

Like in Orwell’s “Ministry of Love,” the Dutch also lived under constant surveillance. In addition, like the “vaporized” character Syme, and like Winston’s and Julia’s fate, persons “disappeared” without notice.

In Holland (and elsewhere), persons suspected of any breach or of any “nominal act of resistance” were punished by death or by other penalties listed under Hitler’s draconian Night and Fog Decree. By it, “people were taken away from their homes, never to be heard of again — kidnapped by night and disappearing forever into the fog of the unknown.”

At the Nuremburg trials, German Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel divulged, “[T]he decree was a subtly woven fabric of fear cast by Hitler over the territories occupied by his military forces. The dread apprehension of the silent removal of loved ones made life a torment of anxiety. The lad on his way to school, the man in his workshop, the wife at home, mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again.” (“Tyranny on Trial,” Whitney R. Harris, page 222.)

Comparable to Winston and others in Orwell’s dystopian “Oceania,” my parents also suffered food shortage caused by war. Like the book’s Ministry of Plenty, the Nazis suppressed the distribution of resources to occupied lands.

By the end of 1943, the invaders had seized 600,000 hogs, 275,000 cattle and 30,000 tons of preserved meats. By the winter of 1944-1945, the Netherlands suffered devastating famine in what the Dutch call the Hunger Winter. Eighteen thousand people died of “avoidable” starvation.

Admirably, like Winston living in an environment of perpetual fear, my parents’ consciences led them to defy the state. Unlike Winston, however, they escaped death. They never talked to anyone about the war and I never learned exactly why the Nazis allowed them to continue baking.

But with their limited freedom, they joined the regional underground network, using bread as their instrument of resistance. On his bicycle route delivering bakery goods, my father brought extra loaves for Jews and other fugitives of the state whom he learned were hiding in homes of his customers. He himself hid several people under the bakery floor during the war.

George Orwell’s “1984” does not end “happily ever after.” His dark prophecy undoubtedly serves as warning for his audience of the muck they can expect from political leaders.

For Mom and Dad, however, they show that, in an environment where loving your neighbors costs something, flowers bloom in mud.

This column includes both fiction and nonfiction, and views expressed do not necessarily represent those of The SUN. Submissions can be sent to editor@pagosasun.com.