Life under Nazi occupation

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer June 06, 2014 08:17 pm

Harbor resident Corry Prudden battled racism, starvation and bitter cold during German occupation of Amsterdam.

“Our neighbors were dropping dead in the streets, dying of starvation,” the Harbor resident recalled vividly. “I don’t know how I made it, but I did. I’m a survivor.”

When Hitler’s military force invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Prudden was 17 years old and living with her parents and three siblings in Amsterdam. 

“When my sister Lida and I awoke to the noise of anti-aircraft guns, we jumped out of bed and ran to the window, opened the curtains and looked out. What we saw changed our lives forever,” she said.

What followed next was five years of starvation, bitterly cold winters and a life without basic necessities such as electricity, running water and clothing.

Today, 74 years later, Prudden is nicely ensconced in her well-equipped apartment at Sea View Senior Living in Harbor. She’s in good health, aside from her failing eyesight, has nice clothes and plenty to eat. 

She takes none of it for granted. 

“I always tell people to appreciate what you have,” she said.

Friday, June 6, marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the battle of Normandy, when Allied forces launched the largest seaborne invasion in history. More than 150,000 Allied troops — about half of them Americans — invaded Western Europe, overwhelming German forces in an operation that proved to be a turning point in World War II. 

News of the Normandy invasion in 1944 lifted the spirits of Prudden, then 21 and barely surviving after four years under German rule, but it would be another year before Allied troops would liberate Amsterdam. Survival was still a top priority.

Life in wartime

When the Germans invaded her city, they bombed the airfields first, destroying the country’s insignificant, antiquated airforce.

“Our country had always been a peace-loving country, so we felt overwhelmed and hopeless. It is such a scary feeling when your country is violated like that,” Prudden said.

On May 15, 1940, the Dutch government officially surrendered to the Germans. 

“And so started five years of utter misery,” Prudden wrote in a memoir.

Life under German rule was harsh. The Dutch form of government was dismantled. The citizens were fingerprinted and photographed and given identity cards they had to carry at all times. Dutch police forces were replaced by the German gestapo.

Soldiers ransacked homes, carrying off brass and copper items (used for the war effort), radios, bicycles, money, clothes and food.

But none of that compared with how the Germans treated Dutch Jewish citizens.

“We never thought a thing about that they were Jewish, but we had these horrible people who now decided who we could associate with and who not,” Prudden wrote. 

“Coming home from school one day I came to a blocked-off street and I saw people I knew thrown into trucks. One woman, who had just given birth, they threw her out a fourth-floor window and the baby after her, which one of the soldiers caught and smashed its head against the brick building. All the soldiers thought it was a big joke.”

The Jewish people who were not immediately killed were transported to concentration camps, she said.

Her aunt and uncle harbored a Jewish family for several years, at the risk of being found out and shot. Prudden’s father joined the “underground,” a group of people who resisted the German military. Prudden and her sister often served as couriers to get messages across town.

“As the war went on things became more unbearable,” she wrote. “We lost all our electric power and gas.”

When the candles ran out, the family jerry-rigged a bicycle to power a light when it was pedaled.

Soon, local farms were depleted or the produce sold only to German soldiers. 

Nearly three years into the occupation, people were dying from starvation, she said.

“My hair was falling out and I had sores on my neck from being malnourished,” Prudden said.

Hope arrived in 1943, as Prudden watched American and German planes battle in the skies above Amsterdam. 

“Several times we saw the Germans succeed and the American pilot bail out. We all would cheer when the American’s parachute opened,” she wrote. “But most times the German pilot would try to shoot at the pilot suspended on the parachute, and if the German was successful, everyone would be devastated.”

Watching such aerial battled ended when German soldiers ordered Dutch citizens to stay inside during air raids or risk being arrested.

Then came news of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.

“We were now almost without any food. The stores were empty and our stomachs started to growl most of the time,” she said. “In September we heard through the underground sources that the liberation was imminent. We were jubilant. We were getting ready to greet the Allied troops. ... and the Germans were getting nervous.”

But her hopes were dashed when the Germans successfully thwarted the Allies’ attempt to reach the city.

The Dutch people then faced one of the worst winters ever. 

“It was 25 degrees centigrade below zero for 40 days,” she said. “To conserve energy we spent a lot of time in bed to keep warm. There was no fuel of any kind. All you could dream about was food. We were able to get some sugar beets and tulip bulbs, but the bulbs made us sick.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to find food at a distant farm, Prudden returned home empty- handed, exhausted and her bloody feet too frozen to feel the pain, she said.

“I was more upset that I had not brought any food home than I was about the state of my feet,” she said.

She was fortunate. Other children on similar missions to find food were found dead along the country roads, she said.

In April of 1945, the Germans permitted the Swedish Red Cross to air drop and distribute loaves of bread and margarine to Amsterdam citizens. 

“That meant to us that the end of the war was near and that other countries were aware of our plight,” she said. “Nothing ever tasted better than that bread.”

On May 8, Prudden and her family retrieved a hidden radio to listen to the news that Germany had surrendered. 

Her father and members of the underground retrieved hidden guns and supplies to root out German soldiers entrenched in local buildings. 

“I asked my dad how were they able to get to this equipment so quick and he told me they had the best hiding place ever — right under the buildings the Germans occupied. Apparently, there were ancient tunnels and rooms under the downtown buildings,” she said.

When Allied forces arrived, Prudden joined with her community to greet the soldiers, who were Canadians.

“They knew about the terrible famine and had saved their snacks to throw to the crowd,” Prudden recalled. “I had my first taste of a Nestle’s chocolate bar. It was amazing. We had forgotten what chocolate tasted like.”

Later that evening, huge field kitchens were set up and soldiers served dinner featuring ham, potatoes, salad and strawberry shortcake.

“I will never forget that meal, although many of us got sick afterward because we we were not used to eating that kind of food,” she said.

A day or two later, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived with American troops.

“He was in a large, open car and I was standing just in front and got a good look at him and his wonderful smile,” she said. “What a thrill. We all adored him. He was our hero. It was the most wonderful day of my life, to be free again.”

After the war

In 1948, Prudden met and married her Canadian-born husband in Amsterdam. They moved to Canada where they lived a short while until moving to New York. They later moved to Campbell, California, where they lived happily for decades.

But the war still haunts her. She recalled a time when, in 1948, visiting the consulate office in Canada, she ran into an old high school friend from Amsterdam.

“She was Jewish and a good friend of mine. The Germans took her whole family away and I didn’t know what happened to them,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I was so happy to see that she had survived. When I walked up to her ... she looked away. She didn’t want anything to do with me. I was heartbroken.”

Prudden has talked often about her wartime experience with her family and friends.

“She never let us waste any food,” her adult son, Rich Prudden said.

The experience, she said, “has made me stronger.

“I’m better able to handle the bad things that came later in life. I’ve been a survivor all my life.”