My Grandfather, Kornelis Gyswyt ("Opie") was always reluctant to do be interviewed or write his war stories. One day, after playing a game of chess at his home in Lumberton, NJ, we were putting the pieces back, and I decided to prompt him to tell his story. As I did so, I put my phone, recording, on the chess board. I didn't get permission to record this conversation, but I told him immediately afterwards that I had taped it. He said "Well, that's probably for the better."
This interview is about an hour and twenty minutes long and I've posted it in ogg format. Here it is:
Audio recording of an interview with Kornelis Gyswyt
I painstakingly transcribed the full interview into a text transcript, as accurately as possible. I had no idea transcription is so hard. This post represents about 20 hours of work on this project.
Text transcript of the interview
I then wrote a summary of the interview, which I've copied below. There are also some notes about the interview and transcription.
I, Keith Irwin, creator of this interview and its transcripts, hereby release all of these creative works into the public domain. This includes the ogg recording, its transcript, metadata, summary, and this post. Anyone is hereby permitted to reproduce, sell, remix, or do whatever they want to these files without further consent from me, the author. I do knowingly relinquish all rights to these creative works. This statement supercedes the copyright notice at the bottom of all the pages of my website. I encourage you to distribute these documents to history archives and other repositories at your own discretion.
I was bothered by the lack of information about the train crash available on Wikipedia. There is a List of German rail accidents which mirrors a German version, but neither mentioned any accident in 1940-1949 that was anywhere near where my grandfather crashed.
I emailed the Archives in Wehye, the nearest town. After a lot of research, they emailed me back, that there was a train crash in November 1944 in Bad Zwischenahn. Importantly, they also sent a source: De Razzia van Rotterdam p198. I posted this source on the Wikipedia talk page for the train crash article and a friendly German Wikipedian added it to the article. As far as I know, that book and this interview are the only remaining records of the crash. If you know of another, feel free to email me.
I was not a soldier. One of my brothers, Hendrik, was in the army. He was conscripted. He was drafted. He was in the army because every man had to be in the army for a half a year or a year for training. And the rule was, if one son out of a family was conscripted, then the others did not have to go into the army. So as soon as he was in the army, I did not have to be conscripted. That was the rule. Now there were other exceptions. If you was a student in a university or college, then you did not have to go into the army until you had finished your studies, you see. And usually you had to go, you got conscripted when you were about eighteen or nineteen years old. So I was a student still at that time, or I claimed I was. And my parents were divorced. They had twelve children, my parents. I was number eleven. My sister, who still lives in The Haag, she was number twelve. So my parents divorced in the depths of the depression. And you people, you people here, have no idea what the depression meant. It was terrible in Holland! It was terrible the world over! It was terrible here, in this country. So, I did not have to be in the army.
When Hitler got into power and started to make more and more problems and wars, the other nations started building up their armies and their weapons. But they did not do enough of it. Particularly Holland, did not do hardly anything. But they relaxed under the rules of people who had to be conscripted in the armed forces, either the air force, or the navy, or the army. So when it came later in the thirties, say '36 and -seven and -eight (the war broke out, actually, in '39), the rules for being conscripted in the army (or the forces) became tighter. So I got a notice in the mail in about '38... and as you might remember, the war actually broke out in '39... I got a notice in the mail, that I had to report at barracks of the army in a town there in Holland, and I was going to be trained as an "subtalden" officer. That is an officer below the rank of lieutenant. That's a sergeant, basically, or a staff sergeant, or whatever they called it. And I was going to be put in a new anti-aircraft artillery unit. Because I had a high school diploma with good marks for mathematics and apparently they figured I belonged in the, you know, figuring out the trajectories, the mathematics of aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns. I had to report in June of 1940. I wish I had kept those papers, but I threw them out. And the Germans invaded Holland in May of 1940. So I never reported. And I never got into the army. And I should have loved to be in the army. But years and years later, when the allied armies had landed in Normandy, they were fighting their way up north and east, of course, into Germany. But Holland was assigned to the army of Montgomery, was the British army, and the Canadians. There were a very very small unit of Americans in Holland. And they liberated Holland at the end of the war. There was a terrible situation in Holland... with millions of people starving to death, you know? Everywhere.
In October, actually in November. November of '44, in the year before the war ended, in November of '44, I was arrested... drafted into the German's [unintelligible] of about fifty-thousand men in Western Holland. Those soldiers came with their guns and through all the streets and took the men out. I was in my house. And they took all the men out. The young men, particularly. I think the limit was 45 or so. And they took fifty-thousand men that day. And they let us march and march; now that weather was terrible drizzly weather. Cold and terrible wind and terrible cold rain. I marched with fifty-thousand others, in groups. They first marched us to collection points. And then they put us on barges. (Transcriber's note: during a previous telling of this story, my grandfather said that some of the men were jumping off the barges and into the frigid water, because they didn't know where they were being taken and many assumed it would be a concentration camp.) They towed those barges through the canals from Holland. To points along the "Saudersee". That's an inland... lake, really. A couple of hundred people were in my group, on one barge. And those barges were terribly dirty, you know? I mean, they had been loaded with coal, or with oil, or whatever. It was terribly dirty. And we were wet, and they counted us, day after day. They put us on the dockside and, in rows, and they counted how many people there were. And with those barges they went through the canals and over the IJsselmeer, and they let us off the barge, put us on the dockside, and it was raining just like the other day. And they sent us to former barracks of the Dutch army. And that's where we finally landed that night. And we were absolutely at the end of our power. I was so soaking wet, and so cold and so miserable. And we had not eaten, of course, for a day or two. When we came in those barracks, there were other, maybe thousands of other Dutch people in the same situation. But they had been there already a couple of days. But we came here, wet as we were, and cold, and all that, and hungry. All the clothes completely soaked with cold, icy water... all that we could do was to sit down and lay down and leave it at that. But the other guys who were there, they helped us to get us out of our wet clothes. They helped us. And then, I think, after that, we got something to eat then.
I was there a couple of days, maybe two or three days. Then they put us on a train. And the wagons of the train were very old, old passenger wagons. They were very old, wooden passenger cars. In the very old days, you had passenger cars with compartments, and doors at each compartment, and a passageway that you could walk from front to back and from back to front. And the carriage we were in was made from wood, with benches for people to sit on. When we were put on that train, we had those very old passenger cars. But in the middle of the train there was a modern, much wider, passenger car, and there were the German soldiers then. And we had to close all the doors and all the windows. And if you didn't do it, they shot through the windows. And when we started to leave those barracks, the Dutch barracks, the soldiers in the wide car, the even wider car, every now and again, they were on a straight edge, they were shooting right past the train. At anybody who put his head out of the window for instance... had a chance to get shot in the head. And they put a very old locomotive in front of the train.
From that location where we were, the first big town was Groningen, in the north of Holland. On that station, the Germans put a modern, big, German locomotive in front of the train. The weather was just atrocious. Rain, and cold, and windy, and absolutely terrible. But then we left that town of Groningen. By the way, my mother, Kornelia Blom, was born in that town. So the new locomotive was put on in Groningen. All the compartments were full in those old carriages. They had put as many people in there as they could. When the train left Groningen, it went really full speed because we had a much bigger locomotive on it. It was pressed full of people. And I found a spot under a seat where I could at least stretch myself out, you know, and try to sleep. And I was sound asleep, when suddenly the train kind of exploded, you know. The whole train. These enormous sounds and noises and splintering of glass all over and it was also in the cabin we were in. What had happened is that the train had collided, full-speed, with another train that came from the opposite direction.
German people, citizens from Germany, they were helping us with water and other things. The soldiers did not allow that. Finally we got out of the train, and again we were lined up at the longer train, in groups. And, when I walk along the train, saw the two locomotives, two big locomotives, they were standing straight up like an 'A'. The first three or four carriages were totally, totally destroyed. Totally pulverized, you could say. How many people died in that accident, I never could find out. I never heard about it. I never read about it. So, it took us into the village where the accident happened. The name of the village is Dreye, and Kirchweyhe. I later tried to find the place but could not. Kirchweyhe was a big center for the German railroad, for repairs and locomotives and other material. Looking backwards, we were kind of fortunate that that accident happened there. Because they didn't know what to do with us, you know? We found that out later on. We were not prisoners of war, but we were forced labor in labor camps. And some of those camps were very very bad camps, you know, concentration camps. We came to Dreye in the middle of November, 1944. The war ended in May of the next year.
So we just stayed there where the trains crashed. The Germans tried to do things according to the law. They actually appointed us to people working for the railroads, the Reichsbahn. And they treated us decently. They put us to work on a small-gauge railroad. We worked to transfer that from small-gauge to full-gauge. That's what they put us to work on. It was absolutely absurd. By that time, the war was in such a situation... that the Germans were beaten all over. But they kept fighting.
The first day we started to really work there, there was a big train full of sand. All the carriages were full of sand. And it was to reinforce the foundation for the rails and the cross-bars for the rails. So we were put to work to unload all those carriages full of sand. And then the foreman of the Germans came walking past and he said, in German, "Is there anybody here who speaks and writes German?" Nobody answered. Everybody went on. So when he came to our group, I said to him, "Oh, I can do that." He asked, "You can really write in German?" I said "ja". He said "Ok. And you can read and write it in German?" "Ja," I said. "I can do that." I was bluffing a little bit.
So he said uh, "Kommen Sie mal her." ["come with me for a moment."] He was polite. So I went to the office of the Germans. And they gave me the job to be the guy to kept all the books about the progress of the work and such: How many were working per day, and how many were good, how many were not so good and so on. I was with those Germans in the office, always, all day. And I had to walk hours, miles, every day along that road. I didn't have good shoes any more. So, they gave us wooden shoes. And my feet were always in pain because I walked miles every day.
Now don't misunderstand me that I cooperated with the Germans, because I never did that. I kept the books and that's what I did. And whatever I heard them discussing, I reported to the other guys in my group. For example, there were two guys in our group who were the slowest and the laziest and the most misunderstanding people you could imagine. Which, of course was moot from our point of view. Well, the Germans were always talking about these two guys. They were saying, "They are lazy," and "They are no good," and "They are this and that." And once, they were really pissed off. They had always warned us that there was a concentration camp in the next big town. That concentration camp was actually part of Bremen. They said, "Tomorrow morning we will get the Polizei to arrest them and get them sent to the camp." So that evening I went to them and said, "You'd better get the hell out of here, because they are going to pick you up tomorrow morning. Everyone called me der Schriber, the writer, the scribe.
The next morning they were gone. We gave them some bread, and whatever we could get together, and they took off early the next morning out of the camp. But the police never came down to arrest them either. They never came to do what they said they were going to do. But it was already running toward the end of the war anyway.
I never heard anything any more. But two years after the war, when I was working as a marine consultant, I had gone to central Rotterdam one evening to visit some people I knew. I caught a late streetcar going back to where I lived. That was around midnight. I was standing there on the streetcar and the door opened and this guy walks in. He was... he was not really drunk but... he was very happy, I can say. He had had a couple of drinks under his belt. He looks up to me and he says "AH! Der Schreiber! Ah, how have you been?" and so on. And we hugged each other. He kept thanking me for warning him. He told me they could hardly walk when they were at work. He said, "Schreiber, do you know, that first day we walked fifty kilometers." And they had made it back to Holland. I didn't tell him that they never came to arrest him. I thought to myself, let me have a good name here.
The camp we were in was just an working camp. In the beginning it was all very primitive. We built ourselves cots so we could sleep in a little privacy. They were not really beds, but they were better than nothing. Because we worked for the Reichsbahn, they treated us like volunteer workers. That's how we got treated. I was very fortunate. Some of those people who were picked up in Razzias like I was, thousands of them, some of those people had an terrible time, and many died.
We all escaped that work camp, in drizzles. I had said to people, "I'm going to leave the war; I'm going to get out of here." Two young fellows came to me and said, "Schreiber, can we travel with you and try to get back to Holland." I said, "No, not really." I was not really planning to have the burden of other people. But they were so emotional and kind of afraid. They said to me, "You speak German and we don't. We can't speak German and we don't know how to navigate." They were brothers and they were very tall. I don't remember their names. Finally, I said, "Ok, let's go together. But whenever somebody wants to split off or go his own way, he can go." So we took off, the three of us, early one morning.
We started to walk to Holland towards the end of April, maybe the 21st. We were probably less than a hundred miles from the Dutch border. That's not a big distance. A hundred miles, you can walk in, about three days. That's what we figured. So, we got some supplies from the stores where we worked. Those were the factories of the Reichsbahn for repairs to the rolling stock. The had fed us every day. And they gave us some food because everything was already breaking down.
We walked for about two days. The first night we slept at a farm, in the hay. The second night, we slept by another farmer further down. As soon as they heard we were Dutch... well Dutch people usually have a good name. Anywhere. Those farmers were very nice. They fed us, and we slept there in the haystack.
Finally, we came to a little town close to the Dutch border. And the name of that town is Oldenburg. We walked into the town because we had to pass through it to get to the border. In that town, a police officer on an bicycle passed us. Then he stopped and turned around, and asked, "What are you doing here?" "Well," we say, "we are going back to Holland." And he says something like, "Well, who gave you permission?" I answered him, and said, "We are 'ausbombardiert', mein Herr." ("We were bombed out, sir.") He asked where and I told him, Bremen. He told us to follow him. So, we followed him and he took us straight to a concentration camp. He didn't say anything or take us to the police station. There were some very old soldiers at the concentration camp, maybe sixty years old. By that time, Hitler had almost everybody in his army, everyone from ten to a hundred. So these old soldiers were guards at the concentration camp.
To this day, when I think about that policeman, I feel robbed all over again. We must have looked terrible, because we always had the same clothes on. We never had an bath or shower. Thank god, we didn't have any lice or anything because we kept everything as clean as possible and avoided people with lice. So when that police officer brought us to the old bastard guard... he said to him, "Take these people in and put them in the camp." I walked to him, but he waved his arms, saying, "Don't come close to me!" I was really so mad about that. So I told him a few things in my best German.
We were in that camp for three days. They assigned us to a section of the camp. We had to find our own way to survive. They lined us up to go to the sleeping quarters and I looked at some of these people there. I saw the lines creeping over their shoulders and in the back of their head. Terrible. I said to the two guys, "Hey, listen. You'd better not go in there because I think the whole place is infested." So, we slept outside. I still had a pretty good overcoat.
I never got any food for those three days in the camp. There was hardly even any water. Two days later, there was an announcement over the PA system, in German. It said that all the Dutchmen in the camp could go to Holland that evening, by train, to the border.
We found out later that the camp was mostly a central hospital. That's why it was never really bombed too much. That's why everything was still kind of operative.
So at twelve o'clock the next day, all the Dutch people had to report and we all did. And of course we were counted again and again and again. Finally at about four o'clock in the afternoon, they started to leave the camp and walk to the central railroad station. We were supposed to get on a hospital train. They were going to pick up all the wounded German soldiers and we were going on that train into Holland. But like everything in those days, everything was delayed, and delayed, and delayed. Before we finally started to roll with the train, it was already seven or eight o'clock. So, we spent almost half a day in that railroad station.
We had not eaten for days and were really at the end of our strength. I walked through the hall of the train station and saw a newspaper laying on the ground. I had not seen a newspaper for ages. So I picked it up! And it was the paper of that day! I was really surprised because everything had broken down; there was still electricity and things like that but for the rest, everything was broken down. So, I started reading that paper. In big, big letters it read: "Roosevelt Dead" ("Roosevelt Ist Tot" or something like that.) It announced that Roosevelt had passed away. On at the first page of the paper, there was a little announcement saying that a very high officer of the German army had surrendered his army to the Russians on the eastern front. Consequently, Hitler had ordered that his whole family to be shot. And if that general ever came back to Germany, he was now a prisoner of war, and would be shot too. That's what was going on in Germany at that time.
I got to talk to a German soldier. He must have been a sergeant or something because he had an ring. I tell him that I'm Dutch and I'm on my way back home. I told him I was going to leave that evening on this-and-that train. Then I asked, "Did you hear the latest news?"
He said, "What is that?"
I said "Roosevelt died."
"What?" he says. "Roosevelt died?" I said, "Ja, Roosevelt died."
He said, "How do you know?"
I said, "Well, I have a newspaper telling me."
He said, "Can you give me the newspaper?"
I said to him, "Well, listen. I have not eaten for, I believe, as long as I can remember."
I knew that German people from the forces, whenever they had legitimate travel, got a pass. It let them get food at every station, anytime. So, I said, "I have not eaten for ages and that if you get me something to eat, I will give you my paper." He said, "That's a deal!"
He came back with a big can of soup, and a plate and spoon. He gave that to me. And in no time flat, that soup was gone, was in my belly. He said "Ah, der Mensch ist hungrig!" I said, "Yeah, you bet I am!" So he said, "Well, wait a minute... I will get you some more." Then he went out and got another can of soup. Again that disappeared pretty damn fast. Then he said to one of his friends at the table, "You go and get this man some more to eat." And he went out and got me some more to eat. I think I got a sandwich too. That was an amazing experience. So I gladly gave him my paper.
The train took us just over the border and then stopped. There was a guard at the border, like normally when you go from one country into another. They just let us go through. We had no documentation but there were a lot of different nationalities all over the place at that time, so it didn't really matter anymore, if you were Dutch, or Flemish, or Belgian, or French, you know, didn't mean anything.
I still had the two fellows with me. So we started walking. We talked to some farmers at the first village we came to. They were all afraid, that they were going to be hurt. They were worried that there was really going to be a hot war at that point. The allied troops suffered quite a lot of casualties in that city of Groningen I mentioned. We got to know some Dutch people, and talked to them, of course. And most of them had food, so they made us pancakes and things like that from rough grains. We stayed in that area about two or three days. Then they told us the British army was coming through. So we all went into the farmland. They told us to stay low and not move too much. We were hiding from the fighting. It didn't matter which side we were on. They never ask many questions in a war. Before they know who you are, you might have a couple of bullets in your head.
So we hid for about a day as they came through. And after that day, there was no more fighting where we were. The first vehicle I saw was not a tank, but an armored vehicle, like a small tank. We started to talk to the soldiers, the allied soldiers. These were Polish people. They said to us, "Oh, wait until we are in Germany!" I spoke in English with them at that time.
So once we were in liberated country, everything went much smoother. Rotterdam was the final destination, where my mother was still living. But it was still quite a distance away from where we were. I had very good friends in the eastern part of Holland, in the province of Overijssel. So that's where I tried to go to first. But the military sent us to the city of Groningen. There, they had a setup for all those streams of people migrating back to their home countries. There were millions of people walking across the whole of Europe at that time, doing exactly as I was. There were French, Belgians, Flemish. Germans, too. And Austrians and Norwegians... Danish, people from the Balkans... everyone you can imagine. The Dutch authorities had prepared places to sleep, and bathrooms and food and such. And they told us, that if we had friends or family to return to, that we should go there. That was already my plan. So the two guys and I started south. Groningen is still all the way in the north of Holland.
So we left Groningen by foot and usually got food from the British army. We loved that food. We were walking south through a little place, a suburb of Groningen called Haren. My mother was born in that village. And we came upon a large property with all kinds of military equipment around: trucks and tanks and such. I said to the guys, "Hey, let's see if we can get something to eat here."
We walk up to that estate and met a Canadian soldier. He must have been a sergeant or something. This guy was an giant of an man, maybe six-foot-six tall. As we approached, he asked us, "What can I do for you?"
"Oh," I said to him, "we'd like to have something to eat, if possible. And, an uh, I'd really like to have some cigarettes, if you have cigarettes."
"Oh," he says, "just wait a minute."
He had an jeep and he climbed into it, and when he came out, he said, "We will get you some food later on." I said, "Oh, that's ok." Then he looked at the two guys, who almost had no shoes left. Their shoes were just in terrible shape, with hardly any sole left.
Now, when I was in Germany, I once did some gardening work for a lady in the village, Dreye. I planted and raked and such. That "camp" we were in was not sealed off or protected or anything. We could walk into the village, and talk to people, and we were completely free. We worked for the Reichsbahn and were not treated as prisoners. So I got to know this lady and she told me that her husband was on the eastern front but she hadn't heard from him for a year. I was very sympathetic. She went upstairs and came back with a pair of shoes. And she said, "Pass an." ("try these on") So I 'pass them an' and they fitted me very well. And she gave them to me. That was one of the friendliest things I experienced in Germany.
So when we came to the Canadian soldier, I had an proper pair of shoes. But I didn't have any socks! So that Canadian soldier went back to his Jeep and returned with an nice pair of shoes. The two guys who traveled with me were tall and had big feet. The Canadian soldier was also a sort of giant with big feet. One guy tried the shoes on, and they fit perfectly. The Canadian said, "They fit, huh?" He replied, "Ja." But he said to me to say to him, "I have no socks." So I told the guy in English. I spoke English, amazing as it is. I told to the guy, "Ah, he has no socks." "Oh," he says. So he came back with a pair of clean socks, army socks, as well as another pair of shoes for the other guy, which fit too. And he says to the other guy, "You need socks too?" and he said "ja." So he gave him a pair of socks too. Now, I'm standing there and those guys are getting socks, and they are getting shoes. And I wasn't getting anything! So at last I said to the Canadian, "You are very very nice. I can't say anything about that. But... I have a good pair of shoes, but I have no socks." "Oh," he says. "I will look into it." He seemed to have an big supply of everything you could need. So I got a pair of socks, too.
Then we continued our travel. Those two guys said to me, "When we were in Germany, you talked in German. And now that we are with the British, you speak English! We did really very well, by going with you!" When I arrived in Hengelo, where I wanted to be, they were still with me. That was still all the way on the eastern border of the Netherlands. When I finally arrived at my friends, we split up. We exchanged names and addresses and... well... that was that.
Quite an long time later, maybe an couple of months after we were home. I visited them. They told me that the daughter of those first people in Holland who put us up to sleep had visited them.
That's my story about the end of the war.
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