THE LIFE STORY OF WALTER
As told in 1994
There is one (story) I remember. They used midwives then and my father sent for the midwife, but before she arrived I was already born! A neighbor helped my mother. I was born in December. In August, my grandfather had committed suicide. When I was young I always said , “I would like to kill myself.” So one day, when I was 15 or so, my mother sat me down and told me not to say that anymore. That my grandfather had hung himself. This was something that was never talked about, they somehow thought it was shameful. And once I hit my head on a nail. My mother took me on her lap and said, “I think it’s time for you to start kindergarten.”
(My mother was a sensitive person) and so was my father. In 1940, when we were in the basement during a bombing, my father said, “What are we doing! Our supper is upstairs on the table getting cold!” So, we went up to eat. This could have been dangerous, but his matter of fact attitude always had a very calming effect on us. Well, it was dangerous to have stayed in the basement too. Many did and their houses crumbled on top, water pipes burst and gas pipes too. Another time we were huddled on the floor. It was night and we were falling asleep. My father said, “As long as we’re sleeping we may as well go to our beds.” Well, life goes on.
(I was seventeen ‑ eighteen at the time.) I recall seeing pictures in the newspaper of people standing in the streets, somewhere in Spain, during their civil war, watching the bombs drop. I thought, how foolish! I would certainly go hide ! But when it happened to us, I ran into the streets to watch. We thought the Germans would only be there for a short time … a week or so. We had heard how the Germans had put everything into armaments and that German people were hungry. They stayed . They occupied Holland for 5 years ! When they did come, we thought the allies would come and liberate us. The British did send two planes which were promptly shot down.
They (the Germans) bombed Rotterdam. There was a strong resistance on the right bank of the river. The Germans couldn’t get across the bridge into Northern Rotterdam. You see, there is a river that separates Northern Rotterdam from Southern Rotterdam. Since the Germans couldn’t get across they gave an ultimatum. The story goes, that the resistance did give into the demands, but word didn’t reach (the Germans in time). Anyway, they bombed and a great deal of the city was destroyed. (I wasn’t part of the resistance) but my father hid someone in the house.
By this time alot of the Jews had already committed suicide, turned on the gas, etc. They did this rather than let themselves be taken. They knew what was happening. We all heard the stories of the terrible things that were happening but didn’t really believe them. They were too horrible to believe.
Well, you know, teenagers can be pretty stupid. There were things we did that were dangerous, but terribly callous. For instance, while in school (college), studing art, the sirens would go off to alert us of approaching bomber planes. And like idiots our reaction was: hooray ! free time!, because we all had to go to the bombshelters. We had to carry IDs. If you didn’t have one, you were carted off to a camp. They would stop buses. There was a 5:00 curfew. There wasn’t much one could do. There were soldiers every where (and) machine guns. It was not uncommon to see people lined up and get shot. Then in 1944, the worst part came. They called it “The Hunger Winter”. There was very little food and many people died. All men between 18 and 40 were taken away.
I had a sister, she came to live with my parents, of course they had taken her husband. My brother was 8 at the time. My father was over 40, so he could stay home. There was a farm. My father would watch the cows. The farmers would give him a meal for this, for watching the cows. The farmers were afright. They had enough. They were afraid people would rob them.
Life had become unbearable. They said night was the worst. They would go to bed at 5:00. It was dark and there was absolutely no fuel for heat and no lights. They’d sleep until about 3:00 then they couldn’t sleep anymore. It would be so cold! What people did was move into one apartment and burn everything they could from the other one. My parents lived in a second story apartment, one flight up, that’s the second floor in Holland. They asked the neighbors to move in with them.
One day my brother fell ill. For years he had complained of a pain in his stomach. We thought he just wanted to stay home that day, from school or whatever. Well, when my father went to move him, he screamed. There were no cars, there wasn’t any gasoline, so my father went to get the doctor. (The doctor) took my brother to the hospital with a horse and carriage, the only available transportation. His appendix had ruptured. Well, anyway he made it.
As mentioned before, in the fall of 1944, all men in Rotterdam between the ages of 18 and 40 were forced to leave their houses. We were loaded into boxcars, crowded in, you couldn’t sit down. A man died, not in our car, but another one. After 3 to 4 days we arrived at a camp. It was not too strict at first, because they did not know what to do with us. Three of us, we decided to walk out of there. We just walked down the road. Later, we stopped at a farmhouse, they were surprised we hadn’t been picked up. You know, every man in Germany was in uniform, the rest was forced labor. We stood out, roaming around like that. Luck, does happen. We passed an agent of the special police force on the road. He walked past us. We probably would have been fine, but after he walked by us, we looked back at him, just as he was looking back at us. I was the only one who spoke German, so I gave him a story about looking for work. Who would believe this! All men were in uniform!
He was in a hurry, so he brought us to a brick factory. There was a man (there). He asked this man to bring us to the police station in town. After the policeman left, the man (from the brick factory) said, ” You know I’m not going to bring you that police station.” He himself had been underground for a number of years, as he belonged to the Communist Party. year. He said, “Look if you help me here, will you help me in Holland? They may not believe me there, being German. It would be helpful if you speak on my behalf once we’re are in Holland.” We agreed to this arrangement. We managed to get within three miles from the Dutch boarder. But then our luck ran out.
We found a place in a barn and curled up in the hay. We didn’t even ask the farmer. Anyway, the dog began to bark, a big dog. The farmer came out. He invited us into the kitchen. Well, the stove, there in the kitchen was so warm. They were eating their supper and they offered us some. You know, mothers would take you in and feed you. Their sons were in North Africa or the Russian Front. They hoped someone would be helping them. There would be pictures on the wall with black ribbons on them for sons they had already lost. Well, anyway, we were just beginning to relax, when the same agent of the special police force came to the door. I had these blisters like you wouldn’t believe on my feet and I had to put those boots back on and run ! Well, we were arrested of course and taken to a prison camp.
One man had been with me since we left Rotterdam. We were always together. At this camp many peolpe were sent to work in the mines. And, you know, many died there. Well, I was not well, they thought I had T. B. That was the fear at the time, T. B. Well, my lips were blue, I was pale. They said I was “too weak” (for the mines). So, as luck would have it, I wasn’t sent to the mines, but to a big steel industry.
They bombed there every day. Well, it was my job to clear the rubble, the stones. I was given a wheelbarrow, it weighed a ton! When I loaded the stones, the wheelbarrow would topple over. They called this “sabbotage”. As luck would have it, the higher up who was called in asked what my profession was. I told him I was trained as an artist. Well, he said, “This is no work for an artist. I have work better suited for an artist.” Well, I tell you, this job was no piece of cake either! All gasoline was used for the airplanes. Cars ran on charcoal. I had to run a saw, to cut wood.
The city was Gelsenkirchen and as the allied troops approached we were all forced to leave. We walked for five straight days and during one plane attack we were able to escape. We found refuge on a farm where they allowed us to stay and where two weeks later we were liberated by the American troops. The following day we decided to start walking towards Holland. Going across a wheatfield, bullets suddenly whizzed by our heads. We laid flat on the ground and the Americans (who were understandably nervous and could not trust anyone) came up to us. When we showed them our Dutch ID’s we could continue.
The roads were filled with millions of displaced people finding their way back home. The roads were congested. Well, the allies couldn’t travel the roads with all their tanks and army trucks. So, they rounded us up to clear the roads. They needed to keep going. We were put with many other nationalities (all slave labor) in a schoolhouse where we were confined. A German doctor came to see an ill person but he came straight up to me. My lips were blue, I was pale. My lips and gums were bleeding. Once, in the prison camp, they didn’t feed us for 3 days. I fainted and cut my chin. Because I was anemic, it never healed. And my head had been shaved. I must have been a sight ! They still thought I had T.B. So, anyway, I spent 1 0 days in the hospital. It gave me a chance to rest and get cleaned up, as I was covered with lice.
In June of 1945 1 finally returned home. My sister saw me out of the window. She couldn’t get out of the chair. You know, she was so excited. She said, “There is Walter! ” Oh it was wonderful ! When I moved to America in 1949 I couldn’t understand why I was leaving voluntarily. After everything we had been through, here I was leaving.
The first time I went back home was in 1953. My father met me at the airport. My brother was there too. I didn’t even recognize him! He was 14 when I left and here he was a man of 18. There was such a difference, from a child to a mature person.
Well, my first wife, she was born in California, to Dutch parents. They came back to Holland in 1933, during the Depression. Life for them in California was difficult, so they came back to Holland. She was 11 or so. We studied art at the same school. So, you know, we decided to marry each other, but not right away. There was no housing in Holland at the time. So, then, her family returned in 1947, to Texas. In 1949 I went.
I stayed in Texas for a few weeks. Well, you know, my wife was an artist. She worked for Hallmark in Kansas City and that is where I first lived in the U.S. Well, it was different. Absolute culture shock ! It is really the middle of America, it is the heart of America and it was 1949. Their horizons were so limited, you know, so limited. They thought New York was the worst place and that is what I dreamed of. Then of course there was the sense of water. Growing up in Holland you are surrounded by it. Once you are without it, you miss it. They were also so afraid of communism at that time. I would speak of socialized medicine in a positive way. As Holland has had socialized medicine for a long time and it works for them. Well, it labeled me.
I worked for this company. A fairly small company, a manufacturing company. I couldn’t find anything in the arts. It paid $30 a week, which was not bad for that time. It was a job. People were friendly to me, but one day the president of the company called me into his office. He said that three people had complained to him about me, namely that I was a communist. I couldn’t understand who would say this. I felt betrayed. Everyone was so friendly to me, I couldn’t imagine who had done this. The president told me to keep these thoughts to myself. At least I wasn’t fired. People would say to me, ” a white family had moved out of that house and a Polish family moved in.” I would say .”What are they, green ?” I used to say, ” Better watch what you say, my grandmother is black.” Of course she isn’t.
Also, they call you by your first name. To me calling by the first name meant more than it actually meant. Things are much more formal in Holland. Well, you see in Holland, we didn’t all have telephones so, you would just go visit. You would just “go over’ and it would be no problem. Well, we did that and they would ask why we didn’t call first. They weren’t excepting us. Everything is more organized. Not that there is anything wrong with that. You just have to get used to it. People were friendly ( in Kansas City), but surface friendly. You have to get used to it. We lived there for two years. We still have friends there.
We decided to move to New York. You know, for an artist New York is the place to be. We saved our pennies. We knew no one in New York. So, we decided that my wife would go first and find work and an apartment. With her background at Hallmark she had a good chance. I stayed in Kansas City at my job in case it didn’t work we would have something to fall back on. You don’t want all your eggs in one basket. So, she did find a job right away and she found an apartment.
When I went to New York I felt at home right away. I decided to free‑lance as an artist. Oh, I hate the Want Ads! I have not looked at them since. I hate them! Everyday I would go through them. You know, what I hated the most was, “leave your name and phone number,” knowing that it would go in the trash. Well, after a year my wife’s company fired her. She asked for a raise and got the ax. She had excellent training, so she was able to teach me commercial art, particularly greeting cards. We both free‑ lanced for awhile. Those were the best years! We would talk all day, then one of us would stay up all night to work. That was the case.
So, then my wife was offered a job. But because of having been fired, she really couldn’t face working for a company again, so she asked, “What about my husband?” I had my art background and she had taught me. So, under the circumstances, the company hired me! I worked there long enough to get a gold wristwatch, which was burglarized. At first, maybe a year, I had a hard time. (Once I realized) I may be here for the long haul and may as well make the best of it, I didn’t have any trouble.
I have three sons. Two from my first wife and one with my second. He is living in Holland now. We are going there for Christmas. Our other two sons are married. They have their own families. I have three grandchildren. They are small, of course.
I never regretted having raised them in New York. I always hated the suburbs. People would say, “Why don’t you move to Long Island ?” Well, you know, for me it is either the city or the country. If I was going to be unhappy in the suburbs, it wouldn’t have been good for my children either. You know, my in‑laws, who spent time in New York in 1933 after missing the boat to Holland, with no money, saw New York as a hell hole. Anyway, they came to visit from Texas. They said, ” Parents down there send their children outside to play and close the door. “Here”, she said, “you spend time with your children. ” We took them to the park and to the museums every weekend. You can’t just shoo them out into the sidewalk.
My children had an experience while spending the summer in Texas. (Blacks had moved into my in‑law’s neighborhood.) You know how a place can be white‑solid, then turn black‑solid? Anyway my in‑laws stayed, they said, “Their neighbors never spoke to them when they were white, things wouldn’t be any different now.” My boys were riding bikes, they did this every day. A black boy would ride with them, never saying a word, like he was protecting them. One day (as they were riding) they heard white people call out racist slurrs. Now my boys went to New York public schools that were maybe 60% black, 30% Puerto Rican and the rest maybe white. They had experienced this (racial prejudice) before, but not like that.
You know, I never allowed my children to play with guns. Once while visiting my sister‑in‑law in Texas, my wife was watching, unnoticed from the kitchen window. My boys were playing with their cousins, cowboys and Indians, or something. Well, my niece had a toy gun, and she tried to hand it to my son and he said, “No my father doesn’t want me to play with guns.” She then tried to hand it to my other son. He said, “No, my father doesn’t want me to play with guns.” Well, my wife, for a brief moment burst with pride. The oldest (with his finger as a gun) then went,”BANG, BANG” as the game was resumed. So, we had not quite succeeded. I have very strong feelings about guns and nationalism.
You know you can only teach children so much. From the time they are as young as 3, they listen to their parents, they absorb everything. T.V., for example. I didn’t want to get one. Well, anyway, my son, every night, was asking if he could go to this neighbor’s or that neighbor’s to watch. Finally I bought one. So, you see how we failed there, right.
People used to say, “You should take your children to church.” And I would say, ” What denomination do you suggest ?” Religion always influences people. They are right, what ever the religion may be. I come from an a‑ religious home. What has been said, is, “if you don’t have religion you don’t have morals.” No moral standards ! I don’t understand that.
There are things that happen and sometimes the timing is impecable. I decided to free‑lance for the company I was working for. Two years later that company sold out. They were on the 63rd. floor of the Empire State Building. Again, as luck would have it, a friend of mine referred me to this other company. I’ve been doing work with them ever since. It has turned out that I put all my eggs again in one basket. But, they treat me well. Last year they gave us a trip on the Orient Express.
When my wife died, my parents came over to stay with me. I never asked them. They just did this. I think we sometimes take things for granted. Friends were wonderful. They would invite me to dinner. There would be three couples, myself and a single woman, an aspect I was not crazy about. I would leave for the evening and my parents would care for my children. I wouldn’t even ask. You do take things for granted. As if you revert right back to childhood.
Olga was a friend, actually she had started babysitting for us. At the time when my wife died, she was in California. When she returned to New York, we got together. Olga raised my two boys and we have one of our own.
I guess (I do tend to look on the positive side of things.) Like going to a country that you always wanted to go to and then you really don’t like it. For me the postive side is at least now you know why you don’t like it. So, I guess that may be a kind of rationalization. I guess I do tend to turn a negative into a little positive. You know what I mean.
Of course residues (of those war years) remain! You know in the beginning those residues were sometimes very upsetting. Something that I remember, we were at a party and there was this young woman from Germany. She was like an exchange student and something came up about the war. She knew her parents were good people because they went to church. Well, then I flared up and Olga couldn’t understand it. Olga said, “Why did you do that to that German woman?” It just brings out something in me.
There’s a case out in California. Olga made a very good friend and I like her too. Anyhow, (she’s) a German woman and has moved back. We visited her twice. The second visit I really enjoyed with her, more so then the first visit. Actually they were living in Holland. The parents are
German, but the father had a business in Holland and of course in 1944 you know the allies approached and they high‑tailed it back to Germany. Well, there she was in my prescence telling how they lost everything and how terrible this (was and that was). You know what I mean. I have no patience for that! After what they did to other people.
So, then I would make a remark and that would make Olga furious. Not that I wanted to ever change her mind, but I think she can see a little bit now where those things come from. You know what I mean. But, then you see what surprised me. Like I said with my children, sometimes you don’t want to influence them to a great extent, but unwittingly you have done it anyhow.
What advice do I have to give? Well, that’s so hard, because what is right? and what is wrong? Really? The only thing I feel strongly about is that tolerance can go a long way. If we were all a little bit more tolerant, towards cultures, other ideas. I really believe that. I have strong feelings. I may be dead wrong, but I am very opposed to nationalism. Now, I am sure there are positive sides to nationalism but, unfortunately I have seen mostly the bad sides.
And have continued to see the worst of it. You see, at one time, I was really angry about the “Cold War”. Maybe that was the need, but in 1945, I really thought we were in for World Peace and then no sooner was the war over, the Cold War started. That was not always easy for me to handle. People would say to me, “What side are you on ?” To me there was no side. If they would send missles to Turkey, close to the Russian boarder, facing that way. Why is that okay, but not for the Russians to have missles in Cuba? But they rose up agaisnt it. But the other way around is fine. That is the sort of thing I cannot understand. I have difficulty with that and again people will turn to you with anger and say, “What side are you on?” To me one side is not always correct. That’s why I’m against nationalism. Because nationalism is always able to arrouse the people into seeing just this one way.
I always remember years and years ago when they had the first Olympics the Russians participated in. That was in Finland in 1952. And this friend, a very well educated friend of mine said, “Wim, did you see that Russian swimmer, he was actually handsome! “I said, “What are you talking about?” You see to me, that is a result of brainwashing. They are portrayed as brute peasants. “You are surprised that with all your education, that this athlete is handsome ?” That is just a tiny thing, but it is like an indication to me of how we are channeled into seeing things.
Of course, to an extent, we all do. Let us say, the President of this company (that I work for), not the owner, but the president is 35 ‑36 years old. Now, one of my sons is turning 39 in December. I see him as younger than this President. Simply because he is the President. I know its very hard to got away from. That imagery that we do. How come I see my sons as younger ?
Certain things, our sons take us out for dinner. The role for so many years was the opposite. You know, what I mean. I say, “My God, they’ve grown up.” I like that they can do that. They’re in the position to do that. I worry about them. They do alright. As long as they’re happy.
(I have no plans to retire.) In Holland they just don’t believe that I still work. Because in Holland, they retire at 55 ‑ 60. You stop work. But, I really enjoy my work. I really do! I always say, “As long as I can get to my work and my hand doesn’t start shaking and my eyes hold out, I see nothing is going to stop me. Because, you always have these ideas that if you no longer worked that you could do other this and that. But, I’m not so sure that I would. If I did not have assignments, I just don’t think I have that drive. To me I think you need to have an inner drive. ( I need to have deadlines), that is how I operate. You know, what I mean. Art people have that inner drive. Whether it’s writing or painting, but I don’t know what I would do with that time.
(I see my life as a series of events.) Thats how I tend to look at it. Like moving to Maine. You make the decisions that are just happenstances. Like, for instance, how we got to Steep Falls. Well, I had a very good friend in New York who came from Steep Falls. He lived in New York for like 30 years. Then he died. He had a wonderful collection of art and he said to me, “My family doesn’t know anything about art. Would you be willing to dispose of it?” He knew he was dying of cancer. So, anyway, to make a long story short, friends and family came to New York to help sell furniture and even though he knew he was dying, we all hang onto some things. He didn’t want to sell the books and artwork. Well, then the family invited us here for vaction. So, we came. We loved it! We swam in the river! The boys were still young. Then the following summer they invited us again. Well, that January, he died and left her this house. She was going to sell it and Olga said, “Well, could we see the house?” Out of the clear blue sky she made this suggestion. Next, Olga was talking about buying the house! So, anyhow we ended up buying it. Why was it Steep Falls and not, let say, Pennsylvania or Arizona? Things you don’t quite control, they lead up to, pieces fall into place.
I tell you what surprised me about my youngest son. One of the reasons I was ready to move away from New York was often I found things building up. Everything was so hyped up. Often I began to question myself, because on Saturdays I would go to the art galleries. My God, the art was changing so fast, you no longer knew your likes and dislikes. I was at a gallery once and some people were admiring the light switch. You couldn’t blame them, judging by the rest of the exhibition. So, you begin to re‑evaluate, wonder what it would be like to be away from all this art, this artist stimulation, this hyped up environment. You must see this, you must hear him! You begin to feel like you’re on a tread wheel. Like I told you, I never liked the suburbs. Now this is as country as country could be for me, coming from the city. What surprised me about my youngest son, eventually he moved to New York, before he moved to Holland. What took me 22 years, took him only two years. He said, “Its so hyped‑up here!” He started out loving it, then you know, he began to feel it was artificial.