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Word of the day: verzet (resistance)

When the Dutch talk about heroes in World War II (1940-1945) two words usually crop up: DE ONDERDUIKER (literally: ‘under diver’, person in hiding) and HET VERZET (resistance).


Anne Frank described in her diary what life is like as an ONDERDUIKER. It is a poignant literary text, admired all over the world. Millions of travellers make a pilgrimage to the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam and visit the ‘achterhuis’ (back of the house or Secret Annex) where the young author, her father Otto, her mother Edith, her elder sister Margot and four other Jewish people hid for two years and one month. After they had been betrayed in 1944 they were deported to concentration camps. Only Otto Frank survived the war.

ONDERDUIKEN (literally: diving under or hiding) was seen as a passive form of peaceful resistance in the Netherlands. According to Dr L. de Jong in his authoritative history of the Second World War over 300,000 people were in hiding in the autumn of 1944.

Many people also revolted in an active way in VERZETSBEWEGINGEN (resistance movements), performing heroic deeds. Many names and their deeds have remained unknown to this day. All these heroes deserve an epic of their own.

The word VERZET (resistance, protest, revolt, opposition) sounds as if it is medieval. Strangely enough the word is very young. It was first found in print in a military magazine in 1850. In earlier centuries ‘verzetten’ meant ‘to move’ or ‘to transfer’. A VERZET could also mean ‘variety’ and a VERZETJE in contemporary Dutch is still a ‘diversion’ or ‘distraction’.

In World War II, however, there were not many opportunities for ‘recreation’, especially not when you were a ONDERDUIKER, an activist in the Underground or a spy in counterintelligence. VERZET (resistance) was serious business. A matter of life and death.

Ask a Dutchman to name one Dutch hero from World War II and in nine out of ten cases the name SOLDAAT VAN ORANJE will come up. This Soldier of Orange was a spy and a pilot in the Second World War and his real name was Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema ((3 April 1917 – 26 September 2007).

Hazelhoff had the chance to become a well-known hero in the Netherlands because of the epic story he himself wrote in the book entitled ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ in 1970. Over the last few days I have been reading this book and I must say that it is a gripping adventure and spy story, slightly reminiscent of James Bond thrillers. The difference is, of course, that Hazelhoff’s story is a true one.

In 2000 an extended version of this book was published with the title ‘In Pursuit of Life’ (in Dutch: Het leven van de Soldaat van Oranje) and this book too is worth your attention. Hazelhoff wrote it in English in Hawaii where he had migrated to after his life as a youthful warrior had come to an end.

The book is full of entertaining anecdotes about student life at Leiden University in the thirties and the Dutch who were in power during the war. Hazelhoff relates, for instance, how the Prime Minister of the Dutch government in exile, Pieter Gerbrandy (1885-1961), first met Churchill. Gerbrandy had to cross a very long hall on his short legs before he could extend his hand to his British counterpart. He then said: ‘Goodbye’. Churchill replied: ‘Sir, I would wish that all political meetings were so short and sweet.’

Students of the Dutch language will understand why Gerbrandy, whose English was not very good, made this mistake. In Dutch GOEDENDAG, or DAG can be used both as a word of welcome and as a word of parting.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about our Soldier of Orange and the meaning of the word ‘varen’ and Engelandvaarder. So I bid you ‘goedendag’ for today. Dáág!