Hendrik Jan Vermeulen
I’d like to introduce you to Hendrik Jan Vermeulen. Hendrik Jan’s story is different from the previous stories I have been posting on this account. Hendrik Jan is the son of a Dutch Waffen-SS volunteer. His father joined the Waffen-SS in 1943 and fought on the eastern front. I have to be honest and say that I was a bit nervous to meet Hendrik Jan. although I met many people whose parents or grandparents joined the resistance I had never met someone whose father collaborated with the Nazi’s. The story of my grandparents is something to be proud of, and I enjoy telling others about it when the Second World War comes up. But how does somebody like Hendrik Jan look at his father’s role during the Second World War?
I must say the visit was very pleasant. Hendrik Jan was very open and didn’t feel attacked by any of the questions I asked. He first told about his father, Henk Vermeulen, who stayed in the Netherlands to attend the ‘HBS’ (a certain level of high school) when his parents moved to Curacao in 1939. Henk stayed in a foster home because he was only 14 years old at the time. After finishing high school in late 1942 he volunteered for the Waffen-SS and became a machine gunner in the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Germania of the Wiking Divisie, the 5th SS armored division. In June 1943 Henk Vermeulen arrived at the front near Poltava, nowadays Ukraine. After retreating across the Dnepr River, Wehrmacht troops undertook several unsuccessful attacks on a Russian bridgehead. Then it was Wiking’s turn, led by SS Captain Hans Dorr’s emergency reserve unit. Hendrik Jan’s father was a member of this group. It was recorded at his post-war trial that he took part in a “large attack” in October 1943. On the second of October the ‘assault group Dorr’ was quickly cut of and overwhelmed by the Russians. Reinforcements didn’t arrive until that evening and by then only 11 men were able to keep on fighting. Henk Vermeulen was put on a hospital train back to Germany. Being not too seriously wounded he had to stay on the train until he was put in a hospital in the north of Germany. There he recovered from his wounds and dysentery. Early 1944 he returned to the Netherlands and didn’t go back to the eastern front.
But why did Hendrik Jan’s father join the Waffen-SS? His high school classmates don’t recall Henk Vermeulen being a supporter of National Socialism. He was against Communism and this may have been a main reason for him to join the Waffen-SS. Also, Henk Vermeulen looked up to Hitler. Being left alone in the Netherlands from the age of 14 he saw Hitler as a role model. “Hitler was a great man” Hendrik Jan heard his father say sometimes. But there was more to it. Hendrik Jan’s grandmother was German. A few years before Hitler’s troops invaded the Netherlands, the Vermeulen family visited their German family in Bad Honnef. There they saw Nazi’s flags in the streets and relatives in Nazi uniforms. They looked handsome and powerful. German roots, being against Communism, being away from his parents and a family that had anti-American sentiments probably contributed to Henk Vermeulen’s fateful decision. Hendrik Jan’s aunt said that his father furthermore thought that his parents would see his service for Germany as a positive thing, which proved to be a wrong assumption.
(Photo: In the picture you see Hendrik Jan and his father at the beach. If you look at his father’s right arm you see a round scar. This is from a bullet that went through his arm at the eastern front. On his left inner elbow you see another scar, caused by a grenade splitter)
In 2007 Hendrik Jan asked his father if he could request his wartime service records in Germany. For the first time his father became nervous about the Second World War. He was never shy to talk about his time with the Waffen-SS, but this time he seemed anxious that Hendrik Jan would find other things. Hendrik Jan didn’t find out anything new, but he got ‘proof’ and more details about his father’s acts during the War. His father wasn’t part of an Einsatzkommando nor had he anything to do with the concentration camps; he was just one of the many (young) soldiers that fought on the eastern front. When the War was over Hendrik Jan’s father got arrested and was sentenced to jail. After his release he was in addition excluded for two years from many things like education. This didn’t stop him from becoming an internist.
(Photo: This is the album Hendrik Jan made. It contains 17 tracks, combining German World War One poetry and original contemporary music. The design of the case is outstanding. It contains a booklet with the lyrics, credits, liner notes in German language and information about his family during World War One)
Does Henk Vermeulen’s decision joining the Waffen-SS make him pure evil? I find this question hard to answer. What the Nazi’s did is wrong without a doubt. But how do we look at this in this day and age? This is what Hendrik Jan and I also talked about. For him this has been a confusing and sometimes difficult situation. His father was caring and supporting, but on the other hand he had a Nazi past. How does one deal with this? It was a weird situation for me as a grandchild of two resistance fighters. I have a story to be proud of. Hendrik Jan is almost forced to be ashamed about his. But in fact he isn’t. He tries to see things as they are without judging. I think it is important to tell both sides of the war, as the most important thing to tell and show is what war does to people. And not only to the people who experienced war but also what it does to the next generations. Whether we talk about the ‘good’ or the ‘bad ’, war leaves a scar, physically and/or mentally, and this scar will be passed on to the next generations. How do we deal with this and how do we judge it? Many children whose parents collaborated with the Nazi’s were also seen as wrong. Some of them were bullied, beaten up, excluded from many things after the war just because of the decision their parents made. They had nothing to do with their parents’ actions, and in most cases they are ashamed of what their parents did. Some Nazi’s are responsible for the horrible things that happened. But not every Nazi was bad. Not everyone who collaborated or volunteered must be seen as pure evil. Most people didn’t even know what was going on in the camps and, like Hendrik Jan’s father, many weren’t even member of the National Socialist Party or the NSB, nor did all of them support theories of racial purity. In those days you had to make a decision between life and death. And collaborating with the Nazi’s sometimes meant life. With the knowledge we have today it is very easy to pick a side and say what you would have done. But back then it wasn’t that easy. My grandfather was never anti-German. “I wasn’t at war with Germany, I was at war with Hitler” he always said.
For Hendrik Jan, I would very much like to thank him for opening up about his father’s story. He is a musician and found a way to put his thoughts and feelings into music. I highly recommend to check out is webpage to read his family’s stories and, more important, listen to his music.
Steven van Koeverden | +31617351867 | firstname.lastname@example.org