By Linda Kor
It’s been more than 70 years, but Martha van der Wal Larsen remembers it as clear as if it were yesterday, the excitement, the fear and uncertainty of living in the midst of war.
Martha was a young child living in Hilversum, a province of North Holland, with her family when World War II invaded their lives and those five years have left an indelible mark on her life. She had turned seven on May 8, 1940, two days before seeing white, billowing parachutes falling from the sky, a day that changed the lives of everyone in that small country.
She has recalled those years many times for her children and grandchildren, and now, at the urging of family members, she has put the stories to paper, resulting in the book Never Again. The 88-page book is filled with 12 tales written by Martha of her life during that time.
Included in that collection is a story that she related about her brother, Anthonie “Ton” van der Wal, who was 13 years older than she and served in the Dutch military.
“My brother was drafted into the war on May 10 to fight against the Germans, but came home 21 days later after we lost. The fight didn’t last very long because the Germans were such a big power. I remember hearing him late at night, crying and screaming. It was a different type of warfare at that time, the fight was person to person, you looked into the eyes of the people you had to kill,” Martha said.
After her brother returned, her family made the difficult decision to send him away to hide him from the Germans who were looking for the soldiers that had fought against them.
“My brother had originally been accepted in to the Royal Dutch Navy, and all the paperwork had to be sent to The Hague, so the Germans knew who he was. He had also worked for the railway company that had blown up the tracks so that the Germans couldn’t get supplies, so it was important that they didn’t find him and put him in the labor camps, which we know as the concentration camps,” she explained, adding that it was not uncommon for the young men who fought against the Germans to be picked out and dragged away. Ton was barely 20 at the time.
“They did not tell me where they hid him, afraid that if I was questioned I would say where he was since I was so young. Aside from one time I did not see him again until after the war was over,” she recalled.
That event was one she recalls in her book. According to Martha, the Germans had taken over the school buildings as barracks and places of operation, so in order to teach the children other locations were sought out. There were several mansions abandoned by Jewish families as they fled, so they were converted into makeshift schoolrooms, which is where Martha was attending school.
“Back then my family had a way to call out to each other if we were in a crowd. We would whistle In The Mood, the song by Glen Miller. One day I was in class when the air raid sirens went off. It’s funny because when there’s an earthquake everyone says stand under a doorway, but that’s not what you do, you go under the staircase. When you look at buildings that are destroyed, the staircase is usually all that’s left standing.
“Anyways, I was under the staircase with my classmates and teacher when I hear this whistle. I remember telling my teacher that my brother was outside. I knew it was him because he could whistle so beautifully and it was our song. She told me that was nonsense, that my brother couldn’t be outside calling to me, but as soon as she turned around I ran out from under the staircase and outside and there was my brother.
“He grabbed me and put me on the back of a bicycle that had wooden wheels and I held on fast as we raced down the road. Suddenly he dropped the bicycle and threw me onto someone’s yard and himself on top of me as artillery was being fired all around us. There was a woman in the house where we were and she told us we could come in because that’s what you did during a raid. You left the door open not only to release the air pressure, but also to let passersby know that they could come in as a place of refuge,” she explained.
“It was funny as I think about it because there we were, on the ground with my brother protecting me with his body and this woman in her house talking to us and we were having this conversation, all very polite while the artillery was firing all around us.”
After the war Martha was reunited with her brother and the family remained in Hilversum for many years.
“I never had plans to leave Holland, I loved my home. But then I met my husband and I knew that once we married it was very likely that we would move to the States,” she noted.
Niels Brannick Larsen was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had been assigned as the branch president for her area. As converts to the church, Larsen and her family became friends with the young missionary. When he finished his mission and returned to Arizona, she thought that would be the last they would see of him. But Niels joined the Army when he returned home and a short time later he was assigned to be a translator in Germany.
“All the men at Fort Ord in California were training to go to Korea, but when they found out Niels had lived in Holland, they thought that meant he could speak German. He tried to explain that they were two different languages, but they told him it was close enough and sent him out,” noted Martha.
Upon arriving in Germany, he contacted the van der Wals and asked if he could stay in their home during his leave time so that he could visit with friends in the area. It was during those visits that he and Martha became close, and he asked to marry her.
“My mother refused to let us marry until I had finished my education. That was difficult for us, but as soon as I graduated we were married and then moved to Arizona,” Larsen said.
Coming to the States was a big change for Martha after growing up in a small European country. After his enlistment was finished, the Larsens eventually settled in Joseph City, where they both taught at the schools for many years. Although Martha’s husband passed away 14 years ago, her home remains in Joseph City where they raised their six children, but throughout the home are reminders of the country she left behind. Today she teaches piano, sells homemade bread and serves her church by working at the temple in Snowflake.
The book can be purchased directly from Martha for $5.95 by contacting her at (928) 288-3449 or (928) 587-1733. The book is also available at Amazon.com.
Martha will also be having a book signing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Joseph City Community Center, located at 4511 Main St.