Dutch native remembers when laughter was a way to cope with occupiers
Although many of Johanna Wycoff’s stories relate to when her native Netherlands was occupied by Nazis in World War II, the tales are frequently accompanied by laughter.
The League City resident recalls practical jokes and youthful irreverence toward authority when she was a teen in her hometown of Nijmegen, close to the German border.
In 1940, the Germans took control of Nijmegen, and Wycoff, then 14, would come of age under the immediate shadow of Nazi occupation.
In her 2010 book, “Dancing in Bomb Shelters: My Diary of Holland in World War II” (iUniverse; $26 hardcover),” Wycoff tells stories of how teenage exuberance and resilience became an escape from the horror, fear and uncertainty of war and how laughter became a matter of survival.
Wycoff has been speaking to local groups in area communities. She addressed guests on Nov. 11 at a Veterans Day event at Deer Park Library.
“We were not allowed to say one word in English, we were not allowed to stand with two or three people in front of a window because we were not supposed to gather together,” she said.
Pranking the Nazis
But being teenagers, Wycoff and her siblings and friends responded by making the best of their situation.
“What do teenagers do? No matter how bad it is, no matter where you live, no matter what you do, you get together,” she said. “We formed a club of teenagers and would get together and meet in a kind of cellar where we would dream of all kinds of nasty things we would do to the Germans. We did so many crazy things.”
The sound of sirens and of the boots of the SS troops as they marched through the town - these things were part of daily life from 1940-1945, and yet Wycoff and her friends would find a way to see the humor.
“The bombs would be falling and we would laugh,” she said. “It was a teenager’s outlet, but it was also something that caused a lot of trouble for the parents.”
Wycoff remembers how the group would hear the SS soldiers marching from a distance and get ready.
“The SS had these steel nails on the soles of their boots and so we would hear them coming, then take a thin wire and pull on either side, and that wire would go underneath the nails so that they would fall flat on their faces … and we would have a ball,” she recalled laughing.
The youths would escape by running.
Because the SS members were always looking for alcohol, Wycoff and her group of teenage pranksters would fill empty bottles with water from rain gutters and put labels on them.
“All these Germans would be looking for booze and they would see these fancy bottles with fancy labels - we made a lot of money like that - and we would wait to see what would happen,” she said. “When they started drinking this dirty rainwater, they turned blind.
“The boys thought they had developed this fantastic war weapon,” she said. “We thought we had it made.”
“Kind of hell”
But the reality of war and occupation would always catch up to the teens.
“Every night we sat up because every night the bombs would come,” said Wycoff, who had nine siblings. “We all knew the plane sounds, even my younger brothers - we knew when it was an English or an American plane - we learned all the different sounds of the planes. It was a kind of hell.”
Wycoff remembers waiting for the alarm to go off and hoping to see if friends were still alive in the morning.
In 1942, the Nazis shut down the schools, education was replaced by propaganda and restrictions became normal. Food was obtained on the black market.
“We were so isolated and there was no food coming in,” Wycoff said. “You had to take an old bicycle if you had one and go to the farmers and beg. That was a big part of it - the hunger. Thousands of people died from hunger all over and people just drank water.
“it was an awful time,” she said.
Wycoff’s book, published in 2009, is dedicated to United States Army Gen. James Gavin and the 82nd Airborne Division, the liberators of Nijmegen, and derives from her teenage diary, which she kept throughout the war at the encouragement of her journalist father. If the Germans had found her diary then, she believes her parents would have been killed.
The threat of being captured and arbitrarily disappearing was a constant throughout the war, she said.
“We saw all these Jewish stores, beautiful Jewish stores disappear,” she said. “They (Germans) would come in, take these people out - beautiful people - handcuff them and then they would put a big sign in German so that you couldn’t get in.”
Not long afterward, the Nazis would come and pillage the stores, leaving them empty, she remembers.
Wycoff lost a younger sister during the war who was run over at age 4 by a German truck.
“A lot of kids died, people were put in concentration camps and you never heard from them again,” she said.
School sheltered Jewish kids
Wycoff went to a private Catholic school where Jewish children were harbored. Others in Nijmegen and throughout the Netherlands, she said, also hid these children, many orphaned by the war.
“They grew up in these Dutch families, and I don’t know if they ever knew who they really were because nobody dared talk about who they were,” she said. “That’s war, a lot of lost people.”
She received a business degree through the school.
Wycoff believes people in Nijmegen knew of concentration camps in the Netherlands and rejects denials by some Germans who claim that citizens were unaware of the imprisonment of Jews.
“Hitler trained people, they were all brainwashed ... and they were scared for their lives. A lot of Germans were killed by Hitler, too,” she said.
Wycoff kept her diary but did not revisit it until decades later.
In 1952, she followed a sister to Montreal, Canada and met her future husband, an American engineer. The couple had children in Canada and then moved to California, then to other parts of the United States before settling in League City.
The diary was never forgotten.
“I had it laying there for 60 years and never opened it up because I didn’t want to read the misery,” she said.
A friend encouraged Wyckoff to publish the diary.
The generation that lived during the war is disappearing, said one of Wycoff’s two daughters, Jennifer Wycoff.
“There are only a few left to tell the story,” she said, “and they don’t tell the story until they get older because they weren’t supposed to complain, they were supposed to hide their feelings. They only shared funny things.”
According to Johanna Wyckoff’s other daughter, Anna-lise McManus, her mother spent two years translating the diary, with many tears shed during the process.
“It was difficult for her to relive it,” McManus said.
At first, she read it all the way through, and then went back and reread it.
“I laughed, I cried, I got mad - I went through all the emotions, and it was the best thing,” Johanna Wycoff said recently.
McManus said that even as a child, she knew that for some reason her mother had a unique perspective.
“I think everybody in her family has a little anxiety disorder from the war,” McManus said. “I just thought we were different from the other kids. None of the other kids I knew had a mother who grew up in an occupied city during war. You heard so much about it that it was just part our lives and we were used to it. It was the others who weren’t used to it that were different to me.”
“We used to laugh, ‘The war is over, don’t save that … throw that old food out’ - that was our big joke,” Jennifer Wycoff said. “It wasn’t until we started translating the diary with her that we were, ‘Oh my God.’ It was much more severe than we thought.”
McManus believes that part of the book is about survival and finding joy in life no matter the circumstance. That, she said, is something inherent in her mother.
“The remarkable thing about my mother is that she always laughs, she was always funny … She was our Dutch version of Lucille Ball,” McManus said. “She always had a positive attitude, instead of being miserable or depressed. She was always up.”
For Johanna Wycoff, the book is her way of coming to terms with part of her history.
“Each life has a book,” she said. “We all should write our own life story and then wait a while to read it.
When you feel really bad, go to it. It helps you; it’s the best therapy in the world. Every kid should be told, ‘Write a book about yourself,’ because everyone goes through pain, you know?”
For more information on the book, visit www.dancinginbombshelters.com.