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It wasn’t a surprise. After all, simple math shows anyone who remembered the years of World War II would be well into their nineties.
Albert Havinga was born in 1921 in the city of Groningen in the northern part of the Netherlands. He was only 19 when the German army invaded his country and the occupation began. He dreamed of specialized higher education, but the war eliminated those dreams. His sweetheart, June Lanting, was born in the United States but grew up in the Netherlands. As an American citizen, she, along with her siblings, were sent to work camps in Amersfoort, then to Libenau, Germany, and finally to Vittel, France. As American citizens, they were prisoners of war. I suppose they were “well-treated,” but June never talked about her time in those work camps.
Albert was fearful he would be arrested or conscripted to work in Germany, so he went ‘underground’ and hid from the Germans for the next three years. He lived with a false ID and had his name removed from the registers at City Hall with the help of the organized Dutch Resistance. Albert moved from place to place in the city and countryside. Once, while hiding with a family who owned a grocery store in Oldenhove, the Germans discovered he was hiding there. Albert was warned and fled to avoid capture. Another time he hid in the luggage compartment of a train, praying he would avoid detection. In 1942 he visited a Jew who was hiding in one of his friend’s homes. He had a revolver in front of him on a table and said he would shoot himself if the Germans found him. Albert learned after the war that he survived.
According to Albert, the hardest part of the war was the 8 months after D Day, because the areas not liberated became fighting zones. The food supplies were dismal to begin with and mostly cut off. The provinces of Groningen and Friesland in the northern part of the Netherlands were more fortunate than other areas because that is where much of the food was grown. By the spring of 1945 the Germans were in retreat. There was heavy fighting in Groningen for a few days. Albert and his parents lived at the edge of town and heard the Canadian Army approaching in front of their house as the Germans retreated from the back. More than 100 Dutch lost their lives that day from German grenades in the face of approaching Allied forces. On one of the last days of the fighting, Albert and his parents were lying on the floor of their house with all the windows wide open because of the mortars flying over. They heard a noise in the bedroom. Albert moved to investigate and when he entered the bedroom a retreating German solider shot at him. The bullet entered the plastered wall approximately ten inches in front of him. He was blinded by the plaster for a few days but not badly hurt. The next day, April 16, 1945, the Canadian Army liberated Groningen and weeks of street parties followed. June returned in 1945 and they were engaged. Albert and June married in 1948 and immigrated to the United States with my mother on the way.
Albert and June arrived in the US as immigrants who knew no English and had a newborn baby. Albert worked night shifts in the bakery for many years, and eventually took a job at the post office. He invested in real estate and worked hard to ensure his children could attend college, something he was never able to do and always regretted deeply. Albert was an astute investor, selling his property before the loud pop of the housing bubble and great recession of 2008. I think he was a financial wizard and if not for the war, would have been a great financial investor.
I knew my mother was the child of immigrants. She often talked about what it was like to have parents who did not know English. The humor and the odd phrases are the hardest to learn. Like many immigrants, Albert and June learned a great deal about English and American customs through my mom’s experiences in an American school. I even worked to correct his English as a child. According to reliable sources, I indignantly told Grandpa that the boy in the book was named “Arthur, not Art – Her!” It was explained to me that that Dutch don’t have a “th” sound in their language, but that did not deter me.
Albert Havinga was always a doer. When we’d offer him a cup of coffee, he would accept though. “Just to be social,” he would say. He would always take the stairs and swam every morning well into his 80s. He enjoyed golfing and walking and loved the beaches of western Michigan. It seemed to soothe him. He also taught me to play Frisbee. He was very good, but I was thrilled just to play with him and learn how to throw the Frisbee. We played for what seemed like hours to me as a kid. Later I noticed that my blue collar hard working immigrant Grandpa genuinely loved playing with kids. Even in his mid 90s he would light up with visits from his great-grandchildren and play with them tenderly and patiently, just like I remembered playing with him as a kid.
His faith was quiet but steady, much like him. He came with me to church when I was a graduate student and couldn’t believe how long the sermon lasted. “How do people sit through all that?” he asked. He had a point.
His default demeanor was serious, but I loved to get him to laugh. His laugh was deep and heartfelt – he did not laugh often, but it was worth the wait. I could usually get him to turn red as well. “Why are your ears so BIG, Grandpa?” was another favorite that always made us laugh.
The end was particularly hard. As the dementia took over, he was increasingly frustrated by his own confusion. The fence outside his care facility upset him a great deal. We think it may have brought back difficult memories from the War, as he recounted the past with far more reliability than the present.
He was 98 and happy to depart this life and join the next. We loved him. He was always special to me and I will miss him dearly. The story of Albert and June is what piqued my interest in history, and I will always be grateful that Grandpa and Grandma’s story ignited my passion for the stories of people in the past.
“Where, O Death is your victory?
Where, O Death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
I Corinthians 15:55-57