by Isobel Francis
Miep Brenneker is my great-grandmother, Oma to my brothers and I, and an extremely influential woman. She was a resilient young girl, and at the age of 17 took a job helping out a local family of four school children. She became the sole charge of the family when the mother got admitted into a psychiatric ward.
“After a few months the mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital and, as a result, I became in sole charge of a family at the ripe old age of 17!!”
In the late 1930s, her father’s business became bankrupt and money became short but this did not deter the Brenneker family as they decided to grow vegetables from their garden and he picked up many jobs to try and help support his family.
Miep kept a diary through the second war and documented her experience. She lived in Utrecht, The Netherlands, with her parents, brothers and sisters. In her diary, she documents the terrible living conditions within Holland, the boats of Jews that got shipped through the canals and how she helped with the Resistance through a telephone switchboard in a German office.
Due to the fact that her father was born in Germany, she was classed as German. This meant that she received many letters offering (later threatening her if she didn’t accept) jobs within an ammunition factory. Her neighbour, Jan, was a Resistance leader so she shared how she could work as a telephonist and pass information about the Germans to the Resistance. Miep was forced into the job and had to learn German in order to fully help her country:
“As it happened, being a telephonist working for the Germans I was able to find a lot of information which I passed over to Jan which was very useful to the Resistance.”
Alongside working for the Germans, her family kept some Jews in their house in the beginning of the war, the first being Fredy whose parents were taken by the Gestapo. He lived with them for a few months but had to move to a new home after German soldiers came to enquire about his residency. They later looked after Fredy’s brother, Jaap, who got split up from Fredy at the beginning of the war. Both boys survived the war thanks to the Brenneker family.
Food was scarce and Miep’s family later resulted in eating flower bulbs with food to try and keep something in their stomachs. “If we had meat we would have to close the door otherwise it would blow away!” On one occasion, someone gave her a loaf of rye bread in exchange for a dress. On her way home, she rode over the canal where the boats were being loaded with coal, for the Germans by the Dutch, and offered to swap the bread for some coal. This was because there was a lack of coal availability throughout the Netherlands. The man said, “I would have to be a mean fellow to accept bread from you. Take the coal; it is only for the Germans anyway.”
Even when there was national turmoil in the Netherlands, the Dutch were still patriotic. On Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday, everyone in her village wore orange flowers or rosettes. This was forbidden by the Germans as it showed allegiance to the royal family so instead they bought carrots and tied them to their bikes with pride. She stated:
“We were going to wear orange whether the Germans liked it or not!”
Miep documented the relentless bombing and how much it ruined their life and their home in her diary. On Wednesday 20th September 1944, there was bombing till 7:30pm. They had to clean away the broken glass while still shaken up from the traumatic situation. There were no windows left along the street. Her father’s garden was ruined and the peach tree, which was meant to be harvested a few weeks later, had all the peaches fallen and covered in glass splinters.
While in the war, Miep was still able to create fond memories. She wrote about the “Tommies of the Guns” who were British troops over in Holland who stayed with her family. This is where she met Jimmy, my great grandfather (or Opa). She always tried to make happy birthdays for her siblings and nephews whilst the war was going on. On her sister’s son, Weis’, birthday they were able to bake some biscuits and make homemade presents for him. She was also able to write about being young and having fun. Miep had many fond memories with the “Tommies of the Guns” while they stayed which she would still retell when we visited.
“Our Tommies came round and brought some real tea. Even though it was wrapped in a dirty handkerchief it tasted wonderful! We had not seen tea for 4 years. “
On Monday 18th November, 1945, she was learning English, her third language, and wrote about the repercussions of the war. Miep understood how lucky her family were:
“This terrible war has cost about 34,000,000 lives. About 50,000 of them perished from hunger in northern Holland. We have to be grateful to have come through all this without a scratch.”
She was never vain, she understood the severity of the situation she survived and was grateful every day.
I chose to share Miep’s experiences as she was the one of the strongest women I have ever known. She looked war in the eye and chose to be part of the Resistance. Through helping Jews, relaying information from her job as a German telephonist to her friends in the Resistance, letting soldiers stay in her home and learning German and English to better herself. Miep was a resourceful and influential woman who demonstrated the true power of a woman.
I believe I am exceptionally lucky to have Brenneker blood.
“Long live Holland!!”