Slunterweg, Ede, Holland
Amsterdam, Holland in September 1952
Station Pier, Melbourne on 7 October 1952
Bonegilla for 1 week
One room apartment, Wodonga
Welding and sheet metal work, Albury
Labourer, owner and operator of my own metal work business, Albury
I was born on 4 October 1924 in the middle of Ede, Holland. My father and mother had seven children. The first five were all boys and the last two were girls. I came third. I was named after my father but in Holland I was called “Jantje” meaning little Jan.
World War Two broke out during 1940 in Holland when I was 15 years old. Winter came and froze all the flooded plains; the Dutch government flooded the[m] to stop the Germans. The ice was that thick you could drive the car over it; my older brothers helped the army cut the ice so the Germans couldn’t drive over and invade Holland. Then the Germans bombed Rotterdam. I think 30,000 people were killed on the first bombardment. Holland could not stop the invasion because the Germans would bomb the bigger cities, so they capitulated and the Germans just came in. It took them only three days.
Our family had a young Jewish girl, Anna, hidden in our home and her mother was hiding at the neighbour’s farm. Anna was hiding from the Germans because the Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Germany. My parents were very generous people and put themselves at risk of persecution to hide this young girl.
I was too young to be a soldier before the war and too old after. When I was young I wanted to be a soldier, but luckily I was unable and never had to kill anybody. When the Germans took control of Holland, I was screened to go into the labour army. I was told that I was not good enough for that and a couple of months later I was screened again to do forced labour in Germany – for that I was good enough.
I received my papers and was initially sent to Cologne, Germany. We were illegally slaughtering sheep and cows for the black market in Holland. I was [later] sent to Ahlen, just outside of Hamm, doing forced labour in a saucepan factory.
We had our sleeping quarters near the factory but nowhere to eat. We ate at the horse butcher who was very close to the factory. A young Ukraine lady worked there to prepare our meals. Her name was Paula. That was the first time I saw her when she walked through into the dining hall. Now we are 62 years married. So that worked out quite alright!
Paula was a very hard worker and I liked her nature. We had over a hundred girls working in the factory. Later on, when I befriended Paula, she taught me a few words in Russian and Ukraine. This helped me to talk with the other women in the factory.
Because I was working in Germany, I had enough food to eat. I only found out how bad it was in Holland, especially in the big cities, after the war. The hunger situation started getting very bad. There was starvation, many people died from hunger. My parents were slaughtering goats, sheep and cows for the black market and this helped them survive the war.
During my time in Germany I spent ten days in a concentration camp as punishment. You see, two friends and I tried to return to Holland for my father’s birthday and we were caught by German soldiers at the border. We had successfully crossed before, but not this time. At the camp I worked in a small workshop doing welding and repair work – it was horrible. Our boss from the factory got us after ten days. We were so relieved.
We had a big cellar underneath the factory and they put a one metre solid concrete top so we could hide underneath during the bomb raids. The siren would go and we went down to the cellar. Or if the planes were a long way away we could walk to the village. One day Paula and I went walking – luckily in the right direction – because a lot of bombs came down and killed over a hundred people. From then on we went into the cellar every raid. We worked right up until we were freed by the American, French and Canadian soldiers in 1945.
Paula and I stayed together; she did not return to the Ukraine, it was too unsafe. We thought that Holland would be freed quickly but it took ages. When we reached the border, the soldiers said only people with Dutch papers can come in. They wouldn’t let Paula in and I said, “Listen, if Paula can’t get in, then I won’t come in either”. The border soldiers advised us that all we had to do is write down our names as Mr & Mrs De Kruiff on the paperwork. And that’s what we did.
It was early April, 1945 and Paula and I were working in Weerd, Holland. We wrote letters to my parents because we didn’t know if anybody was still alive from the family, or if the home was still there. We did not receive an answer.
I decided to take my chances and return home. The day I came to my parents’ place was my younger sister’s birthday but I wasn’t even thinking about that. Everything was okay, my parents and siblings were safe. What a birthday present! There was only one brother, Bert, who was missing, but I knew somehow he was okay. Soon, Bert came home too. Everybody in the family was safe.
I found out that the Jewish girl and her mother got caught just before the end of the war. Somehow they were found out and most likely got killed in a concentration camp.
Paula and I married on 1 August 1945, on my father’s birthday. We wanted to get married as quickly as possible because the Russians didn’t recognise our marriage, but the Dutch government would. So we engaged a lawyer to organise the paperwork. The lawyers had to send letters to Paula’s mother, not knowing if she was still alive. We didn’t get an answer back from Russia so we had to assume the worst. Later we found out Paula’s mother had been shot during the war for helping the Russian underground.
I missed a bit of my education while I was in Germany, so I wanted to learn as much as possible. I returned to my old employment but did not like it anymore, so I went to a special factory and they taught me welding aluminium with the oxy torch which was a very hard job. When I couldn’t learn there anymore, I became a blacksmith, and when I couldn’t learn there anymore, I went to a machinery factory.
When I was working in the machinery factory I had a Dutch Workers’ Union book. This little book was used to put a stamp in each week when I paid my union fee; it was a record of my contribution. These contributions went towards workers who were ill and unable to work or to create fairer work conditions. I still have this book with the weekly stamps that cover each page.
In the meantime, Paula and I built a little home. I dug the cellar myself and did as much of the building as possible. This is the home that our two sons first lived in. Altogether we lived in Holland for seven years after the war.
Paula and I wanted to immigrate. The Russians were in Berlin and it would take only two hours from Berlin to Ede. The Russians had it in mind to occupy the rest Europe [and] in the back of my mind, I thought that they maybe would. We were thinking of migrating to South Africa. When a fella at my work went to South Africa and came back on holidays he told us if we go there you can’t treat the blackfella and the whitefella the same. That’s no good to me, doesn’t matter if you are blackfella or whitefella, you are a human being.
My older brothers and I wanted to immigrate together. Where would we go? We decided together to go to Australia. We applied for immigration at the same time and Cees got his immigration papers first, but Henk and I couldn’t go because our papers were not ready. Then Cees decided to wait until we had our papers ready, and when our papers were ready, his papers were too old!
My sons, John and Ron, were three years old and four months old [respectively] when we immigrated. We left from Amsterdam in Holland in August 1952 and it took about six weeks. I had my birthday on 4 October between Perth and Melbourne. I didn’t enjoy the trip that much because our youngest son was quite sick [and] in hospital; no-one knew what was wrong with him. Paula was very anxious as she had overheard some ladies talking to each other: two children had died on the boat. Paula and I were not allowed to see Ron. It was a terrible time, actually, and when we stopped somewhere at ports, Paula didn’t want to go sightseeing because she wanted to be with our child. Slowly Ron improved.
We arrived at Station Pier, Melbourne, on 7 October 1952. The next day we travelled by train to Albury and arrived at Bonegilla. I was anxious to get there. I knew that I had taken a big step and had a lot of work ahead of me. I was especially thinking about my two young boys and their future.
When we arrived at Bonegilla, I met a fellow from Ede and I didn’t even know that he went to Australia. He said he was still waiting six months for the employment office to find him work, so the next day I hitchhiked all the way to Albury and got myself a job. I found a job doing welding and sheet metal work in Volt Lane.
I stayed at Bonegilla only one week and Paula was there almost three months with the children. I needed to find accommodation and we found a one room place in Tarakan Avenue, Wodonga. The room was big enough and there was a fireplace, but to wash yourself you had to go across the street and use a tap. The chap who built it didn’t quite finish this house!
You had to work hard to keep your job. My boss was quite happy with me. I could do just about everything: I knew how to use concrete, I knew a bit of carpentry, I knew a bit of panel beating, I knew sheet metal work. My boss, Doug Delarue, and I later became close friends. We both became charter members for the Albury North Rotary Club. I joined in 1963 and have been a member for over 45 years.
After leaving this job I worked for a few years as the foreman for a welding business. I assisted to build this business up from scratch and eventually wanted my own business rather than working for someone else. I started my own businesses in 1955. Initially our business was called East Lavington Panel Beaters and Welders and then Albury & District Wrought Iron Works and De Kruiff’s Steel Construction. The business card I have kept from when I was operating shows a yellow shield with the letters DK in blue on the centre. I was very fortunate; I always had enough work to support Paula and our sons and operated a successful business, employing up to 29 persons, for many years.
Using my metal work skills, I have a metal lamp that I made when I was younger. In fact I started this in Holland when the boys were very young. It is an inside wall lamp and is still an unfinished project, only 5% to go. I will get to finish it one day!
I have always felt the need to give back to the community. Our Rotary projects assisted many people. I was also an elder and board member for our local Presbyterian Church.
Towards the end of my working life, I assisted to establish the Manual Activity Centre or MAC Centre in Albury. The MAC Centre provides a space, tools and equipment for older men and women to build things; carpentry, welding, and the like. I have always used my trade skills throughout my working life, at home and at the MAC Centre. This project enabled me to combine my trade skills and the desire to assist others, making a permanent contribution to our community.
I feel I have contributed a great deal to the local Albury community through Rotary and establishing the MAC Centre; I wanted to give back to the country and community that is now my home.
Mr Jan De Kruiff died on 15 July 2008, in his mid-eighties. The Migration Heritage Centre is grateful for his recollection which has been recorded in Belongings for posterity.