Gys van Beek was a 21-year-old corporal in the Dutch army when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. Soon thereafter he joined the Dutch resistance, serving in whatever capacity he could to disrupt the occupiers' communications, hide and transport refugees, and aid the Allied cause. In 1948, he moved with his youngest brother to the United States, where they raised dairy cows in Utah, California and, finally, Idaho. At 95 years old, van Beek is nearly blind, though he's working with a local writer to complete a memoir of his experiences during the war. He shared some of his experiences with Boise Weekly in a conversation at the Boise assisted living facility where he lives.
What did you do before the war?
I was farming and had to get off school when I was 14. We grew everything. We had 50 acres of orchard, 300 chickens. We had milk cows, plough ground. We had a big farm there in Angeren, Holland.
What was the outbreak of the war like?
I was already in the army. I was a corporal. 1939. The Germans arrived the 10th of May, 1940. And I stood guard in the Peace Palace in the Hague. Bombs started falling and planes came down and I was a corporal of the room there, and I told the soldiers to go ahead to a hiding place that was built against bombing and grenade fire, and I was halfway down the stairs and in panic, 20 soldiers jumped on top of me. I refused to go to the hospital because it was my duty to help defend our country. I was given a pistol--I could not man a rifle--and five bullets. We stood there four days while Rotterdam was bombed. And the government fled to England and stayed there for five years, and I became a prisoner of war for six weeks. They wanted me to be the leader of young farmers who wanted to become Nazis. I was sent home to raise food for the Germans, and later on I joined the resistance against the Germans.
What did you do for the resistance?
I helped every way which I could. I helped several pilots. I saw [American fighter pilot Howard Moebius] come down. But that was a big thing because I knew that the Messerschmitt that shot him down shot into his parachute. I caught him that night; he was hiding in some bushes close to where the plane came down. The whole town was full of Germans. We found barns, lean-tos. Moebius stayed in an apple shed and the Germans found him. I had a young man make him a piece of paper, what they call Ausweis, that said he was deaf and dumb. He was sick at that time because he had blood poisoning. A doctor nourished him to health and they escaped and they got over the river and Moebius was home by Christmas.
After Moebius left, what did you do?
I stayed until we were liberated. I was happy to be free again, and I finished my studies as a civil engineer. And after six years of study I had a diploma and I could do what I wanted, and I chose to go to America. We went to Salt Lake City. We met a man who was dairying in California, and that's what we decided to do: Live in California and milk cows. We made a trip to Idaho and said, "We could save up some money and go to Idaho and start farming," which we did.
You've been recognized as an Aid Giver by the Shoah Foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg [to recognize, remember and study the Holocaust]. Can you elaborate on what you did for Jewish people in Holland during the war?
I was called by a lady who was representing Steven Spielberg. So I said, "You're calling the wrong person," because my wife worked for a city where the Jews were gathered and sent to Germany. She also did the bookwork for the few who returned. The woman met me in a fancy Boise hotel. She asked me questions, and I said I actually did very few good things for the Jewish people, but I helped them where I could. I helped them find places to hide. But what stands out was, I was bicycling toward the railroad station where Jewish people were being unloaded and sent on to Germany and I saw a little boy, about 10 years old, who came wild-eyed, running toward me. He ran under the train trying to escape. I motioned to him that he should jump by me on the bicycle, which he did. He held me tight, and about two blocks further he jumped off and I never saw him again. And the lady said, "That's what I want! That's what I want!" That he jumped on my bicycle, and he jumped off. And that turned into a thank-you letter from Steven Spielberg and the Shoah organization. They thought it was a big deal.
What was it about Holland that made you leave?
We could never buy the farm back. That was sold in the crisis years. We never could buy that back. We knew that if we worked hard, we could go to America and own our own farm.
What did you like about Idaho?
Truckloads of potatoes, truckloads of onions, and all kinds of fruit and wonderful people not bothering us to become Mormon. We started with 25 cows and later on, my brother and I became top dairymen. Later on I was milking 300 cows. I bought a cow every month and paid it off.