Jan van Driel – How a Forced Labourer ended up in Sweden during 1944

Interviewed on 11 June 2014

A few years after the outbreak of the second world war, probably around 1943, the Germans ordered all men of a certain age to work in the German war industry.
Jan was called like thousands of other Dutch men for this so called Arbeitseinsatz, or Forced labour. He was picked up in Gouda and send to east Germany, the exact location is unknown but it looks like, from the time frame of this story, it would be inside Poland or Czechoslovakia.

He was stationed in a metal factory, rolling the red hot metal plates into the desired shape. The labour was hard, the work days were long, hygiene low and food was not enough. They got cabbage soup most of the time, they knew what hunger meant and were covered in lice.

Jan found his labour too heavy and stayed home sick in their little shed, they stayed here with six men after work. Amongst the men was his friend Rokus van Lagendijk from Friesland, the most northern province in the Netherlands. On the second day of his sick leave the director of the plant came to visit Jan, and told him they should hang him for resisting to work at the factory.
Startled, Jan answered that he could work but could not stand the heat at his job, if they had another job for him he would like to come back to work. He had his luck this day, the director arranged another job somewhat further down the production line were most of the heat had left the metal plates.

Jan and his wife Corry van Driel
Jan and his wife Corry van Driel

On this new job he worked together with a Russian woman, forced to work for the German oppressor as well. They worked the metal plates and ran for the bomb shelter as the sirens gave off their bomb alarm. When the Russian army neared the plant Jan lost sight of her, and never saw her again. He had learned quite a bit Russian from her though.
While the Russian army closed in, the 6 men made plans to escape. When a young Wehrmacht soldier entered the little room of their building they let him in one their plan. He looked at them and made a surprising and daring act.
He would lead them to where they need to go, lead the way and help them out, if he could join in and escape with them. After the initial surprise left the 6 men, they took up his offer and gave him a some trousers and a shirt.

The six left the compound and fled to a hospital where they noticed an evacuation of Dutch invalids and sick by the Red Cross. They were sent home with busses from the local prison. These men were to be transported by bus to Sweden first and then send to Holland. They asked if they could hop in, they were Dutch as well. They had to wait to see first that everyone from the hospital would have a seat and if any were left, they could take them. Luckily there were enough seats for the 6 men to join in on this trip towards neutral Sweden.

Jan and Corry van Driel
Jan and Corry van Driel

In Sweden they lost track of the German Soldier, they never saw him again. He was probably taken prisoner and stayed in custody until the war was over. The now six men were sent to a camp and kept in quarantine for 6 weeks. They got rid of their lice, received brand new clothing and, at last, normal food and plenty of it.

Jan got a nice new suit from the friendly Swedish authorities. During their stay in this camp they got to know some of the local girls, which came to visit them on a daily basis and chatted with them through the fence. After the quarantine was lifted and the gates opened Jan and Rokus spent more time with two Swedish girls. Getting to know them better over time, taking long strolls and ending up eating at their homes with their families and spending the night at their houses instead of the camp.

Over time the war ended. By the time they could go home Jan had spent more than a year in Sweden. One of the Swedish girls had fallen in love with Jan and wanted to marry him. Jan didn’t want to at this point and told her he would write to her as soon as he got back home in the Netherlands. He and his buddy Rokus flew home by plane, and as promised upon returning back to his home town Gouda, Jan wrote to the Swedish girl. The contact died down soon after this.

Before the war Jan didn’t speak any language other than Dutch, he probably never left the Netherlands before the war. When he got home from his trip he spoke German, quite some a bit of Russian and Swedish.

Jan en Jen 1994
Jan learned his Dutch – Canadian granddaughter how to roll a cigarette back in 1994

Jan was a good friend of my grandfather Hendrik, a slave labourer as well, but they never spoke of the war. Jan didn’t even know my granddad had to work for the Germans as well until I told him, they knew each other for at least 40 years.

Two years after the war, Jan had met his wife Corrie by now and they had a little baby girl Clazien, he received a letter from City Hall in Gouda. They asked him if he received a suit from the Swedish authorities during the war, which Jan confirmed. He had to pay the suit back, although it was a present form the Swedish, and my guess is
that the Swedish never saw anything of this money ever.

He always kept in touch and stayed friends with his buddy Rokus van Lagendijk, visiting each other throughout the years.

His name is Jan van Driel, 91 years of age in 2014.

He is one of many war survivors of the second world war who will never be named as veteran or get a medal for his actions even though they had to survive the hardship of the war.

Jan van Driel
Jan van Driel

Thank you Jennifer for helping me out with your grandfathers story.

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