The year was 1944. Many people in Amsterdam and Rotterdam were starving for lack of food under the Nazi occupation. There were only so many cats and dogs that could be eaten. But in the province of Friesland, the rural area where I lived with my family, we were well fed. After all, we were farmers.
We very much wanted to share our provisions with hungry people in the major cities, but the Germans had decreed otherwise. All the food produced on farms, with the exception of what was needed for personal use, was conscripted and sent to Germany to support their war effort. The Germans were efficient in their administration. Every Dutch farm animal was registered, and the assigned number was then shipped to Germany. Enforcement was brutal.
And that is why Mr. Hoekstra paid us a visit in 1944. His job was to register all the newborn animals. That spring, our three sows had delivered remarkable litters—forty-five piglets in total.
I still remember the beautiful, sunny day when Mr. Hoekstra came to our home. It was my older sister who first saw him in the distance, pedaling his old bicycle. She quickly told my dad who sent my two older brothers into the barn.
I need to digress for a moment to let the reader know that in Holland, the house and the barn were all connected under one roof. The front of the building was for people, the back part for the farm animals.
By this time, Mr. Hoekstra had arrived. He gently leaned his bicycle against the house and used the door knocker to announce his presence. It was my father who answered.
“Hello, Mr. Hoekstra, what brings you here?” said my dad with feigned surprise.
“Hello, Mr. Boonstra, you know that I’ve come to do the annual registration of all your livestock.”
“Yes,” said my dad, “but before you get busy, why not come in for a cup of coffee? My wife has just baked some delicious butter cake.”
“Sure,” replied Mr. Hoekstra. “I’d be honored.”
And so, Mr. Hoekstra came inside for coffee and baked butter cake. He and my dad had known each other since grade school, so they exchanged pleasantries. Meanwhile, there were awful squeals coming from the barn. Mr. Hoekstra pretended not to hear, but there was a big smile on his face, confirming his philosophy that what he didn’t see wouldn’t hurt him.
After a second cup of coffee and another piece of butter cake, it was time to complete the registration. Mr. Hoekstra thanked my mother profusely, and then he and my dad proceeded to the barn.
“You know,” my dad said, “it’s really discouraging how poorly our three sows did this spring. One of the them even ate a number of her litter.”
Mr. Hoekstra didn’t say anything. He carefully counted the piglets and meticulously marked the number in his book—three sows, twenty-one piglets. He continued registering the other farm animals, then shook hands with my dad and pedaled away on his dilapidated bike.
Once the coast was clear, my brothers finished their assigned task. It took some time to catch the additional twenty-four piglets and reunite them with their proper moms. When my brothers finished, it was their turn to go inside and enjoy some butter cake.
Some of our citizens starving in major cities eventually found their way to Friesland for relief, so I often wondered. Could it be that a few people are alive today because of Mr. Hoekstra’s visits across our region in 1944?
Tony Boonstra is a Presbyterian minister who is a lifelong learner. Born in the Netherlands, his family experienced the oppression of the German occupation. Immigrating to Canada, the family spent its first two years working as migrants in the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta. The family then moved to Northern British Columbia where Tony spent his teen years working on the family dairy farm. Graduating from Calvin University in Michigan, Tony taught in elementary schools for eight years. He then enrolled at McGill University where he received his theological degree and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He has served congregations in three provinces, and for the last 15 years has specialized in transitional ministry. Tony and his wife Bonnie have been married over 50 years, and raised a large family which included a number of children they adopted. Tony enjoys gardening, reading, writing, and guest preaching in churches of various denominations near his home in Ottawa.