Researching three teenage WW2 heroines who fought the Nazis

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09 January 2020
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Dutch history researcher Sophie Poldermans has written a book about three extraordinary teenagers from her home town who entrapped and killed Nazis in World War II. She was lucky enough to know two of the resistance fighters in their later lives. She tells us how she came to write and publish their story.
Researching three teenage WW2 heroines who fought the Nazis Images

In the Netherlands, 90 per cent of the population tried to live their lives as normal as possible during the German occupation, 5 per cent consisted of collaborators and 5 per cent joined the resistance, of which only a very small part in the armed resistance and of that last group only a handful were women. Hannie Schaft, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, belonged to the latter group, that is what makes this story so unique.

They were only teenagers of 19 (Hannie), 16 (Truus) and 14 (Freddie) when World War II started. They met in the summer of 1943 in the resistance group the Council of Resistance.

Tell us how you came to write Seducing and Killing Nazis

From an early age, I have been fascinated by wars and the fact that people are apparently capable of committing horrible crimes. At the same time I have always been looking for strong female role models who show genuine leadership. Then, when I had to write a research report in high school for my history class on a self-chosen topic, that topic was obvious to me: Hannie Schaft. (Female Dutch resistance fighter, executed by the Nazis only three weeks before the end of the war. She became the icon of female Dutch resistance, famous in the Netherlands like Anne Frank).

I was a teenager myself (16) growing up in the same city as Hannie Schaft, Haarlem (12 miles west of Amsterdam), but luckily under completely different circumstances. I dived into the matter very seriously, interviewed Truus Oversteegen who was still alive at the time (contacts through a friend of my father).

Truus and I clicked from the start and she trusted me with her story. In addition, she introduced me to her sister Freddie and asked me to be the key note speaker at the National Hannie Schaft Commemoration in 1998 (I was 17 then) and to join the board of the National Hannie Schaft Foundation afterward (that she had founded in 1996).

I knew both Truus and Freddie for 20 years and worked closely with them in the board of the National Hannie Schaft Foundation for a decade. Truus passed away in 2016, Freddie in 2018.

The obituary of Freddie in the Washington Post set off an entire media frenzy. There was a huge demand for English information on the matter (there wasn’t much) so I decided to write down the story of these three women in English. The story in itself is very unique because the three young women were some of the very few women in the world who offered armed resistance against the Nazi occupier and I thought the world needed to know about them and learn from their story.

Women's war stories are quite a rarity, still to this day. Why is that, do you think?

This story is so unique because the three heroines of my book Hannie Schaft, and the sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, belonged to a very small group, literally only a handful were women, who took part  in the armed resistance.  

The role of women in armed conflict has often been underrepresented or neglected. I have seen that during my research as to women and war in WW2, but also in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. That is why I founded “Sophie’s Women of War,” to shed light on these stories in the broadest sense of the word.

We live in a world still dominated by men. As far as wars are concerned, women are often portrayed as the main victims, while it is often precisely women who resist under such circumstances and show genuine leadership.

That is why this story is so important, to show strong female role models and female leadership.

As well as 'liquidating' Nazis and collaborators, Hannie, Truus and Freddie were involved in helping and protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. How do you think this affected them personally?

They did what they did in order to honour their ideal of a livable world, “because it had to be done” above all, they tried to remain human in inhuman circumstances. According to Truus and Freddie, they only shot “real” traitors. Their resistance group, the Council of Resistance, would research in advance which Nazi targets had to be eliminated and the young women resolutely refused to carry out missions involving children.

They acted from a perspective that this was the only way to achieve justice. They never regretted what they did, but they were all traumatised by their experiences, by the killings (they did take human lives after all) and because they were not always able to save the Jewish children/people in their missions. They suffered from severe nightmares, depression and what we would nowadays call post traumatic stress syndrome.

How did you research your book and what was your most remarkable discovery?

This book is a non-fiction historical account on the lives and resistance work of Dutch resistance heroines Hannie Schaft and the sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen. It is based on first hand interviews I had with both the Oversteegen sisters (whom I knew for 20 years) and direct witnesses, historical facts and includes archival photographs. 

I tried to tell the story as objectively as possible.

I knew the story quite well since I had known the two sisters for 20 years, but what I want to stress in the book is that they were so down to earth, that the women themselves did not see themselves as heroines and that they were extremely traumatised by their experiences (see above), to show that they were human.

How involved were the women’s families in the telling of their stories and why are they so important to tell today?

Truus talked about her war experiences with her family and children, but Freddie didn’t. I know both Truus’ and Freddie’s families quite well. For this book, I interviewed Hannie Menger (the daughter of Truus who is named after Hannie Schaft) to shed light on her experiences. 

However, the main part of this book is based on personal interviews with the Oversteegen sisters themselves and historical research.

The last survivors of World War II are dying, knowledge of the war is fading and studies show a shocking increase in Holocaust deniers. In addition, the role of women in war is still underestimated and underrepresented today. Therefore, sharing this story and the lessons that can be derived from it, is more important than ever.

Read a review of Seducing and Killing Nazis. Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII in the February 2020 issue of Family Tree, on sale here.

About the author

Sophie Poldermans is the author of Seducing and Killing Nazis. Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII (2019). She is the founder of “Sophie’s Women of War,” is a Dutch women’s rights advocate, author, public speaker, lecturer and consultant on women and war. She personally knew Truus and Freddie Oversteegen for 20 years and worked closely with them for over a decade as a board member of the National Hannie Schaft Foundation. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Goodreads or, for more information, visit Seducing and Killing Nazis and Sophie's Women of War.

Book available through Seducing and Killing Nazis and Amazon in paperback and eBook.

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Images:

Main archive photo: Truus Oversteegen with sten gun, courtesy of North Holland Archives.

Second archive photo: Hannie Schaft 1943, courtesy of North Holland Archives.

Third archive photo: Freddie Oversteegen 1945, courtesy of North Holland Archives.

Fourth archive photo: German troops at Grote Markt, Haarlem, May 1940, courtesy of North Holland Archives.

First colour photo: Truus Menger-Oversteegen, 2008 © Jaap Pop.

Second colour photo: Freddie Dekker-Oversteegen, 2000 © Maarten Poldermans.

Third colour photo: Gravestone of Hannie Schaft © Sophie Poldermans.

Fourth colour photo: Sophie Poldermans © Jaap Pop.