Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and quickly overpowered the country’s small forces. Nazis arrested and deported Jews, created forced labor, strictly rationed food, and banned all non-Nazi organizations. “Almost every Dutch person was affected by the consequences of the occupation,” the Verzets Resistance Museum writes. “The choices and dilemmas facing the population became more far reaching.” Often those choices were stark: Collaborate and live? Or resist and willingly put oneself at risk of prison or death?
Two sisters, Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, 14 and 16 years old during the German invasion, chose the latter course of action. Along with 19-year-old Hannie Schaft, a Dutch national hero the Nazis called “the girl with the red hair,” they did things they certainly never imagined they would, killing soldiers and collaborators in order to save lives. The sisters learned their first resistance lessons at home. They were raised in the city of Haarlem by their working-class, communist mother, Trijn, who “taught the girls compassion for those less fortunate,” writes Jake Rossen at Mental Floss.
The family sheltered Jews, dissidents, and gays fleeing Germany in the 1930s. “When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands,” Rossen notes, “Freddie and Truus handed out pamphlets opposing the occupation and plastered warnings over propaganda posters.” The Dutch resistance asked the girls to join them, and their mother agreed, knowing little of what lay in store.
Freddie and Truus were, for a time, the only two women in the seven-person rebellion dubbed the Haarlem Council of Resistance. After being recruited by commander Frans van der Wiel in 1941, the two learned the basics of sabotage, picking up tricks like how to rig railways and bridges with dynamite so travel paths would be cut off; how to fire a weapon; and how to roam undetected through an area peppered with Nazi soldiers. The latter ability was a result of their appearance. With her hair in braids, Freddie was said to have looked as young as 12 years old. Few soldiers took notice of the two girls as they rode bicycles through occupied territory, though they were secretly acting as couriers, transporting paperwork and weapons for the resistance. The duo burned down a Nazi warehouse undetected. They escorted small children and refugees to hiding spots and secured false identification for them, which they considered of paramount importance even as Allied bombs went off overhead.
The sisters lured SS officers into deathtraps, acting as lookouts while fighters killed the Germans. They soon “graduated to eliminating their own targets, which Freddie would later describe as ‘liquidations,’” gunning down Nazis from their bicycles. “Sometimes, Freddie said, she would shoot a man and then feel a strange compulsion to try to help him up.” It’s a chilling image of a resistance fighter who is also a child soldier in a war she cannot avoid.
“There were a lot of women involved in the resistance in the Netherlands,” says Bas von Benda-Beckmann, a former researcher at the Netherlands’ Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “but not so much in the way these girls were. There are not that many examples of women who actually shot collaborators.” The women never revealed how many people they “liquidated.” When asked in interviews, History.com notes, “Freddie would tell people…she and her sister were soldiers, and soldiers don’t say.”
Hannie was eventually captured and executed. The Oversteegen sisters survived the war and lived into their 90s, passing away within two years of each other: Truus in 2016 and Freddie in 2018. The traumatic toll these events took on Freddie was evident to the end of her life. “If you ask me,” her son Remi Dekker said after her death, “In her mind [the war] was still going on, and on. It didn’t stop, even until the last day.”
The Oversteegen sisters were part of a handful of Dutch resistance fighters who lived into the 21st century. Another resistance hero, Selma van de Perre, is still alive at 97 and has published a book about her experience and the many other Jewish resistance fighters in the Netherlands during the war. The country “spawned one of Europe’s most formidable anti-Nazi networks,” the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle points out, thanks to the bravery of young fighters like Schaft, the Oversteegan sisters, and van de Perre. Learn more at the Verzets Resistance Museum.