A few months back, we wrote about how our office received a surprise visitor in the person of Diet Eman, a local WWII concentration camp survivor and former member of the Dutch Resistance. Diet stopped by again yesterday for a Lifesavers Tour, and we thought that you might all enjoy hearing more of her story.
This story was published in fall 2009 newsletter, but here it is, in full, just for you to read! (You know that phrase, “Read it and weep?” Yeah, that might just be true for this…Diet has an incredible story!)
“If we don’t meet each other on Earth again, we will meet in Heaven. We will never be sorry for what we did.”
This farewell note, written to Kentwood resident Diet Eman and carefully inscribed on toilet paper from a Red Cross package, was folded inside of a piece of brown paper, and thrown off a train in the Netherlands by her fiancée, Hein Sietsma, on the way to his death at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1944. Miraculously, though this small note should have been destroyed by the heavy October rains, it made it to Diet months later, and today, at 89 years old, she still carries a copy of it around in her wallet.
Diet was born just outside of the Hague, in the Netherlands, in 1920 and two weeks before she turned 20, World War II broke out. For the next five years, she was a dedicated member of the Dutch Resistance, helping secure ration cards for Jews, rescuing shot-down Allied soldiers, and risking her life again and again in Nazi-occupied territory.
On May 8, 1944, Diet was arrested under a false name and sent to the Scheveningen prison, which was called “the Orange Hotel” by the Germans, for its high concentration of Dutch resistance fighters whose royal family’s color was orange. Her only reminder of a world not ravaged by war was the Red Cross package she received once a month.
“It was precious,” Diet says. “All we had to keep clean in the camp was a pipe with cold water. The Red Cross would send us toilet paper and a sandwich. It was wonderful. I never complain because everything now is better than it was there.”
She was soon moved to Vught, a nearby concentration camp. Living in a place where she fell asleep to machine gun fire at night and heard children taken from their parents to be lead away to gas chambers, Diet would secretly needlepoint on her handkerchief under her blankets at night as a way of escape, using a needle that had been smuggled in inside a woman’s sock.
Today, she points out the symbolism of each date, letter, and picture on the needlepoint, and finally, points to a line of Dutch and a red cross.
“This says ‘Long live the Red Cross,’” says Diet with a smile.
In August 1944, Diet was released from Vught and alongside her continued efforts with the Dutch Resistance, she began volunteering with the Dutch Red Cross. Fluent in seven languages and holding a degree in nursing, Diet was sent all over the world with Red Cross to help after disasters.
“It was really hard to see people who often had lost everything,” she recounts. “We began the day with a psychiatrist. 3 weeks is all most people can take. I learned how to take distance, working as a nurse, but it was still so hard to see.”
While working at a hospital in Venezuela, she met and married an American. They moved to the States in 1969, and Diet ended up in Grand Rapids, wanting to be close to a cousin who worked for Zondervan. She became involved with what was then the Kent County Red Cross, taking every class she could, and volunteering to go on disasters during her vacations.
After she retired, she continued to travel both with Red Cross and other organizations well into her 70s and 80s to places all over South and Central America, Mexico, and Puetro Rico.
“You would sleep on the floor, wake up, and have to shake scorpions out of your shoes,” she says, with a glint in her eyes, laughing. “I loved it.”
She mischievously recounts her last Red Cross assignment in Mexico, following a hurricane. She traveled around as a Spanish interpreter with a fellow Red Cross volunteer, and was invited to sit down at one of the houses owned by a young couple. When she got up from their couch, which had recently been under flood water, she says she could feel that her entire backside was wet.
“I was so embarrassed, but we still had other houses to visit, so I just stood with my back to the wall,” she laughs, clapping her hands. “Oh, it was funny!”
When asked in high school what she wanted out of life, Diet’s answer was this: “I don’t care if I will be rich or poor, if only my life won’t be dull.”
And 75 years later, it never has been.