The bullet creased her scalp, drawing blood, but missing its target. Jannetje Johanna “Hannie” Schaft, a 24-year-old member of the Dutch resistance, looked up at the SS officer, and taunted him with her final words: “I am a much better shot!” A Dutch collaborator then opened fire with his submachine gun, ending the life of one of the great unsung heroes of World War II. The Nazi conquest of Europe encompasses myriad untold stories of heroism and defiance by victims and survivors of their menace. The desperate men, women, and children who were the primary focus of the Nazis resisted in any way they could. Those who were not the direct target of the Nazis were sometimes complicit, but there are many stories of heroism as human decency motivated these bystanders to do more than witness atrocities. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s film, Oskar Schindler’s story is now common knowledge. Due to a viral video, many know about the story of Nicholas Winton, who saved nearly 700 children from almost certain death. A much smaller number know of the heroism of Irena Sendler, a nurse and social worker who smuggled more than 2,500 children out of Warsaw. They all deserve accolades and attention as life savers, but so do Hannie Schaft and her two younger friends, sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen. Three young women who saved some lives, but also very purposely ended nearly as many.
The Oversteegen sisters lived with their mother Trijn, whose life is deserving of its own spotlighting. While living aboard a ship in the Netherlands with her husband in the 1930s, they sheltered Jews, dissidents, and gay people who were fleeing the Nazis. As communists, they trafficked in an array of banned literature, which they reluctantly burned when the Germans began cracking down in the Netherlands.
Trijn amicably divorced her ne’er-do-well husband and took custody of the girls, both of whom were already politicized by their teenage years, handing out anti-Nazi pamphlets. A member of the Dutch resistance approached Trijn in 1939 asking if Truus and Freddie, then 16 and 14, would be allowed to join the resistance. He suggested they would be safe because no one would suspect such young, innocent looking girls to be involved in the movement. Trijn gave her blessing, reminding her daughters of her one rule: “Always stay human.”
At first the girls served as couriers, transporting identity papers and small weapons, and leading refugee children from safe house to safe house. As times became more desperate, they soon graduated to acts of arson and sabotage. In an underground potato shed they were taught how to shoot. Their newly acquired skills were soon put to the test as their involvement took a lethal step. As Truus pedaled her bicycle, Freddie would ride on the back. Targeting Dutch collaborators and members of the SS, they would conduct ride-by shootings, killing an unknown number of enemies. When targets proved more elusive, Truus would find her quarry in a restaurant, flirt, and lure him outside to “go for a stroll in the forest.” There another member of the resistance would carry out the execution.
The sisters would soon befriend red-headed Hannie, who took part in many of their successful operations, and leading many of her own. Hannie’s hair made her stand out and a liability as authorities were on the lookout for “the girl with red hair,” so she dyed it black and donned costume glasses. The disguise worked for awhile, but ultimately her red roots gave her away. She was captured, interrogated, and tortured, but refused to provide useful information to the authorities. She was executed 18 days before the liberation of the Netherlands, and buried in a shallow, unmarked grave. After the war, 422 bodies of resistance members were found at the burial site: 421 men and Hannie Schaft. The Oversteegens continued their efforts through the end of the war, gaining recognition from their countrymen for their efforts. Hannie Schaft was posthumously given the Dutch Cross of Resistance and General Dwight Eisenhower awarded her the Medal of Freedom. However, a rising tide of anticommunism in the Netherlands led to a prohibition against commemorating her death in 1951. Truus and Freddie would establish a memorial foundation in Hannie’s name. Truus published a memoir about her experiences, Not then, Not now, Not ever, in 1982 and spoke out against war and anti-Semitism at colleges and high schools. Both Truus and Freddie lived into their 90s, both passing away recently, in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Written by Bob Fenster (he/him) from Somerville, New Jersey. Follow Bob on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.