Dicky Wafelbakker walks home, carrying a tureen of soup in her hands. It is April 13, 1945, in Nazi-occupied Holland, and soup kitchens have sprung up all over to help keep citizens alive during the devastating famine, created by the Germans, that is gripping the country. Wafelbakker is a 57-year-old retired journalist and children’s book translator who never married and lives alone. She’s also a Nazi sympathizer who recently created a list of names and locations of Jews who are hiding in the area and mailed it off to the German secret police. What she doesn’t know, however, is that her letter was intercepted at the post office and passed on to members of the Dutch resistance.
Suddenly, two teenage girls sharing a bike—one peddling while the other sits side-saddle on the luggage rack—ride up beside her. “Are you Dicky Wafelbakker?” one asks. Wafelbakker tells them she is and walks on. For a few paces, the girls follow behind. Then one of them pulls out a gun and shoots Wafelbakker, killing her instantly. The two jump back on their bike and speed off, while Wafelbakker lies dead in the street, soup spilling everywhere.
Many years later, I would observe Freddie and Truus Oversteegen arguing, over tea, about which one of them had actually pulled the trigger on Wafelbakker that day. The incident was one of the many “liquidations” the two carried out during their years in the Dutch resistance. The Oversteegen sisters had joined the underground army at the ages of just 15 and 17. Eventually, they met and became close friends with another member, Hannie Schaft, and the trio often worked together on dangerous assignments.
As a teenager, I once wrote a paper about these women, who hailed from my own hometown of Haarlem, a city 12 miles west of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Throwing myself into my research, I discovered that Truus Oversteegen was still alive. Brazenly, I called her up for an interview, and to my surprise, she invited me over. She shared her story with me, and a special bond grew between us. She introduced me to her sister Freddie, and for 20 years I had the honor of getting to know these two both as remarkable, courageous women, and as true friends.
At a time when they would have been experimenting with makeup and giggling about boys, World War II broke out they faced a question far beyond what should have been expected of them at this age: to adapt or to resist?
In 1940, a time when the three girls would have been experimenting with makeup and giggling about boys, World War II broke out and Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands. Immediately, they were deprived of their childhoods and faced a question far beyond what should have been expected of them at this age: to adapt or to resist?
During World War II, relatively few people were active in the Dutch resistance against the German occupiers. It is estimated that 90 percent of the Dutch population tried to continue to live their lives as normally as possible. Another five percent became collaborators. The remaining five percent were engaged in active resistance. Only a small part of this group took up weapons, and the majority of those who did were men. Hannie, Truus, and Freddie were among the very few—somewhere between just 10 and 15—Dutch women who joined them. As Hannie Schaft said when she first signed up with the armed resistance, she wanted to take on the Germans, “with weapons, if necessary.”
Truus, born in 1923, and her younger sister Freddie, born in 1925, grew up with their divorced mother Trijntje van der Molen and their little stepbrother Robbie. They were poor and living on welfare. Trijntje was an active member of the Dutch Communist Party, and frequently held party meetings at their tiny home. She found solace and courage in the Soviets’ fight against the rise of Hitler, and as early as 1934, Truus and Freddie gave up their beds so the family could offer shelter to five Jewish German refugees. They did this at great risk, as providing shelter to refugees was illegal in the Netherlands.
Hannie Schaft was born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in 1920. Like Freddie and Truus, she came from a socially committed and politically engaged family. Her father Pieter worked in education and was active in the Social Democratic Workers Party. Her mother, Aafje, also worked in education prior to raising a family. Hannie grew up very isolated, especially after the tragic death of her older sister Annie, a terrible blow from which the family never really recovered. Because ideals like justice, peace, and equality were instilled in her from an early age, Hannie decided to go to law school in Amsterdam, with a focus on international law. Her dream was to work for the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) in Geneva once the war was over to contribute to international peace and justice.
The three young women started out small with their resistance work and functioned independently in the early days. Hannie was introduced to the resistance in Amsterdam as a student, and Truus and Freddie found it via their family’s ties to the Communist Party in Haarlem. Their earliest missions consisted of distributing illegal newspapers and flyers, gathering vital intelligence for the resistance, providing Jewish children with safe houses, and stealing identification papers for them. In the summer of 1943, the three met while working for an armed resistance group called the Raad van Verzet (Council of Resistance), or RVV—a small cell of seven members.
Gradually, they took on more dangerous forms of resistance. They carried out acts of sabotage, attacking and bombing railways and other strategic locations. Most perilously, they would “liquidate” high-ranking Nazi officers, Dutch Nazi collaborators, and traitors. “Liquidating is just a nice word for killing,” Freddie once explained to me. The RVV would meet and appoint which particular Nazi target had to be eliminated. Then members would pair up in teams to carry out these assassinations. The girls would carry their guns in their purses or pockets, awaiting or following their targets, and sometimes shooting at them from their bicycles. Freddie would map out the exact whereabouts of the target in advance, which could take weeks of preparation. Truus was the practical leader, and Hannie the brains of their operation.
One advantage that the girls had over their male counterparts was that they could employ a resistance strategy using their femininity and sexual power as a secret weapon. Trembling with nerves, anxiety, and rage, they would stand in a noisy bar. Their eyelashes long and dark with mascara, their lips painted bright red, they would pretend to be “Moffen girls” (“Kraut girls”—Dutch women who had relationships with German soldiers), giggle and flirt with a high-ranking Nazi officer, and coax vital intelligence out of him. Occasionally, they would invite their target for a romantic stroll, luring him into the nearby woods, where armed male members of their resistance cell laid in wait. As soon as the target arrived at the agreed-upon spot, he would be shot dead by their comrades.
On one risky mission, Hannie and Truus attacked a barber who had given information to the German intelligence agency for money, and later became an SS officer. The two women arrived together on bikes. Hannie shot first, but her gun failed. Truus then tried to kill him, but despite hitting the man in his head and his back, he survived. His fiancée, who was standing next to him, began screaming, and the military police were called.
“We were dealing with cancerous tumors in society that you had to cut out like a surgeon.”
Truus and Hannie had to escape. They fled to a nearby cafe, where Truus pulled out her gun and shouted, “Gentlemen, your attention please. We’re coming in now, but when the Germans come in, we’ve been here all afternoon. If you do not behave the way we want you to, and we’re on our way to heaven, we will take a few of you with us. We do not intend to just give up.” Then they ordered a drink to make their breath smell of alcohol and pretended to be drunk. When a high-ranking German soldier came rushing in, Truus threw her arms around his neck and shouted, “Hey Heinz, come here.” Her behavior was so annoying and vulgar to the soldier that he left.
Truus told me that carrying out these actions was not easy on them. Freddie would get so nervous before their missions that she would almost eat her handkerchief. Truus didn’t suffer from anxiety at the moment of the attack, but afterward she would faint or become overwhelmed and have a crying fit. Hannie was also very nervous, but she would carefully comb her red hair and apply powder and lipstick before a mission. As she explained to Truus, she wanted to “die beautiful.”
The three young women came from completely different backgrounds and had totally distinct characters. So, what did the clever auburn-haired Hannie, the down-to-earth tomboy and natural leader Truus, and the feminine and fierce Freddie have in common with each other, and what drove them? For one thing, they all honored the same ideal of a livable world and felt compelled by the inhuman conditions of the German occupation to take up arms against the enemy in order to fight injustice. They did what they did “because it had to be done,” as they often told me. They also all put their lives on the line, went to extraordinary lengths, and displayed exceptional bravery. Their main challenge, however, was to remain human in inhuman circumstances. Within their resistance cell, the three girls developed their own code of ethics. For example, they resolutely refused to carry out missions involving children, including the children of Arthur Seyss-Inquart—an Austrian national who was the “Commissioner of the Reich” in the Netherlands—whom they were ordered to kidnap.
The three female combatants bravely carried out hazardous missions that were not only technically challenging, but also mentally difficult. “I really don’t regret what we did,” Truus explained. “We were dealing with cancerous tumors in society that you had to cut out like a surgeon.” There was no legal system in place that would condemn the Nazi’s crimes against humanity, crimes that would later become known as one of the world’s largest genocides. For Hannie, Truus, and Freddie, there was no other solution than to resist, fighting fire with fire. “That is the cruelty of war,” explained Truus.
Their missions were so brazen and successful that eventually, the Nazis heard that a group of Dutch girls were carrying out assassinations and discovered that one of them had red hair. Hitler himself wanted her captured. As a result, Hannie cut her beautiful red hair, dyed it black, and wore fake glasses made of window glass to disguise her identity. All three girls had to go into hiding.
But for one of them, time just ran out. On March 21, 1945, Hannie was pulled over on her bike by German soldiers for a routine check because she was carrying illegal newspapers. On further examination, they discovered her gun and knew they had caught the woman they’d been looking for. She was arrested and thrown in prison. The barber’s fiancée was brought in and identified Hannie as one of the women who carried out the attack she witnessed. On April 17, 1945, less than three weeks before the end of the war, Hannie Schaft was executed by German soldiers, in the dunes near the North Sea.
After the war, Hannie became the icon of female Dutch resistance. Her remains were eventually discovered and she was re-entombed in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on November 27, 1945, as the ony female member buried at the honorary cemetery for fallen members of the resistance. To this day, every citizen in Holland learns about her life and resistance work in school, and every year there is a national commemoration service for her.
The Oversteegen sisters were lucky to survive the war, but were forever haunted by the demons of their past. They also both dealt very differently with their traumas. Truus became a sculptor and painter and achieved great success—she even created a statue of Hannie Schaft that stands in Haarlem. She also travelled extensively to do public speaking about the war and her role in the resistance.
Freddie lived a more secluded life, focusing on her family. Both sisters, however, had to fight to be recognized for their work in the resistance due to their ties to the Dutch Communist Party, and because they were women and not treated with the same reverence as male resistance fighters. Freddie, a true feminist, felt very strongly about this. “Women don’t count,” she said. “They still don’t. That hasn’t changed.” Freddie also felt overlooked when compared to her older sister, who had received many awards for her resistance work, while Freddie was left unnoticed. It was only in 2014 that they were both given the Mobilization War Cross by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Despite the accolades, however, the fact remains that the sisters were traumatized and scarred for life as a result of what they had to do. Both suffered from severe nightmares, depression, and PTSD. For them, the war only stopped the day they died—Truus at age 92 in 2016, and Freddie a few years later in 2018, exactly one day before what would have been her 93rd birthday.
My relationship with these women had a profound impact on me, and has influenced my entire professional and personal life. Because of them, I went to law school and started my organization, Sophie’s Women of War, to highlight women all around the world who have dared to take the lead during times of conflict. But most of all, I see it as my mission to share the story of these three Dutch resistance fighters with the world, which I do via speeches, lectures, and the book I wrote about them and their ideals of justice, equality, and peace: Seducing and Killing Nazis: Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII.
A few years before they passed away, a documentary was made about the sisters for Dutch television. “How many people did you shoot?” the interviewer asked the elderly Freddie at one point in the film. Sitting in a rocking chair and looking much younger than her 89 years, Freddie, with her white curly hair, trendy lilac hairband, blue tinted glasses, and fashionably colorful clothes, smiled kindly and patiently. Then, straightening her spine and lifting her chin slightly, she looked directly into the filmmaker’s eyes. “I won’t tell you the number of people I shot,” she answered, sternly. “I was a soldier. A child soldier, but a soldier, nevertheless. You should never ask a soldier how many people he shot.” Her faintly crackly voice echoed in the room, then left a lingering silence.
All photos courtesy North Holland Archives except Truus and Freddie with Stenguns (Photo Collection of Dutch Resistance Museum); Last Photos of Hannie Schaft (Public Domain); Truus and Statue (National Hannie Schaft Foundation), Truus and Freddie in 2003 (Maarten Poldermans)
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of BUST magazine. Subscribe today!