On September 5th, 2018, Freddie Oversteegen, a Dutch Resistance heroine of World War II, died in her nineties of a heart attack. She had been preceded into the Great Beyond two years earlier, in 2016, by her older sister, Truus, another resistance heroine in the fight against the Nazis. As part of their underground activities against the German occupiers, the Oversteegen sisters had risked their lives by circulating leaflets, helping Jewish fugitives escape the Holocaust, and killing the occasional Nazi when the opportunity presented itself.
However, what was most remarkable about Truus and Freddie Oversteegen was not the cool courage they displayed while putting their necks on the lines in fighting the Third Reich. Nor was it the fact that they were a sibling resistance team. While those were remarkable aspects, what actually stood out the most about them was that they did what they did while they were still teenagers. Truus was only 16 when she joined the Dutch Resistance, while Freddie was just 14 when she signed up to fight the Nazis.
The Oversteegen Sisters’ Upbringing Prepared Them for the Resistance
Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were born into a left wing working class family, and grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. In the 1930s, their parents actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees escape Nazi Germany to the safety of the Netherlands and beyond. In their youth, the sisters grew accustomed to fugitives hiding in their household from Dutch police, who were likely to deport and hand them over to the Gestapo at the border. The pair were thus already antifascist long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was 16 years old and Freddie was 14.
When the Nazis began deporting the Netherlands’ Jews, the occupied country’s communists and socialists came together in February of 1941 to lead a massive strike in protest. It was one of the few successful nationwide protests against the Germans. The Nazis responded by ramping up their repression and brutality in order to cow the occupied Dutch into obedience and toeing the line. The occupiers’ repression further alienated even more Dutch people, and drove them into the arms of the resistance.
By then, the Oversteegen sisters’ parents had divorced. Their father, an activist committed to political causes but not committed as much to family obligations, hardly brought in any money, and had the family living on a moored ship. His wife eventually got fed up, left, took the girls with her, and filed for divorce. As Freddie recalled decades later, it was not an acrimonious divorce, and her father sang them a French farewell song from the bow of the ship as they left. The mother arranged to live in a modest apartment, in which she and her daughters slept on straw mattresses that that she had made herself.
Although the family lived in straitened financial conditions, exacerbated even further by the hardships and shortages of life under German occupation, their managed to get by. Their mother also continued the family’s tradition of harbouring fugitives from oppression, by hiding a Jewish couple in their apartment during the war. As Freddie recalled after the war, that confused her at first, because the Jewish couple were capitalists, while the Oversteegens were committed communists.
It was against that backdrop that the Dutch Resistance approached Truus and Freddie Oversteegen’s mother, and asked if she would allow her daughters to join the Council of Resistance – a resistance organization that had close ties to the Communist Party of the Netherlands. After all, who would suspect a pair of teenage girls of being members of the armed underground? Their mother consented, and the teenage sisters eagerly accepted the invitation and joined the resistance. They became the first women in their cell, which was later joined by an even more famous Dutch Resistance heroine, Hannie Schaft.