In fourth grade, in southern California, our class studied the gold rush. The time in history where prospectors searched for gold and people had great dreams of making it rich out west. As I recall, our teacher spent a lot of time on this subject and for me, a recent resident of the sunny state, it was a great chance to learn California history.

The big excitement was that we were going on a field trip. We were going to go out to the woods and pretend to dig for gold. This was quite a production, as we brought all the things needed to pan for gold. The teacher wanted this to be as realistic as possible. We were out there on our knees panning for gold at this creek, and all of a sudden, someone yelled out that they had found gold! Then another one yelled out that there was even more gold…and we all looked into the water to see if they were right. Sure enough, there were small golden nuggets in the water. We were so excited, and for just a few moments we thought we were rich.

Before we got back on the bus, our teacher made a confession. She and her husband had come out there the night before and placed those “gold nuggets” in the water. She wanted us to feel like a prospector from the 1840’s. I was disappointed that the gold was not real, but I remember being so impressed with my teacher. She went to a lot of trouble to bring history to us and it made me think that history was really interesting. It has always been something that has fascinated me as a student and still does to this day.

Living in The Netherlands is a history lover’s paradise. I have written many times about history that you cannot escape and why would you want to? As someone who is fascinated with the second world war, this country has many things to see and study. This is where things happened.

Recently, we visited the province of Zeeland. This is a part of the country right on the coast and we wanted to see its capital city Middelburg and the surrounding towns. We were going to the ocean and tour some small towns, and we had to drive by many farms to get there. We were going to Walcheren, which used to be an island before the war, surrounded on three sides by ocean. In 1940, it was occupied by the Germans, as the whole country was. But this area was vital to the Germans, as the island was at the mouth of the river leading to Antwerp.

The people of the small town Westkapelle had a tough life living so near the sea. Living on this island, made their lives a constant challenge. They worked hard to build dikes to keep the sea back and it seemed to work. If they built the dikes and maintained them, they could live a good and safe life. But on October 3, 1944, the allies bombed the dikes. Why would the allies do such a thing? Knowing that it would flood and destroy the village and the land? Because the Germans were there and they wanted all transport blocked to Antwerp. The allies did fly over and drop pamphlets warning residents of the bombing, but still 180 people were killed. All of the dikes could not keep out the water and the town and island were covered by the sea.

The thing that got me the most about the visit to Westkapelle, was the drive into the town. On the working farms there were still German bunkers. There are a few bunkers near our town, but these were massive bunkers just sitting in a field and there were so many of them. Tractor tracks were around some of them, as the farmer is working his land and has to move around the bunker. The walls of the bunkers are two meters thick and some were as big as a house. They were used as storage for ammunition and shelters for German soldiers. But they were also used as a great spot for anti-aircraft guns, as they were supposed to shoot down allied planes. There were hundreds of bunkers built during the war and it always amazes me to see them. They are historic landmarks, they are so huge that they cannot be moved and I am not sure how they could be destroyed. There is a bunker tour, where people go from bunker to bunker, and if the farmer says it is okay, you can go in and check them out.

So here is the interesting thing about Zeeland and the towns by the sea. It is a popular area for tourists because it is a beautiful area and the ocean is right there. Who visits this area more than anyone else (other than the Dutch)? German tourists come to Zeeland as it is not that far from their country. Restaurants have menus in Dutch and German. You cannot go anywhere and not hear German spoken. On our afternoon visit, I think we heard more German than we heard Dutch. And yes, there is a big difference in these two languages, if you live here, you can hear the difference.

So time marches on. They say that time heals wounds and maybe that is true. Germany and The Netherlands are now great friends. This was a different story 70 years ago, but now the war is over and the Dutch and the Germans are allies. But on the ground, in the sand and dirt, there are still holes and marks of the bombings and the flooding. There are old tanks and ships for children to climb on. And there are those bunkers. It is so startling to see this beautiful green field with cows and horses and a big gray bunker. The bunker is a stamp telling us that something happened here many years ago and it was not good. In The Netherlands, people were sent to camps and thousands died. The bunkers will not let us forget and for that reason, I am glad they are here. I don’t think that history should be denied or buried or forgotten, even when it hurts to remember. During the war, most of the bunkers were covered up with trees, dirt, and leaves to hide them from the allies. Now they are stripped bare, there is nothing around these bunkers and that is how they should be. A startling image that should not be hidden anymore.

The simple little gold nuggets made my history lesson become more real, even though there was no real gold. The very real bunkers are reminders that life is not as simple as we think. It is isn’t just about photogenic farm land and an ocean view, history happened here and as our elders age, survivors of the war will not be around to tell their stories. War is horrible and painful and we must not forget things easily. That is why the bunkers must stay in those pretty fields.

A recommended visit: please visit the small but wonderful museum in Westkapelle, called Polderhuis Westkapelle. You will learn a lot about the dikes and the second world war.

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  • zeldesse  On May 27, 2013 at 8:02 am

    We went to Zeeland in May. It is a great place for a holiday. My son found a bullet from World War two in the sand, not planted there by us though. 🙂

  • Leslie  On May 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Wonderful essay Jane. As we celebrate Memorial Day today here in the US, we have monuments and statues and museums to help bring World War I and II history to life (the Liberty Memorial is right here in Kansas City) but a place like Zeeland is not just a memory, it is evidence of the sweeping destruction of war.

  • Kathleen  On May 31, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Hi Jane,

    Wonderful essay as always! If you want to see bunkers around Utrecht, you can go to the Pancake House in Bunnik. It is right by a fort, and there are also walking paths that go by some bunkers. It is a nice day out. Here is the webpage:


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