The Story of Diet Eman Part One


For as long as she could remember, Berendina (called Diet) Eman’s father had owned an interior decorating business, doing a good deal of work in the Dutch city called The Hague where Diet lived with her parents, her older sister, Fanny, older brother, Arjan, and younger brother, Albert. 

   As a young girl, Diet loved adventure. With her hair a mess, she would climb trees and try to jump over ditches. 

   When Diet was seventeen, a man from church asked Diet’s parents if they could take in a boy for a time. The boy–eighteen years old–had recently lost his mother. He’d found work in The Hague and needed a place to stay. Diet’s mother’s heart melted and she readily agreed to take him in. 

   Diet threw a fit. Having a strange boy in the house was nothing to be excited about. And his name was Hein! Hein Sietsma. To Diet, the name “Hein” was some sort of backward farmer’s name, rather like “Old McDonald.”

   So Hein came to stay with them. And Diet tried hard not to like him. She really did. Soon, though, she was forced to admit that he really was a nice young man. 

   A couple of years later, in May of 1940, only hours after Adolf Hitler made false promises of respecting the Netherlands’ neutrality in the war, Germany attacked, and Hein was called up for military service. The little Dutch army put up a brave fight and held out for five days. 

   But after the horrific bombing of the city of Rotterdam, and the threat of more bombing and more civilians killed, the Dutch surrendered. Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled to England. 

  By this time, Diet and Hein were very much in love. Hein had witnessed the fires and suffering in Rotterdam, and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was soon released, though, to Diet’s great relief. 

   And so began five years of enemy occupation. Radios were confiscated. The royal family’s color, orange, and the national colors of red, white, and blue, were forbidden, along with the national anthem. Food was rationed. Identity cards were issued and had to be carried at all times. Young men were rounded up and sent to work in Germany. University students had to either sign an oath of allegiance to the Nazi party or report for deportation to Germany… or go into hiding. 

   And then there were the Jews. 

   First their ID cards were marked with the letter “J.” Then they had to wear a yellow star of David. Signs that read “Jews Forbidden” popped up in public places. And then the Germans began to take them away. Few people knew that they were being transported to death camps.

   Herman, a young Jewish man with whom Diet worked at a bank, was summoned along with his family to report for transport to East Germany. Herman asked Diet what she would do. She said she probably wouldn’t go and asked Hein about it. Hein agreed. They agreed to find a place for Herman to hide, and that was when their Resistance work really began. 

   They’d already been in the Resistance–listening to the forbidden BBC radio station and other such small crimes–agreeing with many fellow Reformed Christians that their duty before God was to be loyal to their exiled Queen Wilhelmina. She was their rightful government, not the Germans. They read Scripture for direction and were confident in their position, though there were plenty of Dutch Christians who disagreed, believing the biblical mandate of submitting to the government including obeying the Germans. 

   Then Herman asked if they could find a place for his fiancé and her mother, too. His sister also wanted a place to go. Within a few weeks, they had sixty Jews wanting hiding places. From then on Diet and Hein’s main purpose was clear–to find shelter for as many Jews as they could. Before this, Hein had tried to go to England, and he and Diet had become officially engaged, exchanging rings on a tram. Now they were in the Resistance together. 

    Diet was kept very busy finding hiding places for Jews, delivering mail, messages, ration cards, and IDs. One place Diet visited often was the apartment of a lady named Mies. Mies had 27 Jews hiding in her little apartment. As soon as Diet found hiding places for some of them, Mies would take more in. Diet was very concerned about the situation, and eventually Mies and the Jews she was sheltering were arrested. And even though Diet had never told Mies her real name, Hein had given some of Diet’s contact information to a man who delivered supplies to Mies whom he thought could be trusted. Under threat of deportation, this man gave the Germans Diet’s name and address. 

   The Gestapo showed up at Diet’s family’s home. Only her brother Albert was there and managed to telephone and warn her not to come home. Later, the Gestapo questioned Diet’s parents. Diet was really a very obedient daughter, but her parents pretended they had no knowledge of her engagement with Hein and no idea where their rebellious daughter was, successfully fooling the Nazis. That was Spring 1943. The Germans sporadically came back again and again. For the rest of the war, Diet would only be able to come home on short, secret visits. 

   Diet went into hiding–first masquerading as a housemaid for a well-to-do family and helping care for their special-needs little boy. Then Hein found a farm for her to stay at, with a couple named Aalt and Alie and their children. Aalt and Alie also hid Jews in their home. Soon, Diet was heavily involved in Resistance work. She walked and biked all over the country. 

   One day, Hein came and they had a glorious day together. But that evening, as they rode their bicycles, Diet heard a voice say, “You’d better have a good look at him.” 

   A few days later, Hein was arrested. That was the last time Diet saw him on earth. 

   But there was no time for Diet to sit and grieve. Hein had papers on him when he was arrested. Diet had to warn anyone who could be in danger because of those papers. She had to come up with another false identity for herself as well. She also emptied out a post office box containing incriminating papers at Hein’s instructions. Then a friend asked her to deliver more illegal papers. 

   And so it was on May 8th, 1944, Diet was traveling on a train with a false ID and a big envelope of illegal papers inside her blouse–including stolen ration cards and materials to make false IDs for downed Allied pilots. 

   Six Gestapo officers searched the train and soon all six were looking at Diet’s forged ID. They could tell it was fake. When the train stopped, Diet was made to sit on a bench at the station with the six Germans standing around her. One of them at least was always looking at her. Diet knew that she would be taken to prison and thoroughly searched. They would find that envelope and it would all be over. 

   She began to plead with God, “Lord, if it’s necessary, then we will give our lives, but if it is at all possible, grant that those six men give me half a minute so that I can get rid of this envelope.” 

   What happened next Diet would call “probably the greatest miracle of my whole war experience.” 

   One of the Gestapo agents, a tall man, was wearing a shiny gray plastic raincoat, a marvel in that time and place. 

   “Is that one of those new coats?” another of the Germans asked. “Is it really waterproof?” 

   And so began a conversation about the marvelous coat. 

   “Oh, what a great coat,” said one of the men, “and it has so many pockets.” 

   “You think that it has a lot of pockets on the outside, you should see the inside.” And the tall man opened wide his coat. Five heads looked inside to see the pockets, and Diet had her chance. She pulled the envelope out of her blouse and hurled it as far as she could. 

   That moment changed Diet’s whole attitude. 

   She decided her best chance was to play dumb, so she did so when a cocky young officer questioned her, and she kept up the tactic for the duration of her imprisonment. 

   When Diet was transferred to a tram in her hometown of The Hague, she was concerned that someone would recognize her and greet her by her real name. So when the conductor came to collect her payment, she told him she wasn’t paying. She said she was there against her will and pointed out the Gestapo men, who hadn’t wanted to be identified. 

   “If you want money from me to ride the tram, then you should get it from them, because I don’t want to be here,” she said.  

   The conductor went to one of the Gestapo men. “If you want her to ride, you pay the dime.” 

   After getting off the tram, Diet was questioned again, and then there was a long wait, sitting beside a German who was writing reports at his desk. Then she remembered something. Her mother had given her a bottle of vitamins from their family doctor. The doctor had written “Mrs. Eman” on the bottle, and that bottle with her last name on it was in her suitcase right there! Diet asked the German if she could get a sandwich out of her suitcase. He said she could, so while she ate the sandwich, she used her fingernail to scrape the label off the vitamin bottle. 

   After that, the cocky young officer came to take Diet to the prison and questioned her once more. This time he told her that if she would tell him why she had a false ID, she would get “preferred treatment” in prison. She could choose whatever she wanted to eat. Diet didn’t fall for it, but she pretended she did. Diet thought applemoes, the Dutch word for “applesauce” was a rather silly-sounding word, so she said, “Really, sir, do you think I could even have applemoes?” 

   “Sure, sure,” he said, very pleased. 

  But when they reached the prison, she still hadn’t told him anything. They stopped in front of the door, which had a button you pressed to get a response from inside. “Well–” the officer said and held his finger in front of the button, “I haven’t yet pressed the button. You can still tell me why you have that false ID. You can still tell me. I haven’t pressed it yet, you see?” 

   Diet took his hand and pressed that button herself. He immediately slapped her, but Diet was at peace. 

   Diet spent many dark days at the prison at Scheveningen. But on the wall of her cell, she scratched Jesus’ promise, “Lo, I am with you always.” 


   Check back in a few weeks for Part Two of Diet Eman’s story or subscribe to get it delivered straight to your inbox! 


Things We Couldn’t Say by Diet Eman with James Schapp

Making Choices (documentary film) 


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