Bigamy and Shiny Buttons

“He was the most beautiful man,” my Aunt Dora told me wistfully, more than sixty years later. She was thirteen when she first met her new brother-in-law. Her sister Elizabeth, known as Lieske, had left the rural north of the Netherlands the previous year to work as a doctor’s receptionist in Amsterdam, where she had met Floris, a young man, nineteen years old and married him on the 30th of December 1941. Because they were both barely out of their teens, they must have had approval from their parents. Just before she brought him home to meet the family, he had joined up. When he turned up on her doorstep in a German army uniform, my grandmother was furious. She gave him very short shrift and wouldn’t let him in the house.

Nevertheless, a little over a year later Floris and Lieske welcomed their first child. On the wall above my dining table hangs a framed black and white photograph of my mother and Flora, a pretty child, a bit wary of the camera. My mother looks tired, her smile uncertain and lop-sided. With her thick black hair pulled behind her ears and her swarthy skin she looks foreign, southern European maybe, exotic like Mata Hari. Flora has blond hair, nicely tied up with a ribbon, and has already perfected the family habit of looking skeptical. She has her mother’s eyes, big and brown. Of course, because I know that tragedy was waiting around the corner, it is difficult to not read too much into that photo; not to colour it with the benefit of hindsight. My mother could not have anticipated what was to come and it is simply a portrait of a young woman and her child, alone without a husband. During the war, that was hardly unusual. But still…

There is so little known about Flora or Floris, as if she was swept under the carpet along with him when my mother’s first marriage was excised from family lore. It is understandable that Europe wants to forget the war years as completely as possible, but by now enough water has flowed under that bridge, and anyway, I live on the other side of the world. If Flora was going to hang on my wall, I wanted to know who she was. All I really knew was that she had died in 1944, shortly after the photo had been taken.

When WW2 was at its most vicious, life in Amsterdam was desperately grim. People were reduced to eating scraps and flower bulbs, doing anything to survive, trusting no-one. In 1943, Lieske and Flora returned to her hometown up north, without Floris who presumably was fighting for the Nazis somewhere in Europe. They moved back into the Visser family fold where a swathe of sisters and cousins could help her with raising the little girl. But it was a short-lived reprieve.

On February 29, that hiccough of a day, Jellie, the six years old daughter of Lieske’s brother, took Flora and another baby, a cousin called Toni, out for a walk in a high-sided, small-wheeled, plywood pram. She happily pushed it down one of the streets that lead to the city’s network of canals. Those old prams were notoriously unstable, and the street had a slight incline and the cobblestones made holding it steady difficult when running and she lost control, just as the rag and bone man’s cart came around the corner. The blinkered draught horse pulling the cart simply plodded on, as the collector walked along the footpath, picking up rubbish and throwing it onto the cart. Jellie panicked and jumped back, leaving the pram in the middle of the street. The rag and bone man desperately tried to reach the reins but one of the giant beast’s hooves crashed into the pram and dragged it along the street. The other little girl was thrown clear but Flora’s head was battered first against the wheels of the cart and then onto the stones of the street. People rushed to the scene and Flora was taken to a nearby house, but it was too late. Her little body had been crushed; all life battered from her. She was two years old.

The next day the Leeuwarder Courant, the city’s daily newspaper, carried the story in a small article towards the back of the paper under the heading “little girl run over and died”. It mentioned that the children were taken in by neighbours and that doctors had done what they could. The story ended with the statement that the driver of the cart was not charged. Of course, he wasn’t charged; none of it was his fault. But he certainly must have been traumatized. He was so distraught that he offered to shoot the horse, but of course neither he nor the horse had done anything wrong. The article carefully assigns no blame.

In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine this accident happening during World War II. As shocking and terrible as it was, it was an accident and it had nothing to do with the war, except to remind us that the war wasn’t everything in life at that time. Sixty-five years later both the war and the accident are presented to us filtered, veneered by a retrospective conception of right and wrong but in reality, life at that time simply went on. If it were a movie, German soldiers would have been standing around laughing evilly as the child was dashed to her death but nothing like that happened. Any German soldiers who saw what happened on that day would have been as horrified as anyone else. For that one incident, for that one set of people, at that one time, the war was incidental. Already without her husband, the agony of losing her daughter must have shattered my mother. Perhaps her parents, her sisters, her many cousins, would have comforted her, helped her through the darkest possible moments. And how did Dirk cope? It was his daughter who had lost control of the pram. What could he have said to his daughter or to his sister? Until time smoothed out the jagged edges of heartache, all they could do was to throw up a wall of stoic forbearance. I’m not sure that it was ever dismantled.

As a child, I had passed the place thousands of times, never knowing that a family tragedy had occurred there. Later, as an adult I stood there and tried to imagine the scene, tried to hear it and feel it: the screams and the desperation, the horror of a little girl smashed to death. I tried to imagine who she would be if it had not happened. She was my half-sister; there was a blood link. But, standing on the corner, outside the building where the city’s newspaper office used to be, there was no immediate connection. Everything had changed from how it had been at the time of the accident: a supermarket and a multi-storey carpark have replaced the old gasworks. There is now a roundabout in the middle of the junction so that traffic in the area moves differently to how it did in 1944. The accident is a thing in the past and the present has sutured it closed.

Flora was buried in the local cemetery. Somehow Floris managed to make his way there later that year and arm in arm with Lieske, he visited her grave and wept. I am glad that they went together; that he was there to help her carry that enormous grief. I can’t imagine, nor do I want to, how I would feel if my daughter died.

In the Netherlands, graves are temporary, usually fifty years or so. When it came time to re-assign the area where she was buried, a cousin noticed the name and asked what I wanted done with her gravestone. Though the heart-shaped stone was badly faded and chipped it was still possible to make out the words chiseled on it. As I couldn’t carry the memorial back to Australia with me, I transcribed them into my workbook: “Here rests our darling FLORA. Born 13.11.41 Died 29.2.44. F. Wateler, E. Wateler-Visser”. It is such a short epitaph, the briefest summary of a flash of life but at least her existence was literally carved in stone. Removing the headstone, razing the grave with heavy earth-moving machinery seems a barbaric destruction of the only public testament to her existence but of course it is nothing more than the way of all things. After all of our loud and furious strutting on the worldly stage is done, we depend on that idiot who believes that our tale is worth the telling.

Flora’s death certificate, translated into English, threw up a surprise:

Today, March 1, 1944, appeared before me, Chief Clerk of the Council of Leeuwarden: Yonker, Hendricus aged 46 years [illegible] residing here who declared that from personal knowledge that on the 29th of February this year at 3.00 pm has died:
Wateler, Flora Cornelia, aged two years, born in [illegible] Altstadt, Germany, resident here, daughter of Wateler, Floris Cornelis, fitter and turner, and Visser, Elizabeth, unemployed, married, residing [illegible].
Under the Act, this decision is accepted.

Surely there was a mistake on the certificate! It says that Flora was born somewhere in Germany and I knew that she was born in November 1941. That would mean that Lieske had been in Germany in the middle of the war – which ran counter to the version that we had always known, which was that she had given birth to Flora in Amsterdam, that the two of them had come home from there. But the certificate said different. Annoyingly, I couldn’t read the name of the place where she was born but I could see that it was in Germany. The illegibility was hardly surprising seeing as how all I had to work with was a clandestinely acquired photocopy, which did not do much for making the copperplate writing any easier to read. I could see the word Alstadt but that just means “the old town” which could be anywhere and didn’t get me any further. It looked like I had reached a dead end but then a stroke of good fortune. For some time, I had had another photo of Flora that I had kept pinned on the corkboard above my desk back in Australia because apart from being my half-sister, I really liked the photo. To me her face showed a myriad of emotions. One day I took it down and saw that on the back of it is written in my mother’s hand, “Flora Cornelia Wateler born 13 Nov. 1941 in Magdeburg, died 29-2-1944 Leeuwarden”. I cannot begin to understand how difficult that must have been for her: to look at the photo of her beautiful daughter, turn it face down on the table and record such a definite end. At the same time, I admire her strength and resolve to move on – although she would never forget.

I sent an email to the Magdeburg municipal website, with as many details as I had, in the hope that they would send me Flora’s birth certificate and that it would show the occupation of her father. Was he a fitter and turner in the army, possibly? The chances of getting a reply were very small because many of the details of things that happened in the Second World War are still covered by the official secrets act. But some months later I received a copy of her birth certificate. After the initial excitement, it was rather disappointing in that it didn’t state what Floris’ occupation was. The only interesting detail was that my mother’s maiden name was given as Vissner – more than likely a simple clerical error. At least it was official confirmation that Flora was indeed born in Magdeburg.

But the big question to be answered remained: – what was my mother doing in the middle of Germany, in the middle of the war? Each aunt I asked was flabbergasted at the news: no one knew she had ever been in Germany. As to Floris, apart from seeing him in uniform, no one knew for certain that he had actually been in the army. In fact, mystery swirls around him at every turn. Digging around in the city’s Register of Residence showed that on the 5th of April 1943, he was registered as living in the house of my grandparents, which was laughably unlikely because they were far from impressed with the career path chosen by their newly acquired son-in-law. My Aunt Zus confirmed that he was told in no uncertain terms to leave when he appeared at their door in a German army uniform in the early days of their marriage. And, according to her, my grandmother was absolutely and unwaveringly resolute in forbidding him to ever enter the house.

Nonetheless, officially at least, Floris lived there for more than 3 months. After that he was registered as living in a street called the Nieuwburen at number 63. After two months there, he moves with Lieske and Flora to no. 25. All this is written down on the citizen registration cards. Then, in October 1943, he leaves. When he returned to visit his daughter’s grave, the registration roll shows that he came from Amsterdam not from Germany. It seems a long time to be on leave from an army increasingly coercive, and Flora’s birth certificate shows he had been in Germany. Perhaps he had been injured. That would be noted somewhere in the German army records but those are still hidden under the official secrets act. On his daughter’s birth certificate, he was described as a fitter and turner. Any army has plenty of those. On the other hand, a lot of Dutchmen went to Germany as labourers without actually joining the army; my father and most of my uncles among them.

Shortly after the war ended, news came that Floris had died. Officially recorded by the Red Cross as “missing, presumed dead”, their records suggest that he died in Germany in 1944, and it is this date that is inserted in the margin of the decree nisi, regardless of the fact that everyone must have known that that was incorrect. Lieske certainly knew it – he’d accompanied her to the grave of their daughter in that year. Local government records show him to be living well after 1946. But Lieske has a new man in her life and they are expecting. An extract from Decree of Divorce held in the District Court states that the petitioner, Elizabeth Visser, seeks a divorce from the respondent, Floris Cornelis Wateler on the grounds of adultery. Seeing she was the one who was pregnant, it seems somewhat kettle-ish.

A normal divorce takes time but a divorce where the husband is missing presumed dead takes even longer. It wasn’t until January 1948 that Lieske and Floris were declared to be free to be divorced by a civil court. She and her new man must have thought they were on course to legitimise their romance (especially important as the pregnancy is advancing) but there was to be a fly in the ointment. A declaration of the right to be divorced didn’t mean an actually divorce. Formalities had to be observed; so, in 1948, a notice appeared in the local paper in which Lieske challenges Floris to appear or be divorced. Unfortunately, there was a required waiting period of one year, during which Floris could turn up and answer the challenge. All the while the baby’s gestation continued unabated by legal niceties and he was born on the 30th of July 1948. His mother and father can’t get married before the 8th of January of the following year and hence for the first few months of his life, he is officially registered as the son of Floris and Lieske because it was less than nine months between the time of the divorce and the birth.

When my parents eventually did get married, their wedding was, as may be expected, low key: two large families and little if any money. As well, my mother’s family wasn’t too thrilled about their eldest daughter marrying into a family from the wrong side of the tracks, but there wasn’t too much they could say. My mother was a widow, thirty years old, and the war had decimated the field of eligible bachelors. And in any case, they already had a child, so the formalities took place on the 6th of August, and safely married, they must have thought that their troubles were finally behind them.

And then, late in 1949 another bolt came out of the blue. Floris, who was presumed dead, knocked on their door. The official secrecy act in Germany that governs access to war records makes it impossible to find out what had happened and where he had gone but family lore said that he’d simply absconded to the south of France in the company of a sixteen years old. Family lore, as entertaining as it is, had proven unreliable on numerous occasions in the past. I thought it was more likely that as collaborators were being put on trial in the Netherlands and he could not be tried in Germany because he was a foreign national, he had simply stayed there when the war ended. In any case, there he was, standing large as life in the street, asking to see Lieske and “his” son.

Now, the new husband was an amateur boxer with a temper and five brothers, all of whom were quite prepared to “sort things out, man to man” and because good-looking men (with the obvious exception of Brad Pitt in Fight Club) with an excessive degree of vanity are usually wary of any kind of direct conflict that could occasion bodily harm and disfigurement, it was unsurprising that Floris was less willing to engage in the summary justice of bare knuckle brawling with his wife’s other husband. The way my father tells it, Floris fled poste haste.

Whatever the ethics and morals of his departure and return, it meant that my mother was now in a bind. Before marrying the father of her son, she had made sure that she was legally entitled to do so and had received permission in writing from the government. But she had divorced Floris in the belief that he was either dead or no longer willing to be married to her. As it turned out, Floris was not dead and keen for a reunion, claiming that he had had no idea that she had divorced him and questioning the legalities of the divorce on the grounds that a single notice in the local paper hardly qualified as a search.

It was my mother who had to make the choice. After recovering from the shock, the decision was not as easy as might be thought. She was married to my father and they had had a son. The child that she’d had with Floris was dead. But against all that I have no doubt that my mother loved her first husband deeply and turning him away would mean that she would have to keep that love hidden in a quiet corner of her heart for the rest of her life. And she would never forget the little girl in photograph. And my father, bless him, accepted that. When my sister came along, he agreed to her middle name of Flora.

As it was, after the failed reconciliation, Floris verbally agreed to accept the annulment. The authorities, keen not to perpetuate my mother’s contentious, contestable, possibly bigamous state made several amendments to the official records, some of which were simply scrawled in the margins, and for the second time Floris disappeared from her life: forever this time, one would think.

But a final twist was to come.

Jumping ahead for a moment, two months before the family is to board the plane that will take them as migrants to the other side of the world, Lieske is summoned to an office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly afterwards she emerged tight-lipped and furious. Nothing was said at the time, but I now know what she was told. On the Report of the Selection Officer in relation to the application to migrate to Australia, dated the 24th of November 1964, the officer made a note of the conversation:
Wife married prev. Husband taken to Germany in 1944 [illegible] received word that he had been killed from the German authorities and the Dutch Red Cross. One child born of this marriage died during the war. Yesterday Mrs O. received word that her first husband is actually alive and had married in France in 1945. Still living in France. Officially Mrs O. is regarded as divorced, later widowed from 1st husband. The municipal authorities have assured her that her present marriage is valid.

So, not only was her first husband still alive and living in France but he had remarried before she had divorced him in 1948. A double bigamy! How Floris managed to marry in France whilst already married in The Netherlands remains a mystery, although obviously it involved lying. But at least now she was certain that her grounds for divorce were accurate. Chalk that one up to family lore and I wonder how the German authorities, the Dutch authorities, the French authorities and the International Red Cross managed to get it so wrong.

Perhaps that is why when he came to Flora’s grave, he had come from Amsterdam; perhaps he hadn’t ever gone back to Germany at all. Perhaps he’d scarpered to France with his young wife-to-be, and Amsterdam was stop on the way, a visit to his parents, perhaps. But why had he returned after the war to attempt reconciliation with Lieske when he had another wife in France? Had he heard that he had a son? Had his second marriage come adrift? Did he even tell his second wife why he was leaving her or that he had another wife in another country? When he found out that Lieske had divorced him in absentia and intended to marry my father, did Floris go back to her in France? By all accounts he died there in the 1960s.

My Aunt Annie swooned when I asked her about Floris. “Such a handsome man,” she told me. “But vain as a peacock. He didn’t walk, he paraded. Lieske was just about beautiful enough for him but only just, and your mother was gorgeous when she was young!”
Why on Earth did he join the Nazis?
“Who knows? I think that he thought he looked good in the uniform. Your grandmother didn’t think so, I can tell you!”
Then Annie laughed and said, “But that uniform did have very shiny buttons!”

5 thoughts on “Bigamy and Shiny Buttons”

  1. Wow! Whàt a story this is…poor Flora, the part where she had her encounter with the ragmans horse gave me pykefel.

    Maybe this story is the reason your family went to Aussie, to get away from the whole misery your mum had to endure.
    If there is anything I can do here just let me know…

    Thanks for sharing, it must have been a difficult decision to bring it out in the open. Take care, cousin, we will remember little Flora and your mum coming Yule celebration.

    Love from Bremen,

    1. Tige tank, Annette. En te denken dat het allemaal gebeurde in de oorlog. Door de familie verhalen krijg ik een heel ander conceptie van en gevoel voor die tijden, en hoe mensen door het leven liepen!
      Schöne Grüße, Andrys

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