Dutch heroes: Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema

This year we have featured modern Dutch heroes, from Queen Maxima and Boyan Slat to Dutch athletes like Johan Cruyff and Xander Bogaerts who took Dutch athleticism to a whole new level on the international stage. But when it comes to Dutch heroes in recent history, it would be difficult to leave out the heroes from the Second World War, in particular Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange).

Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema was born in 1917 in the Dutch Indies and grew up in Wassenaar, dreamed of being a writer and studied law at the University of Leiden. He was in the final years of his studies when the Nazi rolled their tanks through the Netherlands and began their five-year occupation of the country. Along with other students, Roelfzema joined the Dutch underground resistance and participated in various activities to protest the occupation and specifically the dismissal of Jewish university staff. He even served a short jail sentence.

The Nazis eventually closed the university, but not before Roelfzema took his exams and received his doctorate in law, although law would not be the field he eventually worked in after university. Shortly after graduation, Erik and several of his classmates became ‘Engelandvaarders’ – members of the Dutch resistance who fled the country via the English Channel to England to freedom. The term ‘Engelandvaarders’ literally means ‘England sailors’, since most of the resistance fighters used small boats and dinghies to make the 100+ mile journey across the turbulent waters of the North Sea. Many of them didn’t make it, but Erik and his classmates did.

In England, many of the Engelandvaarders joined operations to fight the German occupation of Europe. Between 1941 and 1942 Erik and his friends made fifteen journeys back to the Netherlands to assist the resistance there, smuggle information and radio equipment in and out, and even smuggle high-profile people back to join the Dutch government in exile in England. On one such mission, Roelfzema and his friend Peter Tazelaar rowed a small boat to the Scheveningen shore in the dark of the night. After making their way to the beach, Peter removed his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo underneath. Having spent time in Scheveningen, Roelfzema knew that the Nazis threw parties every Friday night and that with some dousing of liquor over his friend, Peter would be able to blend in with the partying crowd. The scheme worked and Peter went on with the mission while Erik returned to the boat.

The Engelandvaarder missions became increasingly more dangerous, with rumours of the England-based resistance fighters having been infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers. In 1943 Roelfzema joined the Royal Air Force and, after training in Canada – passing his eye exam by hiding the lens from his glasses in the hand with which he covered his eyes – began flight sorties over Germany, including dozens of missions to bomb Berlin towards the end of the war. It was during his time as an RAF pilot that he met his future wife and was later assigned as special assistant to Queen Wilhelmina along with his friend Peter Tazelaar. They both accompanied the Queen and her family back to the Netherlands after the liberation. Erik also accompanied the Queen’s daughter, Juliana, and her daughter Beatrix – mother of Willem-Alexander, the current King of the Netherlands – back to the Netherlands. He remained very close to the Royal Family after the war.

Having always dreamed of being a writer, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema wrote the book Soldaat van Oranje about his experiences during the war. The book became an international bestseller and was made into a movie in 1977, with Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbé in the lead roles. The film became an instant hit in the Netherlands and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign film. And although the film never quite gained the international notoriety of other wartime films, it is still regarded by many as one of the best films about World War II and particularly about underground resistance. In 2010 the book was adapted into a musical, which is still running (longer than the actual war itself) and has become the most successful theater production in the Netherlands.

The Soldier of Orange – the man, the book, the movie, the musical and the entire idea – has become a symbol of Dutch resistance during the war. Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema and his fellow Engelandvaarders are true Dutch and international heroes for resisting oppression and war around the world. Their stories are memorialized at the Engelandvaarders Museum in Noordwijk aan Zee; the musical can experienced at the Hangar Theater in Katwijk.

Written by Marla Thomson