Cobblestone Streets and Tulips: The Old-World Charm of Holland’s Haarlem
By Tim Brady, Author of Three Ordinary Girls
My nonfiction book Three Ordinary Girls tells the daring story of a trio of teenagers in The Netherlands—Truus Oversteegen, her younger sister, Freddie, and their friend, Hannie Schaft—who began working for the Dutch resistance in 1940. Almost all of their actions took place around their hometown in North Holland. The ancient city of Haarlem was built, beginning around the tenth century, in the lowlands between the river Spaarne and the coastal dunes along the North Sea to the west of Amsterdam. By medieval times, the village had grown into one of the most substantial cities in the country with a bustling market built in the center of the city around a massive church called the Grote Kerk, which rested—and still rests—like an immovable bulwark of Protestant rectitude in the heart of the cobblestone square.
In the days when the sisters Oversteegen and Hannie pedaled through the narrow streets and over the bridged canals of Harlem, the Grote Markt, within which the Grote Kerk resided, bustled with shoppers, coffee drinkers, and café diners. Added to the mix today are tourists, vacationers, museum-goers, and weekend travelers from within The Netherlands, drawn to Haarlem by its quaint charms and proximity to the dunes and beaches along the North Sea.
Only twenty minutes by train or car from Amsterdam—not much longer on bicycle, the ubiquitous national vehicle of The Netherlands—Haarlem is surrounded by huge tulip fields, which sprang up here and elsewhere in Holland in the early seventeenth century. A mania for these flowers so gripped the country that in a matter of just a few years, prized bulbs were being bought and sold in the city markets for amounts that were equivalent to the price of a new house.
On the heels of the tulip craze, Holland became the center of trade in Europe. It also became a cultural giant on the continent with an explosion of artistic and scientific achievements, including the emergence of a Golden Age of Painting, best exemplified by the Dutch Masters. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the work of artists such as Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Haarlem’s own Frans Hals depicted scenes of everyday life in Holland that became celebrated throughout Europe. A museum dedicated to the life and work of Hals is today located in downtown Haarlem, not far from the Grote Kerk, where the painter’s body is entombed, along with several other notables from the city. In the next century, the church housed the largest organ in Europe, which brought a number of eighteenth-century musical geniuses to the city for performances, including Mendelssohn, Handel, and a 10-year-old Mozart.
The city was not nearly so illustrious by the time the “Ordinary Girls” pedaled its streets in the service of the Resistance, but it had—and continues to have—a host of Old-World charms. There are windmills, tightly packed cobblestone streets filled with lovely shops and cafés, as well as the requisite Dutch canals looping through the city. Another Haarlem landmark is the home of Corrie ten Boom, who along with her sister and father, created a hiding place and refuge out of their home and the family watchmaking business. Corrie wrote a very popular book called The Hiding Place, which described their work and experiences.
The “Ordinary Girls” are remembered by many in Haarlem today and honored in several locations. Truus became a well-known artist in The Netherlands, and her work can be seen in a number of sites. Perhaps most notably, her sculpture Vrouw in Verzet (Women in Resistance), dedicated to her comrade Hannie, stands in Kenau Park in downtown Haarlem. All three of the girls have streets named in their honor in the city. The nearby dunes just outside of Bloemendaal contain the final resting place of Hannie, along with other some 400 other resisters, in a national war cemetery dedicated to the memory of the Dutch resistance.
About Three Ordinary Girls
An astonishing, true World War II story of a trio of fearless female resisters in The Netherlands whose youth and innocence belied their extraordinary daring. It also made them the underground’s most invaluable commodity.
May 10, 1940. Joining a small resistance cell in the Dutch city of Haarlem were three teenage girls, Hannie Schaft and sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, who would soon band together to form a singular female underground squad.
Smart, fiercely political, devoted solely to the cause, and “with nothing to lose but their own lives,” Hannie, Truus, and Freddie took brave action, sheltering fleeing Jews, political dissidents, and Dutch resisters. With the courage of seasoned spies, they sabotaged bridges and railways, donned disguises to lead children to safehouses, and carried out other covert plans.
In telling this true story through the lens of a fearlessly unique trio of freedom fighters, Tim Brady offers a fascinating perspective of the Dutch resistance during the war. He details how these courageous young women became involved in the underground and of how their dedication evolved into dangerous missions on behalf of Dutch patriots.
Harrowing, emotional, and unforgettable, Three Ordinary Girls finally moves these three icons of resistance into the deserved forefront of world history.
About the Author
Tim Brady is an award-winning history author whose critically acclaimed books include Twelve Desperate Miles, A Death in San Pietro, His Father’s Son, and Three Ordinary Girls. In addition to contributing numerous articles, reviews, essays, and short stories to a wide range of magazines, newspapers, and journals, he has written and helped develop a number of television documentaries, including the Peabody Award–winning series Liberty! The American Revolution for PBS. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.