At 97 years-old, she still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the things she saw and experienced helping to save the lives of Jewish people during World War II in the Netherlands.
A devout Christian, Diet Eman (pronounced Deet) now resides at Samaritas Senior Living in Grand Rapids. The journey of how she got to West Michigan is literally what movies are made of.
Diet was born on April 30, 1920 in Hague, Netherlands. Her homeland hadn’t been in a war for hundreds of years and was booming with business. Freshly out of high school she had her whole life ahead of her and ready for an adventure. But what happened next is not the path Diet would have imagined.
Adolf Hitler started bossing the Netherlands around, Diet said. He hated Jews, many of which flocked to the Netherlands due to the reasons I mentioned above; it was peaceful and had a good economy. On May 10, 1940, she heard the invasion. With many friends who were Jew, Diet and her fiancé Hein Sietsma knew they had to help, leading one of the many Dutch Resistance groups. Sietsma’s father was a farmer miles away from the city. He along with other farmers allowed the resistance workers to bring the Jews to their homes to hide. This also meant that resistance workers would have to provide false papers and identification cards that had to be carried on them at all times. Jews also had to wear a big star on their chest. Curfews were strictly enforced; it was extremely risky work. Diet had a man in her group that could falsify documents, which was key to survival.
Eventually her time on the run would catch up to her. Diet was asked to show her identification card to five men who were inspecting. Those inspectors were Gestapo, or Nazi Germany Secret Police. Diet happened to be illegally transporting documents inside of her shirt. As she showed them her identification, the questions started to fly. She made up a story about how she had lost hers and got a new one from a guy named “Yan” that she met in a bunker during an air raid. Come to find out, the ink on her false document was the wrong color. They had run out of one color and just switched to a different color without her knowing.
Diet knew she would be hauled off to prison but there is no way she could be caught with those documents and live to tell about it. She credits God for what happened next. The Gestapo were distracted by a new material that one of the men’s coat was made of: plastic. Hard for us to imagine, but it had just been invented! As the guy wearing the plastic coat, or rain coat, whipped it open to show off some pockets, fast thinking Diet tossed the papers! One important thing Diet remembered was to never show you are scared because they would pester you even more. She made jokes about running and seeing if the one man could catch her. Trying to keep her cool, Diet was hauled off to Scheveningen prison.
Diet recalls pulling up to the gates of the prison. The Gestapo had his finger on the bell for them to open, giving Diet one last chance to explain where her fake I.D. came from. He didn’t need to push the bell, Diet was going to do it for him.
Her small cell didn’t have a toilet or toilet paper. In the morning, they would get a small pail of water which she would use to clean herself after going to the bathroom; her hand was the toilet paper. In the morning, they got one slice of moldy bread. It was usually leftovers that the Nazis didn’t want. At noon, they’d get “soup” which was basically water with some type of green leaves. Diet said the crazy thing is, they all gained weight in prison from retaining so much water.
To pass the time, they played little tiny cards that men made and with the stump of pencils, crafted little figurines. Once in a while they would exercise so they didn’t just sit there all day.
Then one day, the invasion came to Europe when England attacked Normandy. The Nazis got very scared, Diet said, so they were brought from a prison to a concentration camp. On her papers it said that she was a maid because she could speak many languages. Her duties then became washing the undergarments of the guards. Diet also used her role to help others in prison, smuggling stuff.
Diet recalls hearing the gunfire of troops being led by U.S. Army General George Patten outside of the concentration camp. All of a sudden, the guards became very nervous because they knew they would be shot. These cruel, mean guards disappeared.
As Diet made her way out of the concentration camp, one of things she came across was a man walking next to a horse that was hauling manure for fertilizer. He agreed to have her hop aboard so she could hitch a ride to a nearby train station. Diet laughs to think her glorious exit to liberty was on a poop cart!
Going home was not an option for Diet. The Gestapo still kept a close eye on her parent’s house. They never let anybody know what Diet was up to and would just lie and say she was staying out in the country with her fiance’s family, learning how to take care of a home. Diet was able to make contact with family friends who played cards with her parents. They arranged a reunion but Diet couldn’t stay nor did she want to.
All of her friends except one, along with her fiancé, were killed. Hein was caught and died in Dachau, a German concentration camp.
Eventually, Diet went on to study nursing and connected with a cousin who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She really liked the church life it offered.
There are so many layers to Diet’s life. She dedicated much of it to humanitarian work for American Red Cross. At the age of 39, she married and had two sons. Talking about her traumatic past is something that Diet did not want to do because it was so painful.
It wasn’t until she went to church one day and pastor encouraged those who had something unusual happen in their lives in which God was involved, to get up and share. Diet then connected with a man by the name of Dr. James Schaap who worked with her to write a memoir called Things We Couldn’t Say.
Diet lights up when she talks about something very special that happened to her in 2015. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands visited Grand Rapids. After hearing Diet's story, he insisted that she sit next to him during dinner. To see her smile while telling that story, was very moving.
A huge thanks to Diet for sharing her painful story with us. Many artifacts from her life are on display at Calvin College’s library in Grand Rapids. A special thanks to the college for allowing us access to them.