‘My mother nursed Yekaterina’

‘Katya’, is what Sietse Alkema thought straightaway when he learned about the identification of a Ukrainian girl on Dutch television yesterday. Could this be the one that his mother nursed in Leeuwarden during and after the war?

At that time Sietse’s mother worked in the Sint Bonifatius hospital. Two stories she told about that period stayed with her son (now 67) always.

“In some early morning”, says Altema, “all the nurses from the civilian part had to help out in the part that had been requisitioned by the Germans and turned into a military hospital. A German ship had been attacked by a British aircraft and the wounded were transferred to Leeuwarden. My mother described the scenes as surrealistic. They worked until midnight, between buckets of amputated arms and legs. In that crazy atmosphere –  German officers shouting all sorts of war propaganda to keep up morale – a boy was lying on the operating table whose legs had been cut off. When he died someone remarked: ‘How sad, he was just married.’”

And the second tale? “Katya”, says Altena. “My mother recounted several times that during the war she cared for an Eastern European girl who was lying in the Bonifatius hospital in Leeuwarden. That this girl, Katya, had a chequered past, been through a lot. And that Katya died there. Mum told me that she took extra care in laying her out. She was all alone. In this way my mother could make a difference, pay her last respects.”

After the death of his mother in 2009 Altema never heard the girl’s  name mentioned again. “Could it be that Katya is the one on Dutch tv, the person buried at the Soviet war cemetery?”

As it turned out the girl at the Soviet war cemetery died after the war in Leeuwarden, in the very same Sint Bonifatius hospital. She came from Ukraine and was called Yekaterina. The nickname of Yekaterina is… Katya! There is no mention of other deaths of Eastern European girls in that hospital and in that city. So yes, everything points to it being Katya.

“To tell you the truth I was really fed up with all the war stories being told in the family. Only later did I grasp how important and personal this narrative must have been to my mother. In 1971 an American girl with Czech roots visited us as part of an exchange program. When, 26 years after the war, my mother saw her for the first time at Schiphol airport, she said: ‘Just Katya.’”