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Life at ‘t Malster in Brummen, the Netherlands

by Jeanne Rosen-Crommelin, in conversation with Judith Crommelin Melby

Jeanne Rosen-Crommelin was born at ‘t Malster on the 25th of February 1917, two years younger than her sister Laura. They were daughters of Lou and Too Crommelin-Doorman.

Mother Too and father Lou

Jeanne married George Rosen in 1951. His work as a German diplomat brought them all over the world with their daughter Nina. Jeanne now lives in London and reminisced about growing up and living at ‘t Malster in conversation with Judith Crommelin Melby.

We had such a happy youth - yes, that’s the word, no troubles. We walked to school - about twenty minutes, but not at lunchtime – father picked us up with a car… and a horse. We had three different carriages in the stable!

And then at four we had to walk again, with the children of the farmers who lived behind us. They had to do the shopping for their mothers – my mother never asked us - we got little sweet rosy things in each shop and we shared them. She had five in her mouth and I had ten. All these funny little memories.

We lived near Brummen, a lovely village on the IJssel river –with a square in the centre and a pavilion, where music was played on the Queen’s birthday.

A real country-house
‘t Malster’ was a real country-house. Chestnut trees lined the lane leading from the main street to a gate, which was always left open. In the front garden, on each side of the house, grew beautiful old beech-trees. It was a lovely sight to see the house from that side.

Laura, Mama and me

Inside there was one big corridor from the front to the backdoor with a long carpet. Every Saturday the gardener rolled it up, hung it out and beat it with a “matteklopper”. We did not have a hover of course. Our gardener was married to grandmother’s cook, who came from Zeeland, was very stately and twelve years older than her husband. Harm, the gardener, arrived every morning at 7.30 am to collect the shoes that were in the corridor and polish them. He had his own space on the first floor with all the shoe-polish and his gear and then he put the shoes back and knocked on our door to say good morning to Laura and me.

The Mystery of the cross-eyed postman
Mum had one live-in servant who fell in love with the postman. He was cross-eyed, so we never knew where he was looking. Mum let them sit in the kitchen in the evening, and the whole kitchen was a mystery to me, because it was dark and there was one privilege given: a little lamp and then they sat there in the kitchen holding hands without saying a word. Once I opened the door and instantly felt like an intruder. I must have been about 6 years old and sensing the atmosphere, I quickly closed the door and thought I should never do this again. They did get married, I think.

Father with our horse Irma

Getting Dressed
I was always so excited and involved playing with my friends that I never managed to get to the loo in time and fiddle with all the buttons and hooks on my underwear. Our nanny would be angry with me and slap me on the back. Oh, yes, we had to change, of course, after father and mother had had a rest in the afternoon. Mother changed into another dress for tea and father changed too. He had these flat shoes, with bows on them.

As we had no central heating, our bedrooms were icy cold. Every morning mother would wash us with water from a jug and bowl and when we screamed out because of the cold, she would stuff the soap into our mouths. I thought this was pretty cruel.

Eventually my parents inherited some money, I think, and then we had a proper bathroom and central heating – that was fantastic! – I was fifteen then.

Laura and I were very different and we did not get along very well when we were children. She was quieter, studious and liked reading books. However, later on we became the greatest of friends.

Me, Laura, our ducks and geese

A birthday party
These days people have television and cinema, but we, well for birthday-parties for instance, we did a lovely thing: we all got a little piece of land and we all had to make our own garden of it. Then a gardener came from the village, who gave prices, nice “prijsjes”.

Dinner parties
There were also dinner parties, where we were allowed to sit at the table and Laura and I said: if they say interesting things with BIG, important words we must write them down. So we sat with a piece of paper and a pen and listened to the conversation. There was the live-in servant and the other one who cycled home after she had served the table. Yes, and the gardener – we always had the most wonderful fruits and vegetables, mum never went to a shop. Meat, she ordered by wind-up telephone and this man came an hour later on his bicycle and delivered the meat.

The motteballetjes who came by car
People came to these dinner-parties by carriage and horse – there were no automobiles. The first people who came by car – a Ford - were our old tantetjes Agaath and Marie, who called us and said: ‘We come by CAR!’ Very churchy people and THEY bought a car. We nearly collapsed – you see, they were such 'motteballetjes'. They came, very slowly of course, but it was a car. I remember well we would visit them for Sunday-lunch, travelling from Brummen to Wilp and when Laura and I would announce ourselves at the front door. They would open the door and our visit by stating: ‘For God’s sake let’s all be quiet’. Then we would have our lunch: veal, green peas and puree.

Days out
We never really went on holiday; rather people came to stay with us. The only time we went anywhere was when the German Mark was devalued and we all went on a small trip to Düsseldorf, where I bought a pair of summer shoes with square toes. That was the fashion then. We would ice skate a lot in winters and father had a big ‘slee’, where people sat in front covered by a plaid, and we would hook our little ‘sleetjes’ to fathers big one and slalomed behind him, all the way to the forest. We also went there in the summer and one day as we had gone out father lost the way.

There were hardly roads, just sandy, and the horses needed water and we did not know whether to go left or right. We saw a farmhouse and father went all the way down and came back with water and so we came home safely – but it was a long distance you know, where you easily could lose the way.

Badenweiler: Liesbeth Hoogenraad, Laura, aunt Phine Crommelin-Vrolijk with her sons,
Willem and Robert, my cousins, mother and me

The General and his fountain pen
Holland was so quiet then – so few people – I loved to cycle, but with my nanny I had to walk and that I hated. I learned to cycle rather late, at the age of 12 and then my grandfather Doorman, mothers father, he had been a general in the army, a very strict man. Well I said to him: I can cycle now and he said, well, I’ll come and watch – and I was so nervous- and there I went into the bushes and he said , no you must try again until you can ride to the gate and he dipped his pen into the ink and wrote his letters – I still see him drying his pen on the inside of his jacquet, it was full of ink, I could not understand.

It was wonderful to go and visit them in the Hague. Opposite to their house was a hairdresser, I was so excited to go there, I had very straight hair and so much wanted curls. So mum said o.k. we go, but the next day the curls were gone again.

With grandfather Doorman

Father Lou
My father ran ‘t Malster and its lovely garden – he was brought up in Switzerland, where his mother took her children after my grandfather (Willem Jacob Elias- from the Lathmer)) died in 1890. Her daughters had a nasty cough, so they lived in the mountains in Mont Fleurie. He was home taking care of the whole place and the horses. Everybody liked him; he was a good man.

Not always to my sister, though. He could be so angry with her – when she was not sweet, but sixteen! We had scenes at home. When we were nasty we were sent away from the dining table to the veranda and had to stay there. One time the lady who made mother's dresses had left one there. With a voile – I put the scissors into it. There was a big row and I was locked in my room.

Sinterklaas and Christmas were wonderful – Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet came and we got presents – not for Christmas, but from Sinterklaas only. The servants would sit in the other room and get presents too, and wine. For Christmas we had a tree with real candles and a bucket of water behind it.

Father's fruit trees and vegetables

Our vegetables and fruit were grown at home and what was left was sold at market. I loved those juicy pears, luscious raspberries and crunchy salads. Unfortunately, meals in those days often consisted of meat with fatty gravy and overcooked vegetables, which I detested. I preferred to eat salad, but this was not considered “proper food”. Sometimes I would still be sitting at table at three in the afternoon with a plate of cold meat and mashed potato, which I landscaped into mountains and valleys. By then the gravy had congealed and nothing would persuade me to eat it up.

Swimming in the IJssel and dancing at matchmaking parties. On summerdays we went to swim in the IJssel river. Close to us was a bend in the river and a whirlpool and Laura got in it. It was so frightening. We tried to save her, but a man came and got her out. We were so full of it but could not talk about it because grandmother Doorman had a weak heart.

Dancing we had to learn when we got older, it was all organized, you see – you would have a party and before that a family – of our class – would give a dinner party - all meant to get to know other people. It felt like no real fun but it was geared towards arranging good marriages.

Of course that did not work with my sister and I – not at all.

I loved clothes, but we had this dressmaker. She would make our dresses, always very simple - not fashionable. You see, my first real dress I got from C&A. It was chequered - brown, yellow and orange checks. I cut it deeper out and then I put a piece of lace – so that people would think, "Oh, she is wearing lace underwear," but during the dancing - I didn’t know – the thing hung on one thread, and my whole secret was obvious.

‘Yess, it’s Mozart!’
Mother took us to concerts – we loved it. It took hours and hours to get there: from Brummen to Arnhem by carriage and horse – and back!

She was not really happy on the country, she was from the Hague and stayed with an uncle and aunt in Brummen, where she met my father, who already lived at ‘t Malster, as a bachelor with two ‘poedels’ and a horse. So they thought, "We must bring these two together," and that’s how it went, I think. They were not a very good match, but mother made a good life for herself and was a very good mother. She couldn’t boil an egg but she always made chambermusic – people came to play – Oooh , my uncle Charles Smissaert, who played the violin - we were already in bed – we knew exactly where he went wrong with the Beethoven-sonatas- (he just couldn’t get it right), but mum didn’t mind. She had a purpose in playing the piano, you see.

And then twenty years later my father, who favoured military marches, noticed one morning , when she was playing: ‘Is n’t that Mozart your’re playing? And mum, all happy and over the moon at the recognition: ‘Yess – it’s Mozart!! Her dear husband…..after all those years.

I had a good voice and got singing-lessons, but when mum died she said: ‘I did not push you enough in singing’, but my experience is, that if you really want something, you fight for it and you do it. You cannot blame your mother or anyone else. Laura was a 'boekewurm', she read a lot.

The healer
Father got on very well with me. He said, "You can imitate people so well," and so he wrote a play for me and I had the main part in it. One of the roles he wrote after an eccentric young man that I remember in particular. He looked after peoples’ stoves, repairing them in the autumn for the winter. My mother remarked that although he did manual work he never seemed to have dirty hands. Well, one day he found that if he put his hand over a normal glass of water, it would begin to fizz and when someone drank this water he or she would feel healed by it. I saw it with my own eyes - he took a glass of water, put his hand on it and then it became all fizzy. He covered it with a silk handkerchief and my grandmother drank it and slept like a rose. He never sent bills to anyone, but people gave him money and he bought a country house with furniture and servants and married a woman with lots of money, who wore high heels and was beautifully groomed. That was quite a thing in our village!

When war broke out, both Laura and I went back to Brummen – we wanted to be with mum and dad – we were horrified and did not know what would happen, although we had heard lots of stories about the First World War when we were little.

The Germans would come to our door and ask for lots of things. Father and mother would be crying but I gave them a big mouth and said, "You cannot get all you want here!" But still they took it – the horse of course, and we never got it back. It was our means of transport - I’ll never forget, a lovely horse. They would ask, and ask, and never stop. It was terrible. They were staying in the center of Brummen.

I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but I was working in an emergency hospital located in a café in Brummen. Laura worked there too. There was no running water - only a pump outside and no electricity. We used oil lamps. I learned to put up with the sight of blood, I had to. Women were treated on one side, men on the other and babies were born on the stage at the end. Sometimes we hid young men on the run so that they would not be taken away to Germany and forced labour.

Once when I was on night duty all alone with forty patients, I could hear one of the men snoring and then stop completely. I checked him and was sure he had died, so I completed the necessary paperwork and pulled a screen around his bed. Imagine my surprise the next day when a loud snore came from his bed and he was still alive! I did not know yet that you had to lift the eyelids to check a man who had died.

In those days there was not much food at home. We had to get it and find it ourselves, but we were not so bad off as people in Holland: they came to us all the way from Amsterdam by bike, just to get a piece of bread! Often we had strangers at our kitchen table that mum would feed and give some food to take back home. There were no cows left. I have seen them dragged into trains by the Germans to go to Germany. The farmers had nothing left. We had sugarbeets – we grated them and put them in a cloth overnight and it was sweet juice and we boiled it. And of course we had a kitchen garden, sheep and a spinning wheel, so we had wool which I washed and exchanged for meat and eggs at a farm nearby.

Laura, picking mushrooms near our house

We would ride bicycles without tires – that we learned in those days. It was bad but still better than walking. One day father said : “I haven’t seen a sign of a German today. Let’s go to Zutphen and see what’s going on. So we rattled on our bikes with no tires and just before we got to Zutphen a military car came to us and stopped on the main road. Out came two Canadians and I began to cry and could only say, "You must liberate us." He looked at his watch and said, "By six o’clock we’ll be in Berlin." Then he gave me a Craven A cigarette – I’ll never forget, and a slice of white bread. That evening we danced cheek-to-cheek through the whole night. That was the liberation. I’ll never forget – it’s like yesterday.

Jeanne, in her London home, 2005

My mother never complained when we left home, not even later when we went abroad and even when Laura died just before Christmas in a car accident in Indonesia in 1948, where she was very happy and working as a trained nurse.

After the war I started working as a social worker, first in Holland, later in England. After we married, my husband George always said, "I‘m her last case." I cherish my memories of a happy youth at ‘t Malster – such a lovely place, such carefree years.