Grandmother who escaped the Nazis dies on Holocaust Memorial Day after having COVID-19

Aaltje

Aaltje Berry posing for a Co-op ad for groceries - Credit: Supplied by Howard Berry

A Welwyn Garden City grandmother who escaped the Nazis and worked with the Red Cross during World War II has died at the age of 97. 

Dutch-born Aaltje Berry was employed by a British ship manufacturer at the outbreak of the First World War when the owners just left as German troops approached the Netherlands. 

Without work and in a precarious home situation, her family had little money, she found work through an uncle in Berlin. During this time, her parents were hiding people in their attic on an Amsterdam street with the police right outside. 

Her grandson, Howard Berry, a University of Hertfordshire lecturer living in Walkern, near Stevenage, told this newspaper: "Everyone knew, the police, everyone. Her father was sent north to farm food for the Germans, nothing for the Dutch."

As the bombing got worse, Aaltje's housekeeping job and life with her uncle and cousins in Berlin was also getting strained. 

"Her cousin's husband died and her baby starved to death," Howard explained. "Her cousin's father and two brothers were killed by a bomb."

This prompted her to flee to Graz, Austria where she continued to be a housekeeper until she found a position as a nurse at a very strange hospital. 

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"She started to notice 'No one on the ward is sick. So she asked 'what is going on?'

"She was told not to ask any questions but the town committee and mayor were all hiding as patients in the hospital."

This happy coincidence, helped her get papers signed so she could then flee to Italy, as she was "desperate to get rid of the Nazis".

"She lived in an abandoned cinema in Milan," he said. "And she was sitting and having coffee one day when these two American GIs started chatting her up."

This led her to join the Red Cross and while a displaced person in Paris, she was able to return home to the Netherlands. 

"She was on her own but it didn't phase her. That was the kind of person she was. She would never have said that it was horrible. 

"'It was just a war', she said, 'It was bad for everyone.'"

There she was back working as a housekeeper to a Hungarian violinist when an acquaintance showed up on the door and could not pay his taxi fare. 

Aaltje and Dennis Berry in the middle, with members of the Dutch Songwriter’s Guild about to board a plane.

Aaltje and Dennis Berry in the middle, with members of the Dutch Songwriter’s Guild about to board a plane. - Credit: Supplied by Howard Berry

"All my grandfather had was British money so she paid his fare when he showed up broke at her door. I've always thought that rather romantic."

Dennis then spent the next three months in the Netherlands waiting for his office at his music business in London to have all the asbestos taken out. "And when his firm phoned for him to come back. He said [to Aaltje] are you coming with me?"

They got married in 1949 and moved to Stevenage until they built a house in Reddings, Welwyn Garden City after they purchased the land, they claimed, from the actor Peter Sellers. 

Aaltje was active in the local community, joining the women's guild, and got her English education first at Monk's Walk and then Oaklands College. Later in life she was in charge of the computer system at Roche but spent most of this period as a mother and wife. 

"And they stayed in Welwyn Garden City until his retirement in 1979," Howard said. "He [my grandfather] was pretty political and living in England he didn't like Margaret Thatcher. 

"He first looked at Australia but they wouldn't take him because of their points-based immigration system so he dragged her off to South Africa during Apartheid.

"She didn't like this and after six months she said I'm going home to Welwyn."

They moved into a house in Oaklands near the Great North pub and later returned to the garden city. 

Dennis, a music producer, whose father was an electrician for the BBC at Alexandra Palace, died in 1994 and his light jazz music is still giving royalties to the family through appearing on Spongebob Squarepants, Come Dine with Me, and in many a hotel room. 

The Berry family, which includes Howard, his mum, sister, a musician, and composer, and niece, will hold a small service for Aaltje and then scatter her ashes in the sea. "She would have liked that. She took lots of cruises and always ended up dining with the captain.

"She was incredibly warm-hearted and nothing ever got her down."

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