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Henriette Roosenburg

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Henriette Roosenburg

Henriette Roosenburg (May 26, 1916 - 1972) was a Dutch journalist and political prisoner, perhaps best known for her memoir The Walls Came Tumbling Down, about her attempts to return to the Netherlands from Germany after being released from prison at the end of World War II. Born in the Netherlands to an upper-class family, she was a graduate student at the University of Leiden at the start of World War II and became a courier in the Dutch resistance, where she served under the code name Zip. During this time she also wrote for the Dutch newspaper Het Parool. In 1944 she was caught and sentenced to death, and became a Night and Fog prisoner in a German prison at Waldheim.

At Waldheim, Henriette and the other prisoners were severely undernourished, and spent most of their free time embroidering bits of cloth with terse iconography about their experience. For instance, one section of Roosenburg's embroidery shows a crude drawing of a gun to indicate that the prisoners had heard what they thought was Allied gunfire, as well as the names "Nell" and "Joke" (pronounced "Yoe-kuh") in Morse code to indicate that she was in solitary confinement, that Nell and Joke were in the two adjacent cells, and that they communicated by tapping Morse code on the walls.

Henriette and the other prisoners were released on May 6, 1945; Henriette and four other Dutch NN prisoners (Dries, Nell, Joke, and Fafa, a Dutch NN prisoner with severe arthritis) had a chance to return to the Netherlands a few days later when the U.S. Army arrived with trucks to carry people through the Russian lines. However, Fafa's arthritis was so severe that she could not walk; and the surrounding roads were largely unpaved and rough. The other four did not believe that Fafa would survive the trip even if there were room for her cot--and there was not room for her cot; the truck was densely packed and offered standing room only. The group had heard that the Russians intended to send displaced persons back home via Odessa, a port in Ukraine on the Black Sea; considering that too far of a side trip, Dries, Nell, Joke, and Henriette stayed behind to take Fafa to a local civilian hospital instead, and then set out on their own for the Netherlands.

The Russians had established sentries along major routes, including bridges, and were disallowing all unauthorized travel for fear German soldiers would escape along with former German POWs. Henriette and her friends, through bartering and guile, came to travel along Elbe River in a small boat from Waldheim to Coswig, where they were accosted by Russian soldiers and taken to a displaced persons camp populated by Belgians, Dutch, and Italians. On June 6, 1945, Roosenburg and a group of Dutch people was exchanged for a group of Russian POWs; they made their way to a Red Cross camp where they found that only the French and Belgians would be flying home; the rest would have to wait several weeks until a truck came. Roosenburg convinced a Dutch captain to give her group documentation stating that they were political prisoners and should have priority in transportation home; the paperwork she suggested did not mention their nationality, and so left them free to impersonate French or Belgian political prisoners. The next day Roosenburg and 15 other Dutch set out for Halle airfield, where they convinced an American soldier to allow them flight on the next plane to Belgium. Once in Belgium, the group set about calling friends and friends' friends to tell them they were alive and on their way home, and on June 12 they arrived at a monastery in the southern Netherlands where she and her friends were housed with between 1500 and 2000 others. The Netherlands had just been recently liberated and was suffering famine; as a result, trains to the north of the Netherlands only ran every three or four weeks. But Roosenburg happened to meet her cousin, Dirk Roosenburg, who had become a first lieutenant in the Dutch Army; he arranged for Henriette and her friends to be driven north the next day, where they reunited with their families.

After the war, Henriette became a correspondent for Time Inc., serving in Paris and The Hague, and then New York for a decade. At the beginning of her stay in New York, she wrote the book The Walls Came Tumbling Down about her experience traveling from Waldheim to the Netherlands, and was later awarded the Bronze Lion of the Netherlands. She died in 1972 at the age of 56.

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