Jogchem van der Hout and Michile Victor pose in traditional Dutch garb. (Courtesy Michael van der Hout)
Jogchem van der Hout and Michile Victor pose in traditional Dutch garb. (Courtesy Michael van der Hout)
After escaping a Nazi slave labor camp a second time in Offingen, Bavaria, five days before the German surrender of May 7, 1945, my dad began a 440-mile trek back to his father’s house in Holland, walking 330 miles of it. Along the way, he wandered into war-torn areas, some that weren’t yet liberated. In these places, he summarily was rearrested and detained. Then there was Belgium.

Well into his arduous escape, my starving dad dizzily trekked through miles of human carnage strewn across Belgian battlefields. He walked over, across and around human body parts for so long that he became desensitized to the gruesome slaughter.

Through the haze, he gazed at a group of Benedictine monks attempting to bury some of the dead. Their monastery leveled, the monks had been surviving for some time in their cellars and catacombs. My dad wearily approached these men. He told them how far he had come, and how he was heading back to his home in Holland but that he was famished. The monks spoke Walloon, a dialect of Belgian French that he found difficult to understand. He soon realized that the brothers seemed to understand him better than he understood them. Knowing that my dad was sick, worn and malnourished, the monks took him back to their underground lodgings. They fed and looked after him until he was well again. Over the next few days, the brothers cared for and observed my dad very closely in the candlelit chambers of what remained of their holy home.

One morning, the abbot lit a candle and motioned for Dad to follow him down a long corridor. At the end was a trap door. The abbot opened it and climbed down to a cellar. A minute later he brought up a young Belgian woman with black hair and brown eyes. Her name was Michile. He then handed custody and care of Michile over to my father with the instructions, “Please take her home, but if she has no home, then marry her and take care of her.” My dad agreed to take Michile to her mother’s house in the city of Liege, many miles away. Michile spoke mostly French, and my dad spoke Dutch. That said, he was fairly fluent in French and Michile could speak some Dutch, so they compromised.

After morning prayer the following day, the monks gave Michile and my dad provisions of bread, cheese, apples and blessings and sent the two on their way. The pair trod for miles down winding roads and through the rural villages scattered across the scarred battlefields. As best he could, and with what little resources he had, my dad looked after Michile like she was his sister. He saw to it that the young woman received the best treatment possible and was safe from danger.

The young woman from French Belgium and the young man from South Holland had survived it all. In their days together, each was growing increasingly fond of the other. My dad loved to hold her soft cool hand whenever he had the opportunity.

When the two made it to Michile’s mother’s house in Liege many days later, Michile explained to her mother why this escaped Dutch prisoner was with her. She told of how he walked her safely home from the monastery to her mother’s house, and looked after her all the way. Michile’s mother thanked my dad repeatedly for helping her daughter and let him rest there for the night.

The following morning, as he set out to continue his journey back home to Holland, my dad realized he would be departing as Michile’s hero. Michile told him then how good it was to be home again, and how it was all because of him that she made it safely and expeditiously. She gave him her address and told him to be safe and careful, and to write when he got home. Michile indicated that she wanted to keep in touch with my dad, that she wanted to see him again soon, if possible, by all means necessary.

My father never gave me the many details of his separation from Michile that following morning. But I tried to imagine the both of them at the front door of a brick building that had no front porch, among a row of other brick buildings. The structures stood along a narrow, winding, centuries-old cobblestone street in a centuries-old neighborhood of Liege. No doubt, Michile stood behind the door and thanked my dad as she gave him foodstuffs that she packed for his long trek. He imagined that when her mother wasn’t looking, she probably kissed him, and since my dad felt the same way about Michile, he probably kissed her. And after a long goodbye he, no doubt, headed down the long road home. He was, at least, determined to see her again, against all the odds of all of the lands and all of the seas of uncertainty; somewhere out there in a brand-new world that he curiously anticipated. No doubt, he smiled and waved at all the neighbor ladies peeking out from behind their shuttered windows. For that morning, in particular, their shared, newfound freedom was the greatest thing indeed.

Editor’s note: While Jogchem van der Hout and Michile Victor did get engaged, Michile did not want go to the United States, so Jogchem left her behind in Europe. He later met Rosemary Catherine O’Rourke at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago and the two wed, eventually moving to Portland.