During the war only few Dutch people opted for an active resistance against the German oppression. Most people tried to continue the life they led before the war and hoped for the best. However, there were people who really resisted the German occupation. They risked their own lives to save the lives of others. One of the greatest Dutch resistance fighters is Helena Kuipers-Rietberg. This very religious housewife from Winterswijk was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the LO, the national organization for people in hiding. Under the pseudonym “tante Riek” (aunt Riek), she took care of the many thousands of people in hiding in our country. Because of this, she was called "the mother of all Dutch in hiding".
Helena Theodora Rietberg (nickname Heleen) was born on May 26th, 1893, in Winterswijk. She was the fourth child of Hendrik Rietberg and his wife Clara Christina Theodora Dulfer. Hendrik Rietberg worked in Winterswijk as a miller and grain merchant. Heleen grew up in a strict Calvinist environment. After she completed elementary school, she attended the three-year HBS (secondary school), which, at that time, was quite unique for a girl. It was here where she met her future husband, Pieter Heijo Kuipers (1892-1978). After completing HBS she went to work in the administration of her father's grain trade; Pieter Kuipers followed a training at the “normaal school” (teacher training). Subsequently, after finishing this training, he left for Medan, a port city on Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies, where he went to work for an Amsterdam based company. While he was on leave in the Netherlands in 1919, he asked Heleen to marry him. Together with her, he intended to return to the Indies. Her father did not like this at all. For a long time, Hendrik Rietberg had been wanting to leave the grain trade. Moreover, he did not want to let his daughter go. Therefore he asked Pieter if he would like to be a partner in the company. Pieter agreed and married Heleen on April 21st, 1921. They were to have a total of five children: three girls and two boys.
In 1922, Heleen stopped working in order to become fully engaged in her household. In her spare time, she was very active in various women's associations. Helena Kuipers-Rietberg was a woman with a very strong personality and strong persuasive force. She had great perseverance and she possessed good leadership skills. In 1932, she was one of the founders of Gereformeerde Vrouwenvereenigingen in Nederland (a reformed women’s association) in Winterswijk. Later on she also became a board member of De bond van Gereformeerde Vrouwenvereenigingen in Nederland (the board of reformed women’s associations in the Netherlands). In this role, she established lots of contacts throughout the country. Later on, these contacts would become very useful for her work.
Winterswijk is situated only a few kilometres from the German border. Partly because of the fact that Kuipers-Rietberg had family who were living in Germany, she went there regularly. Due to her visits to Germany, Heleen witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler. As a religious woman, Hitler was the personification of the antichrist to her. She had been aware of the persecution of Jews in Germany, which confirmed the impiety of the Nazi regime. During meetings of religious and other social associations, way before the German invasion of the Netherlands, Helena Kuipers-Rietberg already warned for the dangers of national socialism.
From the moment the German troops marched in to Winterswijk on May 10th, 1940, Heleen had a whole-hearted dislike of the occupier. She abhorred the godless Nazis and, during the many meetings and social gatherings she attended, she warned for the gradual nazification the Germans wanted to implement in our country, which would be a threat to Christian standards and values. Helena Kuipers-Rietberg and her family did not hesitate to choose for resistance against the German occupiers. As her first resistance activities, Kuipers-Rietberg was to prevent Dutch boys from enlisting for the Nederlandse Arbeidsdienst (NAD, Dutch labour service). The Nederlandse Arbeidsdienst was a national socialist organization which provided six months training for Dutch boys to work in Eastern Europe. During various religious meetings, Heleen emphasized the danger of being employed by this organization. She summoned the boys to go into hiding.
Very soon, the family Kuipers dealt with active resistance as well. The boys who wanted to go into hiding for the labour service had to be helped to a hiding place. She used her contacts throughout the country to find hiding places for them. The other members of the family Kuipers also were engaged in helping allied pilots who had been brought down and prisoners of war who managed to escape. In the beginning, the children of Kuipers distributed newspapers made by the illegal press, for example Trouw. Later on they would also help their parents with other resistance activities.
In 1942, the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands became increasingly aggressive and drastic. Many Jews decided to go into hiding. For them a hiding place had to be found as well. Although people offered their help in hiding, coordination and cooperation was poor. If there were already organizations for help in hiding, then these were always of a local nature. Heleen Kuipers-Rietberg thought that more communication and cooperation between the local organizations was needed through a national organization to help people go into hiding.
In the autumn of 1942 the Kuipers couple met minister Frederik (Frits) Slomp (1898-1978) from the province of Overijssel. This preacher from Heemse, who vehemently opposed the Nazis, called upon resistance from the very moment the Netherlands were occupied by the Germans. He did this during his sermons in the local church, but also at meetings of illegal Christian organizations. He also was engaged in helping people who were wanted by the Germans, to go into hiding. These activities caused himself to go into hiding in July 1942. From that moment he was nicknamed "Fritz the wanderer". He crossed the country by bike, because travelling by public transport was too dangerous.
Under the pseudonym "Ouderling Van Zanten", he held sermons and called for acts of resistance and sabotage against the Nazis. In the fall of 1942, he sermonized in a hall of the Reformed Church in Winterswijk. The Kuipers couple were among the listeners. The next morning he had a meeting with the couple. Heleen, who meanwhile used the pseudonym “Tante Riek” (aunt Riek, after her deceased sister Hendrika in 1930), argued that a national organization was necessary. According to Frits Slomp, the dialogue was as follows:
The national organization for persons in hiding (LO) was established. Frits Slomp travelled across the country, also by train now, to organize the local resistance and to find people who could accommodate people in hiding. Everywhere in the country local departments of the LO arose, which were organized and coordinated the resistance. Even a kind of general meeting, also called "de Beurs" was established. During this meeting, representatives of all LO departments in the country took council together and exchanged addresses, where people in hiding could be accommodated or where they needed to be rescued from.
HK: "Say Frits, we should establish an organization so that we can provide hiding places. My idea now is that you should do this. You should cross the country in order to make people enthusiastic about it". FS:" But I do not dare. Wherever I go, I meet people, I go there by bike but I do not dare travel by train". She looked at me and said the words I will never forget. "Hey, would it be so bad if you were killed, while thousands of boys were rescued?" I was not able to react to that.
In the spring of 1943 there was even more pressure on the LO. The German commander of the Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, General der Flieger, Friedrich Christiansen, announced that all Dutch soldiers were to return to German captivity. Many soldiers did not want this and they were forced to go into hiding. Also, on March 5th, 1943, the Allies started a massive four-months air offensive against the Ruhr area. The crew of the aircrafts, shot down over the Netherlands, also had to be helped into hiding. All this resulted in an increase of the number of persons in hiding with tens of thousands, which all had to be accommodated somewhere.
Simultaneously the occupier introduced an additional barrier to make going into hiding even more difficult. This made it almost impossible to get ration cards for others. These ration cards were needed because the Dutch had a distribution system, during the war. Without coupons it was impossible to get food and other necessities. From mid-1943 all ration cards had to be picked up personally. This was, of course, impossible for those who were in hiding. This made the LO to decide to raid distribution offices in order to seize the necessary ration cards. For this purpose the Landelijke Knokploegen (LKP; national strong-arm teams) were established in August 1943. This organization was engaged in committing robberies, but also in liberating imprisoned resistance fighters, liquidations of traitors and other acts of armed resistance.
Heleen Kuipers was very occupied with all her activities. As a representative of the LO in Winterswijk and as one of the leading figures in the organization, she had to attend meetings almost daily. Next to that, she filled a managerial position at the local women's association. All these activities and the additional stress caused that, halfway the war, she began to show signs of overstrain. Heleen Kuipers considered withdrawing completely from resistance activities. However that would not work out well, since there was no one who could and wanted to take over her job. Moreover, she actually did not want to quit, partly because of all the distress she witnessed around her, so she decided to continue. “Tante Riek” even got additional work. As a result of the activities of the Nationaal Steun Fonds (NSF; national aid fund) the LO had comprehensive financial resources at their disposal. The NSF, which originally had been established to provide financial support to families of Dutch men, who were sailing on allied merchant ships, became a very important organization within the Dutch Resistance as a whole. Under the command of the Jewish banker Walraven van Hall and former naval officer Iman Jacob van den Bosch, the NSF was able to funnel off funds and securities from the Nederlandse Bank (Dutch Bank), thanks to an ingenious system and thanks to inside help.
Eventually, due to these and other actions, the Nationaal Steun Fonds managed to put more than eighty million guilders at the disposal of the Dutch resistance. Within the LO, Heleen saw that the money was distributed in a justified way and that it was spent correctly. Husband Pieter Kuipers also became even more occupied with the resistance work. Together with his sons, the twins Piet and Helmer, he took care of the crews of allied planes, which had been brought down above the Netherlands. He helped them to go into hiding and tried to guide them to a safe area.
In the meantime, the SD (Security Service) got an even better picture of the command of the LO. On May 24th, 1944, Pieter Kuipers learned from a friendly police officer that the SD was about to do a raid on the address Willink Street 9 in Winterswijk, the home of the family Kuipers. Just in time, Pieter and Heleen succeeded in taking their children into safety with family and friends, while they themselves managed to flee.
They went into hiding in Bennekom, with the reformed cigar manufacturer Gerrit van Schuppen. However this was on the condition that, in the future, the couple would refrain from further resistance activities. As an industrial entrepreneur, he had much contact with the Germans and therefore he would not take the risk that the Germans would suspect him of "hostile" activities. However Heleen, in particular, could not stay still. She disliked idleness and the idea of not continuing the resistance against the Nazis. After a few weeks she wanted to go back to work again. She ordered false identity cars with the resistance, which had to be taken to her by a courier. However, fate struck! The courier was arrested by the Germans and after severe torture, he told them to whom he was going and to what address. Now the married Kuipers couple were trapped.
On August 18th, 1944, the SD invaded the house in Bennekom and Pieter Kuipers and Helena Kuipers-Rietberg were arrested. They were imprisoned in the Koepelgevangenis (domed prison) in Arnhem. During the interrogations, Heleen took all the blame. From the beginning, Pieter and Heleen discussed this and agreed upon this. They assumed that a woman would be handled in a less hard way than a man. Pieter played his role perfectly; he knew absolutely nothing about the resistance activities of his wife. He always had been occupied with his grain trade and had no idea at all of what his wife was doing.
Pieter was released soon already by the Germans and he returned to Winterswijk. When he noticed that his house was seized by the SD and demanded that the Germans give it back, he was arrested again. However, he was released quickly and he went into hiding. Pieter Kuipers was to survive the war and passed away in 1978. Heleen, in the meantime transferred to the prison in Arnhem, was interrogated during a long period of time. However, she resisted and did not give away any names to the Germans. In her cell she regularly sang out a psalm to encourage herself and her husband. Because of this, the Germans gave her the title "religion crazy".
On August 25th, 1944, Heleen Kuipers was taken from the Arnhem prison to camp Vught, where she only would stay for a short while. The Allies were approaching rapidly and therefore the camp was evacuated soon after her arrival. On September 6st, 1944, Heleen Kuipers, together with all the women in camp Vught, was transferred to concentration camp Ravensbrück in Germany in one of the last transportations. In the distance the artillery of the Allies could already be heard, while the train left for Ravensbrück. On the way, Heleen managed to drop another note from the train, which would be sent to her husband, later on. "Dear Piet and children. Sitting in train cars, waiting for transport. Where to? We do not know. Be commanded by God. Pray for each other. Your loving mother “.
Upon arrival at Ravensbrück Heleen was grouped in the "knitting command", who was occupied with the manufacture of socks for the German army. In Ravensbrück, Heleen Kuipers-Rietberg was a great support to her fellow inmates. She helped those who were sick and with her strong faith she was able to give other inmates some extra strength.
Just before Christmas, Heleen got sick and when she was admitted to the hospital, she became infected with typhoid fever, which was fatal. She died on December 27th or 28th,1944, at the age of only 51.
After the war, Helena Kuipers-Rietberg was posthumously awarded with the Verzetskruis (resistance cross). Her husband received it on May 9th, 1946, at the Paleis op de Dam (royal palace in Amsterdam).
On May 9th, 1954, a monument for Tante Riek was unveiled in Winterswijk. It is a statue of a woman with a deer beside her. The deer is a symbol for all the people who had to go into hiding and were hunted like wild animals. They found protection and care with Helena Kuipers-Rietberg, the co-founder of the LO and "Moeder van alle onderduikers” (Mother of all people in hiding). At the monument, the following poem is posted:
At the peak, the LO had more than ten thousand employees and held more than three hundred thousand people hidden. Partly because of the merits of Helena Kuipers-Rietberg, many of those in hiding managed to survive the war. Therefore, without any doubt, she is one of the greatest heroes of resistance in the Netherlands during World War II.
“'T GELOOF HEEFT HAAR GEDRAGEN, DE LIEFDE GAF HAAR KRACHT, DE HOOP DEED NIET VERSAGEN, TOT REDDING WAS GEBRACHT”. (FAITH HAS CARRIED HER, LOVE GAVE HER STRENGTH, HOPE DID NOT FALTER, UNTIL RESCUE ARRIVED)