Pieter Rudolph (“Rudy”) Zeeman (1919-2021) was a longtime friend of the Weidner Foundation who served for years as a member of our Advisory Council. In 2020, the Foundation published his memoir about his escape from Holland through the Dutch-Paris Escape Line. Luck Through Adversity was delivered in time for Rudy’s wedding anniversary with his wife of 74 years, Berna Mortimer, who passed away shortly afterward. The following eulogy was delivered in Rudy’s honor by his longtime friend, Coleman O’Flaherty:
Eulogy for Rudy Zeeman by Coleman O’Flaherty
Pieter Rudolph Zeeman (aka Rudy Zeeman) was born on 10 November 1919 in Surabaya on the island of Java in the former Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia, His father, Pieter Rudolph Zeeman (Snr), was a young manager at the then NHM Trading Society/Bank: this bank subsequently morphed into the ABN/AMRO Bank, now one of the largest banking companies in the Netherlands. His mother was Eugenie Maria Portengen, daughter of Jan William Portengen, a physician and Colonel in the Netherlands East Indies Army and the holder of the Dutch equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
Rudy’s father gained rapid promotion in the Company and was posted to various cities in Malaya, Singapore, India, Japan, China and the Dutch East Indies. English was the language of communication between the foreign and local communities in these locales so Rudy learned to speak English when he was a very young boy. Memories of these postings stayed with him all his life; in fact, only a few weeks ago he told me about his childhood memories of Mt. Fuji and the deer-park at Nara in Japan, and how impressed he was when he saw warships at anchor in Shanghai.
In 1934, Rudy’s father was recalled to Holland to become one of the Managing Directors at the head office in Amsterdam. Rudy’s formal education had suffered as a result of his father’s travels and he had not yet finished school when he was called up for compulsory military service in August 1939, just before WWII; as a result he did not matriculate until 1941, when he was 21.
On 10 May 1940 the German Army invaded the Netherlands, destroyed the small Dutch Air Force on the ground and overwhelmed the Dutch Army. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government fled to England where a Government-in-Exile was set-up after the capitulation of the Dutch defence forces.
Initially, members of the Dutch military became prisoners-of-war, but most were subsequently released and allowed to return to their pre-War occupations. Later, because of the shortage of labour in Germany, those aged 20 – 50 were ordered to report to the German Authorities for work in factories in Germany: many (including Rudy) ignored this order and went into hiding. Often the German Military Police would raid the homes of Dutch ex-servicemen looking for such persons, usually at night. In one instance, Rudy was tipped-off about such a raid by a friendly Dutch policeman and got out of his house, and his bed, just before his home was searched. His uncle Jacob Portengen, who was in the house at the time, climbed into Rudy’s unmade bed, and when the German Sergeant leading the search went into the room, the Uncle and the Sergeant looked at each other and the Sergeant exclaimed “ach, you are too old” and left.
In 1942, Rudy and his best friend – a University student, Robert van Exter – decided to escape from Holland and join the Free Dutch Armed Forces in England. To do this they would have to travel thousands of kilometres through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal to get to British-ruled Gibralter, from whence they could get a boat to England. After hatching many abortive plans, they made contact with an escape organisation known as the Dutch-Paris Escape Line, which provided them with falsified documents which said that they were employed by the Nazi Security Police in the French town of Pau at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, between France and Spain.
On 5 January 1944, Rudy and Robert left Amsterdam by train for Paris on the first leg of their trip. To their great relief, the forged papers passed the scrutiny of the many German Military Police inspections at railway stations and on the train; had they not, it is likely they would have been tortured by the Gestapo for information about the Escape Line and eventually have ended up in a concentration camp.
When they arrived in Paris, Rudy and Robert had to go into hiding for six weeks. Emboldened by the success of their forged papers and with the brashness of youth, they used the time to explore Paris, mingling with sight-seeing German soldiers and visiting cafes. One evening, whilst leaving a café, Rudy was accosted by two German officers, his papers were examined, and he was then politely asked to accompany them in their car to the Gestapo Headquarters on Avenue Foch. Rudy was petrified as he knew that a phone call to Pau would expose his papers as false. Fortunately, it was night-time, it was raining, Paris was blacked-out, and the street signs were hard to read, so the car driver got lost. The Germans stopped at a corner to look at a map and peer at a street sign and, in that unguarded moment, Rudy opened the car’s side-door, jumped out and ran like the clappers through twisting and turning side-streets to shake off any pursuers. He eventually found his way back to his safe-house, told his story, and he and Robert were immediately moved elsewhere, issued with new fake identity cards, and given priority in the Escape Line.
Twelve days later, after further travel by train, bus and on foot, Rudy, Robert and ten escaping American airmen trudged for four days through deep snow over the Pyrenees Mountains until they crossed the border into neutral Spain – where they were immediately imprisoned by the Spanish police. Whilst awaiting representations by the American and Dutch Governments, they occupied their time killing legions of cock-roaches which had been happily living in the Spanish cells prior to their arrival. Eventually, however, they were released and they then made their way by car and train across Spain and through Portugal to Gibraltar where they boarded a British warship and sailed in convoy to England.
On 15 March 1944 Rudy and Robert landed in Liverpool – and were immediately taken into custody by the British police for intense interrogation. Apparently the intelligence agency MI-5 was concerned that they were enemy agents attempting to infiltrate Britain. After convincing MI-5 that he was not a spy, Rudy joined the Netherlands East Indies Air Force, was posted to Australia for training, and landed in Brisbane on 11 September 1944. Fourteen days later, whilst on leave in Melbourne, he met a young lady by the name of Marie Bernadette Mortimer and, as he loved to subsequently say, “the Germans could not capture me, but an Australian girl did”!
Soon after that fateful meeting in Melbourne, and because of his colonial background, Rudy was transferred as a Special Service Officer to New Guinea and the (now) Timor Leste. A highlight of this posting was his secondment as Dutch liaison officer to the AIF force which accepted the Japanes surrender on the Lesser Soenda Islands, which range for 1,000 km from Bali to Timor.
Following his return to Australia in 1946 Rudy and Berna were wed in Melbourne on 4 July. Two months after their wedding the Zeemans sailed in a troopship from Australia to Holland, where Rudy was demobbed. Because of his background, Rudy quickly secured a position with a major Dutch trading company engaged in the import/export business in the Far East and worked for this company for some 15 years in such locales as Java, Sumatra, Hong Kong and Singapore. During this time also, the Queen of the Netherlands awarded Rudy the Cross of Merit and the Resistance Cross for his wartime services. The Cross of Merit is only granted (and I quote) ‘to honour courageous and resourceful deeds of a non-military character in connection with enemy action’.
In 1961, having risen to the position of Export Manager, Rudy was called back to the Head Office in Rotterdam. Neither he nor Berna enjoyed their time in Rotterdam – apart from anything else the Dutch weather was dreadful – so they decided to leave Europe and start a new life in Australia. Soon after his arrival in Melbourne in 1963 Rudy was commissioned by an Australian wool company to negotiate a contract with China Resources, the Chinese government’s trading company. This led to a request from one of Hong Kong’s British Trading Houses to establish a trading office in Sydney. Rudy stayed with this company for over three years and then resigned to establish his own independent business. Eventually, however, health issues arising from his wartime experiences caught up with him and so 35 years ago he applied for, and was granted, a ‘Special Pension for Resistance Participants’ from the Government of the Netherlands. This enabled him to retire and to move to Launceston where he could be close to his two widowed sisters. He then completed his Memoirs – his book ‘Luck through Adversity’ was published just after Rudy’s 100th birthday – and indulged his hobbies of golfing, playing bridge and painting.
Berna, his love and life for 74 years, died on 6 September 2020 and, I think, this marked the beginning of the end for Rudy and he died, eight months later, on 26 April 2021.
I would like to finish by telling a story that I think is appropriate in relation to my friend Rudy Zeeman. Bear with me!
In 1862, during the height of the American Civil War, a Union Army Captain by name of Robert Ellicombe was on duty on a battlefield when he heard the moans of a soldier who was severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach below gunfire, he reached the stricken soldier and started pulling him back toward his own post. When he got there he saw that the uniform was that of a Confederate soldier but he was not breathing – he was dead.
The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly went numb with shock when he saw the face of the soldier in the dim light – it was his own son. The boy had been studying Music in the South when the war started and, without telling his father, had enlisted in the Confederate Army.
The following morning, heartbroken, the Father asked permission of his Superiors to give his son a full military burial which, at that time, included having a group of Army Band members play a funeral dirge over the grave. Out of respect for the Captain his request was partially granted: he could have the funeral but, because the son was a Confederate soldier, he was only allowed one Musician. The Captain chose a Bugler. He asked the Bugler to play a series of musical notes that he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son’s uniform. This wish was granted and thus the haunting melody played at military funerals, that we now know as the Last Post, was born.
Not many people know that words are attached to the Last Post. I will read these to you as a tribute to my friend Rudy Zeeman, who some 77 years ago, risked life and limb to escape his occupied country to join the Free Dutch Forces and help rid his nation of the Nazi Usurper. The simple words are as follows:
Day is done and gone is the Sun from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, for God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight and a Star, gleaming bright, gems the sky;
From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.
Let there be thanks, and praise, for our days beneath the Sun, beneath the stars, beneath the sky;
For as we go, this we know, God is nigh.