SANDPOINT — It has been 20 years since Sophie Poldermans came to Sandpoint for the first time as an exchange student from the Netherlands.
Sponsored by the Rotary Club of Sandpoint, Poldermans spent a year at Sandpoint High School, graduating with the class of 2000. She then went on to study international criminal law and has since made a name for herself as an author, public speaker, lecturer and consultant on women and war and human rights-related issues from a legal, historical, and sociological perspective. The Dutch women’s rights advocate is also the founder of Sophie’s Women of War, an organization that focuses on the role of women during war.
“She has been working all of her life for women and for justice, and for just making this world better,” said Rotary member Karen Applegate, who was also one of Poldermans’ host moms 20 years ago.
Poldermans was the club’s guest speaker on Wednesday, as she is back in town this week on her book tour for “Seducing and Killing Nazis,” the true story of three teenage girls who did just that. Hannie Schaft, along with sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, used their youth and beauty to seduce high-ranking Nazi officers and kill them during World War II.
“I was captivated by Hannie’s life story and how she became an icon of resistance,” Poldermans said as she explained how she came to write a research paper in high school, leading to her meeting the Oversteegen sisters. “I was fascinated by war and the things that people are capable of doing.”
While Hannie was executed three weeks before the war ended, the sisters survived. Poldermans knew the Oversteegens for more than 20 years, speaking in-depth with Truus over the years about the trio’s history. Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945, Poldermans said, and during that time an estimated 102,000 Dutch Jews were killed. Dating back to 1934, however, the Oversteegen sisters’ family were already providing shelter to German Jewish refugees, which of course was illegal. All three of the girls ultimately joined the resistance and met when Hannie registered with the Council of Resistance in 1943.
“They were completely different girls from completely different backgrounds and characters, and they made a great team,” Poldermans said.
In addition to seducing and killing Nazi officers, the trio helped provide Jewish children with safe houses, bombed railways and trains, and gathered intelligence for the resistance.
While Hannie became an icon of the Dutch female resistance, the sisters fought for recognition. It wasn’t until 2014 that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte presented them with an award for their acts of courage during the war.
While they never regretted what they did, Poldermans said, the sisters carried the burden their entire lives, suffering from nightmares, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Poldermans first met Truus when she was 15 years old, when she wrote the aforementioned research paper.
“She looked liked this really nice grandma — she could have been my grandmother, feeding me cookies and asking if I liked her new glasses,” Poldermans said.
“Of course, I shook her hand when I entered, and then it really dawned on me that she used this hand to hold the gun to actually kill people.”
They immediately formed a bond as Truus trusted her with their story, Poldermans said. Then in 1998, a year before her exchange experience in Sandpoint, Truus asked her to serve as the keynote speaker for the annual Hannie Schaft Commemoration. She also joined the National Hannie Schaft Foundation as a board member. Truus died in 2016 and Freddie almost exactly a year ago, on Sept. 5, 2018.
“It’s about 75 years after the end of World War II, but we can still learn so much from it,” Poldermans said. “The people who actually lived through the war are dying, so this is our last chance to ask them questions.”
As knowledge of the war fades over time, she said, stories such as the one of the three girls are “more important than ever.”
The Bonner County Human Rights Task Force and First Presbyterian Church are hosting Poldermans today, and she is scheduled to give a book talk at the church from 6:30-8:30 p.m. The event will include a book signing, as Vanderford’s will be there with copies of the book for sale. The First Presbyterian Church is located at 417 N. Fourth Ave., Sandpoint.
Information on Poldermans’ book and Sophie’s Women of War can be found online at seducingandkillingnazis.com and sophieswomenofwar.com.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.