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Four Floridians recall another time when schooling has been risky, random

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Last week was not the first time Southwest Floridians have had to navigate obstacles to get the education they want.

For today's students, the hurdle has been a bewildering blend of online, in-class and tutored education assembled to cope with a pandemic. They share a kinship with many seniors in their communities, who fought challenges, albeit very different ones, when World War II upended education.

Dutch native Adriaan Troeleman, who now lives in Sun City Center, south of Tampa, remembers it with fear. He watched his schooling disintegrate as German troops moved into his hometown, taking over many of its schools as barracks and conscripting its 16-year-old male students to serve in Adolf Hitler's army. The buildings that were left over had to hold more than twice their capacity.  

"They were overwhelmed. They were trying to accommodate all these students," Troeleman recalled. Elementary students learned in four-hour shifts, and high school students learned in two, two-hour split shifts, squeezing themselves into the little desks of the kindergarten where they had to hold classes.

"We had a lot of homework, but we weren’t always diligent about it. It was hard to concentrate. We had air raids at night that interfered with our learning. We didn't get much sleep," he continued.

Helene Gaillet de Neergaard poses for a portrait, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at the Naples Depot Museum.

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As winter approached, food became scarce, and young Adriaan had to skip classes some days and hike out to farmlands to barter whatever the family had for food. Money, he said, was useless. It was hunger that finally closed the schools altogether, he said soberly: "People did die of hunger during that period."

He had one glimmer of hope. The high school principal offered to teach privately for students who were to graduate that year, so they could earn their certificate. Adriaan and four friends sneaked into his sub-rosa high school classes. Behind them was a hungry wolf: the threat of being discovered and snatched into the German army. 

Troeleman still remembers a tip that Nazi troops were making a door-to-door search for service-age teen boys. The students fled to hiding places around town.

Janina Chung poses for a portrait with the book she wrote about her family's experience during World War II at East Naples Community Park on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.

For Janina Stankiewicz Chung of Belarus, the challenge was learning to read and speak a new language in a Red Cross camp where she and her family had reinvented themselves as Polish to avoid forced repatriation. Her father, an ardent Catholic who refused to join the Communist party, had escaped from a labor camp in Siberia, and a return to Belarus meant the entire family would be shipped to Siberia.

"I learned Polish — like that!" she declared, snapping her fingers. It would not be the last new language the Russian-speaking native would have to learn. In the years when her family was moved among five displaced persons camps in Germany, she would learn its language, and then English.

Some camps had school; some didn't. So when the Stankiewicz family was brought to the United States, young Janina was far behind in age proficiencies. At age 14, she was assigned to a seventh-grade class.

To contribute to the disaster of her first day, the Red Cross clothing that fit her included saddle shoes — and a black crepe cocktail dress.

It was a harbinger for her experience with American education. Unlike other students, Janina could not get help from parents who didn't really speak her new language. Both of them had taken jobs in paper mills, as Chung writes in her just-published memoir, "Odyssey to Freedom" (Barringer: $14.95 print; $9.95 Kindle).

"They called us dips (DPs). They said we were dirty. There was bullying," she said. "Even the teachers often laughed at us." The religious order that taught the school was of little help.

Janina Chung points to a family photo at East Naples Community Park on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.

One day, in what would have been her sophomore year, a teacher angry that Janina had written a mistake into a math calculation snapped at her in front of the class: "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

Janina never returned to that school. She has since taken classes for everything from business to machine operations for IBM. And she eventually found the niche she loved in hospitality management, working for Hyatt for 19 years, and on Marco Island as a hostess for the Hideaway Beach Club. 

"But to this day two and two is five. I don't care," she said. 

Another Naples resident, Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard, remembers getting minimal tutelage from a young woman who was essentially their caretaker in a Normandy cottage not quite far enough away from Hitler's advancing army.

"I basically taught myself to read," she recalled. "School? That was not the focus. The focus was survival."

The Gaillet family's good fortune — running water, electricity, indoor bathrooms — was their undoing when Hitler's advance troops crossed the Maginot Line into France.

"They shot a bullet through our door, and gave us 24 hours to evacuate," she recalled. The family had to keep evacuating, de Neergaard recalled. She, too, has written about her World War II childhood in her "I was a War Child" memoirs (CreateSpace Independent Publishing: $14.95 print)

Staying with two aunts proved to be disastrous because the women didn't care for children; a shelter in a convent for aging nuns at Saint-Lô ended when they were warned an attack was imminent and to get out now.

There was a short stay in Paris, where food became so scarce they moved again, to a rented house as yet untouched south of France. And then, back to Paris. During the whole time, she remembers spending as many as four hours hiding in cellars during bombing raids. She remembers the "clump-clump-clump" of boots on the street.

The first time de Neergaard attended a school was the year after the Liberation of Paris. 

"I was in seventh heaven!" she declared. "I would get a schoolbook and run to read the whole thing that same day." 

New Jersey native Jane Schmidt remembers none of those kinds of hardships. But she remembers the results: hours in volunteer classes outside her high school, learning the shapes of German aircraft. Armed with her expertise, she clambered up wooden stairs to a watchtower for two-hour shifts as a plane-spotter for the East Coast.

But more than that, she remembers the infusion of new faces in her school: Hungarian Jewish refugees who had had the foresight to grasp Hitler's plans. German prisoners of war, who were housed in old Civilian Conservation Corps bungalows and sent to work in the lush Jersey coast farm fields.

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Jane Schmidt

And finally, the Japanese students at Bridgeton High School, uprooted with their families from West Coast homes during fear of a Japanese invasion there. Their parents worked in the same fields as the prisoners.

"It was the situation — that both of our enemies during the war were working side by side to produce the vegetables," Schmidt reflected.

Her high school bus passed the Germans POWs at work every morning, too: "They looked so young. They looked like they should be going to high school with us."

She vividly recalled these Nisei — second-generation — children of immigrants, and their high school's response.

"Our principal told us, when he announced that they were coming, 'You have to remember they are just as American as you are.' 

"'Be nice to them. They can't help it, what happened.' " 

She also remembered a powerful lesson on perspective from her mother when young Jane balked at waiting for her neighbor, Eva, a Jewish refugee, to walk with her to elementary school.

"She speaks four languages and I'm really envious of her," she remembers admitting.

"Now look," her mother told her, "If New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania all spoke different languages, you'd speak four languages, too. Those are our neighboring states. She learned to speak the language of her neighboring countries."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.