Nijmegen in 1945

An unwavering insurance champion amid the shelling

4 minute read

Attorney Maria Margaretha Bochardt-De Bruin was head of the Mathematics department at one of Aegon’s predecessors. She walked straight into danger during World War II (WWII) and championed workers' rights throughout her career. We celebrate a remarkable Aegon woman on what would have been her 129th birthday.

Nijmegen, Saturday February 25, 1945. Time: 11.30 am
The tranquility of the past few days is shattered by terrifying whistles in the air, followed by explosions. Anti-aircraft guns aimlessly throw bullets into the air. To the east of the Keizer Karelplein, people in the street are looking for cover in panic. The impact of the shelling is greatest to the north and south of the Oranjesingel (in the center of Nijmegen). More impacts follow at 12:15 pm.

"I managed to walk through it, but still had to take cover on the way," Maria (52) wrote in her diary.

During the ordeal, she counted 32 dead in her immediate vicinity. The total was 70 dead (including five young children) and many more injured. The damage was enormous. Canadian soldiers and vehicles were also hit, including an ammunition carrier.

Close to the German border, the Dutch city of Nijmegen was on the front lines in early 1945. German forces shelled the city from the Betuwe area to halt the advance of Canadian forces.  Maria Margaretha Bochardt-De Bruin was on her way to her home at Van Schevichavenstraat 2 when all hell broke loose in the surrounding streets.

Who was she and how did she come to be in Nijmegen as the Allies battled the Germans?

Courage and determination

Maria was born on May 25, 1892 and widowed in 1923 when her husband, Ulbo Carl Bochardt, died after only 15 months of marriage.

Her professional career, on the other hand, flourished: she was attorney-at-law and chief of the Mathematical Department at insurer the Eerste Nederlandsche (E.N.), an Aegon predecessor, and actuary at the Nieuwe Eerste Nederlandsche (N.E.N.) at the head office in The Hague.

On Saturday September 2, 1944, Maria and her sister-in-law left The Hague for a rather ill-timed three-week holiday in the town of Bemmel in the Betuwe. It was not to be a relaxing getaway. German troops seized the buses on arrival and the railway tracks had been bombed. There was no going back. Maria and her sister-in-law were stuck on the front line. The Allied Operation Market Garden offensive worsened the situation. On September 21, Maria had to seek shelter in a basement. Four days later, British troops liberated Bemmel. On November 14, Maria and her sister-in-law were evacuated, and a Major Pierson provided her with the official address needed to be allowed to relocate.

Serving others

Maria wanted to stay close to Nijmegen because on November 6 she had read an advertisement published by the E.N.'s local Volks Verzekeringen (People’s Insurance) department, headed by Inspector Thanhäuser. From her assigned address in Hees (now a suburb of Nijmegen), Maria was able to travel to the company's local insurance agents and inspectors.

"I asked myself whether I could work in any way in the interests of the field staff?  Could I make use of the fact that I had power of attorney, and could therefore take action to serve the interests of the Company and the insured?"

Maria decided she could, particularly as she had the power to pay out pensions and annuities through a regional bank. She launched into a long period of hard work, meetings, arranging travel permits and dangerous journeys. "You walked in the street between shell impacts in Nijmegen," she wrote.

Rather than shy away from danger, Maria moved to a friend's house in Nijmegen so that she could be closer to the inspectors. Just before arrival on December 7, the house was hit by shrapnel. During work she regularly had to go to the bomb shelter. Until April 1945 she and 25 others slept every night in the basement of a church. The beds they used had been left behind by a fleeing contingent of the Hitler Youth.

Destroyed Canadian military vehicles in Nijmegen on February 24, 1945..

Destroyed Canadian military vehicles in Nijmegen on February 24, 1945.

Hard decisions had to be made in her work. The Germans had confiscated all financial reserves of Jewish people, so the E.N. could not make payments. Maria hoped for their rights to be restored after the war.

Payouts to members of the Dutch National Socialist Party (NSB), traitors, Germans, Italians, and all other enemies were blocked. No policies were written for areas where fighting continued. Cars were no longer insured because of "fabulous prices for recovery" following collisions with British and US military vehicles on the road.

Maria's decisions were based on officially published regulations in the Dutch Government Gazette and E.N. circulars that had to be smuggled into the liberated zone. Due to paper scarcity, only one circular was available per inspector, making the distribution of instructions difficult.

There were other dilemmas. As petrol and cars were reserved for the Allied liberators, civilians could not travel by car. Maria supported a senior agent who lived among immigrants in a chicken coop and was no longer being paid. Another agent needed money for bicycle tires because otherwise he would not be able to reach his policyholders.

A male colleague from the head office, who had fled the Germans after going into hiding, and who was out of necessity temporarily employed by another company, received financial support from E.N. and from Maria personally.

Maria's 25th anniversary at E.N. was celebrated modestly in Nijmegen home of Inspector Thanhäuser on May 15, 1945. Maria sent a 'business report' to the management in The Hague, which she believed could not be separated from the personal circumstances in which she found herself.

Documents

The diaries, the report to the management and a letter from Director Holleman of E.N.

A week later she wrote in her diary: "Mail from The Hague! The Management is still alive. (…) The building destroyed. (…) Office hours from 9 - 1, due to famine. Archive largely saved. (…) Fortunately, few victims in the office." On June 5 she was finally able to travel back to The Hague by car. Alone. Her mother Hendrika (80) had been killed by shrapnel on December 24, 1944 in Arnhem.

Maria remained devoted to her late husband for the rest of her life, just as she remained loyal to the company during the war.

She died at the age of 90 in 1983, the year that the insurance companies AGO and Ennia (which included the former E.N.) merged and became Aegon.

Maria Boschardt-De Bruijn with her husband Ulbo Carl Bochardt in 1922
Maria and Ulbo Carl (1922)