Eulogy by Coleman O’Flaherty, 5 May 2021:
Rudy Zeeman (1919 – 2021)
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
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 setup after the capitulation of the Dutch defence forces.
Initially, members of the Dutch military became prisoners-ofwar, 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 exservicemen 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 blackedout, 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 advice from Rudy) ‘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
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 cannot play a bugle but I can 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
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.
5 May 2021