This historical novel chronicles the lives of the Okkers, a Dutch Jewish family living in Amsterdam who get caught up in the struggles and horrors of World War Two and the Nazi occupation. The novel meanders chronologically through time and place, including events in Amsterdam, Vienna, Danzig, and Toronto. The story reveals itself through the journals, diaries, and narrative of those experiencing the hardships and horrors of war and the emotional and physical collateral damage. I have randomly chosen this chapter for critique.
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Amsterdam, October 29, 1942
The sound of jackboots above our cramped hiding place seemed much different this time. The footsteps were usually briskly paced and purposeful on account of the Germans' frequent nocturnal foraging for liquor and wine down in the hotel's dark bowels. But these particular sounds were slow and deliberate and accompanied by a faint tapping sound followed by the intermittent menacing bark of a dog. Muffled voices were suddenly aborted by a loud voice: "ACHTUNG!"
Our initial instinct was to hide somewhere within our confined space, but we knew the absurdity of this action. Mama, looking panic stricken, clasped her arms around papa. He motioned to us to remain silent. I held my breath. The barking turned chronic. The
tapping sound came closer. Suddenly the trap door above us lurched open. A large black dog, barring its sharp fangs, leaped towards us but was quickly tethered by a pair of dark leather gloves. A German's harsh voice bellowed: "Schmutzige Juden kommen heraus oder ich schieße!" Another voice in Dutch: "Please Jakob, come out. Don't disobey them--they'll shoot! They're telling you to come out with your hands above your heads!" I recognized Jan's trembling voice somewhere above them pleading with papa. Papa made eye contact with mama and me, despair and desperation etched in his eyes.
He grabbed the ladder and settled it against the room's covert opening. I ascended last. As loudly ordered by our captives, we raised our hands above our heads. Four plain-clothed Gestapo agents dressed in grey belted top coats and black wide brimmed fedoras awaited, their flashlights pointed accusingly at us. An agent seized each one of us a with rough-handed belligerence. The agent grasping me was of slight build, not much taller than me. His threatening smile revealed an assortment of glimmering gold teeth and the basement's dull lights reflected off his wire rimmed spectacles. A fourth agent stood in the background stroking his short barrelled Luger pistol with a menacing relish. He sneered at me and then addressed me in fractured but decipherable Dutch: "You tell your father over there that we know he has diamonds hidden. If he has any desire to continue breathing, I want to know this instant where he's hiding them. Make it quick--I'm not renowned for my patience!" There was a moment of silence. I desperately needed to gather my thoughts. "Quickly!", he yelled, pointing the pistol at papa. I began to shake. "Papa, please tell him!" Papa lowered his head. The agent holding him grabbed him by the throat. Mama screamed. "Please Jakob, tell them for the sake of your family!" He remained silent. The agent squeezed harder. Mama yelled: "I'll tell you! They're downstairs in the vault. I will give you the combination. Please, just let go of my husband!" He loosened his grip.
The agent with the pistol lowered himself down the ladder. We heard the sounds of wood and metal crashing to the floor, accompanied by broken glass. He emerged holding the vault and our wireless set. "So, you've been listening to the English dogs and all their lies!" The agent holding me lifted my chin up and came so close that his lips were almost touching mine. His breath reeked from tobacco and whisky. I tried not to gag. He spoke in Dutch: "Wat is je naam klein?" I refused to answer. He gripped my cheeks--it hurt. I answered mulishly under my breath. " Spreek jood meisje!" I defiantly cried out my name. Papa shouted: "Keep your filthy mof hands off my daughter!" Mama desperately pleaded with him to calm down.
The agent, both hands around the metal vault, walked towards us. He placed the vault on the floor beside papa's shoes. He then took out his pistol and pointed it against papa's temple. "So you, you Judenschwein diamond swindler-- open this safe now--my patience is running out!" Papa looked up towards the basement's wooden rafters and muttered in Hebrew what sounded like a prayer. I could make out some of the words: "Exalted and hallowed be G-od's great name"....I recognized the mourner's Kaddish, the prayer for the dead that I heard at funeral grave sites. "Now give me the combination you piece of vermin shit! The agent cocked the Luger's hammer, the sound of its click echoed off the musty concrete walls. I watched mama collapsing from the agent's grip. I lunged forward. "I beg you papa, please help him open the safe!"
Papa picked up the vault and turned the tumbler dial. His first attempt failed. On the second try the vault opened. The agent put his weapon down and grabbed the contents. He gave the gems a cursory look and took out a white handkerchief from the pocket of his top coat and greedily gathered them up. He then took the vault and tossed it carelessly back down into our hiding place, the sound of the heavy safe crashing on the floor reverberating from the subterranean darkness.
Just then the sound of heavy boots approached from above. I could tell from their green uniforms that they were Orpo police officers. In the rear were three officers, each restraining an individual which appeared to be two men and a woman. As they approached closer I recognized Emma and Jan. Emma's eyes looked red and swollen. Jan held his head down. I noticed dried blood on the side of his head. The other man was slumped over, his clothes and hair dishevelled. He appeared to be older than mama and papa. He looked like a wounded animal caught in a hunter's snare. On closer look he appeared very familiar.
The officers brought the elderly man towards us. The gun toting agent turned towards papa and addressed him curtly. "Do you recognize this pathetic excuse for a man, diamond swindler?" Papa looked up but didn't speak. "Then perhaps I can refresh your memory. Is this not your best friend; the one who managed your crooked business; the one you could always trust and depend on and trust?" The elderly man cried out: "Jakob, please forgive me--may God forgive me! They threatened to shoot my wife and children! I had no choice!...I had to choose!" He began to weep uncontrollably. I realized that the broken looking man was Mr. Klonenberg, the manager at papa's factory. Our families had enjoyed holidays together. We sat together at Passover seders and enjoyed family simchas.
Papa shook his head but remained silent. I wondered if his reaction was in sympathy for his friend's dilemma or sickened by his betrayal. The agent looked around the room with exaggerated indignation and addressed the other agents and police officers in anemic Dutch: "As you can see before you my faithful brothers and servants of our all powerful and great Reich, how easily these pathetic, subhuman money hungry Jews can turn on each other like rabid dogs!" Papa lifted his head and shouted at the agent: "All of you will rot in hell along with your depraved leader. God will help the Allies defeat you!" The agent laughed scornfully, revealing an upper row of yellow stained rotting teeth. He lit a cigarette in a slow deliberate motion, focusing his eyes directly on papa. He moved closer to papa and inhaled the vapour deeply, releasing a cloud of smoke onto his face. He glared at papa for a moment and then stubbed out the cigarette onto papa's forehead. Papa did his best to stifle a scream. "Go to hell you bastard!" The agent rubbed the ash from papa's forehead down towards his nose and cheeks. Papa grabbed at the agent's hand. Mama screamed "No Jakob, he'll kill you!" The agent suddenly swung the pistol's handle against papa's skull. He collapsed to his knees, blood spurting from his skull. I screamed and tried to break through my agent's grip.
Mama was frantic. She struggled to free herself from her captor. She fell down upon her knees and screamed incoherently. The gestapo agent called over the two Orpo officers who were standing in a semicircle alongside fellow officers guarding the stairwell. "Take both of them away!", he commanded--"show them how we deal with these Jew insects!" I watched as they dragged them up the stairs, trickles of blood trailing behind papa's heels. The agent then pointed to the officers holding Jan and Emma. "Give these two Jew-hiders a nice guided tour of Scheveningen--let them join the other slime who refuse to respect our Fuehrer!"
The agent holding me asked one of the other officers to take over. He took both of my hands and savagely restrained them behind my back. I caught a quick glance at him. He looked very young, not much older than myself. He had the blond Aryan look so treasured by Hitler. His icy blue eyes revealed a man who could turn sadistic on a whim, and thoroughly relish it. The young officer raised my chin upwards in order to force me to look at him. His yellow stained fingers reeked from tobacco and a faint smell of charcoal. I defiantly diverted my eyes. "Look at me Jew bitch! Where's your respect?" I refused to acknowledge him. I heard sporadic bursts of what sounded like gunfire outside, followed by female screams. He grabbed the back of my neck and shoved me towards the staircase. "Follow me boys", he instructed the rest of the officers. "I've got a nice treat for you!" When we reached the hotel's ground floor, he led me outside from the lobby entrance, his lackeys trailing eagerly.
The autumn sun, weakened by the advancing season, shone brilliantly in the cloudless sky. Having spent weeks in a darkened secret hideout, the brightness was nearly blinding. It reminded me of my childhood Saturday afternoons spent at the cinema, exiting the theatre in the bright late afternoon sunlight, feeling numb from hours of visual stimulation. I was dressed meagrely in a thin cotton dress and a light sweater. I shivered in the chilled air.
I looked around desperately for mama and papa. The officer ordered me forward but I refused to move. Suddenly I felt something cold and metallic pressing against the back of my neck. "Move, bitch!" I staggered, pushed forward by the officer's forceful hand. In the short distance ahead I saw a long line of men, women, and children being led up the treelined street. Police officers, each armed with rifles, flanked them with a menacing urgency. The civilians were carrying suitcases and an assortment of different sized bags filled with personal belongings. A small convoy of dull green coloured military lorries, sheltered by loose canvas tops, sat idling on the side of the road, awaiting their confused and terrified passengers.
I recalled papa telling us about reports from an underground resistance fighter he had made contact with. He told papa that the Westerbork camp in the northeast that was originally built by the Dutch government to intern mostly Jewish refugees from Germany, was now being used as a temporary camp for Dutch Jews before they were transported by rail to camps in Poland and Germany. I shuddered to think of my family's fate.
The officer pushed me away from the street towards the rear of the hotel. A few feet away I saw a Hasidic Jew on his knees, slumped over a prone figure surrounded by a semi circle of onlookers: Orpo officers, Gestapo agents and civilians. The officer pushed me closer. An elderly rabbi was swaying and davening in prayer over a Hasidic woman lying naked on the street . I gagged at the grisly site: a bloody gash from her chest to navel exposed her internal organs. Beside her lifeless body I saw what looked like a squid or octopus, the kind I saw at the fish stalls on my Sunday morning trips with my parents to the Uilenburgerstraat market. To my horror, I realized it was an unborn infant--a dead fetus.
I vomited with a force that shook my entire body. The bile burned deep inside my throat. The rabbi stood up, a deep rage reddening his eyes and face. His lips trembled. He pointed to an officer with a blood stained bayonet. "You and all the rest of you filthy animals will be judged by the Lord! This poor young woman and her unborn baby will be revenged!" The officer moved closer to the rabbi. He spoke in perfect Dutch: "Don't threaten me with your phoney god, you filthy scum Jew! You arrogant Christ-killers think you're something special: the "chosen people. Yes, you ARE "chosen"--chosen by our Fuehrer to finally cleanse the Reich of your contaminated blood!"
The rabbi lifted a bible and pointed it at the officer. "G-d judges us all!" The officer grabbed the rabbi's arm, dislodging the holy book. I recognized the Tanakh--Nathan had a beautifully leather bound one given to him by our zaydeh for his bar mitzvah. It dropped against the canal wall. The officer walked over to the holy man. He took his bloodstained bayonet and thrust it deeply into the rabbi's chest. I watched as the rabbi fell back, his eyes rolling upwards. I could not turn away. I watched as blood trickled slowly from his mouth. I caught the eye of a young German soldier who was standing a short distance ahead. He quickly looked away but within seconds turned back to face me. Shockingly, he looked a lot like my brother Nathan: the same athletic build, the greyish green penetrating eyes that looked sad and introspective, and an edge of copper coloured hair peeking out from beneath his wool cap. His expression could not conceal a look of restrained discomfort.
Feeling faint, I slipped slightly from the officers grip. I looked up and saw a group of Dutch police leaving the back entrance of the hotel. They were dressed in their black uniforms, the gold coloured buttons lining their chests, reflecting the light off the high noon sun. They were staggering down the steps, rifles slung erratically over their shoulders, singing loudly what sounded to me to be a popular Dutch drinking song. The last one to step down called out to the agent trying to hold me up: "Kriminalsekretär, let us now relieve you--I'm sure your skills are desperately needed to weed out the rest of the vermin hiding in the ghetto."
I had always hated the Dutch police. We all knew they were quick and eager to join ranks with the Nazis. Many were members of the NSB, the Dutch Nazi Party. It was no secret that they were given generous bonuses for each Jew they collected but I'm sure their fervent hatred of Jews was more than enough of an incentive to collaborate with the Nazis.
A tall officer with sharp blue eyes and a severely pockmarked face grabbed me by my shoulders. He shouted to the group: "Boys, let's have ourselves some fun!--follow me." The officers responded with libidinous laughter. I assumed he was the group's elder superior. The officer yanked me towards a garden shed at the far end of the hotel separated from residential buildings by an imposing black wrought iron fence, the pitted metal and verdigris displaying its aging anatomy. A large oak tree, its branches now partially naked, save for a scattering of orange and red leaves, spread over the aged wooden structure, offering a hidden oasis from the horrific scene further back. The shed was mostly empty except for some discarded petro cans and a random scattering of small hand tools. Bits of brown dried out sod and straw were scattered along the faded wooden floor boards. I shuddered with a terror-stricken cold fear, acknowledging the reality of my plight.
The officer pushed me down. I fell backwards, breaking my fall with my elbows. He forced me to lift my chin and tried to force his tongue into my mouth. The smell of whiskey and garlic made me retch. I tried to turn away. "Don't try to resist, dirty Jew slut--it's time you enjoyed a REAL Dutch man! He turned his head. "Hoi, Kasper! Come over here. A short squat police officer, cigarette dangling from his mouth jogged towards us. He suddenly held my shoulders down, the force of it making me immobile. The tall officer walked away. He shouted: "Okay you hard-up mosquito dicks--get your hands out of your pockets and get ready for some action!"
I felt a hand reaching up my legs. I tried to resist but my shoulders were pinned down. A finger groped my private areas. I tried to scream but the officer clamped his hand over my mouth. "Scream, bitch and I'll cut your throat!" He let go to test my compliance. Suddenly I felt my dress being lifted. I tried to kick my legs but I was no match against the strength of the officer. My undergarments were ripped away and my legs pried open. I felt sharp fingernails impaling my inner thighs. And then what I feared most: he viciously entered me, the searing pain becoming almost unbearable. He grunted like a starving animal pressed upon its prey. He finished quickly. I somehow managed to lift my head. A line of officers stood idly by, awaiting their turn. The officer holding me down shouted out to one of the officers. "Horst, what's the matter? You don't want to join in? Don't worry we won't tell your girlfriend!" "Or your mama!", another officer taunted. "Maybe he's afraid!", the elder officer jeered. "But don't worry Horst, if it's your first time, I guarantee that it won't fall off!" The other officers howled with laughter.
"Next!', one of the soldiers yelled: "Hurry up Karl, my snikkel is going numb." A rough hand moved up towards my chest. He fumbled with my bra, undid the straps and began outlining my nipples with his tongue. I felt his calloused finger entering me. I screamed: "stop, you're hurting me!" He lifted his head, the stench from his rotting teeth, sickening me. "Shut up, Jew slut!" He quickly lifted his body up from me, pulled down his underwear and placed his pistol against my temple. He put his private part against my mouth. "Open up and do something useful with your filthy mouth!" I clenched my teeth. He cocked the gun, the metallic click, ominously challenging my fragile mortality. I opened my mouth tentatively, fearing his next move. He plunged it inside. I gagged. He thrust eagerly. I raised my head slightly, enough to spot the young German soldier who resembled my brother. He did not lower his gaze. His eyes revealed both pity and terror, as if he was witnessing an execution. I started to lose consciousness.
I gained consciousness, aware of the rocking of a truck's undercarriage. Above me a faded brown canvas sheet hung down from the roof. As my eyes focused, I stared at a familiar face looking down upon me. "Anna! Please drink, you must drink!" The face was that of a woman: it was Mrs. Jakobs, my old English teacher at the Montessori school. She lifted my head and put the metallic flask's opening to my lips. I drank with a ravenous thirst. I saw others cramped inside, some with suitcases and others with assorted bags. Straddling the truck's side, I saw the back of a German soldier, a rifle slung over his shoulder. I was slumped against a roll of blankets, a heavy sweater unbuttoned and wrapped shawl-like around my shoulders. I shifted my weight slightly and felt a searing pain inside me, like broken glass. I began to panic. "Where is mama and papa? Where are we?" I glanced over at the soldier. "Where are they taking us?"
Mrs. Jakobs wiped my brow. "Don't fret, Anna, you are safe here. I saw a tear fall gently down her cheek. "What did they do to you, my precious? Are you hurt?" I began to weep uncontrollably. The teacher cradled me against her breast. "We'll find your parents, Anna! Have faith." I looked back at the soldier. Just then he turned around, his eyes locked on mine. It was the same young soldier who reminded me of Nathan. His expression was now empty of any telltale emotion--just a young soldier doing his duty.
The truck stopped abruptly at a familiar site: the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the popular Dutch Theatre where I kept fond memories of plays and operettas that our family attended over the years, especially my favourite: the romantic operetta "The Czardas Princess" It was the one where David surprised Miriam by proposing to her during intermission. Ahead of us were more German trucks, all empty. The driver shouted out an order in German. The young soldier instructed us in broken Dutch to pack up our belongings and disembark. Mrs. Jakobs gathered up the blankets and a large dark brown leather satchel. She called over to a rather corpulent middle aged man, asking him to assist me out of the truck.
The pain was excruciating as I tentatively straddled the edge of the truck. With every movement my insides felt an agonizing rawness. Stepping down, I noticed blood stains on my dress. It made the horror of the past few hours take on a terribly sobering reality: I had been brutally and unmercifully violated! I began to sob. "Mama, papa! Don't leave me!" I blindly grabbed at Mrs. Jakobs. "Where are they? Please, help me find them!" Mrs. Jakobs hugged me. "We will find them my child. They are good people. God will look after them! For now we must take care of you. Come with me and we'll find a place to rest. Are you hungry?"
The narrow courtyard was crowded with people: adults and elderly, some sitting on the stone ledge that faced the theatre's rear entrance, looking somber; some were walking silently shoulder to shoulder; others were arguing and gesturing; a few wandering aimlessly. I noticed not a single child was in view. Where were they? Surely these people had children. Everywhere were scatterings of suitcases and stuffed bags. It seemed that everyone's lives had suddenly taken a perilous turn, laid out with their meagre belongings, awaiting an unknown fate.
Mrs. Jakobs and a heavily built religious man with a long greying beard helped me to hobble over to a wooden bench set along a concrete ledge. Again I searched for any visible sign of mama or papa. In the short distance, a tall middle aged man wearing a dark full length wool overcoat and carrying a writing board was approaching us. He introduced himself with a noticeably sad intonation, his dark opaque eyes darting back and forth nervously: "Good afternoon. My name is Theodore Lerner and I'm here from the Jewish Council under strict orders to take inventory."
Papa hated the Judenrat. He called them turncoats and cowards for collaborating with the Nazis even though he knew that it was the reward of having their immediate families exempt from the growing harassment and deportations for complying with their oppressors' commands. Others argued that the Council, by keeping order and peace in the ghetto, prevented violent and deadly reprisals by the Nazis. For me, all of it was so confusing and mentally unmanageable: Gentiles hiding Jewish families, Jews informing on each other, our own Dutch police, many of them not much older than Nathan and Mickey, rounding up my people with assurances of generous bounties, people being gunned down like animals, women lying dead on the streets, their unborn children lying aside them looking like a butcher shop's coldly discarded entrails. And the horror I just endured a few hours past. How many other girls and women would be forced to endure this?
Where in God's name was our humanity? Our decency? All I craved was to be back in the Mokum, reunited with my family; to return to my studies at the university; for everything to be what it once was! I couldn't understand why our people were hated so. What had we done? Has our country been dragged into the most horrific immorality possible? On one hand I find it incomprehensible that people watch these atrocities in silence, but on the other, what would I do as a parent? In my heart of hearts could I really blame Mr. Kronenberg? What if the shoe was on the other foot? Would I betray others for the promise (however fragile) of my own family's safe keeping? Would I risk the consequences of being found out if I hid Jews? Our dear friends Jan and Emma, bless them, risked their own safety and look what's happened.
The man immediately asked us to present our identity cards. Everyone gathered up their cards, but in a panic I realized that all my personal belongings had been left at the hotel's hiding spot. I was well aware of the repercussions of failing to produce identification to the authorities. I explained my situation to him. He walked briskly towards an idle German soldier. He handed over the cards he had collected then turned back and pointed in my direction. The two appeared to carry on quite an animated conversation. Both of them then walked up to me. Mr. Lerner told me that the soldier would dispatch an official to the hotel to fetch my personal items and ID card. I gave the soldier my name and the hotel's name and address. I asked the Judenrat official if he had seen my parents. His eyes looked away. He appeared uncomfortable. "I'm very sorry young lady, but they were sent away by tram just a few hours ago. I do recall them frantically inquiring whether I had seen you. I remember the name now: Anna Weschler!" I addressed him with a desperate immediacy. "I beg of you Mr. Lerner where have they been taken? Surely you must know!" He looked down. Please believe me child, I am unable to disclose anything. It would not only compromise me and my family's safety but also endanger everyone here as well.
Mr. Lerner announced that we would all be accommodated inside the theatre until we were again transferred. Quickly anticipating the obvious question, he pointed out with little conviction that he did not know where we would be taken. He emphasized that we must follow any instructions given to us by the Germans with serious servitude or face "very unfortunate circumstances." Suddenly a scruffily dressed young man with long wildly untrained hair ran towards Lerner and tackled him to the ground. He screamed out: "You filthy stool pigeon. Rot in hell along with those traitors Asscher and Cohen!"
Immediately two German soldiers ran towards the two struggling men. They jerked the younger man up by his arms. "Get your hands off me you dirty mofs!" They pointed their rifles at his head and dragged him towards a hidden alleyway. Seconds later we heard a shot and a blood-chilling scream. Suddenly I heard the crying of children coming from a building across the street. An elderly woman wearing a tattered grey kerchief, watching me with an expression of forlorn resignation, moved slowly towards me with a noticeable limp. She pointed towards the building that had previously caught my attention. "This is the nursery where they keep the young ones, my child. I have two granddaughters there!" Tears fell from her tired eyes. "Their mother, my precious daughter and their father were rounded up with other members of the Underground and shot like dumb animals in cold blood. I held my breath and exclaimed anxiously. "But what will they do to all of us? Where will they be taking us?"
"Tell them old lady!" The voice came from a boy a few feet away. He looked no older than me. His face had a startlingly unhealthy pasty complexion, his grey eyes hidden unobtrusively behind what looked like military issued wire framed eye glasses, several cracks marring the thick lenses. He was wearing a threadbare woollen tweed flat cap and a bright green overcoat that looked totally out of place amongst the dark colourless attire of the people loitering here in the concourse. He looked around him with noticeable caution and whispered: "We must be careful. There are moles everywhere. Some are even our own people! I've been working with the Underground--not that anyone really cares anymore. My contacts have been able to infiltrate much of the Germans' plans for us Amsterdam Jews. Listen to me very carefully."
"I overheard you give the soldier your name. You may not remember me but your mother gave me violin lessons years ago. She was very patient with the petulant boy that I was. You are good people. Your father is known in the Resistance. You may not know it but he has secretly donated money and resources to the cause. So I know I can trust you. By the way my name is Gideon Aaronson. He held out his bony hand but quickly retracted it, noticing my discomfort.
"The Germans have transit camps--one of them is near Assen in the Drenthe Province. The Resistance has been able to confirm this. Apparently the camp is used as a temporary holding site until the inmates are deported by train to permanent camps. There is strong evidence that some Jews are being killed there, others working in labour camps. A group of Resistance fighters have been secretly recording the movement of freight trains from Westerbork south to Poland. They are establishing cells along the route filled with hidden Jewish families. It is very dangerous so they must proceed with great caution. A plan is being devised to blow up the rail lines. With the help of some neutral countries as well as England, we are procuring guns and grenades as well as dynamite. I immediately thought about aunt Eva in Paris--our family had weeks ago been informed by third parties that she had joined the French Resistance. I wondered about her safety.
I tried to digest the seriousness of the situation--the absolute terror of it all. I glanced over to the nursery across the street and whispered softly to Gideon: "But what will they do with the children?" The young man's eyes turned slightly misty. He looked down. A few silent moments passed. He was clearly uneasy. His previously reticent demeanour had changed dramatically. His entire body seemed to move in different directions: arms flung out, head shaking, hands trembling. "I overheard a German bragging that the children are also being transferred. Those pigs are taking the children away! "But where are they being taken to?", I enquired. "We don't know exactly right now. What I do know is that children have been spotted at Westerbork according to the underground reports. We think that they are being taken out of the nursery at night so that none of us here can witness what's happening. There is a curfew inside: no one is allowed outdoors after dinner." "How long have you been here?", I asked. "Almost a month", he sighed. "Only a few of us have been kept that long. We speak fluent German so we are used as interpreters. I guess that's why they're keeping us here, at least for awhile."
On the evening of the third day of my detention, a member of the Judenrat approached our group accompanied by two Dutch police officers. The Germans had segregated the detainees in groups based mainly on those arriving on the military trucks. The converted theatre was overflowing with hundreds of people, only a handful of latrines and wash basins available to accommodate everyone. People were packed into stairwells, the performance seats and stage, as well as the upstairs balconies. Our group had been herded onto the edge of the stage where old creaky cots and mattresses were set up. The noise from verbal and sometimes physical confrontations were constantly breaking out, inflamed by the terrible stench and poor ventilation (our captives were afraid to keep exit doors open for fear of their charges escaping). We were fed with adequate but bland quantities of food: mostly tasteless bread of parched consistency and canned fish. Water was rationed resulting in our constant thirst. Our time was spent reading (some had brought their own books but the Judenrat had managed to supply reading material as well), competing in card games and chess, playing violins and other string instruments (I visioned with great pride mama lovingly performing a recital on her own violin), and with great irony, a handful of talented actors performing impromptu short plays on the crowded stage.
We were allowed outside for an hour each day for fresh air. Groups were taken out by soldiers in stages to prevent chaos and potential escapes. Each day we heard the intermittent crackling of gunfire. We knew their implications by the sporadic disappearance of detainees. There were a variety of rumours circulating about their own fate: they would be sent to Portugal or Sweden or maybe other neutral countries; maybe to work camps in farms outside Amsterdam to help feed the German war machine; some thought their futures were less benign with word circulating about the possibility of extermination camps in Poland and Germany. There were secret whisperings of the Underground planning mass attacks on the Nazis, hopefully providing escape routes for Jews to hide in Dutch farms along the countryside.
The new Judenrat official was a middle aged man, slight in stature with pronounced limp. His head was completely void of hair except for the greying hair surrounding his head in a horseshoe shaped fringe. He called out a series of names in our group, ticking off in each one on his writing board. He then announced that we must immediately round up our possessions and follow the two police officers out of the building. Fortunately, my belongings were earlier gathered up in the hotel's hiding place by a Judenrat official.
Outside, darkness was beginning to shroud the theatre. The weather had turned foul: the familiar dark pre-winter clouds and sharp winds were being swept in from the North Sea in its seasonal autumn fury. A cold rain had begun falling. We congregated under the overlapping roof of a decaying shed and waited until several more groups exited. And then, with great surprise, I saw a long line of children holding travel bags appear from the rear of the theatre accompanied by three adults. They stopped a short distance from us. Some were jumping excitedly, pointing to the groups behind us, calling out for signs of their parents.
A phalanx of German soldiers ordered us to move forward. A short distance away on the Plantage Middenlaan sat an idling empty tram. I recognized it as the 8 Tram, the route my family had taken numerous times with me and my siblings on our childhood trips to the Zoo Artis. A soldier shouted: "Hör mir ganz genau zu!" The Judenrat official translated for us the rest of the orders. We were to embark in an orderly single file onto the waiting tram.
Mrs. Jakobs and I took our seats in the back of the tram. The rest of the seats were filled quickly with chilled passengers happy to get out of the damp cold. Another Judenrat official--I recognized him from the theatre--entered with us and took a seat behind the conductor. Three armed German soldiers stood along the aisle. Outside, through the darkness and murky window, I could barely make out a group of children embracing their parents. The soldiers made some pointing gestures and the children quickly formed a single line and walked obediently towards waiting trams behind us.
An hour later, under full darkness, the official walked sternly down the isle, explaining to us that we were about to leave. He cautioned us to remain quietly in our seats and obey the soldiers' orders. A partially hidden man in the front shouted: "Where are they taking us?" A soldier stood before him. He yelled: "halt die Klappe Jude." The man half stood and replied: "Please, let me be with my wife. Why did you leave her in the theatre? At least let us go together!" The soldier grabbed the man by the collar of his overcoat. The man briefly turned around towards us. His dishevelled clothes were hanging loosely on his emaciated body, a wooden cane precariously holding up his unsteady body. He looked younger than papa but his sunken eyes looked ancient. "Let go of me you filthy swine! I demand that I be reunited with my wife!" The official quickly tried to calm the man down. Another soldier came to his comrade's assistance and together they dragged the shouting man off the tram. A short while later a gun shot reverberated through our carriage followed quickly by two more rounds.
Outside the window I saw a soldier waving on the conductor. The carriage quivered and the tram began to move, at first slowly, but then quickly, picking up a good pace along the Plantage Middenlaan past the zoo. We moved across the two bridges above their narrow canal counterparts, southward down the broad avenue of the Linnaeusstraat. At the intersection of the Wijttenbachstraat the tram took on an eastern route. Twenty minutes later it stopped abruptly. In the moonless darkness I could barely make out the scene outside the window.
The conductor started chatting with a soldier and the Judenrat official. The official then shouted at the passengers to form a single line and disembark. Mrs. Jakobs and me were the last to leave. The rain had stopped, leaving a light mist in the air, making visibility difficult. We followed the others towards what looked like a large building. The emergence of street lamps turned the shrouding mist into an orange glow. I caught sight of a large sign midway up the barely visible building: AMSTERDAM MUIDERPOORT.
I was very familiar with the railway station. Papa's brother, uncle Joseph and his wife auntie Leena lived in Apeldoorn, less than a hundred kilometres to the east. Uncle, an esteemed doctor worked at the Apeldoornse Bos, the Jewish psychiatric hospital. They had a lovely summer house just outside the small village of Wilp along the bank of the IJssel River. On many Augusts when uncle had his vacation time he and auntie would invite us to spend a week at their cottage. We would catch the late afternoon train to Apeldoorn for the two hour trip. I remember with great fondness our holidays there--a chance for us to flee the city and get some country air respite--something mama and papa especially needed to redress the strain and worry of their business and household duties. Our time was spent fishing from a rickety wooden dinghy, swimming in the tranquil river, exploring the wooded areas along the river, and relaxing on the cottage's modest veranda. At night papa and uncle Joseph would relax with a glass of Jenever and a cigar, discussing politics and arguing over football. The boys played card games and Miriam and I would help auntie Leena with the dinner clean up and all of us would listen to the wireless and play phonograph records. Sometimes mama, with her violin, would join auntie at her piano and perform impromptu recitals which we all enjoyed.
I recalled our excited anticipation, sitting in the railway station, awaiting the call from the conductor announcing the train to Apeldoorn. But here I was alone, not knowing where my parents were or if they were even still alive or the fate of Miriam and her family, as well as Nate and Michiel and uncle Issie, and aunt Eva in France. How could everything change so horribly?
As our group approached the station's entrance, I heard a train's idling hisses. Inside I saw lines of men, women, and children, looking confused and frightened, holding on to suitcases and bags--their only possessions remaining to remind them of their homes and families. I noticed a group of German soldiers at a back exit staring at me. One of them approached me. He spoke in perfect Dutch. "Come with me and don't fuss!" I looked back at Mrs. Jakobs. "Please let me stay with my friend!" He smiled wryly. "Do you think this is a social visit Jewess?" He grabbed my neck and forced me towards the exit. Outside, a brisk cold wind had cleared the air, displaying a row of rickety trembling carriages, their window-seated passengers staring pensively at the scene before them, contemplating the uncharted future awaiting them.
The soldier shoved me towards the closest carriage. I stumbled up the stairs and fell, my meagre belongings scattering along the empty aisle. I looked up at the ashen faced passengers. With the aid of an elderly gentleman who gathered up my belongings, I crawled to the nearest empty aisle seat. A pleasant looking woman lifted a smiling bright eyed toddler and handed him over to her seat mate and then gently hugged me. I asked her where we were being taken. She looked up at me, her eyes stronger than any words could be. They told me that our futures were no longer in our sway. I leaned back in my seat and mouthed a silent prayer.