For Beth and Robyn
Who could forget a conversation like that? It was the Summer of 1942 in the middle of the war. We were standing in the living room of our house in Zeist - my parents, my brother and I. Nobody was laughing or even talking. Everyone knew that we were facing a fateful moment. My mother spoke:
It’s becoming too dangerous to remain here or to stay together. We must separate. Daddy has managed to get false identity papers. Our name is no longer ‘Namenwirth’. It is ‘Nanning’. Remember! Nanning. You have to forget that you were once named ‘Micha’ and that you were a Jewish child. Daddy is mining engineer Nanning, on temporary leave. Don’t forget, from now on you are Nico Nanning.
Not yet eight years old, and about to go into hiding, Nico understood perfectly well the importance of remembering that new name, of not divulging anything about Micha and his Jewish past, of learning to stand on his two own feet. Yes, he was afraid. Soon he would be on his own, without mother, father or big brother, in a dangerous and hostile world where Jewish boys were rounded up without mercy. He didn’t know exactly what they did with them, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be good.
Mother spoke these words approximately sixty years ago. It feels as though it were yesterday. I am no longer a youngster and have been retired for a while. My wife Bobby and I live on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
I hear the waves as they pound the coast. What a wonderful spot! There is every reason to be contented in the here and the now.
Why then recall the past? Why resurrect history?
For years I have been Micha again, and almost nobody knows that once my name was Nico. But that boy who was given a new name and forced to survive alone far from home, that boy refuses to go away. He lives inside me.
Soon after my birth in Hillegersberg, we moved to Blijdorp, at the time a new and modern suburb of Rotterdam. Our apartment building was close to the zoo. Our flat was spacious and agreeable, light and colorful.
I can still visualize the children’s room with its blue sofa and numerous brown bears.
Annie, our nanny, lived with us and was a central figure in my life.
So was John, who was three years older. He used big words and went to school. I looked up to him, convinced that he knew everything.
Mom and dad were very important too, but in a different way. They clearly belonged to an older generation. Annie was in between. My parents were more distant, and then again, not really. It’s hard to explain. I clung to them, admired them, and yet was fully aware that they were grown-ups, and I only a small boy.
My world consisted of the apartment, the street and the surrounding neighborhood.
Once in a while I walked to my grandparents’ flat, my maternal grandma and grandpa. There wasn’t much traffic yet at that time, and the walk – down the street, across the square with the pond - was reasonably safe. Too small to reach the bell myself, I would ask a passer-by to ring the bell for me.
My grandparents’ refrigerator was reliably stocked with bowls of mixed fruit. Something more delicious than that I could hardly imagine.
Grandma usually sat at the window. She was blind, though at times she could see a little and would recognize my dark curls and grey-blue eyes. She was a large, plump woman: bright ánd nervous. When she had bouts of hysteria – which happened quite frequently - she took valium drops in a glass of water. Once in a while she would have a fainting-spel. That shook me up considerably.
Granddaddy was a jovial man, good-natured, generous, optimistic: he took life in stride. He was retired, but enjoyed once in a while visiting the business in the inner city of Rotterdam. Large rolls of carpet and linoleum were everywhere. He had founded the firm, but when father, and mother’s two brothers, had mastered the trade, he retired and spent his days playing billiards and smoking large cigars. Granddad didn’t go out a lot; he would have been reluctant to leave grandma alone.
Mother adored her father - that was obvious – but she didn’t get along with her mother. It was a frequent topic of conversation at home. Apparently it had always been that way and never changed.
Both my maternal grandparents had a Dutch provincial background: grandpa was born in Gouda, grandma in Schoonhoven. Though conscious of their Jewish heritage, this wasn’t a dominant factor in their lives. Both came from families that weren’t particularly poor. Yet, since there were numerous siblings, each had to work for what he or she got.
Grandfather was proud of his humble beginnings as a chocolate salesman. Once when grandpa was courting and hoped to impress my grandmother, the two of them are said to have consumed all of his samples. I never heard how the story ended.
Grandmother’s relatives must have been a dash more respectable than granddaddy’s, for she
always spoke somewhat condescendingly about the Monasch clan. I frequently heard stories told during meals about various great-uncles and great-aunts who had met with misfortune in their lives. One of granddaddy’s brothers was said to have been a musician who succumbed to syphilis in Sweden. An aunt must have been involved in a love affair, for she became pregnant and had to be hidden somewhere in the vast expanses of Germany.
I remember several of my grandparents’ bothers and sisters who played a role in my life: Uncle Elie from Brussels, Aunt Marjan who was a fervent socialist, and Aunt Saar who always carried peppermints in her handbag.
Especially endearing was Aunt Sel who, fed up with Europe after the Second World War, emigrated at an advanced age to the United States. She was grandmother’s cousin though, not her sister.
What I enjoyed most back then, were movies, music of course, and Chinese restaurants.
As far as Chinese food goes, the story was told over and over how Micha used to love ‘kroepoep’ (a corruption of ‘kroepoek’, shrimp crackers), always followed by the tale of sambal. Apparently I insisted on having sambal when we ate out. I must have been very young. My parents tried to dissuade me, but I was determind. Since I kept insisting, I was finally permitted to give it a try. I must have taken far too large a portion of the spicy substance, for tears welled up in my eyes and I turned crimson and ashen by turns, but I didn’t yield. They say I even claimed to have enjoyed the sambal.
One day it had snowed a lot. We owned a small sled. Daddy took the car out of the garage and said we could tie our sled to the rear bumper. The car belonged to the business in fact. We didn’t own a private car until later. As we were working away, we were soon surrounded by neighboring kids pulling their own sleds. And thus, in the end, dad pulled a complete procession of sleds through our street. John and I sat together on our sled, relishing the event, proud of our dad.
And then there were excursions. Although the traffic was light, perhaps even because the traffic was light, father wasn’t paying attention and drove smack into some sort of pole. I still remember the large, empty square, and hear the thud again, followed by the crunch of breaking glass.
Often we made trips to Belgium. Daddy had grown up in Antwerp, and several relatives were still living there. It was a different world. John and I couldn’t even talk to our Antwerp grandparents, for they spoke Yiddish and French, languages we didn’t know.
To us, bonmama and bonpapa looked peculiar. Grandmother was very sweet for sure. Granddaddy wore a longish black coat and a stiff hat He had a full beard and gave wet kisses. Early in the morning he made breakfast for himself in the kitchen, before going to the synagogue where he remained the entire day, studying and talking with other men in black coats.
Though bonpapa and bonmama loved me dearly, the distance between us was considerable. They belonged to a world that was foreign to me. My Dutch grandparents seemed a lot nearer. They were Jews as well, but Dutchmen first, and outwardly not distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors, or hardly.
Daddy had grown up in that Jewish world, diligently studying the Jewish religion. But in the course of the years, he began to resent the bitter poverty, the hanging on to tradition, and eventually he ran off.
He often told us how he had moved to the Netherlands where he met mother. Apparently he was conducting a chorus in which she participated. The choral group can’t have amounted to much, however, for mother wasn’t much of a singer. She did play the piano a little, and always encouraged John and me to go further in the world of music than she had. She loved the theater more than music, admiring art with a capital A and intellect with a capital I, without being an artist or an intellectual herself. Neither were her parents, but she came from a family of bright people, though she didn’t think of herself in that way.
Father and mother were Zionists who considered the creation of a Jewish state more important than the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, before the war, every Friday night there was a religious service at our home, with candles, sweet wine, and home-baked bread. Daddy recited Hebrew prayers. It was quite beautiful. We celebrated the Jewish holdays at home too.
Daddy retained an ambiguous relationship to religion throughout his life. Before the war he prayed each morning. Then he would unpack a silken bag, put a yamulka on his head, wrap himself in a prayer shawl and tie a peculiar black box to his forearm. Then he muttered prayers, while making those seemingly convulsive movements - downwards and upwards - made famous by the pious men who pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Often I secretly watched father, never understanding why he was praying - it seemed foreign to his opinions and lifestyle.
And yet, this was his background, this was the world he grew up in. But his daddy - my bonpapa who was a kind of rabbi - didn’t earn a penny during his entire life. He chose instead to study, pray and debate. As a consequence, the family was totally impoverished. In order to have something to eat, bonmama did the laundry at strangers’ homes. My father thought that his dear mother was shamefully abused and reproached his father for having abolished his family’s welfare for his religious convictions.
I often heard it said that bonmama sprang from a wealthy family somewhere in the East, and that she married bonpapa Namenwirth only because it was the tradition among rich Jewish families to marry off at least one daughter to a promising student.
Daddy adored his mother and hated his father, just the opposite of my mom’s situation. After the war, I never saw the silken bag again. Apparently the war had killed what remained of dad’s religious faith.
All four of my grandparents died long ago, and relatively recently my own parents and brother died as well, first John, then daddy.
Mother, who couldn’t live by herself anymore since, just like her own mom, she had become blind, insisted on moving to a home for the elderly. Thus I had to clear out her apartment. It was loaded with objects having a long history.
During the clean-up, I encountered piles of letters my brother and I had written in the course of the years. In that stack of papers, I found many letters that Nico Nanning had written many years ago from his hiding place. Mother had preserved as many as possible. I took these war letters with me to our house on the island, where they remained unread in a drawer. One day I started reading them, and the more I read, the more curious I became to get to know Nico Nanning better, that boy who closely resembles me and doesn’t all the same.
Leeuwarden, P.C. Hooftstraat 2
May 12th 1943
Dear mom and dad,
How are you doing? This Sunday I have been to a play about Puss in Boots. It was wonderful. At first we saw the father of the Marquess of Carabas who was lying in bed, dying. There was a cat and three young men. The father was to be buried. He had said: ‘The mill is for my eldest son Klaas. The second son gets the donkey, and my youngest son Dirk the cat.’ Dirk was angry and said: ‘What am I to do with you, cat?’ The pussy was called Mina. ‘Be satisfied,’ the cat said, for he had started to walk on two legs and began to speak: ‘You’ll be surprised what I am capable of.’ And what did the clever animal do? He … caught a rabbit and took it to his boss. Dirk said: ‘Well done,’ and ate the rabbit. Then the curtain closed. The three acts that followed I will describe in the next three letters, one act per letter.
After sitting there for an hour or so, I got a stomach ache. Back home I went to bed with a hot-water bottle. After a while Uncle Jan came to see me. He put ‘Fiks’ into my nose, and something else as well. Sunday afternoon and Monday morning (and afternoon) I stayed home. Tuesday I returned to school. Yesterday evening I picked violets. The tulips are almost finished. The lilacs are in bloom as well. Soon I will be getting my report card. The third grade teacher is about to get married to notary Molenaar. We have a new teacher, although I haven’t met her yet. So we had to bring 25 to 50 pennies to school for the lady teacher who was getting married. Bye! From Nico Nanning
P.S. Auntie Mies is still ill. I’ll draw her as she is lying in bed.
and then the next letter:
Dear mom and dad,
I received the sweater and am wearing it now. Many thanks for the belt too (I am wearing that one as well). A while back I put together that little duck. Aunt Mies is out of bed again.
Puss in Boots, second act:
Once during a lovely summer’s day, the cat roamed by the King’s palace. There he overheard that the King was about to go for a ride with the Princess. He ran to his boss, saying: ‘Quickly undress and jump into the water. We’ll see what happens later.’ The cat’s owner did as he was told (though reluctantly). When the King passed, the cat called out: ‘Help, help, my master, the Marquess of Carabas is drowning.’ Then the cat lamented: ‘Robbers must have been at work, for all his clothes are gone.’ The King ordered that new ones be produced. And then the curtain closed.
‘Help! My master, the Marquess of Carabas is drowning.’
Soon I’ll have a new report card! The people here inquire: ‘Why don’t you ask Mrs. Kramer if your mother could come and see you, for a short while, at least, as long as she goes out shopping as much as Mrs. Kramer does.’ Bye! From your Nico Nanning
P.C. Hooftstraat 2 at Leeuwarden, Holland, Friesland