Well, bye! Nico
I climb to our bench high above the village, musing a bit there. These scrambling expeditions are getting to be too much for me. A while ago I went to see a doctor to complain about pain in the region of my heart. After examining me, the doctor said that it wasn’t too bad and prescribed pills I should take when I didn’t feel well. I’m taking one now.
Why had that fountain pen emptied so quickly? When it happened again, I went secretly to Uncle Jan’s study. There was an inkstand on his desk. The pen was quickly filled, but I was clumsy and spilled some ink. Instead of explaining what had happened, so that the mess could be cleared up, I remained silent and said nothing at all.
Of course Uncle Jan soon discovered the ink spot on his desk. He was angry and gave me a few sharp blows. I cried, although deep in my heart I had to admit that he was right. And now, many years later, it’s striking that I kept quiet about all this in my letters to my parents.
Where is Nico? Why hasn’t he shown up yet?
I look about me, enjoying the view. How wonderful to be here!
My thoughts go back to the time when Nico suddenly appeared, sitting next to me. Wasn’t he coming back? Hadn’t we agreed to talk about the war?
I was about to consider what I would tell him, when he suddenly appeared.
‘Wonderful you’ve come,’ I said.
Nico was in high spirits. He was still wearing his warm clothes: blue shorts, black-checkered shirt, red tie and dark-blue sweater with long sleeves ...
He appeared a little vain, didn’t he?
‘Shall I talk about the war?’
Yes, that would be fine.
I cleared my throat, ‘hmm, hmmm,’ reflected for a moment, and then began:
‘There always have been wars.’
‘Why?’ Nico inquired.
‘Possibly out of boredom, greed, revenge, anger, lust for power … People are capable of everything, both the best and the worst. They build splendid cities, create wonderful works of art, to, in the end, smash them all to pieces.’
‘Kids do the same,’ said Nico, ‘on the beach.’
‘That’s true,’ I replied. ‘Kids do the same on the beach, but there it doesn’t have quite the same impact.’
‘Yes, that’s true,’ Nico sighed.
‘Every war involves a whole lot of sadness,’ I continued.
Nico and I stared into one another’s eyes. We knew what we were talking about.
‘And why the Germans?’
‘Well yes,’ said I, ‘why the Germans? Germany is a beautiful country and its inhabitants are industrious and disciplined. It’s a civilized country, and yet … As England and France
were powerful, parceling out large chunks of the world among themselves, Germany remained for an extended period of time a collection of tiny countries, hardly playing a role in world politics. After Germany had become a single powerful nation, however, it wished to participate in international affairs. It was envious, wishing to enlarge its power. Thus the First World War broke out, a terrible war, costing the lives of millions of people.
In the end, Germany and her partners lost that war. Since there had been so many victims and since the damage done was so considerable, the Allied Forces decided to punish the Germans for all the misery that war had caused. As a consequence there was great poverty and bitterness in the land, and a climate was created that allowed sinister characters, such as Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring, to grab power. They were cunning and cruel, engaging the German people in a disastrous adventure - the Second Warld War. Some Germans opposed dictatorship, hate among peoples and a senseless war. Others supported the Nazis, acclaiming them. The majority endured submissively.’
‘Are Germans evil people?’ Nico enquired.
I hesitated, knowing full well how difficult it is to forgive one’s enemies in the middle of a war. ‘What has happened,’ I said, ‘is unforgivable. Many Germans were cowardly, failed to reflect and let events overtake them. But asserting that Germans are more evil than other nations, no, I don’t believe that. Many Dutch citizens weren’t particularly heroic either. Many collaborated with the enemy, benefitting from the opportunity. Others were passive, accepting the new reality, going along with the others. It shouldn’t have been that way, but unfortunately, that was the way it was.’
‘Germany didn’t have a democratic tradition,’ I proceeded. ‘People had been taught to obey blindly. Obedience was a quality which was highly valued. So most were obedient, even when what was being asked of them was outrageous.’
‘But why did they have to attack the Netherlands?’
I admitted that invading a small country was unfair and mean. ‘It was part of a political strategy,’ I explained, ‘to enlarge power - more land, people, and money. However, greed usually turns against the conquerer. He swallows more than he can digest. Eventually all wars come to an end.’
I observed Nico. He looked dejected. The time had arrived for another subject. ‘How is school coming along?’
‘Alright,’ he replied, but he clearly didn’t feel like conversing any further.
Then I had a luminous idea. ‘Come with me to the main street, down in the village. There is a sandwich shop that sells ice cream.’
Nico agreed that this was a good idea.
We therefore descended the trail together, slowly, because of my heart.
Having arrived below, we ordered an ice cream cone with three scoops.
Nico selected strawberry-, raspberry-, and vanilla-ice cream.
He began to lick like a madman, for it had been so long ago since he had tasted such delicious ice cream.
Between one lick and the next, he thanked me.
Then I realized that I should introduce Nico to my acquaintances in the café. ‘This is Nico,’ I said, but those present looked at me as though I had gone out of my mind.
They hadn’t seen Nico at all. Meanwhile he had disappeared.
In the summer of 1940 we moved to Amsterdam to a top floor apartment in the ‘Rivierenbuurt’ (a neighborhood named after rivers). It was a busy street, but close by there was major construction going on that provided a perfect location for playing. Still I had trouble getting used to the big city.
Amsterdam was very different from Rotterdam. The Maas Street where we now lived felt different from the Van Beuningen Street in Blijdorp. Amsterdam was a whole lot busier, fuller, darker, more nervous.
Especially striking was the large Jewish population. Sometimes we visited the ghetto on the other side of the Amstel River, to buy kosher pickles and other Jewish delicacies. That section of the city was poor and run-down. It resembled the Antwerp of bonpapa and bonmama. One saw people walking about in old-fashioned clothing, with beards and ‘pijes’ (sideburns), ‘talles’(prayer shawls) under their coats, hats or yammulkas on their heads (for religious Jewish men keep their heads covered at all times). Speaking a strange language, they went about their business. The ghetto struck me as a lively place.
I knew that I was somehow connected to these people, that a shared past tied us together. And yet I was so different. Or was I?
I can remember quite a few details - the ‘Grachtengordel’ (Canal Ring), Rembrandt Square where Uncle Paul owned a building, Amstel Street and ‘Magere Brug’ (the Lean Bridge), the river, ‘Paleis op de Dam’ (the Palace on the Dam Square). The image of the movie house ‘De Uitkijk’, on the Prinsengracht is also printed on my brain, though I have no idea whether I visited the theater at that time. My memory isn’t entirely reliable, I must admit. Since we returned to Amsterdam after the war, it is entirely possible that images, sounds and smells I believe I can recall from the war years, in fact go back to post-war experiences.
In September 1940 I went to school for the first time. In honor of this important event mother had bought new clothes which she piled high on a chair, ready to be worn. I was tossing about in my bed, at once proud to be a real pupil and scared for the unknown.
Accompanied by my big brother I bicycled to school. Since we were no longer allowed to attend a ‘regular’ school, we joined a Jewish school. It was located in ‘de Pijp’, then a lower class quarter between our neighborhood and the old city.
In Blijdorp John had been a pupil of a Dalton School, a modern institution housed in a brand-new building displaying a lot of glass, light and color. The Jewish school had an old-fashioned feel: an old and somber building, antique furniture, slate pencils and slates, ‘Aap, Noot, Mies’ and ‘Ot and Sien’ (historical didactic tools).
It took getting used to. I had never been in the company of so many Jewish people. Everyone was Jewish: all the pupils, all the teachers, everybody. The mood at school was excited, nervous, alienating. It was as though we were constantly waiting for something to happen. And though the school radiated unease, I enjoyed attending … up to a point.
But the Amsterdam interlude wasn’t entirely enjoyable. Although we weren’t directly threatened yet, the imminent danger was palpable. My parents and brother reassured me. I lived at home, nevertheless realizing that an unpleasant future awaited us. People whispered about concentration camps, looking grim, not all the time of course, but frequently.
Jews were encouraged to give themselves up voluntarily. Supposedly they would be taken to labor camps where they would lead a comfortable life in a kind of summer camp. Similar to Zus en Pien on the Veluwe? Dad had finally learned his lesson, convinced that the Nazis could not be trusted. I still remember discussions at home between my parents and a young couple who were about to answer the call. Mom and dad failed to convince their young friends. They voluntarily courted disaster, departing happily, rucksacks on their backs. Of course we never saw them again.
The German occupiers were anxious to avert panic, so they pretended to mean well. The persecution of the Jews wasn’t inaugurated all of a sudden, but introduced step by step. I recall the posters in fearful letters, again and again announcing new restrictions: Jews were no longer permitted to do this, to do that. Slowly but surely the noose was tightened.
By then we were ordered to wear the Star of David. This was a yellow and black piece of cloth that Jews were obliged to pin to their chests. The intent was to isolate us, to clip our wings and to break our will.
Usually we refused to wear the star. Yet I recall once when John and I were visiting our grandparents in The Hague, traveled by train and, that day, we had attached the thing to our lapels. We meant this as an act of rebellion: we are Jews and we are proud of it. It clearly was a silly thing to do. We never did it again.
It is said that grandfather made a fortune several times in his life, only to lose it again each time. The family constantly moved from Rotterdam to The Hague, from The Hague to Scheveningen and then back to The Hague again, each residence a reflection of the relative prosperity of the moment. As a consequence mother developed a life-long passion for The Hague.
At the beginning of the war granddad must have been reasonably wealthy, for my grandparents lived in a stately house, apparently not affected by events. Their front door was opened by a butler in a red and white striped coat. The billiard room at the entrance to the hallway was filled with cigar smoke: grandfather was playing billiards by himself. There one day a wasp stung me so badly in the hollow of my knee, that I had to be taken to a physician.
For a short while my Aunt Bap stayed with us in Amsterdam. I was happy that she had come, for I loved her dearly. She and I were ill at the same time, lying in bed in adjacent rooms. I was playing with a cotton monkey. The door connecting our rooms was open and my aunt was trying to teach me to count in French: un, deux, trois … Whether I was too ill or preferred playing with my monkey, I failed repeatedly in reciting the long sequence from one to twenty without error. It was decided then and there that I was stupid, incapable of learning anything. There was no end to the teasing and that didn’t sit well with me.
We owned a tom-cat who loved sitting on the window sill, watching the bustle down in the street below. One day he tumbled down. Since I adored my pussy cat, I ran downstairs after him, convinced I would find a dead cat. But he was alive and kicking, and acted as if nothing had happened, falling down three storeys, miowed lustily and rubbed himself against my leg. Very carefully I carried him upstairs, asking myself if we, too, would like the tom-cat land safely on our feet.
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