From now on Uncle Jan is going to kick me in the butt
During the winter of 1940-1941 there was ice. Not far from us, opposite the apartments then being built, was the end of a canal which ran all the way to Ouderkerk on the Amstel.
During the summer season, a small boat, piled high with fruits and vegetables, occasionally sailed there. During the winter season, the water was frozen solid. Then small stands, selling pea soup or anise milk, were erected on the ice, and young and old skated on the canal. Often we skated together underneath small bridges … further and further, all the while holding on to a long stick.
I wore wooden Dutch skates strapped to my shoes. I wasn’t very skilled yet, got cold quickly and sniffled all day long.
Nontheless one day I was allowed to skate to Ouderkerk together with John. We departed together, but after a while he was gone. He was particularly good at skating and had probably joined one group or another, perhaps holding on to a stick, setting off at a high tempo for Ouderkerk.
I struggled ahead off and on, ate pea soup, took off my skates, tied them on again, all the while suffering from the cold. That whole day I didn’t see John at all, but no matter what, I had to reach Ouderkerk.
When my brother returned home, he received a proper dressing down for not having remained with me as promised. All the while I was still on the endless return trip to Amsterdam. It had turned dark. The booths had disappeared and so had most of the skaters.
Mom and dad were terribly worried, imagining the very worst - their youngest son drowned, frozen, arrested. I continued scraping on and on, however, blubbering. And then I arrived home. My parents and my brother were so relieved.
Just as our tom-cat had done, I pretended all this was perfectly normal - it had been fun, spending the whole day making the round trip to Ouderkerk.
The longer we lived in Amsterdam, the more dangerous it became. The business was now managed by a person appointed by the Germans. For that reason, in the late-summer of 1941 we moved to Zeist - at the center of the country - for Jews were no longer allowed to live near the coast.
I am sitting in my easy chair, reading a few letters from Leeuwarden:
Dear mom and dad,
Saturday, Unce Jan, Aunt Mies and I made a trip to Groningen. First we went shopping, then we had a drink in a hotel-resoraunt [restaurant], Uncle Jan had a beer, Aunt Mies coffee and I lemonade. Then we went somewhere else to eat - mashed potatoes, meat gravy (really delicious), purslane and pudding. It was a beautiful stadsion [station].
And later on we had another refreshment somewhere else, Aunt Mies and I took a bottle of lemonade, Uncle Jan a glass of gin.
Sunday, Aunt Mies’ parents are visiting. A boy in our class has his birthday on the second day of Whitsuntide. He has invited a bunch of kids, including me. Then we will play in a grotto. I will be a koiboi [cowboy], and there will be indians. I don’t know yet whether Aunt Mies will permit me to attend. Bye! from Nico Nanning. Bye!
You better read that letter addressed to mom and dad as well. I don’t have to wear that brace anymore. Our teacher had to leave for a while, then we had another teacher. Soon, I am going to have my jig-saw repaired. I don’t believe a little blade will cost a whole lot. What do you think? Then I am going to make something for you. What, I don’t know as yet. I’m going to quit right now. Bye, N. Bye! NN, from your own brother.
Dear mom and dad,
Last week we had fish, two days running. One fish had a green bone. I already got my report-card. Aunt Mies and Uncle Jan gave me a guilder. Today we are visiting the Doornbos family, friends of Aunt Mies and Oom Jan. I’m sitting now in Uncle Jan Doornbos’ room. My grades have improved by 1,75 points . Let’s say, 2 points. I received your letter today.
Bye! from Nico Nanning
Dear mom and dad,
The day I went to Stiens, I had a punctured tire. We had the tire repaired and were ready to leave, when it blew up again. Now you can inflate the tire, but after fifteen minutes it’s flat again. I will be getting new tires, one or two, I’m not sure. I’m also not certain whether they are the right size. Good, isn’t it? They are supposed to be tires from before the war, real good ones.
Is the wish-list okay?
Two friends of mine (Kees and Jan Stout) and I hiked to ‘Stania State’ in Venkerk, three hours walking, ten miles away, sandwiches along, leaving at a quarter to nine, back at six. Stania State is a very large forest.
Our morning maid and the cleaning lady have a week of vacation, and the other cleaning lady hardly ever comes. Therefore I helped cleaning up the washed dishes. I saw a play, ‘Paddertje, the cabin-boy of Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruiter’. It was beautiful. Yesterday it rained, there was a thunderstorm. Bye! Nico Nanning
P.S. Aunt Mies asked me to tell you, that I am drinking buttermilk all the time, because it helps my eczema.
I watched the play, ‘Paddertje, the cabin-boy of Michiel Adriaanszoon de
Ruiter (of Vlissingen)’. It was very compelling. And now I’m asking for the book for my birthday, although I’m afraid it’s no longer in the stores. I am getting new tires, from before the war, although I am not sure if they fit. When my present tires are inflated, they empty after a quarter of an hour. The front tire isn’t quite as bad. Is it equally hot at your place? Probably I don’t even have to ask. Here everybody is suffocating. Bye! Nico Nanning
I am reflecting a bit on those letters: the lemonade in Groningen, the meat gravy and the fish with green bones. Eating and drinking clearly was terribly important during the war.
Bicycle tires too. After a few years, tires were no longer available. First people rode on solid tires, later on wooden strips, and still later on the rims alone.
When I was living in Leeuwarden, Aunt Mies was expecting lady visitors one afternoon. She had kept a few genuine chocolate bars from way back, neatly separated into individual pieces and displayed in a silver bowl. These pieces were waiting for the visitors.
I walked by once or twice. The sight made my mouth water. Did Aunt Mies plan to give me a piece? Possibly yes, possibly no. I could have asked, although there were no signs indicating that the chocolate was intended for me.
The temptation was considerable. I took one piece and stuck it in my mouth. Aunt Mies, however, a champion at arithmetic, noticed at once that something was missing. I got a proper dressing down.
Reflecting after all these years, I think she should have given me a piece, or at least have said something.
Later I discovered that I was allergic to chocolate. As it was, I suffered from eczema, a kind of itch which started in Leeuwarden.
I’m thinking back to Nico’s most recent visit, our talk about the war and the ice cream cone with three scoops.
It’s my time to go shopping, so I grab my things and take my leave of Bobby. The entrance gate is open. To my surprise Nico is standing behind the entrance door, half-hidden, peeking into our court-yard.
‘What are you doing here?’
A bit shy he responded: ‘I was curious to see where you actually lived.’
Although Nico’s visit wasn’t particularly timely, I was glad to see him. ‘If it suits you, you may come along.’
He was indeed interested. We walked to my dependable steed and drove together to the next village.
‘What a lovely car,’ he exclaimed, ‘brandnew and shiny. That must have cost a lot of money.’
‘Not really,’ I answered. ‘It’s pretty old, but on the island distances are limited.’
‘Where are we in fact?’ he inquired.
‘We are on one of the Canary Islands. It belongs to Spain and is situated not far from the African coast.’
‘Africa?’ he asked. ‘But that’s terribly far. How do you get here?’
‘With a plane … and then a ferry.’
Nico seemed surprised. ‘Have you flown here yourself?’
He recounted English and American war planes flying over and the German fighter planes bombarding Rotterdam. ‘I have seen many burning planes come down after being hit by anti-aircraft guns. But flying myself, no, I have never done that. I’d love to, though.’
We got out of the car to do our shopping.
Nico’s eyes popped as he saw all the delicious products being offered for sale.
I bought him a large orange and a few bananas. He didn’t require encouragement. The fruit was gone in the wink of an eye.
When we were back in the car, Nico returned to our earlier conversation.
‘You said that Germans aren’t more evil than other people,’ he remarked. ‘And yet they invaded the Netherlands, arresting Jewish boys. The English and the Americans haven’t done that.’
‘True, but one cannot condemn the entire German nation for that.’
‘Yes but ...’
Nothing more, even though he clearly disagreed with me.
Having bought everything Bobby had asked me to, I took Nico to the large park atop the island. We walked around in the rain forest. He was astonished at the many strange plants and trees.
I told him about horizontal rain - how clouds blow across the ocean, leaving moisture high above the island without actual rain - and about the ‘Guanches’ as well, the people who lived here before the Spaniards conquered the islands: ‘They lived in caves and had a king.’
As we returned to the car, Nico wanted to know what had happened to the Guanches.
‘They disappeared,’ I replied.
He viewed me anxiously.
‘I’m afraid so. No one knows exactly what happened. Apparently they fought like lions.’
On the way home, Nico returned to the subject. ‘Why were those poor Guanches exterminated? What had they done wrong?’
I made a remark about how things used to be, but Nico interrupted me angrily: ‘Used to be?! It’s still the same. Now it’s the Jews ...’
‘Don’t exaggerate, not everyone ...’ but Nico refused to listen.
He was angry and sad.
When we had returned to our village, I asked whether he would like to join me. This time around, he didn’t feel like it.
It was a lot more fun living in Zeist than in Amsterdam. At the time, Zeist was no more than a large village. We occupied half a villa at the edge of a forest. The house was white, with a rainwater barrel in front. At one end of our street lay the so-called ‘stuifheuvel’, a fairly high sand hill, at the other end two ponds, ideal for skating in wintertime. Our garden was basically a stretch of pine forest. Between the village and our house lay the ‘Zeister Woods’, divided by a stream. There was plenty of space for playing.
Emerging from our garden we stepped directly into nature. We often hunted for mushrooms, accompanied by our dog Rodo, a cocker spaniel. Although we were in the middle of the war, our life in Zeist felt more peaceful than it had in Amsterdam. We lived there for only a little over a year, but it seemed much longer.
Quite a few Jews had moved to Zeist and become our friends, including the Mazurs, the Meyers, the Schussheims and the Cahens. Jules and Frie Cahen had four kids: Gideon and Abel, Ruth and Judith. Their younger son, Abel, became my first real friend. We played together in the forest, jumped across streams, made pipes from acorns and straw, then used them to smoke pulverized willow catkins.
Abel’s father was an engineer who had been employed by Philips (Norelco) in Eindhoven and later by the Dutch Railroad System. We vistited them often, usually by bike.
One day my dad had bought splendid new bikes for all of us, a true luxury during wartime. We parked the new bicycles in the Cahen’s front yard against a hedge and locked them securely. However, when we returned from our enjoyable visit, the bikes were gone.
Abel’s dad looked for dynamo torches (flashlights with batteries were no longer available); then we followed the tracks the thieves had left. It reminded me of that procession, long ago, on the Veluwe. Now too, it was pitch dark and the lights produced by the dynamo torches resembled Chinese lanterns. It was spooky again, though not as frightening as earlier. By now I was quite a bit older and in the company of my best friend. The search came to nothing. We never saw those beautiful bikes again.
During that period dad no longer went to work, so he had more leisure time to spend with us. We played soccer and hiked. During the winter there was snow. We owned a fairly large sled, which could be steered. There were hills in the forest. I recall all four of us going sledding together. We whizzed downhill, only to climb up again. Alone, or with a partner, on our bellies or on our bottoms, we tried desperately to remain upright, taking care not to crash into a tree.
For a while John and I attended the public school in Zeist. One of the teachers was a certain Anton Lingeman, someone who remained our friend long afterwards. He was in the resistance movement and made a giant contribution, assisting the many Jewish families in Zeist to survive the war. The time came when we were no longer permitted to attend that school, so that my parents, together with other Jewish families, were forced to establish a school of their own.
Now that wasn’t simple at all. A building had to be located, as well as teachers, school desks, textbooks … One female teacher traveled daily from Amsterdam. The other was George and Zula Mazur’s son. The Mazurs who were Viennese, became intimate friends of my family’s. If I am not mistaken, Peter had just entered the University to study Physics. I remember visiting him much later in Brussels, when he was working on a doctorate with Professor Prigogine of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (the Free University of Brussels), where my two Antwerp cousins, Judith and Evelyne, went to school as well. At that time, of course, I had no idea that I would later be working for that institution myself. Peter remained all his life a Physics Professor at the University of Leyden. Our Jewish school in Zeist became a convivial place, where we remained until we had to go into hiding. Though I was only eight years old, it was already my third school.
Since Jews were no longer allowed to attend public performances, mom and dad organized private concerts at our home. Mother had a good friend who was a professional pianist. She was friends with a young violinist. The two formed a duo devoted to classical chamber music. During the afternoon they presented a concert for the young people. At night they performed for the grown-ups.
Although John and I were supposed to be sleeping, the two of us would be secretly sitting on the staircase, listening to the grown-up music: sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven. We had become somewhat familiar with that kind of music since father owned a wonderful collection of historical recordings with Yehudi and Hepzibah Menuhin, Simon Goldberg and Lilly Kraus. These discs, and the live performances in particular, left an unforgettable impression and contributed directly to my later choice of profession.
Daddy was active in the affairs of the Jewish community in Zeist. He was President of the local ‘Joodse Raad’ (Jewish Council). That was an organization created to assist the Jewish community in the face of persecution and exclusion. At the time, mother always spoke of the Jewish Council in reverential tones, and I was extremely proud of my father. He assisted people in obtaining false identity papers, and addresses where they could go into hiding.
False papers were a frequent topic of whispering about the house. It was practically impossible to survive the war without an identity card. Such a document was required in order to obtain ration-cards. Almost all food-stuffs were rationed. Without a ration-card, no food.
Daddy knew resistance fighters such as Anton Lingeman, who broke into the town hall to steal cards, seals, ink and stamps. Then another person would fashion false identity cards out of these elements.
After the war it became known that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, and possibly also elsewhere in the Netherlands, had played a problematic role during the war. Mediating between the invader and the Jewish community, was later judged to have been a form of collaboration. I don’t believe that things took place in Zeist which couldn’t pass muster - I never heard anything of that nature - but I do know that, afterwards, the Jewish Council was a topic which was rarely mentioned at home. That subject had become tabu.
I recall John and me being angry that only middle class Jews could afford false identity papers. Somehow or other we had heard, or understood, that poor Jews, the proletariat, were totally helpless, without a glimmer of hope of surviving the war without some money. This upset us and, as young as we were, we participated in furious debates on this issue. And yet, we profited without protest from dad’s investments. Without these savings, Nico wouldn’t have written his letters and Micha couldn’t have compiled a little book from them.
Around that time it became apparent that John was suffering from diabetes. We believed that the illness was caused by one jolt or another. At home we often speculated about what might have precipitated John’s condition.
Annie, who had joined us in Zeist, tumbled down the staircase one day. Fortunately she suffered only a light concussion, but my brother took it hard, convinced that his rough-housing had been responsible for her fall.
And then there was the incident with the drain cover. Together with a lot of other children we were playing field hockey in our street. As goal posts we used the iron covers of the sewer system, between the street and the sidewalk. At a given moment a goal was scored, but the ball had disappeared into the sewer … gone! In order to retrieve the ball, the heavy iron cover had to be lifted. Together with a few big strong kids, my brother raised the iron lid. Quite a few children were standing about. Someone must have accidentally jarred the thing, for it fell down suddenly, right on top of John’s middle finger. I still remember his face, ashen, and obviously the finger was bleeding profusely.
In truth, no one could be certain why and how the diabetes started. In my opinion, it was a combination of the persecution of the Jews, Annie’s tumble and the shock of the sewer grate.
Insulin had been discovered only recently. Without it John wouldn’t have survived. Throughout the war, it remained a difficult task to locate the prescribed dose. Unknown people, resistance fighters, would come by, late in the evening or in the middle of the night, to drop little packages.
But despite this medication, John was often seriously ill. At times matters went awry and he had to be admitted to a hospital. His presence in those hospitals made me jealous. Why wasn’t I admitted as well?
John’s illness demanded a great deal of attention. It preoccupied the minds of my parents, especially my mother’s and it’s possible that, because of it, John received more attention than I did.
Many decades later, when my mother was in her eighties, and John had died, she confessed to having felt terribly guilty that she accorded more time and love to her firstborn child than to me. She didn’t use those exact words, but that’s what it boiled down to. I hadn’t experienced it that way, as far as I can recall. I wasn’t jealous of my brother, with the exception of those hospital stays of course.
Later, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I had to be hospitalized myself for an appendix operation. It was a terrible experience and I was relieved when I was allowed to go home. After that I never longed for hospitals again.
While we lived in Zeist, relatives and friends regularly came on farewell visits. Having them stay over with us was lots of fun, but sad as well, since nobody knew whether we would ever see one another again. We were in celebration mode, enjoying the occasion until we suddenly realized that we were at war and that, as Jews, we were in danger. At such moments, everyone would turn silent and somber - one could have heard a pin drop.
Despite such moments of gloom, I recall Zeist as a paradise between Amsterdam and the period of hiding. But it had to end. The danger was clearly approaching. I recall whispering about acquaintances who had been arrested. Others had gone underground.
I remember burying our silver-ware next to the garage. Other objects found a temporary home with non-Jewish friends.
And then decision-time had arrived. We were all standing in the living room, my parents, my brother and I. Everyone realized that we were facing a decisive moment, the beginning of a farewell. Then mother spoke:
It’s becoming too dangerous to remain here. Daddy has obtained false identity papers. We no longer are called ‘Namenwirth’. Our new name is ‘Nanning’. You must forget the past, that you once were called ‘Micha’, that you used to be a Jewish boy. Remember well, now you are Nico Nanning.
One evening, after we had already gone to sleep, John and I had to get up and dress. It was pitch dark. In total silence we were taken to Childrens’ Home ‘Zonnestraal’ (Sunray). Our period of hiding had begun.
I pick up the pile of letters and start reading them. Where had I left off?
Are you disappointed that I can’t come? Did you like the story mom made up? I’m going to copy a passage from a very nice book. You ought to read it in the letter I wrote to mom and dad. It’s an old fairy tale, told and rhymed again. It’s a lot of fun. Why don’t I send you a snippet? The Green Police [‘die grüne Polizei’] has visited us too. Best read about it in another letter. Bye! from Nico
Tim and Tom had their birthday tomorrow
A great night
Tim and Tom, two goblins, had their birthday tomorrow. They were twins. So they invited Squirrel and Rabbit, together with their families. They ate as much as they possibly could of the cookies and pretzels. The squirrels had acorns and beech-nuts, the rabbits sprouts and marzipan. Aren’t those delicious? They shook paws, then danced for hours. Night fell. It was as though they were dancing on fragile China. It was time to go home. Once they arrived there, they had to admit that, never before, had they enjoyed a night like that.
Sunday, Dear mom and dad,
Thanks so much for that wonderful story. I enjoyed it a lot. I am inventing a story of my own, or rather, I am not writing it myself, really, but am copying it from a book. I am in the process of copying the entire book, all thirty three pages. It’s called, ‘About a magic fish’. It’s all poetry. I am writing it down on a note-pad. Maybe I’ll send you the beginning. I can’t send all of it now, because I don’t consider it neat enough.
Die grüne Polizei
Most of those Green Police men have left. They were here too. They wanted to know, whether we had a radio (no), how many people were living here (two and a child). Then they departed. How far they went, I don’t now exactly. All I heard was the whirring of a motor and talking in German outside. I’m disappointed I can’t join you, but that’s the way it is. Bye, Nico
P.S. This afternoon I will be swimming with Gerie and Kerstie Toxopeus. And if the weather clears up, I am allowed to go biking with my friends as well. This morning, I toured around the block with Jan and Lottie van der Vlis and Wiets Eebels. Bye! your Nico
Thanks a million for the three guilders. Aunt Mies says: ‘We’ll dissipate them’. Is that okay?
Leeuwarden, June 25th 1943
Congratulations with your birthday. Aunt Mies bought the book for me. I have approximately sixty cents left. I have to save like crazy to be able to return the money. I have been to Appelscha with Aunt Mies and Uncle Jan. ‘Het oog in het zeel’ (The eye in the web) appears a nice book to me. I hope that we may celebrate your next birthday together again. Congratulated that you passed your exams. I am not writing very neatly, since this letter has to be mailed soon.
Uncle Jan’s ear hurts. He went to see a doctor at twelve thirty, returning only at a quarter to four. I haven’t heard yet what’s causing the pain. Probably he’ll come up soon, so that I can ask him. Hopefully he won’t get ill.
I am curious whether I will be promoted in school. In exactly one week holidays will start. I’m going to ask when this letter has to be mailed. It was beautiful in Appelscha. I’ll draw how it was. On the way back I was carrying a garden chair, a bag containing a tin can, a pair of shoes, a jar of jam and a bunch of honeysuckle in my hand. This is how I looked. The drawing will follow later. Bye, yours, Nico Nanning
Uncle Jan has, as we call it, the mumps.
Congratulations with your birthday
Dear mom and dad,
My congratulations for John’s birthday. Aunt Mies told me to write something about our visit to Appelscha. Did John like the book? Did he get a lot of presents or not? I have difficulty keeping everything straight when the paper isn’t lined.
We took the train to Heerenveen and went from there by bus to Appelscha. There were three children. Vroukje must be roughly sixteen years old, Annie eighteen and yet another of twenty to twenty one years. We took several hikes in the forest and in the dunes too. There was a lot of fishing going on. We got an egg almost each morning and porridge two to three times a day. We bicycled to Oosterwolde, where I drank lemonade; Uncle Jan and Aunt Mies had coffee. When returning home (we had bought a stool in Oosterwolde), I carried a bag with a tin can, shoes, jam, the stool, in addition to a bunch of honeysuckle. This is what I looked like. Bye! from Nico Nanning
Dear mom and dad,
Many thanks for the wonderful story. You asked if I considered them too childish, but I find them beautiful, not childish at all (I’m not sure whether ‘childish’ (kinderachtig) is one word or two). This morning I received a postcard from Miss Algra, my piano teacher. Aunt Mies tried to fool me recently by telling me that I would return to Zeist, but I figured out that it couldn’t be true. I’m making progress in swimming. Yesterday, I learned to move with hands and legs together, for at first you have to be able to swim with your legs alone. In a week I can swim somewhat.
Mom, you should write a book. You are good at it. Yesterday and the day before, and three days ago, it was impossibly hot here.
Bye, from Nico Nanning, Bye!
July 15th 1943
Dear mom and dad,
I was promoted to the fourth grade. My report card remained the same. That’s because we had new teachers all the time and therefore they don’t know what marks to give. And yet, quite a few pupils lost ground, but not a single one improved (their grades). It’s unusually busy in town, but I’m hanged if I know why. There is shooting and a lot of noise.
We have six weeks of summer vacation. The other schools only four. The weather is fine now. Lately I borrow books from Kees Stout, who is in the fourth grade. Now I got a book from the library. It’s called ‘Air Pirates’, and a wonderful book. I will be in fourth grade myself. There I’ll study fractions. Now we are done with cubic measures such as cubic feet. For the piano I got a new score, Duvernoy, pronounced as ‘Duvernwa’.
P.S. Unexpectedly, my jigsaw works again. Bye! from your NN (N. Nanning)
I am permitted to swim every day. The pool is quite beautiful, a paddling-pool and then it continues diagonally down. Outside, everyone is screaming and pushing, for a boy has touched a girl and now she doesn’t want to come with him.
P.S. When do mom and dad have their birthdays? Bye!
Dear mom and dad,
I am allowed to go swimming every day. That sulscition [subscription] is for daily swimming and I have a student card as well. I’ll draw the swimming pool. I’m going to frame one thing, a print. I keep those stories and pictures I received in the folder formerly used for writing paper. I still have to swim with my legs alone.
Each swimming lesson takes approximately a quarter of an hour. My fountain pen was empty. Aunt Mies suggested that I write with pencil, but I don’t know how to do it, for it hardly shows on this paper. Drawing the swimming pool won’t be easy.
P.S. I had to start all over again with my swimming, for I had forgotten everything. Bye!
Today we have fine weather here, I hope that it will stay that way. All the boys here cut airplanes out of wood and then have them painted (or sprayed). They take the examples from a little book, ‘Boys of twelve to thirteen years old’. It isn’t bad, but almost all of them have a bandage round one finger, or even two, as with Gerrie Heeringa or Jan Post. Jan Post has easily twenty five planes. Do you know how long it takes before a bulb which has been put in a pot, shows up?
Have your new bike tires been installed or didn’t you get new tires? My bike has been totally refurbished, a new gear-case, a new lock, completely spruced up. Please let mom and dad know about that, for I forgot to write them about it. Or show them this letter, since I wrote about different things to you than to them.
Daddy has his birthday soon, doesn’t he? Only 16 more days. I plan to give him, oups, I better not write that, it should remain a surprise. We have a dog here, ‘Katie’. This Monday he is leaving again. He belongs to a family that’s on a trip to Apeldoorn, and now the dog is with us as long as they are gone. That family is called ‘Vahl’ (pronounced as ‘vaal’). Bye, Nico
July 8th 1943
Hello dad, hello mom,
I’m going to sleep. It’s eight o’clock. Sleep well, bye! Nico N.
P.S. Aunt Mies said that, today, I drank as much as two quarts of milk, if it hasn’t been more than that. Bye!
P.S. Many thanks for that great bicycle tire. Bye! Nico N.
P.S. Aunt Mies told me that this letter is far too short. For that reason I’ll add on to it.
Thank you for the lovely story about that dream. It was beautiful and thanks for the letter. I will try to answer your questions. I’m not all that eager to return to school, although it’s fun to go to school. That tire hasn’t been put on my bike as yet, because I have a cold. I can’t use the bicycle now anyhow. Did John get a tire as well? Today I am allowed to go swimming again for the first time. The weather here isn’t anything to write home about. That’s the reason I helped with vacuum cleaning, picking the withered flowers in the garden, etc. On the piano I like to play songs from ‘If you know how to sing, sing with us’. With a single hand. Bye!
Those Green Police, that’s a story! It happened in the middle of the night. I had been sleeping for hours when the noise awoke me. Outside one could hear slamming doors, boots on the sidewalk, the roaring of loud orders in German. They rang our bell too. I was aware how dangerous this could be. I was trembling in my bed. What a difference with Tim and Tom: ‘When they were home, they said they never had experienced a wonderful night like that’.
Aunt Mies did not come up to find out if I was awake. I didn’t go down either. No one consoled me, no one cuddled me, even though I was very frightened.
‘I’m disappointed I can’t join you, but that’s the way it is’.
‘I hope that we may celebrate your next birthday together again’.
The short vacation in Appelscha was fun. ‘An egg almost each morning and porridge two to three times a day’. I enjoyed it a lot, those eggs and the porridge. But so much porridge?
I clearly recall the walks in the forest, the house in Appelscha where we stayed as well and the voices of the three daughters I had trouble understanding. I don’t believe they spoke Frisian, but it wasn’t Dutch either, at least not the Dutch I was used to.
Those wooden planes in bright colors I remember too. They were shiny and finely finished. The war had a hold on us there as well. Tin solders, weapons, airplanes, anything connected to the war fascinated us. That war was all-consuming and had us in its grip for many years.
A matter that impressed me greatly were bicycles carrying a small metal plate that read ‘OZO’. I have no idea what function that plate had. Most boys I knew interpreted that mysterious lettering as ‘Oranje Zal Overwinnen’ (Orange Shall Conquer), whispering those words to one another. That was our contribution to the resistance movement. But then there were a few pessimists or friends of the Nazis, who read in this secret message the words, ‘Oranje Zal Ondergaan’ (Orange Shall Perish).
‘If you know how to sing, sing with us’ is a blue book containing patriotic songs. It’s still sitting in my cupboard here. Mother played the piano part. John and I sang along lustily. What I loved above anything else were the Beggars Songs from the period of the Eighty Years War (the Geuzenliederen), the ‘Wilhelmus’ (the Dutch national anthem) being one of them.
And then the milk. Uncle Jan had bought a whole lot of milk from a farmer. All that milk barely fitted in the largest pot we had. It had to be boiled and it was my job to watch the operation, although I could hardly look over the brim of the pot. As soon as the milk started boiling, I was to turn off the gas. Clearly, the milk should not boil over. But it took forever. No end was in sight. I was quite attentive, watched the pot all the time and continued to watch as, finally, the milk began to turn lukewarm, then warm … and at last hot.
I continued to observe what was going on. Yet I must have become distracted for just a second and at that moment exactly, the milk started to boil over. Not a whole lot, but enough to infuriate Uncle Jan.
I was unhappy and felt wronged. Does a person who has tried so hard deserve to be bullied? Of course I shouldn’t have let the milk boil over, that was obvious. On the other hand, it took so long. Can a person be attentive without interruption, especially when that person isn’t yet nine years old?
Here on the island I frequently visit a farmer who grows organic vegetables. He lives above the beach of La Caleta. It’s one of the most beautiful spots around, affording a splendid view of the island of Tenerife and the mighty volcano El Teide. The ocean waves incessantly wash ashore, breaking against the cliffs. When the weather is good, it’s a perfect location for swimming. The water never cools off entirely. There isn’t a real sandy beach, although there are areas of black sand with stones. Thus one must always be careful not to stub one’s toe when entering the water.
After I had bought vegetables, I drove to the small parking area above the beach.
Nico was waiting for me on the stairs, so we descended together to where the fishing boats are moored and where a rock jetty extends out into the ocean. We climbed over the cliffs to a spot directly above the water. The sea was crystal-clear.
I handed Nico a paper bag containing a cheese sandwich, a piece of rice cake and an apple. He was ready for it and finished it off in a moment.
When he was done, I asked whether he would like to go swimming with me.
He wanted to, but considered it a bit frightening since he wasn’t a true swimmer yet. He was still taking lessons. We therefore took off our shoes and socks. I rolled up my long pants and then we were ready to go wading.
Nico enjoyed the water, at times walking fairly far into the sea, then running back hurriedly so as not to get soaked. He never had enough and he might be there still, if I hadn’t insisted that we call it a day.
I returned to my former spot. After a while, Nico sat down near me.
There was nobody else at the beach.
Gazing into space, he inquired whether there had been Guanches at La Galeta.
I simply didn’t know.
Then he asked softly: ‘Why are Jews being persecuted?’
Yes, what is the reason? That’s not a simple question. It required some reflection.
Then I told Nico about a people who very long ago looked after sheep. ‘They didn’t have a country of their own and moved from place to place. Like other tribes around them, they served a multitude of deities. But there came a time when they honored only one God. He led them to the promised land, assuring them that they were his chosen people. From then on they inhabited their own country, building a temple in Jerusalem. However, powerful nations lived close by. They fought wars. The Jews were enslaved and taken to Babylon, to Egypt. Again and again they returned.’
‘Moses led them back from Egypt,’ Nico knew.
‘After their temple was destroyed, they rebuilt it,’ I continued.
‘And when the oil had gone, God helped the lamps to burn without oil. That’s why we celebrate Hanukah,’ declared Nico.
I regarded Nico admiringly. ‘You have understood it well. And still later, the Romans conquered their homeland,’ I picked up the story. ‘From then on, the great exodus started. The Jews dispersed across the globe. They were blamed for the death of Jesus Christ. They were said to be proud, claiming to be God’s chosen people. They were persecuted, forced to live separately in ghetto s. They weren’t allowed to do this or that. The majority was poor.
Some assimilated and became Christians or Muslims. Many were forced to do so. Others adhered to their faith and tradition. Where possible they built synagogues, trying to maintain Jewish communities. But again and again there were progroms.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s comparable to what happened in Holland during the war. The Jews were arrested, dislodged or killed, their possessions confiscated. They were forced to start again somewhere else, until the same thing began all over again. But the majority, like bonpapa and bonmama, obstinately held fast to their beliefs and traditions. They maintained their courage, in part because God had promised that the Messiah would come, leading them back to the promised land.’
‘I don’t understand it,’ Nico said. ‘Why is this necessary?’
‘There is such a thing as anti-Semitism,’ I replied, ‘a deep-rooted suspicion, even hatred of Jews. It has been around for a long time. After a while, though, Jews were allowed to participate more than in the past. They were free to live where they wished, study in schools and universities, practice any profession they chose. Then too many Jews remained poor, but others were successful in business, as artists and scientists, as physicians and lawyers.
This gave rise to jealousy, to the feeling that strangers were taking away the best jobs.
There were many anti-Semites in Germany, but also in France, in England, even in the Netherlands.’
‘That Jewish officer in France was falsely accused,’ Nico reminded me.
Boy oh boy, I said to myself, that Nico is quite knowledgeable, considering that he’s only a little fellow.
‘However, in Germany,’ I continued, ‘the Nazis grabbed power by exploiting xenophobia, hatred of Jews in particular. They went much further than most, not only hating Jews, but exterminating them as well.’
Nico looked away. He was pale. ‘Incredible,’ he said, ‘people doing things like that.’
I put an arm around his shoulder to console him. He felt tense. Of course he did, in the middle of the war!
‘Are you coming?’ I enquired.
‘Yes, I would like to.’
There were quite a few steps and it took a while before we arrived at the parking lot.
Then we drove home.
Nico was surprised that the road was so poorly maintained. We jolted through pits and hollows. We climbed up the mountain, driving close by deep precipices.
Nico was a bit worried, looking anxiously out the window.
I had to concentrate, especially when passing an oncoming car. There was barely enough room to pass one another on this narrow road.
‘Have you ever experienced a thing like this?’ I asked, but the bird had flown.
On the way
The children’s home was only two streets away from us. We had walked or biked by it numerous times. It was a large, white building on the edge of the woods. We knew quite a few kids from the village school who lived there. Their parents had jobs abroad or were divorced. Other kids had been naughty. Whenever my brother or I had gone too far, father used to say: ‘You better be careful, if you keep this up, you will end up in “Huize Zonnestraal” (Sun Ray House).’
And now we were there.
The place was bursting with regular residents, in addition to crowds of Jewish kids who lived there, not because they had been naughty, but because their parents hoped they would be safer there than at home. However, it wasn’t safe there at all. Among other reasons, the regular boys and girls chatted at school about all their new friends who remained all day back at the children’s home.
And there were so many Nazi collaborators. We knew exactly where they lived. The children’s home was separated from the road by a high hedge, containing huge holes, so that we were convinced that the whole town could see us, ready to denounce us to the police.
Fortunately our stay in the home was of short duration, for it was far from pleasant there. Mrs. Kramer, Uncle Jan’s sister, directed the institution. Because there were so many of us, she couldn’t handle it. An atmosphere of panic prevailed.
Many children were so nervous and lonely that they peed in their beds at night. Early in the morning the offenders were pushed into an ice-cold shower. Their screaming was hard to take. The medicine didn’t work, though, for it was the same old story day in, day out.
So many kids were living there at the time that not everyone fit into the dining hall. For that reason John and I had our meals at a long table, placed in a side-aisle. Since there wasn’t enough staff, no grown-up sat at our table. High in the wall above our dining table, a small window was usually open. The food was atrocious. We didn’t enjoy it at all and yet we had to empty our plates. The larger boys refused, and when the meal was particularly unsavory, they threw their spinach, blue potatoes and old bread through that window into the yard. Their aim was excellent.
One day Mrs. Kramer wanted to talk to me, I have forgotten about what. We wandered a bit through the woods and then past the house. Suddenly she discovered a high mountain which never used to be there. She investigated and so discovered the spinach, the potatoes, yesterday’s pudding and the porridge of the day before. She was rather angry of course. The big boys were punished and a matron joined us at meals. From then on all plates had to be emptied, like it or not.
Every once in a while we talked to our parents through the hedge, convincing them how dangerous it was at Sun Ray House. Mother realized that things couldn’t continue this way.
One night she fetched my brother and me. Later that same week the Nazis raided ‘Huize Zonnestraal’. All the Jewish kids were picked up and the management arrested as well. Mrs. Kramer’s closest collaborator was taken to a concentration camp. She did not survive the war. The same is probably true for most of the Jewish children.
Meanwhile I was taken to family Meyer in Huis ter Heide, not far from Zeist. Hans and Leni Meyer had fled Germany together with their two daughters and resided in the Netherlands for several years.
Aunt Leni had embraced Judaism when she married Uncle Hans, but the moment Jews were threatened, she concealed her conversion. For that reason she and her daughters were left undisturbed for the duration of the war.
At home we often talked about Aunt Leni’s relatives in Hamburg. Apparently some of her sisters, and possibly brothers as well, were philo-Semitic, while several others were markedly pro-Nazi. That situation must have occurred frequently in Germany. It reminds me somewhat of the war in Vietnam, much later, when there often were serious conflicts within one and the same family.
Uncle Hans was hidden in his own home. For years he continued to live undetected in his own bedroom. Even though German officers were quartered in his house, sleeping on the same floor as he, they never noticed that someone else was living there, even though Aunt Leni brought him his meals three times a day.
When I stayed with them (‘lived in hiding’ might be a better term), Uncle Hans’ parents lived there too, unusually sweet people. They didn’t trust the situation in Holland and tried therefore to escape to Switzerland, for that country was still neutral. There they would be safe. Alas they were intercepted on the way and were never heard from again.
And then there was a girl named ‘Joke’. She and I slept together in a double bed. It was autumn 1942. I had just turned eight.
Joke longed deeply for her father and mother. During the daytime she was quite friendly. At night, however, when we were in bed, she started to cry, whimper, sniffle ... It began when we went to sleep and didn’t stop. I was able neither to talk to her, nor console her. I could have used some solace myself. It was the same story, night after night. Silently, I listened from my half of the bed to the immense suffering rising from the other. Under those circumstances sleeping was out of the question.
Still there was some consolation in the form of Uncle Hans’ and Aunt Leni’s younger daughter ‘Roesje’. I was madly in love with her. She was of rare beauty. I thought she was very nice as well. I revealed nothing of my violent emotions of course. Her image, however, was indelibly printed on my mind, accompanying me to Leeuwarden and to all the other locations where I lived during and long after the war. Roesje was my mascot, my secret partner, my guide, my refuge. It’s not that I was constantly thinking of her, but she was always there, as a last resort, when I needed her in moments of loneliness and despair.
This adolescent love left deep furrows in my soul, for it isn’t easy to be so in love when one is barely eight years old. At that age, it is so hard to express one’s feelings, and yet true love presupposes that such feelings are shared. Or am I mistaken?
I did boast about my girl friend, acting as if I were an old hand at matters of love. I recall being with a group of boys and girls taking the very first steps on the slippery path of love. They kissed one another, although they weren’t quite sure how this should be done. I presented myself as an experienced lover and gave a detailed demonstration. Each girl was professionally kissed on the mouth, though I had never even shaken hands with my Roesje, let alone kissed her. My self-assurance made a deep impression. I was flattered to be sure, but deep in my heart I knew how ridiculous all this was. Undoubtedly I would have preferred, if only for a moment, to sit next to Roesje, the unattainable.
The stay at Huis ter Heide didn’t last long either, at most a few months. I didn’t attend school, amusing myself by playing. I have always loved play, preferably with friends but, if necessary, by myself. I would throw a tennisball against a wall repeatedly, catching it, throwing it again, catching it once again, hours on end without interruption. As long as I could play, I was never really unhappy or lonely.
What I liked best, was playing in the street with my friends - soccer, baseball, field-hockey, in addition to running and bicycle racing. During the winter season ponds were usually frozen over, so that practically each winter there was an opportunity to go skating. Ice hockey was quite popular too. We used sticks we made ourselves, or regular field-hockey sticks. Real ice-hockey skates and sticks were a luxury unknown. When at play, I inhabited a world of my own, oblivious that there was a war going on.
And yet I was underground. My name was Nico Nanning and, though the people I lived with meant well, they couldn’t replace my own parents.
While I was staying at Huis ter Heide, father searched for a hiding place for me. By then John had moved in with the Schuitemaker family in Oosterbeek near Arnhem. My parents lived temporarily in a boarding house on the Veluwe (a region in central Holland), until they joined John at the Schuitemaker home. Fortunately the Kramer family agreed to accept me. That’s how I came to live in Leeuwarden.
Speaking of hiding places, many Jews and others who were forced into hiding, went underground in the sense that they couldn’t be seen in public. They were hiding in backrooms, sheds, basements or attics. For a variety of reasons they weren’t free to show themselves, usually because they lacked false papers.
I was hidden insofar that I had a new name, concealing my true status, but luckily I didn’t have to spend the war years concealed in a hiding place. I went outside, played with other children and attended school. This was possible thanks to the fake identity cards father had secured.
The weather is splendid. I’m sitting in a garden chair in the sun, reading a few more letters:
I am almost out of writing paper
Leeuwarden, August 15th 1943
Dear mom and dad,
I am almost out of writing paper. Therefore Uncle Jan gave me some of these sheets. Now I can make some progress again. They are nice, don’t you think so? Still old quality paper! We have fairly good weather today. Is it like that at your place?
I borrowed a book from a friend, ‘Doctor Doolittle’s garden’. I own that book too, don’t I? Kees Stout lends these books to me. The day after tomorrow, school and piano lessons start again. I really have to practice the piano, for Aunt Mies worries that I’ll have forgotten everything when I show up at the piano lesson. I am curious how things will be in the fourth grade. Next time I go swimming (Monday in fact), I am allowed to try it without the swimming-belt. According to the bath-superintendant, things move forward quickly from then on.
I framed a picture. I’m not sure if it has been sent already. It’s made from the tinsel I used for Uncle Jan’s birthday (to decorate his chair). I cut it like this and the side strips like that. I am planning to buy bulbs for Aunt Mies, which I’ll put in a pot. Do you expect the flowers to appear before September 15th?
Not so long ago daddy claimed that he would have those stories printed in a book. Was that a joke? Or was he serious? Well, I’m going to stop. Bye! Nico Nanning
I have to press down fiercely, otherwise it’s invisible
I can swim reasonably well now without the flotation belt. In school we study fractions and history, geography, reading, language (verbs), physical education and physics. For the piano lessons we are using Dick Wittingsohn, A. Loeschhorn, Diabelli, Duvernoy and the scales, together with that thing that goes tick-tack with the scale of E flat, for the third time.
We founded a club, ‘The Club of All-rounders’. Roel Grijdanus is President, Eddie is Treasurer (his family name I don’t know, for the club isn’t in existence yet). I am Substitute and Jan van der Vlis and Roel Burg are regular members.
It hurts my hand and I have to press down fiercely, otherwise it’s invisible. My fountain pen was filled when I started this letter and now the thing is empty again. Well, I am stopping now.
Greetings from your brother.
Dear mom and dad,
My congratulaions with your birthday. What did daddy get? Did my present arrive on time? I have a lot of pimples on my body. As long as I have a single sore, I’m not allowed to swim, for it might get infected.
We founded a club, ‘The Club of All-rounders’. Roel Gredanijs [Grijdanus] (I am unsure how to spell it) is Captain, Kees Stout Secretary, Eddie ... Treasurer, I am Substitute, Jan van der Vlis and Roel Burg regular members. It’s a club for hiking. biking and fishing. I have been asked to write a poem for it.
For my birthday I would love to have a compass. It’s Sunday and the weather is not so terrific. I can swim now without swimming-belt, keeping abreast pretty well. In school we learn fractions and verbs. Fractions aren’t very difficult, really.
Roughly three times a week Uncle Jan plays tennis, also this morning. I will write a poem now (composed myself or copied, I’m not sure yet). Do you like your present? My fountain pen empties so quickly. After finishing a single letter, the thing is empty again, and my watch (the part showing the numbers) doesn’t move forwards or backwards anymore.. Like so, it’s supposed to move up and down. I am going to write a letter to John. Are you having nice or bad weather? Bye, your Nico Nanning
It’s supposed to move up and down
It’s miserable weather here, the same in Oosterbeek? How was daddy’s birthday? Soon it will be my birthday, followed by Mrs. Kramer’s and then there will be a baby. Time flies. At school we are doing fractions and verbs, nothing to it. I don’t even have to think while doing them.
Monday there will be shooting exercises.
It’s time for me to undress. That’s the reason this letter won’t be very long. The baby carriage for sale at the Oosterbeek store isn’t worth it, I take it. It’s Sunday today and terribly dull weather. My print collection keeps growing. Are you guys still collecting stamps or what?
I am no longer a member of the club. One of the boys was trying to make me swallow a snail and so I had to leave, no longer allowed to play with them. Okay, I am going to stop. A while ago a stray bullet fell on a thatch roof. The fire was great.
See you, Nico
( If anyone whats to finish Nico put their email in comment thread and i will send word file)