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Authors: Johanna Reiss

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The Journey Back

BOOK: The Journey Back
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THE JOURNEY BACK by Johanna Reiss


Harper Trophy A Division of Harper Collins Publishers

Harper Trophy is a registered trademark of Harper Collins Publishers Inc.


Copyright 1976 by Johanna Reiss All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Printed in the United States of America. For information address Harper Collins Children’s Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Reiss, Johanna. The Journey back.

Jews in the Netherlands—Social conditions—Juv. lit. 3. Netherlands—Social conditions—Juv. lit. [1. Netherlands—History—1945-2. Jews in the Netherlands] I. Title.

DSI35.N6R444 949.2‘07‘0924 76-12615

ISBN 0-690-01252-7.—ISBN 0-06-021457-0 (lib. bdg.) ISBN 0-06-447042-3 (pbk.) ,

Published in hardcover by Harper Collins Publishers. First Harper Trophy edition, 1987

To my daughters, ]ulie and Kathy, ,a, go oere my guides

It was the spring of 1945. The Second World War in Europe was over.

Just as in the other countries the Germans had occupied, the people of Holland had been robbed of so much-loved ones, dignity, joy in being alive, and almost all their material things. But they were free now, as were my sister Sini and I. We were Jews, and might have been killed if the Oosterveld family had not taken us into their house and hidden us.

While this book is a sequel to The Upstairs Room, it is complete in itself. Obviously I cannot assume that you have read the first book.

Yet some knowledge of what took place in it is important. So, in this book I have written a little about the war years, to give you at least a feeling for what they were like. The Journey Back is about what happened after the war ended, when the members of a family-mine-return home and are reunited, after almost three years of having been away and apart, in different places in Holland-and no longer know one another.

It is not easy to find Usselo. On many maps of Holland you cannot find it at all, only on those that list every village, no matter how tiny.

Not many people, however, care to know where Usselo is. Why, there is hardly anything there-fields, a caf, a bakery, a school, a church and parsonage, a kind of dry-goods store in a house, and farmhouses’ but only a handful of those. There’s no more than that in Ussdo. Such a quiet little village, where life was orderly and pleasant for years and years and years. Sometimes there would be a wedding, or a funeral to which every farmer went, walking two by two behind the hearse, talking in hushed and not so hushed voices. “Quiet, he’s not buried yet.”

“But what’s true’s true. He was as dumb as a pig’s ass. Take how he planted potatoes … no good … right smack next to each other …

told’m so, too … wouldn’t listen. He could never have gotten as many basketfuls as he said he did. If you ask me, I’d say he was a liar.”

There were dances, too, in the caf, where an accordion player pulled and pushed and pressed down on keys and buttons with fingers that were stiff from farm work while around him, legs waltzed and polkaed inside tight black pants and long black skirts, and lace caps slid off, showing hair that was stiff and shiny from sweet milk that had been rubbed on to make it so. Year after year, every season, the same things happened in Usselo. In the winter pigs were slaughtered, and the farmers visited each other, sipping from glasses as they commented on the animal that was hanging from a ladder in front of them, cut open. “She’s got a tasty border of fat on’r, not like Willem’s pig we just saw …”

“Some sausage this one will make-No, thanks, not another drop. Don’t forget, we’ve got three more calls to make today. All right, a little bit then, to wet the throat.” And back on their bikes they’d go because soon it would be time to milk the cows. During the rest of the year they saw each other, too, the farmers of Ussclo. Outside, in the fields, behind plows and wielding sickles, on hay wagons, and as they were binding the sheaves of rye, wearing straw hats this time, against the sun; the women in white aprons with long sleeves but no gloves, their hands scratched and their nails broken. And they saw each other with baskets of seed potatoes on their arms, and turnips, and cabbage. They knew


each other well. But then there were so few of them, not more than a handful. The Oostervelds lived in Usselo, and had for over fifty years.

Their farm was small. When Johan Oosterveld was a child, he went to the one-room schoolhouse, just like the few other children in Usselo: Sometimes he played soccer, as they did, but only sometimes and never for more than a short time. His father was sick; Johan was an only child, and even though the farm was small, there was a lot of work that had to be done. “Johan, Joha-a-a-an, come home.” And his mother would give him a piece of bread on which she had sprinkled salt, so he’d be able to taste the thin layer of butter better; before she sent him to get the horse and plow. And off he would go, down the road, to where the fields were. “C’mon, horse; come, come, come.” It was not easy to make straight furrows in the soil. He was only eleven, Johan, and the plow was heavy. HIS father continued to be sick for six more years.

Johan no longer went to school at all, or played. He had no time. “Too bad,” his teacher said when Johan didn’t come back. “That boy has brains, Vrouw Oosterveld. He could go far, become a teacher, like me …“Instead it was

“C’mon, horse; come, come, come” year after year after year. But I did not know any of this then.

How could I? I was not even born yet.

When Johan was seventeen, his father died. “Take it easy for a few days now,” his mother said. “Look around and find someone to marry. But, please, don’t choose a girl from the city. They don’t know what work is.

Get someone with a good pair of hands Johan, to help.”

“Leave it to me, Ma,” Johan said. “I’ll see what I


He looked around Usselo. Then in the next v’d-Rage, the one that was only half a mile away, he found Dient’je. “Wait till you see her, Ma,”

he said. “She’s got a real pair of hands on her-you won’t believe how big they are. We can both. take it easy from now on. She’s a lot older than me, too. She must really know how to work. And I’ll tell you something else. We’re going to be rich. She’s got a real-what-d’you-call-it-dowry. Some bed dog and this you’ll love, Ma, five chickens and none of them scrawny. Maybe even a cow if I play my cards right. Eh?”

“My Johan,” his mother said proudly, wiping her eyes.

After the wedding the three of them lived in the little farmhouse-Johau, Dientje, and Johan’s mother-Opoe, as everyone called her, although she never did become a grandmother. And life went on. Orderly and pleasant enough, until-But not yet. There were more weddings and funerals to go to first, more plowing to do and harvesting and sausage making.

Johan and his mother still worked very hard. “It’s funny, Ma, with such hands who would’ve thought … Dientje always wants to rest.”

While Johan, Dientje, and Opoe lived in Usselo, I was living with my family in another town, a much bigger one, Winterswijk, forty kilometers away, where my father was a cattle dealer. He used to take me with him in his car when he went to call on cnstomers.

“De Leeuw, good to see you-again,” they’d say. “That little black-and-white cow you sold us is doing well, is giving even more milk than you said she would, but the milk is watery and we feel we paid too much. Does Annie want a cookie?”

Sure. I’d take one. I did not even have to choose. They were always the same-yellow with sugar sprinkles. “Thank you,” I’d say to the farmer’s wife. I’d try not to stare at the container, which was always put hack in the same place it had come from, a cabinet on the wall, behind glass.

I’d wait for Father to be ready, so we could leave, drive to another farmer, to another cookie with sprinkles. I liked going with him.

I liked many things. Being home with my two sisters, Sini and Rachel, if they were nice to me. They were much older-adults almost. With Mother-only she was always sick. With Marie, our maid, who let me sic on her back as she cleaned the floors on all fours. And I liked being with other children, friends, with whom I climbed trees, ran, and laughed.

Life went on for us too, in Winterswijk, in the big house in which we lived.

Then the Second World War broke out in Europe’. Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, wanted his country to be big and powerful and glorious again, as it’ had been many times in history. Many Germans agreed, and joined his Nazi party.

It was 1939 and autumn when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. “Go,” he said to his soldiers, “and don’t stop.”

In less than ten months they had occupied Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Holland. They even found Ussdo. It was May

‘40. The members of the royal House of Orange, which had been reigning over our country for hundreds of years, fled. The enemy stayed.

Our lives did not change much-not right away. Father still went out in his car; Mother was still sick; Rachel and Sini continued to work. I was in school now, in the second grade.

And in Ussdo? They barely knew there was a war. Not until the farmers had trouble getting enough feed for their cattle, and the enemy demanded a cow from everyone. Hitler’s soldiers were hungry, and there were many of them.

“Goddamnit, I think we’ve got a war on our hands, Ma, Dientje,” Johan said angrily. He was even surer when the enemy wanted still another cow; eggs now, too, and copper, which they turned into bullets. But apart from becoming even poorer and hay’ rag begun to curse, Johan’s life had not changed: “C’mon, horse; come, come, come,” furrow after furrow.

The enemy hated many people: gypsies, Slavs, Communists, priests, and almost everyone who was not German or who dared to disagree. Above all, Hider hated Jews, and in every country his soldiers occupied, he began to make life espechlly hard for them. He forbade them to work, travel, shop, go to school. He forbade them more, and more. Until yes, now-Jews were being dragged out of their houses and off the streets and pushed into freight cars that were locked and cramped and without air.

“Go,” Hitler yelled to his soldiers. “Go, go. Don’t waste time.” The trains left on Tuesdays for Austria, Germany, and Poland, for camps that were hard to pronounce-Mauthausen, Bergenbelsen, Dachau, Auschwitz.

XVherc they were murdered, the Jews and the others who disagreed. But most of them were Jews.

The Oostervelds did not like to hear about this. “Goddamnit, Dientje, Ma, what kind of people are those Germans?” But it all seemed far away.

Johan had seen a Jew only once in his life. “That good-for-nothing cattle dealer Cohen from the city, who pinched our cow in the nose when I said he wasn’t offering enough money for her. She almost died.”

There was just as much work to be done in the fields and around the farm, but life was no longer the same, no longer orderly, or even a little bit pleasant.

There were no more weddings to go to. Those who did get married made nothing of it. There was not enough food to give a party. The enemy, you know. No more sausage making, either-no pigs. The enemy … Only funerals were left, but even they were no longer the same. The farmers were


afraid to say much. What if they complained about the war-it was hard not to-and someone overheard? Like Willem, who thought the Germ were wonderful-he might turn them in. The soldiers would come and take them away … Two by two, they walked behind the hearse, the handful of farmers, with their mouths shut.

But their lives had not changed as much as ours. So much shouting at home. We were Jew We didn’t want to end up on those trains that left on Tuesdays.

“We must hide,” Father said, “if I can find Gentile people who’ll take us in.” After a while he did find places for us. Secretly we left town, Father for a city near Rotterdam. “It will not be for long,” he said.

half the world seemed to be fighting against Hitler now, and against Germany’s partners, Italy and Japan. England was, France, Canada, Russia, the United States, other Allied countries. How long could the war last?

My sister Sini and I? We went to Usselo, to live with a family named Harmink. A few weeks later, Mother died and was hurriedly buried. Only then did Rachel leave, for a small village hours from Winterswijk. She was the last Jew from our town to do so. It was November, t

After a few months we could no longer stay with the Hanninks. It was too dangerous, Mr. Hannink said. The Germans were suspicious of him; they thought he might be hiding Jews. “If they find you here, we’ll be murdered, too-my wife, my daughter, and myself. You must leave.”

Late one evening, when it was dark out and no one could see us, Sini and I arrived at the Oostervelds’ door. There they were, the three of them.

Frightened, I looked at the man, Johan. He was big. His face was red, and he had brown hair that grew straight up. His cheeks were thin, hollow almost, as if for years the wind and rain had beaten on them and left dents.

BOOK: The Journey Back
9.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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