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Authors: Johanna Reiss

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

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BOOK: The Journey Back
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“Hiya.” He smiled around a cigarette butt that hung from the corners of his mouth. “Two Jewish girls. I’ll be damned. Who would’ve thought it, Ma. Of all the farmers to choose from in Usselo, Mr. Hannink picked me.

Js, js, girls, he’s an important man. I bet he thought I was brave enough to take this big risk. Because that’s what it is, a big risk.

They could kill us all.” He shifted the cigarette butt to the other side of his mouth.

“Let’s see,” he went on, “that little one, Annie, must be about ten or eleven. The sister’s a lot older, I’d say. Sure, Ms., look for yourself.

About twenty, I’d guess.” He walked over to his mother and took her by the shoulders. “MS, after all these years you’re really an Opoe. Eh? You like that?”

She did. She laughed up at him with her whole face, all her wrinkles, her toothless mouth. “Two girls at once, Johan. Nice ones, too.”

Now I could hugh. It was all right. They liked us.

“Ssbt,” Dientje warned, “not so loud for God’s sake.” She looked scared.

She reminded everybody of what Mr. Hannink had said. A few weeks, that was all. Then he’d take us back.

But Mr. Hannink never did. No one even mentioned it. Already we had been with the Oostervelds for months. Father had been wrong. Still the

Sure, the Oostervelds were nice, very nice. But the days were long. So many hours in one day, so many days. On some, the sun was out; on others, not. Or it rained or not. We had to keep away from the window, so that no one could catch a glimpse of us and mention that the Oostervelds had strangers living upstairs. “I could swear to it. I looked up and there they were-two girls. Who can they be, I wonder?


What if Willem heard? He’d tell the enemy. They’d come. “We sind sic?”

they’d scream, and take us away.

Clog, clog. There was a farmer going by, his wooden shoes stamping outside. He had a horse with him, too. I could hear the hooves. Which way were they going? To the left? To the right? Down the road or up, and how far? To another. town? Which one? Which one?

From where I was sitting, I looked at Sini. She had’ not said a word for hours. I looked at the wall, the ceiling, the floor, which was covered with speckled linoleum and took no time to cross-five seconds.

Someday I’d get up; I’d walk out of this room and I’d keep on walking forever, through fields and meadows and across ditches When they were gone, the soldiers, and it was safe.

Finally the Germans were beginning to lose, in Russia and in Africa.

Maybe they’d keep o losing now. I could hear myself running down the stairs already-kla-bonk, kin-honk-on my way home to Winterswijk.

Maybe Father could take us somewhere, to celewould we go to the little hotel by the ocean where we used to spend our vacations? Without Mother though? I swallowed. No, a brand-new place would be better. I knew of one, too. Yes, yes.

Ssbt, you almost made a nmse. Can’t. Quiet. Willera … It was an island called Walcheren in the southwestern part of Holland, not far from Belgium. I had seen pictures of it in a big book, colored pictures, of hedges with red and white flowers that grew around fields and gardens.

Hardly any of the people wore ordinary clothes. No, they wore old-fashioned ones-black pants, long skirts. They wore a lot of golden ornaments and beads, too. It would take a whole day to get to Walcheren, but I wouldn’t mind. I’d sit close to Father, help him steer the car.

“Careful, there’s a tree.” Oops.

Rachel would pack a picnic; there’d be pancakes with raisins for eyes.

We’d stop by the side of the road-or, and this would even be nicer, we’d eat in the woods, hear birds, see tiny animals. But I wouldn’t want to sit for long. I’d get up quickly to jump over the shafts of light that were coming through the trees. Here; no, there.

After a few minutes Father would want to leave. “C’m. on,” he’d say, and with his mouth still full, he’d hurry back to the car. “Rachel, Sini, Annie-last chance.” I smiled in the direction of the window. Father was a little impatient, but we hurried. We didn’t want to get there after dark, either!

There were dikes all around the island of Wal cberen, high, high ones, to protect it from the North Sea. I’d climb up on one, up and up, to the top. And I’d stand sideways so that I could see everything, land as well as water. Look how the water sparkles in the sun! A boat sliding by as in a dream … and a bird, a speck of white

“Careful, don’t fall!”

Silly Rachel I wouldn’t. It is very windy though. My hair … I close my eyes to keep it ouc. Now I can even hear the water as it crashes against the bottom of the dike, far, far beneath me, swishing and splashing, never stopping …“Look, it’s raining again,” Sini complained. “As if it isn’t already dark enough in’ the back of the room.”

At night it wasn’t dark. The minute the Oostervelds were finished with their work, they’d rush upstairs, pull the shades down, and turn on the light.

“That’s better, girls, right? Ja, ja, Dientje knows.” With a sigh she’d sit down, her hands folded on her stomach. Once in a while she’d bend forward and carefully touch my face. “I’m so glad you’re here, my little Annie,” she’d say, and nod.

“Sini,” J han said, “I want you to tell me again what Winterswijk looks like so I get a good picture of it in my head.” Carefully he’d listen.

“Here, Ma and Dienfc are always saing things I’ve heard for years. “Milk the cows, feed the horse, dig up the potatoes.” Bah, I know it all by heart. This, I like. It’s giving me a new set of brains. Dientje, let’s have some more of that coffee even though it’s no good, and don’t tell me that’s because it’s a substitute. I remember how it tasted before.”

Dieutie would wink at me.

“Watery, Johan,” Opoe complained, “not the way I used to make it.” She was peeling tomorrow’s potatoes, a brown mountain of knobby shapes.

Plop, plop, plop-one after another they fell into the pail, splashing a little, making Opoe’s long apron wet. But she did not seem to care.

Plop. “Look at this one, Annie.” She held up a potato for me to see.

“Can you tell how special it is? It’s round, and it’s got nothing sticking out?”

Enthusiastically I’d nod. “Yes, Opoe.”

“It’s going to be yours.” She beamed. She rummaged through the peels, searching for another special one for Sini.

“I sure wish the other farmers could see me now,” Johan said, “sitting here with my family.”

I nestled deeper in his lap.

Time went on and on. Not fast, not at all. It was

1943 now, or perhaps even later. So many hours and minutes and seconds in each day. Rain or not … getting colder … snow again. The sound of a sled. “Did you hear it, Sini?”

In the semidarkness I could see her head move. But which way?

The German army continued to lose, and little by little the Allied soldiers pushed them out of the countries they had occupied in the first few years of the war. The more they had to give up, the angrier Hitler became. “Take what you can from the countries you’re in,:’ he ordered his soldiers. “Clothing, machines, trains, food. Send home what you can’t carry.”

Many people were wandering through the couno try side begging farmers for a turnip, an egg, a cup of milk, anything. “Thank you, thank you,”

they’d say, and shuffle on … the way time did.

Uneasily the enemy watched the Allies approach Holland in the fall of 1944. But they had no intention of leaving, especially not the island of Walcheren in the southwestern part of Holland, that pretty island about which books had been written. From Walcheren the enemy controlled a port the Allies needed to bring in supplies.

When the Germans would not go, planes came, dropping pieces of paper that whirled from the sky, telling the sixty thousand islanders to leave. “Tberc will be floods,” the pamphlets said. “Go.”

And many refugees from Walcheren, in their old-fashioned clothes, began to wander through Holland, too, begging for a place to stay. “Thank you, thank you.”

A few days later, the Allied planes returned. When they reached the dikes, the high, high ones that went all around the island, their bomb bays opened.

The Germans left, but another enemy came in. Through four gigantic holes in the dikes, salt water from the North Sea rushed across meadows and fields, through hawthorn hedges, an dover the red, purple, and yellow of fall gardens, into houses through cracks in doors and windows.

Inside, the water climbed up over furniture, walls, and stairs, taking pictures from hooks, an empty cup that had been sitting on a table, a coal scuttle, a piece of bread, a blanket.

Those islanders who had ignored the Allies’ warning and remained on.

Walcheren looked out from their attic windows in horror. They saw cats, dogs, and chickens floating by, their claws clutched around branches; a cow thrown on her back by a wave; petals, red and yellow and purple; vanes from a windmill; and some instruments that belonged to the brass band-a trombone, a clarinet.

Six hours later, when the tide turned, the water began to fall, just as it did on the other side of the dikes, and six hours after that, it began to rise again, on both sides. Now we would not be able to go to Walcheren for an even longer time. When anyway? When?

Again everything was so still outside. Another winter. No sounds again.

Snowflakes make none when they fall; they only darken the room even more. Can’t wait until tonight, unfl Johan, Opoe, Dientje- “Girls,”

they’d say, “we’re here.” And it would not be dark any longer.

It was not dark now either. How could it be? The end of the war had come. Yes, now, in spring, 1945. It was all right to make noise again, to shout, jump, run, dance.

Slowly I walked to the window.

My legs hurt. I had been sitting down for so long, two years and seven months. But no more, no more. It was over. It had to be. This morning Willem was picked up and put in jail.

“Serves him right,” the farmers yelled. “That numbskull, to have been a friend of the Germans.

We’ll never talk to him again. You can be sure of that.”

That’s what people all over Holland were shouting as a hundred thousand more traitors shuffled through the streets, on their way to jail, too.

Singing age-old Dutch songs, townspeople everywhere hung out the Dutch flag for the first time in five years. With every flutter, the red, white, and blue stripes with the orange-colored banner were shedding dust and cobwebs. “Look … ought to be ashamed … should have denned …““No time …“Already they were in their gardens, planting marigold seeds so that soon there would be flowers again, orange ones, which the enemy bad forbidden-orange, the color of the royal house. That much’ hate.

All over Holland there was music and dancing. On country roads rusty accordions were pu–lied and p-u … shed into waltzes and polkas. In Amsterdam a barrel organ that had been hidden from the enemy was wheeled into the streets again, pouring ting-tingly music across the canals as the man turned the wheel. Faster, louder, while skinny bodies moved to and fro, not feeling hunger, not now.

There was no music in Walcheren. In the lowlying parts people waited for the tide to come in so that they could step out their windows and onto

their rafts as they had for half a year now, steer’ rag with poles to keep to the right of the “road” while they floated to their errands or dates, their skirts and pants rolled up to keep them dry. Today, though, they wore paper flowers around their arms, orange ones. “Free.


Near the dikes the people had time for nothing but work. Out of brushwood and reeds, mattresses were being woven that had to go down into the holes. Faster, faster. The winter storms were only seven months away. So little had yet been done. All four holes were still open. Yet, they were smiling, the men, that day. After all, wasn’t Holland free!

Couldn’t people from other parts of the country come and help now! They paused, just for a second, to see whether a boat with workers was already in sight.

On the other side of Holland, in Ussdo, I walked outside for the first time, tightly holding on to Johan’s hand. Look how well I was doing already-halfway across the road now. Ftr a second I took my eyes off my feet and looked up. Beautiful out, especially the sky. It went on for eyer … In the bunker in Berlin, Germany, where Hitler and his closest friends and helpers had gone to hide, there was nothing but gloom.

Hitler was still certain that his soldiers would be powerful once more, any day now, and gain back every bit of land they had had to give up. He still hated Jews and all the others who had dared to disagree with him.

He still thought they were the ones who were responsible for this war, not he, not his friends. On April 3o, 1945, when he knew the war was lost, he killed himself, just before the Russians reached the bunker.

The war in Europe was over. It had taken the lives of twenty-five million people, from many countries, in many different ways, by bombs, on battlefields, in concentration camps.

In the woods in Ussdo. Just this morning, when a farmer tried to dig up the copper pot he had not wanted to give to the enemy, he stepped on a land mine: twenty-five million and one.

“You’ve walked enough now, Annie.” Gently Johan picked me up. “But already your legs are a lot better, what? There for a while you waddled like a little duck. I was worried.”

It was a poor country the queen came back to. A great deal had been destroyed-almost the entire city of Rotterdam and much of many other cities and towns. Railroad bridges, telephone lines, factories, raw materials, warehouses-gone, or empty. Only the roads were full. People whose houses had been destroyed in last-minute combat joined all the others who were still wandering along the roads, looking for places to stay, for friends, relatives-and for food, always for food: “Please, please.”

Wandering on, looking.

Sini and I could go back to Winterswijk any time now. We didn’t want to.

We stayed another week. At night the kitchen was filled with farmers, listening to Johan as he practically shouted out what had gone on right in this house for the last few years.

They shook their heads in amazement. “How could that be? On this very road, and we never knew.”

BOOK: The Journey Back
2.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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