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Authors: Johanna Reiss

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

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BOOK: The Journey Back
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You’re-you’re home. Put it away, I said.”

Then Rachel’s voice saying no, she wouldn’t. A door slammed, Father’s.

He had gone back to bed.

My head felt dizzy. So much had happened today. The trip from Usselo.

The long walk. Meeting Vrouw Droppers. Being home. Saying goodbye to the. Oostervelds. The farmers’ visit. That had been nice.

What were the Oostervelds doing now? Were they in bed, too? I got up for a second to see what time it was. Yes, ten minutes ago they would have gone upstairs. I could imagine Opoe sitting ga inst her four pillows, her nightcap on, the strings tied under her chin. “Fni-fui,” she’d be saying. “How can this be? Another night. I’ve already had seventy-three years of ‘em, every one sleepless. Bah!”

“Good night, Opoe,” I whispered. But she would not be able to hear.

She’d be asleep already. In the room next to Opoe’s, in the brown four.

poster bed, were Johan and Dientje. Near them, on a hook in the wall, hung their clothes-Johan’s overalls and Dientje’s dress with the tripes everywhere but on the sleeves and collar. “That would’ve been a pity, Annie; it’s only for work.” They were talking, about tomorrow.

“You’ve got to clean the stable, Johan, now that the cows are out in the meadow. And Johan …”

“What?” Muffled, with his fist against his cheeks.

“The cows’ tails have to be washed. Should’ve been done before this. I don’t want anyone pointing at ‘em and saying they’re dirty. The plowing, too, Johan, for the cabbages and the potatoes. “S got to be done. Pier already began yesterday, I saw. And .Johan …”

He was pulling the down comforter over his ears, and no matter how many times Dientje nudged him, he no longer answered. Then she lifted her hand over her head and pulled the cord. Dark. I knew. I had seen her do it so often. On about a thousand nights.

Dark here, too, and cold, even under the blanket. I shivered. I hated this room, the chair, the big window with the view of the church dock, the table with the little cloth. Did Sini have to go out? Couldn’t she have waited a few more days? Even one?

I turned over. Then I turned over again. And again. I could not go to sleep. I buried my head in the pillow and stuck a finger in each ear.

Still I could hear it-the dance music. From far, far away, from the caf at the marketplace. Where Sini was.

A few days went by. EVery morning, around six, Father left, so he’d catch the farmers while they were stfi. l milking their cows. And every morning, just before he got on his bicycle, Rachel would open her window and remind him to be back ,in time for dinner.

If he answered, his voice was sharp. “I’ll come back when I can, Rachel.”

Shortly afterward Rachel would begin to clean. I could tell. The bucket she carried around made noises whenever she put it down. Kit, kit.

She should not work as hard as she did, Sini said when she and I came down for breakfast. “What difference does it make-if it takes a week longer to get the house clean? That’s not important, Rachel. Why don’t you sit down for a while-do nothing? Let’s talk, the way we used to.

Remember the boyfriend you had? The sweet one who came in all the way by train to see you?”

But Rachel was not interested. She no longer had time to spend on such meaningless thiogs, she said.

Sini and I began to scrape, rinse, and dry the floor, too, looking out the window to see what the weather was like. It wasn’t too bad. S’mi dried her hands and put her rag away. “I’ve had it for today, Rachel, but be sure to leave my part. I’ll finish it tomorrow. Let’s go, Annie.”

I, too, ran out of the kitchen. As I closed the door, I heard Rachel say, “Fortunately there’s someone in this house who doesn’t mind a LITTLE hard work.” But she didn’t sound as if she meant it.

The following day it looked as if Rachel were finally going to take a break. The door opened. She walked out without the pail or the rag, across the gravel path along the side of the house, to the strip of grass where Sini and I were lying. But she had not come to get a tan.

She had come to tell S’mi something, and it had to do with the cleaning.

“If you can’t be bothered with that, Sini, the least you can do is the shopping. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to stand in line, too.”

“Of course not-,” Sini apologized. “I’m sorry.” She got up immediately.

“You don’t have to go, Annie,” Rachel called after me. “My goodness, S’mi can do that much herself. Why don’t you stay home and rest?”

I shook my head. No. We left.

“To tell you the truth, Annie, I’m glad to get away from this house,”

S’mi said.

So was I. Tightly holding her arm, I walked to town with her.

There was a great deal of activity in the streets of Holland. Gangs of children roamed through them, looking on sidewalks and in gutters. If they were lucky and found a cigarette butt, they peeled off the paper, brushed off the burned end, and put the tobacco in a tin, which they would sell when they had filled it up. Sometimes they were extra lucky and found other things the Allied soldiers had thrown away-a piece of chewing gum still in its wrapper, half a cookie. When they found nothing on the sidewalks or in the gutters, they looked in other places-the backs of army trucks, for example-and took.

The streets were crowded with traitors, too. They wore jail pants, as they cleared away the rubble. “Don’t you dare take a break, you hear!

Keep on working,” the guards shouted. “We want to get rid of this mess, and fast. Come, put more on those shovels. This is nothing compared to what you did to us.”

Almost every town had a Maria, too, who hurried through the streets with the latest news. “guits for men are coming, all the way from America.

And pieces of chocolate, as soon as there’s enough coal to get the machines going. No, no, the announcer did not say what sizes. Also, the fishermen threaten to strike, so don’t count on the herring I mentioned yesterday. Their wives are demanding soap for the smell, and they want more tobacco.”

And the news rushed on, to other streets and other towns, where other people stood in line.

In Winterswijk, a lot more stores had opened: the butcher’s, the dairyman’s, the baker’s. But when, at last, the people came out, their bags were only a LITTLE fuller than they were when they went in, even if they had used up all their coupons. And on they hurried, to the next store, the next line.

“Have they run out of milk already?” a woman with huge eyes asked Sini.

“No? There’s still hope, you said?” Contentedly she sighed. “Things are getting better all the time, aren’t they? Take a month ago-we had nothing. All I had to make stew with were potatoes. Now I can put in carrots, and if I slice them thin, it-even looks like a lot.”

Another woman, wearing the old-fashioned clothes of the people of Walcheren, agreed. “And if I can get to the butcher before he runs out, I come home with an ounce of meat, too.”

The first woman smacked her lips. “I bet my husband won’t even want to go to work. He’ll want to stick around and eat by three in the afternoon.”

“I hope they’re feed’.mg my husband well,” said the refugee from Walcheren. “The hack-bre! dng work he has to do to mend the dikes.

Heavy, heavy rocks he handles all day long. To think it’s only the first hole they’re filling in. At this rate, I’ll never get back. It’s a mess there. People throw their garbage out the windows. They figure it’ll wash out to sea anyway.” She shook her head in anger. “They shouldn’t do that. It brings in rats. God knows what I’ll find when I do get home. A garden that’s ruined for years to come, that’s for sure. Right now I would’ve had such beautiful tulips and irises.” Enviously she looked across the street, to where the farmers were selling their flowers. “If I can at least get back in time to plhnt something for next year-but what’ll grow in that salty soil?”

“Ja, ja. I know what you mean,” someone sympathized. We all moved up the line.

Nervously the woman with the huge eyes counted the number of people ahead of her. “Twenty-six. C’mon, c’mon! There’s the egg I want to get and the onion I have to buy. It takes the whole day.”

“It sure does,” Sini answered. She sounded impatient, too.

Was she tired of shopping already? Unhappily I looked up at her. She must be. She was looking over toward the caf& the same caf from which the music would come in a few hours. “Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey,”

they would play. And she’d go. Dance. Miserable tune.

SUMMER

The first night Sini was not home by ten, Rachel became more and more worried. “Maybe she has been in an accident, Father. With no streetlights working, it’s pitch-dark out.”

“Ah, she’s all right.” He shrugged his shoulders, but when he picked up his pencil again, he looked a little worried, too. Twenty minutes went by. Every time we heard a sound outside we looked up. But it was never Sini. It was the bleating of sheep, the wind blowing, the clop-clopping of a farmer’s wooden shoes.

“Father.” Rachel’s voice was urgent. “I want you to go to town and look for her.”

The only response was an angry grunt.

“Father, if you don’t go, I will,” Rachel threatened

My goodness, Rachel was making a fuss. Sini was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. “Father-”

“Damn that Sini.” His chair fell over as he got up. “Dancing, dancing-tmt’s all she has on her mind. Not another thought, I swear.

Dancing. As if that’s all there is to do in this world.” On his way out, he noticed me. “Don’t look so scared, Annie. Come, go to bed. I’m sure she’s all right. Nothing happens to that one. She’s just-” He left, closing the door with a bang.

I hurried upstairs to look out the window. It was too dark to see anything. What if Rachel had been right and something had happend to Sini? I stayed where I was, listening.

There, that was Sini’s voice. “I have never been so humiliated in my life, making a fool out of me. If you ever come after me again, I don’t know what I’m going to do, Father, but I won’t go with you-that, I can tell you.”

Smiling, I went to bed. She was home.

The next night Sini stayed out even later. Rachel looked furious, but Father was not there to complain to or to send to town. Too many cows had to be bought and prices haggled over. There weren’t enough hours in the daytime to do it all. “From now on, Rachel, I will have to work at night as well.” And he left, right after he said it, before he could hear what Rachel was shouting-that ‘he had always left her with the responsibility for everything.

I didn’t like being at home with Rachel and her Bible, eithir. Would she go on like this forever? That’s what Sini said could happen. “And Rachel will have gotten nothing out of life.”

If school would only begin, I’d have work to do.

Plenty of it. And there’d be real books-French, English, all kinds. I drummed my fingers on the table.

“Do you want me to read to you, Annie?” Rachel put her hand on the empty chair next to her. “Come, sit with me.” I didn’t want to. At the door I turned to look at her. Her head was bent again, over another page written by that apostle Matthew, whom everyone but Jesus had despised. I walked up the stairs.

I wished I could write to Johan and Dientje. Nights were long here, with no one really to talk to. BUt there was no mail delivery yet-not to Usselo anyway. I could think about them though, as much as I wanted.

All I had to do was sit still, pretend; and I was there, with Opoe, Johan, and Dientje. y.

We were not the only Winterswijk Jews who had come out of hiding. A few others had, too. Every day they met in the middle of the marketplace.

By the tree, the same tree the enemy had marched up to during the war, carrying hammers and sharp nails, to put up notices that said Jews could no longer shop, go to restaurants, movies, parks … or do much of anything except get on those train—the ones that left on Tuesdays.

Again the tree spoke, only in hushed tones now, when a man from Town Hall put up a list of names of all thi: Dutch Jews who had survived the Nazi concentration camps. Trembling, the people at the marketplace searched for names that were familiar: “Jakob Vos … don’t see …”

“Please, Emma

Cohen no.”

“Mozes Spier His name isn’t here.” After they had looked at the list again and. again, they slowly started to leave, comforting each other, saying that maybe the next time those names would appear.

One of the women saw me and stopped. “You are Ies de Leeuw’s youngest daughter,” she said. nodded. Pietty hair she had, brown and wavy. Who is she? I wondered. She was staring at my legs.

“My God, they’re worse than they told me. you look like a midget.” For a second I looked at her. I blinked. No, no crying. Not now. Silently I left. It was almost four o’clock, time to go to the masseur. Again.

walked slowly. What if the exercises weren’t helping? Did other people think that, too? That I was a midget? I swallowed.

SUMMER

But I was doing all right. I must be. The masseur said I was.

Although the man from Town Hall came only once a week, the Jews came every day. Just to make sure they had not missed a name yesterday. At last the tree mentioned the name of someone from Winterswijk-a woman, Mrs. Menko. Anxiously the people pushed each other away from the new list, to see for themselves. “Yes, yes, there is her name. “Liberated in Bergen-Belsen. Menko, Hilde, 9o4. Winterswijk.” Hilde Menko. Look, look!

No, no, she’s the only Menko I see. Not the rest of the family.”

“Excuse me.” The woman with the wavy brown hair tried to get closer.

“If Hilde lived through it, maybe my husband did, too. They were both in the same camp. Let me see … Jakob Vos. Let me see …“Rapidly her finger moved down the list. When she came to the end, she was xviping her eyes.

Mrs. Menko returned to Winterswijk in an army car, lying on her other nightshirt. It was late afternoon and getting dark, and they had been on the road for a long time.

“Where shall I take you, Mrs. Menko?” the driver asked her.

“Home,” she whispered, “please.” She raised herself a little, to help him look.

Slowly he drove through the streets. “Tell me where I should stop.”

BOOK: The Journey Back
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ads

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