By Alie Wiegersma Smaalders
Smelna, Fryslan, the Netherlands, early 1930’s.
Little Eva, her dark blond hair in pigtails, tagged along when her mother worked for the Sondervan family. The Sondervans had two maids and a cleaning lady, but Eva’s mother took care of special chores like washing the antique china or laundering the lace curtains. Everything in the house gleamed: the wooden floors, the tall windows, the copper kettles, the brass andirons, the silver candlesticks. Little Eva loved the feel of the velvet drapes, the warm colors of the oriental rugs, which were everywhere, even on the tables. Being in that house was like being in a fairy tale.
“That’s how I want to live, Mommy, when I grow up,” Eva said.
Mother frowned. “Money isn’t everything, Eefje.”
Eva wasn’t so sure.
It was snowing steadily when they stopped at the greengrocer. Eager to get indoors, Eva grabbed the door handle, but Mother held her back until they had stamped the snow from their shoes. Once inside Mother bought red cabbage, brown onions and strong smelling sauerkraut the grocer put in an old enameled bowl Mother had brought along in her basket. Eva tugged at her sleeve.
“Those orange apples,” she whispered.
“Oranges,” her mother corrected. “No child, we have regular apples at home.”
The large clusters of dark-blue grapes looked beautiful too, but she’d been told before that only sick people got grapes in winter. That meant they were expensive. Back on the street, struggling against the wind, Eva announced that she was going to live where she could have oranges on a tree in her backyard.
“When I’m grown-up, of course”.
“No talking,” her mother said, “breathe through your nose.”
She adjusted Eva’s scarf so it covered her mouth. Eva wondered what would happen if she pulled back the scarf. Would she get sick from gulping cold air? Would someone buy her grapes then?
“Up you go,” Mother said, as she helped Eva up the high sidewalk of the bridge that crossed the canal. A modern, electric bridge. It had replaced the old draw bridge last summer. Eva didn’t get to go to the opening because it poured that day, but she had studied the pictures in the paper. Men in black suits and top hats, holding black umbrellas. The only bright figure was Steven Sondervan in his white suit, twelve-year-old Steven who got to cut the ribbon. You had to be special to get to do that. Eva wished she could have been there.
Summer 1939. Vacation time. Eva was at the Sondervans lending a hand. Mevrouw Sondervan planned to can cherries for fruit punch for her winter parties, sour cherries from the old cherry tree. The morello, Mevrouw Sondervan called it.
“Good thing Steven is home,” Mevrouw Sondervan said. “He can help you. I’ll call him.”
Eva gathered bowls and walked out to the garden, a little uneasy. She hadn’t seen Steven for quite a while; he was away at the university. When he was home their paths never crossed. Why would they, her mother would say. They came from different backgrounds. Steven’s father was a lawyer, Eva’s a clerk in a cooperative grocery store. That difference mattered.
Steven came with the ladder, greeted Eva cheerfully and climbed up. She caught the large clusters of dark-red cherries he dropped down. In no time at all they filled four large bowls, more than enough.
“Mother says she won’t need your help until after lunch. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
They wandered down the garden path, bordered on both sides by pink sea thrift all the way to the very back of the garden where the old swing set still stood. The grass had grown up high around it. Eva sat down on the swing; Steven leaned against the post, chewing on a blade of grass, looking down at her.
“Did you finish high school yet?” Steven asked.
“Next year,” Eva said.
“And after that?”
“There’s a brand-new home ec school close to the academic high school you went to. I’m going there next year September.”
Steven smiled at her. She’d forgotten how tall he was. How good-looking. Embarrassed, she blushed and lowered her eyes. He took a lock of her hair and wound it slowly around his finger.
“You’ve grown up, Eefje,” he said. “You’re no longer a little girl.”
Hot and confused, Eva jumped up, smoothing her apron. “I’d better get going.”
“Really,” he said, mockery in his voice, “what’s the rush? We’ve known each other for a long time, we should get reacquainted.” Eva looked up at him, at his wavy dark-brown hair, at his brown eyes teasing her.
“I’m going on a backpack trip to the Belgian Ardennes. I’ll be gone for weeks. There’s no time like the present. Let’s go to the movies tonight. Seven o’clock at the theatre. Agreed?”
Eva nodded, pleased he didn’t suggest he’d pick her up at home. No explanations would be necessary. She often went to the movies, alone or with a girlfriend. The town was small, it was all within easy walking distance.
They saw quite a bit of each other those few days before Steven left for the Ardennes. They went on walks and on his last day rode their bikes to the tennis courts north of town. Steven played singles with a friend while Eva watched. When the court was free he insisted Eva try her hand at playing. She caught on quickly.
As they left the court, Steven put his arm around her shoulders. The air was fragrant with the scent of honeysuckle. She smiled up at him and he bent down and kissed her lips, gently at first, but more insistent when she responded. Eva was still breathless by the time they reached the cafe, where Steven treated her to a soda. They sipped their drinks on the terrace before they bicycled back to town.
His parting words were: “When I come back, we’ll go on a day trip. I know just the place.”
Eva daydreamed while he was gone; she missed him. She went swimming, earned some pocket money taking care of two young children and helped her mother weed and water the vegetable garden behind their small house. Theirs was one of several row houses built in a quadrangle around a public garden. The dark-green and white paint of the woodwork, with just a touch of red trim on the low fences gave the place a cheerful air. When Eva was small she thought their address, Better Homes 14, was all one word until she discovered that Better Homes stood for Better Homes for the Working Class. Many of the renters were politically aware which explained why some in town called Better Homes “The Red Village”.
Time dragged, even though Eva kept busy. Her thoughts kept turning back to Steven. She knew she was falling in love, but she let herself drift along, enjoying the exhilarating sensation. One afternoon she was jolted out of her reveries when her mother came in with the mail and handed her a postcard.
“Who’s S.?” she asked, “who’s writing you from Belgium?”
Eva blushed scarlet. “Steven Sondervan,” she said.
The look on her mother’s face implied that answer was insufficient.
“Tell me more,” she said and sat down across from Eva, her back rigid. Eva had been lounging in her father’s chair, pretending to read. Eva tried to speak matter-of-fact and casually, when she answered: “Mevrouw Sondervan had him help me pick cherries. That’s when he told me about his trip and said he’d send me a postcard. That’s all.”
“Oh,” her mother said, “that better be all. He’s no company for you. We are of a different class… ” She got up, still looking at Eva, and added: “My job with the Sondervans is important. Don’t you forget that.” She went back to the kitchen.
Eva almost wished Steven had not written.
Late August 1939.
The bicycle path took them out of the woods, where dappled light fell through the trees, to the open heath with purple-red blooming heather and clusters of silver-grey birches. They rode on till they came to the dunes.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Eva said. “Dunes here, far from the sea?”
“I agree,” Steven said. “I remember my geography teacher claiming they were formed from drifting sand in ancient times. No matter, it’s a great place. We’ll leave our bikes and walk a bit.”
Eva carried her sandals and enjoyed the feel of bare feet in warm sand. At a deep dip in the dunes, out of the wind, Steven spread his raincoat and they lunched on crisp buns, cheese, and juicy yellow plums Eva had brought. Steven poured coffee from his thermos.
Eva sighed happily. “Perfect,” she said. She asked Steven about his backpack trip and he told her about the mountainous landscape, so different from their own flat country.
Eva’s fingers slid back and forth over the smooth satiny lining of Steven’s coat. He grabbed her hands and turned her toward him: “Don’t be nervous”, he said. He began to unbutton her blouse and slip it off her shoulders. The sun was warm on her skin. He kissed her cleavage and pushed down the straps of her bra. “Give me some help, bras defeat me.” Eva complied. Steven ran his tongue over her breasts and nipples. She moaned with pleasure. He pulled off her skirt and panties with both hands before he threw off his clothes, tossing them aside. “Let me look at you,” he said. “You’re lovely.” Eva had never felt the way she did now, as if she were melting. Steven bent over her, more than ready. “Go slow, please,” Eva whispered. His face registered surprise, then a smile. He tried to arouse her with a finger and kissed her breasts again. “I can’t wait,” he murmured. When he forced through, Eva cried out. She turned her head sideways, biting her lips. After a few thrusts, Steven collapsed on top of her. “Sorry,” he said, I’m too fast.” Eva blinked back tears, but managed to smile. Her hands stroked his face. Steven rolled down next to her, closing his eyes. Eva stared at him, imprinting his features on her memory; he glanced at her and whispered: “Thank you.”
Eva pulled on her clothes. When she stood up to straighten her skirt, she noticed a blood spot on Steven’s coat where she had lain. She looked at Steven. He was asleep.
The wind had come up by the time they bicycled back to Smelna and the trip took longer than in the morning. In town small groups of people stood around, talking. What had happened? Outside the newspaper office a cluster of men were reading a posted bulletin. Eva held his bike while Steven joined them. He came back, his face somber.
“General mobilization: that means I’ll have to report.”
“When?” He turned to read the bulletin once more.
“August 29th.That’s tomorrow! I’d better go home and pack.”
Eva told herself it would be wise to forget about him, but she was unable to give up her daydreaming. She never breathed a word to any of her girlfriends. It was too private.
Eva’s father made her listen to the radio and read the paper. She’d never given much attention to the news, but he insisted that she be better informed. On September 1st, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Dutch Armed Forces were fully mobilized with 300,000 troops spread out over their tiny country.
Eva hoped that the newspapers were right, they sounded reassuring. So did the government. In the Great War 1914 -1918 Dutch neutrality had been respected, the government did not anticipate to be involved in this war either.
Steven’s brief furloughs were infrequent and canceled time and again. One cold, blustery Sunday that winter they went for a walk, an awkward tension between them, the sunny day in the dunes a distant memory.
Germany invaded Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940. Eva’s father no longer believed the optimists who claimed Germany would respect Dutch neutrality. He was right.
In the early hours of May the tenth, hundreds of planes flew over from east to west. A few hours later the radio confirmed that Germany had invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. It seemed unreal. Tulips bloomed in the Better Homes garden. The rhododendrons showed color. The sky was a brilliant blue.
Fryslan, less than 45 miles from the German border, was under German occupation two days later, except for the area near the IJssel Lake Dam, the Afsluitdijk, which connects Fryslan with the Holland provinces. Later Eva heard that the Germans called it “Totendamm”, Dam of the Dead. After the bombing of Rotterdam on the 14th of May the enemy threatened The Hague, Utrecht and Haarlem with the same fate. On the 15th the Netherlands capitulated. Eva and her parents listened to the radio in stunned silence.
A few days later Eva’s Mother, home from working at the Sondervans, broke the news that Steven had died in action at the Grebbelinie, a line of defense in the center of the country that suffered heavy casualties against an S.S. regiment that used captured Dutch soldiers as shields. Eva, who had just come in the room, stood silent, wide-eyed. Steven, her Steven dead, it couldn’t be true. She wanted to protest, to argue. The feel of his skin on hers, that was real. She held on to the back of a chair and forced herself to remain quiet. Her parents paid no attention to her. They talked, lamenting the fact that such a promising young man, only son of a prominent family, had not survived. Maybe the husbands of Steven’s two older sisters, maybe they would return safely. It turned out they did. Close to 2200 men did not. Almost as many civilians lost their lives those five days in May.
The official notice of Steven’s death appeared in the local paper, framed in black the customary way. Eva stared at his name, stark against the white space around it.
“Our dearly beloved son, dear brother, brother-in-law and uncle gave his life fulfilling his duty to Queen and country.” The names of his parents, his sisters, their husbands and their children followed. Her name should have been there. Don’t be silly, she told herself. No one knew she loved him. Had he loved her? What about a girl or maybe girls at the unversity? She pushed those thoughts away. It was irrelevant. She knew how she felt. Even when she was alone, she didn’t cry. She guarded her feelings, afraid to let anyone know or to admit to herself how the news had affected her. She should be grown-up, grown-ups never cried. She spoke casually to others, even about Steven: ‘Yes, tragic isn’t it, the Sondervans’ only son, but he was only one of many.’
To Eva’s surprise life went on. Classes started at the home ec school. They were more challenging than she expected, especially the ones taught by a local physician. She learned about nutrition and child care. Cooking classes emphasized pre-war theory, the actual experience limited by the need for ingredients that were rationed. The teacher suggested ways to make do with less meat, butter and sugar, fewer eggs and milk, though the last two were still not too hard to come by in their small town if you knew a farmer or kept chickens, like Eva’s family did. At their house cheap cuts of meat had strictly been a Sunday treat with the leftovers giving flavor to dishes on Monday and Tuesday. Later in the week Eva’s mother prepared legumes, sometimes fish or a sturdy soup. Most meals included potatoes, served with a mustard or vinegar sauce if there was no leftover gravy.
One of Eva’s class mates was Dora Jacobs, who was Jewish. Eva and Dora were comfortable with each other, both kept their inner feelings hidden. During the miserably cold winters they compared notes on their painful, itching chilblains, winter feet Eva’s mother called them. When the weather was pleasant, they ate their lunch on a bench in the public park behind the school, watching the antics of the ducks in the pond. They didn’t mix much with the other young women, some of whom were older and graduates from the academic high school. Those girls made it clear that but for the war they would have chosen to go to Amsterdam or The Hague. Both cities had a long-established well-known home ec school.
Dora and Eva talked about the German regulations that followed each other in quick succession, most of them severely restricting the Jews’ civil liberties. When Jews were no longer allowed in the park – a sign had been posted at the entrance – Dora said: “You go by yourself.” But Eva asked a teacher’s permission to take two chairs outside, where they sat in a small enclosed space next to two garbage cans.
A few months before Dora and Eva finished their two-year program Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend public schools.
“At least I have my diploma,” said Dora. “They can’t take that away from me.”
One day Eva came home to find her unflappable mother in tears. Eva knelt by her chair. “Mother, what happened?” Eva’s mother pressed a handkerchief against her eyes and showed Eva what had come in the mail, a card rimmed in black announcing the death of Eva’s mother’s cousin, his wife, and three children, 13, 6 and 4 years old. Their house had received a direct hit. Had the English flyers meant to bomb the nearby airport, had it been foggy that night? There were no answers. Accidents happened. In her head Eva lumped this news with war losses in general, almost glad she didn’t know the family. But what could she do for her mother? She went to their tiny kitchen, put on a kettle and reached for a small tin in the back of the cupboard. It was less than half full. Tea used to come from the Dutch East Indies; there was no more to be had. Even the dreadful surrogate tea was now rationed. When Eva’s mother took a sip of the cup of real tea Eva brought, she gave her a grateful smile.
Eva’s mother suggested that Eva might offer to help Mevrouw Sondervan when one of her daughters visited with little ones. The daughters came often nowadays, trying to brighten their parents’ lives. What Eva had learned about young children would be useful.
Eva noticed when she entered the Sondervan home that her fairy tale house had lost some of its sparkle. No longer was the light reflected in the many polished brass and copper antiques in the rooms. They were gone. The Germans had ordered brass, copper, pewter, lead and nickel confiscated. Most people had refused to hand over their treasures. Eva hoped fervently that the Sondervans had hidden theirs in a safe place or buried them in the garden.
Late fall 1942. Eva was at the Sondervans. All Jews had been ordered to report for transportation to Westerbork.
“Eefje,” –Eva was touched that Mevrouw Sondervan still used her childhood name–“could you take these things to the Jacobs family – the poor souls – see what you think of it. Warm clothes, scarves and mittens, a few bars of real soap from before the war – we can spare them.” After a short pause she added: “You might as well take them Steven’s backpack. It will come in handy….”
When Eva held Steven’s pack in her hands, she realized she could not bear to part with it. She wanted it, something he had touched. Nobody would ever know that the backpack never made it to the Jacobs. She transferred all items to a carpetbag before she visited the Jacobs family. The room was full of people talking softly. Nobody paid attention to the fact one wasn’t supposed to visit Jews. Dora moved two chairs so she and Eva sat apart from the others. Eva watched Dora’s face, her brown eyes, creamy skin and her delicate hands as she picked up each bar of soap in turn, inhaling the fragrances of jasmine, rose and lavender. “Please thank Mrs. Sondervan for me,” she said. “Tell her not to worry, we’ll be all right.”
Eva hugged her friend and said: “Remember, the Germans are having a hard time in Russia, things are going well. And with America in the war, it won’t be long anymore. The war will be over soon.”