A Dutch World War II Story by Alie Wiegersma Smaalders
Claire van Dyke was on her way home from a weekend visit with her aunt, who lived in a nearby town with her two cats behind a window sill full of geraniums. The train, an old local, was unusually cold. Claire was the only passenger. She pulled her heavy winter coat closer around her. She had bought this warm coat four years ago, in the winter of 1939. An extravagant purchase at the time, but with all the cold winters they’d been having since the start of the war, the coat had been a blessing.
Claire looked out at the bleak familiar landscape. She had been born near here and spent most of her life in this northern province. The people suited her. They were not talkative, but when they talked, they were straightforward and blunt. She liked that.
Claire pulled a compact out of her purse, flipped it open and studied her face. Not bad for thirty-eight, she thought. Her brown eyes laughed at her, wisps of her nut brown hair, always unruly, framed her face. She flicked a bit of powder on her short nose and clapped the compact shut. If it weren’t for this damned war, she would probably be working in Amsterdam, definitely her city of choice. As long as this war lasted, she was better off staying in the country town where she was in charge of the library. Not that one escaped the war any place.
It had started at the very beginning of the occupation. Claire’s library had been brand-new, but as soon as the Germans appeared on the scene they had commandeered the building for R. and R. for the soldiers. Claire had been away when that happened. Library Board members met her at the station to break the news. They had helped her until late that summer night to move books and shelving to a large shack nearby, where the library had been ever since. It worked for checking out books, but there was hardly any space for people to sit and read, and worst of all, no separate place for the children. She had been so proud of the children’s department in her nice new building.
Last year she’d been adamant about not putting up the “No admittance for Jews” signs the Germans demanded be placed on all public buildings, restaurants and parks. She did discuss the issue with the Library Board and the Chairman had pleaded with her to give in.
“Miss van Dyke,” he said. “Let me tell you what could happen. My nephew, he’s a young teenager, removed five signs from the parks in the city where they live. He was quite proud and bragged about it at home. His elation turned into a nightmare.Ten Jewish men, all prominent citizens, like a bank director, a physician, a manager of a business, were immediately arrested and sent to a concentration camp. My brother, the boy’s father, went to the Germans to set matters straight. There was nothing he could do, even with the help of the local Rabbi, who was told not to show his face there ever again. The boy’s action brought nothing but misery. We’re not in charge anymore.”
Claire could only accept his argument.
She thought about what had happened just a few days ago. Someone had dropped a note through her mailslot at home: a typed message from the publisher of the local paper. Before the war they had played tennis together, but she had avoided him ever since she started to suspect him of national socialist leanings.
“Please stop by at my home address” was all the note said. Scrawled under his name he had written: “as soon as possible”.
That same day, after work, she had rung his doorbell. He lived above the printing office. When the door swung open, she saw him standing at the top of the stairs. He invited her up. She shook her head no. She could see that irked him. He cleared his throat and came halfway down the stairs.
“There’s something you should know,” he said and cleared his throat again, “you’re aware that the Germans maintain lists of local people they’ll pick up whenever reprisals are needed? Your name happens to be at the top of that list. I thought you should know.”
Remembering his words still evoked the feeling of an icy grip on her chest. Claire shivered. She didn’t know how long it had taken her to respond, but when she could speak, she had said:
“If you know that, you must really be on the wrong side.” She had turned her back on him and walked away.
Claire got up, the train was slowing to a halt. Across the way stood another train and the platform was filled with people. What was going on? Usually the station was deserted late Sunday afternoon. She opened the door and waited impatiently for the train to come to a stop.
As soon as she stood on the platform, she realized who the people were and what was happening. These were local Jewish men and women with their families, about to be sent to Westerbork, the camp in Drente, a nearby province, where the Germans kept their Jewish prisoners before sending them on. It was rumored that they would go to work camps in eastern Germany and Poland. Claire recognized some who at one time were regular library patrons. What was in store for them, what kind of work would they have to do, why did whole families have to go? It made no sense.
They were mostly well-dressed, as if they were going to the city, with hats and gloves, women carrying purses, some of the men had briefcases. Most of them were dragging heavy suitcases. Some carried backpacks, others lugged large sacks and blanket rolls. Children were crying.
Claire, her body tensing, looked around for German uniforms. There were none. Who was in command? Over the heads of the crowd she noticed two young men in uniform, members of the local “police auxiliary.” A Nazi sympathizer on the police force took these men on. They were young, usually jobless and poor. Maybe they were sympathetic to Nazi philosophy or simply hard-nosed, accepting the fact that power was in the hands of the Germans for who knows how long.
Claire bristled, fury welling up inside her. What could she do? A woman in front of her had trouble juggling her bags and an orange crate in which she carried a small baby, no more than a few months old.
“Here,” Claire said, putting her overnight bag between her legs, “let me hold the baby.” She took the orange crate from the woman. Its face barely visible among the blankets, the baby smiled at Claire and cooed. Claire tried to coo back, but couldn’t.
The two police aids came over to where Claire was standing. She recognized them. Bolo and Bonna. Some eight years ago, before the war, the boys had been regulars in the children’s department, up to mischief most of the time.They were barely eighteen now, looking proud in their uniform and, being armed, they no doubt felt powerful.
“What do you think you are doing?” Claire said, spitting out the words. “You haven’t learned much, have you. Both of you used to be good readers, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What are you doing here?”
“I should ask you, Miss,” one of them said with a sneer, “what are you doing here? Is that your baby?” Both of them guffawed. Claire could barely contain herself.
“You grew up in this town,” she said. “You know many of these people. What gives you the right to force them to go on that train?”
“Nobody is forcing anybody,” Bonna said slowly, laughing, using his rifle to point at the people who were boarding. “We could, though.We could force you to go along, since you seem to be so interested,” he added.
“What a great idea,” Bolo said. “Remember, Miss van Dyke, you’re not in charge here.”
Claire was about to explode, when someone took the crate from her, put it down on the platform, grabbed her bag from between her legs and took a firm hold of her coat collar. She was marched down the platform by the scruff of the neck. She managed to look up sideways and recognized the tall station master. He pushed her towards the exit. As Claire sneaked a look back she saw the mother, holding the crate with the baby, boarding the train. She was one of the last ones to get on. The station master didn’t let go of Claire until they were in front of the exit and out of sight of the train.
“I’m sorry, Miss van Dyke,” he said, “these guys are unpredictable. You were playing with fire and I mean that.”
Claire fumbled in her pocket for her ticket. She was shaking. She nodded a few times at the station master and stumbled through the exit. Unpredictable, she thought. Not only those guys, everything. War makes everything unpredictable. What will happen to all these people? As she walked on she heard the train to Westerbork start up.
Copyright © 2003 by Alie Wiegersma Smaalders