Son Of War

I am sitting in the chair reading, and hear a group of people talking on the street. A woman enquires whether anything is known about the family living at number 30. “They were taken away” a male voice remarks.

“Good” is the reply that follows, and then another from the group says Yes, good riddance I say. Well, have a nice day all of you.” Tuesday 13 July 1943

The ‘‘I’’ in that first sentence is my father, and the family at number 30 is his family – and therefore mine. My father was nineteen at the time. I am now twenty-six. I can’t bring myself to read on, even after a bottle of wine. I uncork another and wander over to the window, where I listen to the voices in the street below. I try to imagine my father, but I can’t. I stare outside, not even noticing when night falls. By then I’ve polished off the second bottle.

When my parents died, my brother and I had to empty their house. Again and again, we stumbled on unexpected finds: My mother’s bridal bouquet, a fragile bundle – little more than air – wrapped in crêpe paper, more than seventy years after the ceremony. The menu for their wedding dinner. We also found a diary – a thousand pages of tissue-thin paper, a ‘‘Diary of Life in Hiding,’’ as the title puts it, covering the 685 days from 18 June 1943 to 3 May 1945.

We had no idea this diary existed. My father never talked about his feelings, just as he kept a lid on the entire war. I turn a page and for the first time in my life see an actual Judenstern, a six-pointed star made of pale yellow fabric, with the thread that once attached it to my father’s coat. It is stapled to the page. I slam the diary shut. It is 9 December 2015. I don’t dare to open it again until 8 January 2017.

For my father, time didn’t heal all wounds; he remained a stricken and mentally scarred man, afraid of the world, angry at the world, and locked within himself. I want to find out what my father was supressing; what made him the man he became, the man I knew. I want to get my forever-silent father to talk again, and get re-acquainted with him. So I read. Not until the third attempt am I able to read it through to the end.

Now that I’m starting start to write all of this down, that silence grabs me by the throat. How is it possible that the subject of the war was so taboo that my brother and I never asked questions about it? After all, we spent a lot of time around granddad (my father’s father), his oldest son Jacques, and my aunt Marie too, until well into our teenage years. But the war was never talked about: not by them, and not by us. Did we feel instinctively that it was something that should not be mentioned? Or was the silence so ubiquitously maintained that we as children weren’t even aware that there was anything that had to be avoided?

On 23 June 1943, my father obeyed a German summons to report to the Hollandsche Schaumburg deportation centre with his parents and his brother Jacques (who was three years older). At first they were optimistic. After all, Jacques was engaged to Mirjam Cohen. Her father was David Cohen (referred to in the diary as “The Prof.’’), the head of the German-installed Jewish Council, whose members were exempt from deportation. A few official stamps, and they could all go home again.

The Prof. shows up at one-thirty and tells the man from the SD [German security service] that we should never have been picked up, and if the Hauptsturmführer finds out, there will be trouble. The SD man is quaking in his boots.

Two days later, they learn that all their hope was in vain. Jewish Council exemptions have become worthless. They decide to escape and, surprisingly, are able to do so with ease. While the guards are looking the other way, the four of them walk out into the street and around the corner.

26 June, 1943: That same night at one-forty in the morning, we left number 30 and went to the neighbours’ house, where we talked until around three. Then I tumbled into bed and slept like a log. The next sentence is in block letters: IT WAS AN END AND A BEGINNING. The beginning of his life in hiding.

The neighbours at number 32 opened their doors – and the cupboards and crawlspaces under their floors – to my father and his parents. (Jacques cast in his lot with the Cohens.) It was the man from number 32 that my father later heard in the street, saying the family had been deported to throw other neighbours off the scent. From this hiding place, so close by, my father looked on a few days later as their own home was ransacked and plundered.

I saw my desk being carried across the street, with all my textbooks in it; my bed, with the sheets and the cover still on it; the linen cupboard; the antiques; it all went into the moving van, even the curtains and kitchen supplies. And whatever didn’t fit was carried off in handcarts and delivery bicycles.

Not a word of emotion. He continues:

In Sicily, the fighting has spread. Oil fields in Rumania have been bombed by the Americans. Hamburg is under attack; Berlin is being evacuated. The situation in Hungary is apparently volatile as well. I’ve had trouble with my asthma, and with eczema on my scalp. Practised piano. Sang Bach chorales. Marie brings the newspapers and has signed up as an office clerk with theLuftwaffe.

For years, Marie had been their loyal housekeeper. Of German descent, she could move freely. Throughout the war, she was the family’s go-between, their lifeline to the outside world. She brought the newspapers my father counted on, stole ration coupons, warned the family of danger, falsified papers, kept an ear out for inside information at the Luftwaffe, acted as a spy, kept in touch with the resistance, and supplied the typewriter ribbons and paper for the diary.

I have so many questions it’s too late to ask. Doesn’t typing make much too much noise when you’re in hiding? And what about performing chorales (or, later, entire operas), singing in harmony, playing piano… how could they do all that and still keep their presence a secret?

19 July 1943: They are expecting an invasion in Greece. Goebbels has declared that all Germans must continue fighting until the end, until death. That sounds like the first sensible thing that man has ever said. Let them just fight until every single one of them has expired. What we will do with their country after they’ve lost is something to think about later. Theirs is a rather beautiful country. It is the people themselves, the Germans, who have tainted all that natural abundance, and shamed it. We also have to consider what to do with the German language when there are no more Krauts left. It seems a pity to let it to go to waste, because just like their country, their language is extremely beautiful and lyrical. Maybe it should suffer the same fate as Latin and Ancient Greek: left as a mere reading language, no more to be spoken as a living tongue.

But does life not dictate that we cannot simply disassociate ourselves from the past? That we are all unable to invent or construct a new life; like trying to erect a new building on disturbed soil. A clean slate simply does not exist. Which means that this war will partly define who I later become. It is an anchor that will always keep me in deep waters, and will continue to drag me down.

The past will hang from our arms like an intravenous drip that never drains. How can I tell the children I will have one day, with God’s help, about all this, providing I ever survive this war? Here, we don’t speak about anything, because it is too awful to say out loud. We neither address the present, nor talk about how things will be in the future. Like mother says when she cries about not knowing where Jacques is: “All things, joy, as well as sorrow, are lived through by each of us, alone.”

Father is grumpy and no longer engaging with mother at all. What can you do as the youngest son, for a mother who is grieving for her missing eldest? I would trade places with Jacques, as I think I would be able to handle it better than him. No brother, you will not have an easy time of it, but maybe it is better for you there if you have to work, which is what people are saying Jews are being made to do wherever they are incarcerated. Hard labour with the hands allows the mind to rest, and our minds never rest, because we cannot do anything in this place except sit here for days on end in silence.

Physically and mentally, we are gradually becoming disabled. In the future, we will be freed, but will not be able to walk. I am still young. These should have been my halcyon days, but they are passing me by, without the ability to lend any expression to my youthful feelings.

Slipping into daydreams is a dangerous thing to do, because when you awaken from such a wonderful dream filled with wishes, the harsh reality will strike you even harder. Every second, we must remain aware of the situation we find ourselves in. God must have intentions of some kind, although so far he has not shared those with us.

Often, events and thoughts are narrated in one long breath:

2 September 1943:This afternoon a man and a woman, both carrying briefcases, came to ask about number 30. They like the house and want to buy it. They asked whether it had been cleared out, “because we don’t want Jew things.” Mother cooked tonight. Doubled over with laughter. The invasion will come soon. It’s a matter of a few days or weeks at most, because the autumn weather has already begun: the dahlias are in bloom. I am writing all this as one of my housemates plays Hayden sonatas. A time will come when human technology overshadows and destroys its makers. That may spell catastrophe for humankind. Until that time, I will strive to transcend worldly things and see everything in a larger, greater context. To subordinate the personal to the general. We must never permit our emotions, even in these times, to overwhelm cool reason. My war is not important. What matters is the war.

Sunday, 21 November 1943: Today was a day of prayer throughout the nation, with all churches praying for peace and justice. People also prayed for the government overseas, and the Royal Family that has fled in complete cowardice, but I don’t think they mentioned the latter… and for the people who are being oppressed and tormented. But also for the occupying forces, that they may see the truth and error of their ways, and repent.

But the saying “When the need is greatest, the rescue is at hand” is a lie, because the need could not be greater, and the rescue is nowhere at hand. I can picture them all seated in the churches, kneeling and praying without doing anything to actually make happen any of those things they are praying about. Hands pressed together in prayer won’t deliver us from anything in our time of need.

Mood swings. Sometimes I wander along the beach at Noordwijk in my thoughts. The sea is wearing wild white caps, and I feel the strong wind scouring my face, and even hear the whistling of the wind; other times I cannot bear it any longer…. I wonder how many years I will live beyond my twentieth. I shouldn’t think it will be very many. I will probably never become a doctor.

As the war progressed, my father began to write in more and more depth about the battle on various war fronts. He soaked up every snippet of news, as a strategy of hope. The loneliness of being locked up, which had gone on for over a year, was beginning to take its toll.

5 August 1944: Maybe it would be better to be in a camp with so many like-minded people with whom to share the suffering. Those days in the Hollandsche Schouwburg were manageable due to the shared sorrow. There was even some laughter there, however unimaginable it may seem. Here, the three of us revolve around one another in vicious circles. Father is barely managing. He can smell the impending victory, like the rest of us, but is livid at the Canadians for not being able to break through.

He shouts all the time, is riled by the slightest thing, and no longer seems himself. Mother simply keeps quiet. In this situation, you lose the desire for everything. Father has even been threatening to go outside. “There cannot be anything worse than this’”he says, “I’d rather be dead.’”

He then thinks up a ruse to keep up morale. He forges Jacques’ handwriting and sends cards saying that he is doing well, and that he and Mirjam are in good health, and both have plenty to eat. He hands them to Marie, who in turn delivers them to our home as if they had come to us through various sources. It seems to be working:

Mother is most cheerful. She believes the fake letters, and the good news makes her light up. She is humming all day long, and it calms father down, although he knows the letters are not authentic. I must be mindful and not lose my sense of reality; after all, that same reality has it in for us. I must remain vigilant.

But the effect is short-lived.

We are now not just running out of patience, but food supplies as well. We have enough food for three more days, and then it will have finished. What are we to do? We will surely starve to death.

His reporting about the war front is becoming increasingly methodical and detailed, as if he were there in person.

Tuesday 24 April 1945: They are flooding the polders; there is no longer anything left to see of the Wieringermeer lake, apart from a few pitched roofs. Sweden reports that Berlin is in a panic, and people are fleeing into its underground stations. The veterans of Stalingrad are rushing through the city centre like a red deluge. The Russians and Americans are less than thirty kilometres away from one another.

Someone is ringing the doorbell. We run upstairs and go through the hatch. False alarm. An old man is standing on the pavement crying, and begging for a crust of bread. And then, in capital letters, a desperate cry: WHY DON’T THE CANADIANS PUSH ON? WHY ARE THEY LEAVING US TO SUFFER?

Two days later: There are ever more horrors being revealed, now that the camps are being liberated. Mother is no longer sleeping, and is desperate. Her fortitude has left her as she ponders what might have happened to Jacques. Father is like the sea, at times savagely undulating, at others tranquil and calm. Nobody talks anymore. The days drag by in silence, for what else is there to say?

What my father did not realise is that an extremely difficult time still lay ahead. The last days of the war lasted for an eternity. My grandfather was becoming increasingly angry. He would walk across the hall openly swearing and cussing, and blamed his in-laws for Jacques being deported, which they have now found out about. Jacques is being held in Theresienstadt, together with Mirjam. He calls her father, Professor Cohen, a schemer, a coward and a bastard.

Which is unreasonable. Because Jacques is a mature man, a man who has chosen his wife over his parents, and yes, he could easily have de-registered from the Cohens’ address, but the simple fact is that he didn’t. Maybe he’s in a better place now than us, but then again, maybe not.

Did he make the wrong decision? No! It was his decision. Nobody these days knows what decision to make to evade the clutches of the German. You might as well flip a coin.

Sometimes war is just a farce…. Trams without passengers ride around the streets of Amsterdam. The Jews have all gone from the Netherlands. The last of them were picked up on Sunday night.

7 September 1944: 91st Invasion day. Everyone in the house is on edge, as the Americans have not yet arrived in the Netherlands; they seem to be resting before the forthcoming offensive. The NSB [Dutch Nazi Party] members are on the run. Their houses are being looted, just like ours in the beginning of the war, especially in the less salubrious districts, where the residents are not as afraid as they are here in the more well-to-do neighbourhoods. They are stealing all the NSB members’ things there, and that’s just as well.

 A storm is pounding the house. The doors are shut again, and there is already a strong autumn feel in the air.  My woolly jumper has finally been knitted. Hooray! When it rains like this, you feel you’ll never see the sun again. For a brief moment just now, the air alarm sounded. I don’t really care anymore. Just go ahead and drop that bomb why don’t you, then it will all be over.

16 March 1945. Inclement and drizzly weather, with the sun making coy attempts to break through the cloud mass, but new cloud formations sent by Obersturmfuhrer Von Aeolus are preventing its half-completed penetration.

Google Von Aeolus. Never heard of him. An officer in Rommel’s army perhaps? But it turns out Aeolus is the son of van Poseidon, appointed by Zeus to be Keeper of the Winds, with four divisions under him: Boreas, Notus, Eurus and Zephyrs (North, South, East and West), who were all locked in a cave and dispatched at his discretion. I am amazed at father’s knowledge. I am even more amazed that he is still able to manage a quip.

He then starts to get rather philosophical:

Eisenhower and Zhukov will win this war, that much is certain. But what will happen once peace has been agreed?  The democracy that will then come into play requires a much stricter discipline than any kind of dictatorship. Under a dictatorship, people patiently fall in line, but in a democracy, the people have their own opinions and a voice they wish to be heard.

Fighting will continue even if peace is present, for fighting is inherent in man. How are we to fight later if we are without arms? The Germans will be punished by the allied forces, as revenge is a human trait too, and the German people will say that they were possessed by a demon, and as such are not to blame. They will wash their hands more thoroughly than Lady Macbeth, and call out to the world “Wir haben es nicht gewollt.” [‘‘We didn’t want it.’’]

My goodness. He was just one word away from Wir haben es nicht gewusst. [‘‘We didn’t know.’’] A sense of pride starts to build in me; my father wrote that years before the phrase would become infamous due to nearly all Germans using it in an attempt to prove their innocence.

Peace creeps up on them, almost stealthily. It’s not like in a film, a sudden happy ending with flags and cheering and dancing in the streets. Yes, the doors and shutters are opened, life can breathe again, but they cannot shake off their misery so easily. They face the question of how to go on. Searching for uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and Jacques. ‘‘Is life like riding a bicycle,’’ my father wonders, ‘‘or have we forgotten how?’’

That my life will never be the same again is already clear to me now. On the outside, it will not be visible, but it will strike me in the very heart, and change my view of life drastically, and also my view of mankind. I will be hardened and armed on the inside, even though my face may outwardly display a smile.

18 June 1945: Scorching heat. Not a cloud in the sky. Slept at number 32 for the last time. Gradually putting our house in order. The Rembrandt is back on the wall, but not for long; Marie has the feeling he’s ogling her and doesn’t dare undress. We all had a great laugh about that. Aunt Coba is in the temporary hospital, and after six weeks of feeding, her weight is up to thirty-six kilograms. Still a long way to go.

And then, for the first time in a thousand-odd pages, he directly addresses the reader. It feels as if he turns to me and says hello – with sunken eyes, like the very last time, on his deathbed. And that’s how the diary ends, as abruptly as it began: Greetings, hear our joyous tones.

Did he actually want us to find it after his death, concealed behind a double partition in the bookcase in his consulting room? Doubt about whether I’m doing the right thing just won’t let up. What gives me the right to throw my father’s most intimate contemplations in all their nakedness onto the table and to let the world feast on them?

Even a very distant aunt can seriously derail me when I’m in that kind of mood. In her crackling timbre, she proceeds to chastise me over the phone: ‘‘No, Ivo, what you are doing isn’t right. You’re taking something that belongs to someone else, and that is theft. Theft carries with it a punishment.. In this instance, your punishment is your own conscience, which will gnaw away at you for the rest of your life.’’ Just before she hangs up, I’m dealt a final blow, like a whack from the magistrate’s gavel, hard and below the belt: ‘‘Neither your father nor your mother would have appreciated this.’’

Betraying your parents. Spinelessly waiting until they die, and then moving full speed ahead. What does that make me? And then, suddenly and naturally, the word materialises: a traitor.

I seek out alibis for my behaviour. At the same time, I’m trying to understand my father’s silence. Though my father thought that he could bury his past, Freud claims that everything we suppress keeps manifesting itself. My father never visited a psychiatrist, and he didn’t feel I needed to either. Even when I was wrestling with my own coming out, not only did he not help me, he vehemently advised me against seeking professional help – even after I’d clumsily attempted suicide. It was the first (and only) time he said out loud what he had been doing all his life.

We were sitting at the table, having just finished dinner. The dishes were cleared; the French doors to the garden were open on what was a lovely summer’s evening. He pushed his plate aside, and laid his arms upon the table. I heard some noises from the kitchen, and then he said: “It’s better to keep things to yourself. Talking everything through is a modern malady, a fad, and a farce. It’s best to solve matters alone and for yourself, because your foremost advisor in life is yourself.” He then got up, walked over to his chair, stuffed his pipe, and proceeded to read the newspaper.

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