On May 6, 1969 I was one of some fifty deck passengers who left Israel on the ferry Haifa - Rhodes - Athens. The term “deck passengers” should be taken literally. We were confined to the deck for the whole voyage. Fortunately, the weather was good. Everybody shared their food and whatever they were smoking. In Rhodes we were able to stock up on new food. The experience was a novelty for me.
I met Suzanne on that trip. I met her again a few months later in Amsterdam when I settled there. She introduced me to René. A small, wiry, balding man of indeterminate age. Though I estimate that he was about ten years older than me.
René took a liking to me and started coming round to visit. I was his only friend. He was usually agitated. His conversation was invariably about a new conflict with someone who had wronged him. He got into fights as well. He did not sleep much at night and used to listen to his police scanner instead.
René was a Dutch Jew. As a child during the Second World War he had been hidden in umpteen hiding places. His complete family perished in the Holocaust, except for his mother who had survived a concentration camp. He once showed me a thick wad of papers with the names of his relatives who had been killed.
He had a small suitcase. This was filled with a multitude of pills for his mental and physical problems. They all had a different colour, an impressive palette.
He lived in a cheap flat on the Jacob van Lennepkade. His mother had a ground floor flat in the old Jewish neighborhood of Rivierenbuurt. During the war it had been confiscated from her and given to Nazi-sympathizers. However, the London Cabinet (Dutch government in exile) ruled that the confiscations of property were illegal. So after the war it was returned to her.
Together with a bill from the municipality for back taxes. As the confiscations had been ruled illegal, she was liable for all the municipal taxes on the flat that had not been paid during the war. She was also fined for not paying the taxes on time.
When René was angry with his mother, he used to hit her. Sometimes quite hard. It was exasperation and self-control was not one of his strong points. As far as I know, she never fought back. He told me that he once opened one of her cupboards and was surprised to find it full of tins of canned food. He then looked around the flat and found that all the cupboards were full of canned food. There were even tins under her bed. He kicked her for that.
René’s mother reminded me of other camp survivors I had met. They had survived but lived in constant fear that it would happen again. Eventually they withdrew into their cocoon of pain and stopped functioning. That is why he was so upset by the hoarding. She was sinking into the paralyzing fear of the past. He wanted her to carry on living, keep being his mother.
In the beginning René was a novelty for me, but that wore off. He became a bore. He had little education, no religion, no politics and was always complaining about something that did not interest me. So there was no chance of having an intellectual conversation with him. And at that time I was very big on profound intellectual conversations about the human condition.
I started trying to avoid him. After all, I was not a social worker. When he came to the front door and I knew it was him, I hid until he went away. Sometimes I forgot to check and opened the door to find him standing there. Then I thought up a story and said I had to leave in a few minutes. I never contacted him. He eventually started to get the message. The weeks between his visits became months and finally he stopped coming altogether.
Recently I came across his name on the internet. He had died in 2013.
In the Jewish religion relatives say a prayer for the dead after someone dies. This prayer is called kaddish. René had no relatives when he died and I do not think anyone said kaddish for him. The prayer is said again annually on the anniversary of the death (the annual yahrzeit). Friends can also say it. May my old friend René rest in peace. I was thinking that I might say kaddish for him on his annual yahrzeit.
At least until the novelty wears off and it becomes a bore.