Gathering clouds

A gripping story that takes place in the Amsterdam ghetto, 1943 – as experienced by the author’s father.

Author (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
Although spring is approaching, it remains cold and bleak. It is the end of April and the oppressive dampness of the last few weeks only increases the longing for spring. The buds on the trees in our street are thick and need only the least ray of sun to open them up. The grass on the embankment in front of our house is turning light green. Everything indicates that nature is renewing itself. Birds sing and are busy building their nests. Our life should be in step with this natural course.
The equilibrium that we ought to enjoy in order to build up our young family is being impeded by the German occupation forces that are restricting the freedom of the Jews. The independence of the Dutch Jews is becoming increasingly limited from day to day. No day seems to pass without a new decree being issued which we Jews have to obey.
At the beginning of the month, our small family was forced by the authorities to move from Zwolle to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Until then we had always managed to avoid this move. Due to my position as deputy headmaster of the Jewish grammar school in Enschede, this enforced removal was continually put off. Then the school was closed and the pupils sent away to an unknown destination. Last year on November 11 my wife and I were told to report to Amsterdam and were sent to the Hollandsche Schouwburg [former Jewish theater where Jews were rounded up before deportation]. My wife – then about seven months pregnant – managed to pretend that she was in her ninth month and could give birth at any moment. She was given permission to return home to have her baby. Because of her constant insistence that she could not leave without me, I also got permission to leave the Schouwburg with her.
The window of our room on the Tugelaweg, where the three of us now live, looks over the railway embankment.
The rails shine after the rain and disappear in a wide curve over the viaduct of the Weesperstraat. The former inhabitants have left the curtains hanging and a worn piece of linoleum lies on the floor. The atmosphere is musty and impersonal. In some places the wallpaper is torn and has turned yellow. How many families have lived here recently? I would have liked to have taken my books along, but in spite of this desire I have already given them up for safekeeping last September to a good non-Jewish friend. Opposite the window in the corner is our bed and next to it, the cot. In the middle of our room is a wooden table with two chairs. The two suitcases, with our names and dates of birth written in white letters, stand on the floor in the corner by the window. On the other side of the window, piles of papers needed every day lie on a small low table.
IT IS still early in the morning. My wife is busy packing the few baby clothes that we have for our son. I am holding the large yellow envelope containing the ketuba, our marriage certificate, and a few photos that I prepared a few days ago to accompany our child. This new life that we created and that should have brought us light in these dark times – today we must part with it. With the envelope still clasped in my hands, I stand in front of the window, weak-kneed, and stare through it, looking outside. The approaching departure of our child makes me sick at heart. A feeling of unreality, having no future and being prey to the all-pervading hatred against us Jews makes me despondent. It is a fight that is lost before it has even begun. The stream of rumours never stops and is confirmed by the announcements of the deaths of our friends and relatives.
In order to be sure that our child is not in any danger, we have taken the step of sending him to a safer place. Far away from any evil, far away from us, with an unknown family to whom we have blindly entrusted our child. There is simply no other way. I have done everything to avoid the stranglehold of the anti-Jewish measures. As a teenager, I gradually realized that I had to work on my Jewish identity in order to continue functioning as a Jew. The combination of the religion and having our own Jewish nation in Palestine is the only basis for a real Jewish existence.
My library of Zionist books grew and kept pace with the longing to build Palestine as a halutz (“pioneer”). I took part in nearly all Zionist activities. I gave talks about Zionism and tried to inspire my audiences. Before our marriage, my wife and I dreamt of our aliya and prepared ourselves for the heavy physical work awaiting us in far-off Palestine. Even in these dark times we have carried on with these preparations. We reported to the Vocational Training course of the Palestine Pioneers and worked as farmers on the land in the province of Gelderland.
Father was arrested and sent to a labor camp in Drente, from where he was later sent on to meet his death. Notice of his passing came more or less at the same time as our application to go on aliya with Palestinian documents.
The feeling that sending Jews away by train to labor camps in the east had something to do with death was confirmed by a notice from one of the camps that father had died, together with the additional terrible news that my wife’s father and her brother had suffered the same fate.
I gently tried to tell Mother about our planned departure.
She had neither the strength nor the courage to let us go and I postponed our planned emigration. When we were finally prepared to carry out our plans against her wishes, it was too late and it was no longer possible to realize our dream.
GOING INTO hiding and living with an unknown, non-Jewish family was the only way to save our skins. Even this step was not without danger. Betrayal resulted in the immediate deportation of those who hid and those who offered them shelter. The preparations to go into hiding had already been made. Before the order was issued that Jews were no longer allowed to work in government service, I worked as an assistant inspector for the municipality of Arnhem and surrounding areas. While I was employed, I got to know my director very well and appreciated him highly. A sense of justice is deeply ingrained in him and is the uppermost whenever difficult moments arise. After my forced resignation, he also kept in contact with me and helped me with various job applications.
We often spoke of the German occupation and the measures taken against the Jews.
In one of these conversations, he confessed that he had contacts with the resistance and he offered to find a hiding place for our family. We agreed that if he thought it necessary we would disappear, he would warn us, and if I felt that it would be safer to go into hiding, I would let him know. In July of last year, I heard that he had been taken hostage and was being held in Haaren together with another 250 well-known citizens and that it was therefore dangerous to contact his wife.
Forced by these circumstances, I managed to tell his wife that we first wanted to make sure our son was safe by letting him go into hiding. This decision to give our little treasure away to strangers who meant our very future, touched us to the quick. To hand over to others something so tender, precious and dependent left us speechless with unfathomable despair.
The sorrow that came from our desperation cannot be expressed in words. Torn and full of doubt, as the day drew nearer we were filled with dread and foreboding.
At the sound of the doorbell I hold the envelope even tighter, making my knuckles white. I turn around abruptly and look at my wife. Our eyes meet. Our common grief can be read in each other’s eyes.
THE TRAIN from Utrecht approaches the Amsterdam-Amstel station at about 11 o’clock. Two women sit beside each other in one of the second-class carriages. As the journey progresses, their conversation peters out. They look through the window without really seeing the landscape racing past. Both women hide their inner stress. Early that morning mother and daughter have left their house in Oosterbeek (near Arnhem) to travel to Amsterdam in order to return later that day. It is raining, the air is gray and it is cold, too cold for the time of year. The noise of the wheels going over the rails is monotonous. The young blonde woman with blue eyes looks sideways at her mother and seeks contact to make it clear by means of her intense look that in spite of her 17 years she is capable of carrying out the difficult task she has taken upon herself. The very moment she was asked by her mother to help her and to travel with her to Amsterdam, she did not hesitate for a second and agreed immediately. Both women prepared themselves for this journey and thought of everything that might happen to ensure that it would be successful.
The unknown mission that they must accomplish cannot be entirely foreseen and is certainly not without danger. When her father was taken as a hostage, the daughter’s carefree youth was cut short. This also increased his wife’s burden. The uncertainty about whether their house will eventually be confiscated by the occupier hangs over the family like a dark cloud.
If this journey is a disaster and if they are arrested, then the fate of the husband who is being held hostage will be sealed. What motivated them were purely humanitarian considerations. Well-reasoned and thoroughly thought through, they both accepted their assignment and are, without a single moment of hesitation, prepared to do everything to bring this journey to a successful conclusion.
THE TRAIN enters the station, the brakes squeal and it comes abruptly to a halt. The two women stand up slowly and shuffle to the door along with the other passengers.
A blast of cold wind greets them in the main entrance. A man’s voice booms through the loudspeakers announcing something.
German soldiers walk over the platform in their dark green unif o r m s , shamelessly looking at everyone. Mother and daughter walk quickly to the stairs leading down, and hand over their tickets to the ticket collector waiting at the exit. They are now in the main entrance to the station.
It is buzzing with many voices and the din combined with the announcements from the loudspeakers makes the atmosphere impersonal.
The two women leave the station in anonymity.
Once outside, the grayness of the weather and the look on the faces of the people in the street weigh heavily on them.
Concentrating on their task, they cross the square and walk in the direction of the Jewish quarter to the address they have been given. The trees in the street are still bare, but they are full of buds and can burst open at any moment. The grass on the embankment is renewing itself and is light green in color. It is cold and bleak. Both women walk on determinedly, the click of their heels resounding in the empty street. They scrutinize the house numbers. The houses look sad and uninhabited. There are few people about because of the bad weather. The chance that they will be stopped and asked about the purpose of their visit to the ghetto is small.
Just a few more houses and then they are there. They stand in front of the number they have been given. After having made sure that no one is paying any attention to them, the mother rings the bell.
A few moments later the door opens. The two women enter quickly and close the door behind them. They look up in the semi-darkness and see the figure of a man, who quickly disapp e a r s .
T h e y slowly climb the rickety, narrow stairs. The steps are worn away, evidence of the many feet that have walked on them. The walls look grubby, giving the stairwell an impoverished appearance. One of the doors stands ajar and a baby’s crying greets them. They notice the poverty and resignation as they enter the living room. The four people greet each other sadly.
Questions sally back and forth about their domestic arrangements. Little remains of the zeal and resilience of the young couple. They stand helpless before them with their arms hanging down. Circumstances have brought them to a humiliating situation which defies justification.
The table is set for tea. The drink warms the body but not the soul. The child has stopped crying as if he feels that the moment has arrived to say goodbye to his parents. He looks around the room with his blue eyes and observes the movements of each individual separately. The parents are faced with the heartbreaking decision to give away their child, their precious possession, to others – to strangers in the hope that when the terrible misery of this awful war has passed, they can see their child once more. The dreadful pain in their hearts can be read on their faces.
The father strokes the dark hair of the child with one hand. In the other he still clutches the large envelope. The mother takes the envelope from his hand and puts it in the bag with the baby clothes.
Then she turns and takes her child from its cot. She skillfully changes his diaper, puts his jacket on and places a cap on his dark curly hair. She gives the baby tenderly to the father, who can no longer hold back his tears. With his free hand, he draws his wife towards him and the three of them embrace.
Mother and daughter are motionless and deeply affected by this heartbreaking and tender farewell.
They feel as if they are nailed to the ground and sob uncontrollably. They pray in silence from the depth of their hearts, that this tragedy caused by the unrelenting hatred towards Jews should not be paid for with the life of this young and promising family. It is time to part.
The two women from Oosterbeek stumble down the stairs. The daughter carries the baby and the mother the bag. Speechless, they say their tearful goodbyes. Their hearts torn by this deeply tragic event, both walk towards the station, leaving behind the young couple with a terrible emptiness.
Epilogue: The young girl at the time of this story was 17 years old. After years of trying to reconstruct exactly what happened, I found her living in the Netherlands 51 years after she took me in her arms and brought me into hiding, acting as a young mother.
I called Christine Schwencke, and I introduced myself: “Mrs. Schwencke, my name is Tswi Herschel and I am calling you from Israel.”
She replied instantly: “Are you the son of Nico and Ammy?” My answer was affirmative.
Her reaction was: “My God, it is as if I have found my lost son again!” After a short period of emotional silence she continued: “I did not know that you are alive. This is so emotional; I cannot express my joy and happiness that you called me.”
She told me the full story when we met a few weeks later. We became family.
I have great admiration and profound respect for my parents and all the parents who, with indescribable pain in their hearts, had to entrust their children to strangers in the hope that their own flesh and blood should live.
This life that they granted to us should be cherished and passed on.
We, the child survivors of the Holocaust, must open ourselves up and recount our grief to our offspring in order to allow them to build their lives in peace and tranquility.