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2014 Aaron Elson\


The Family Gross

By Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    From "Vignettes from a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands, 1940-45)

2001, 2008 Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    Many young people don’t realize how privileged they are to live in a non-occupied, free country. They accept their liberty as normal.

    I hope they will realize how lucky they are compared to young people who are living under a dictatorship. Freedom is one of the greatest values. The lack of freedom with its resulting anguish should never be forgotten. If the readers will admire and respect those who have died, and those who are still living – for having fought, and are fighting for freedom – I hope to have accomplished what I tried to tell in these short stories.

    In memory of my husband Bill, who was the first person to encourage me to write about my experiences as a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands, 1940-45.

The Family Gross

    A wintertime during the German occupation of the Netherlands.

    On that cold day in December my sister and I weren’t totally aware of the threatening world situation. We knew the German army had invaded Poland, but it was five months later before the Netherlands would be invaded. We frequently heard our parents talk with their friends about the lunatic, Hitler, and possible future German invasions. They kept the radio on all day, and formed political discussion groups with some of our neighbors. I was 14 years old and my mind was often on other things.

    I was annoyed with my sister Liet because after school let out, she couldn’t find her bike. This had happened more than once. She was in tears, insisting I should help her find it. I wished she weren’t so absent-minded and could remember where she’d parked it.

    Our search was in vain, and we rode home with her sitting behind me on the luggage carrier of my bike. A watery sun was setting. I pedaled fast, knowing our parents would worry if we weren’t home soon. Damp leaves twirled down on our heads from large oak trees, and stuck onto the spokes of my bike.

    Before reaching our neighborhood, we had to cross a wide avenue. Hearing drums and horns, I slowed down.

    "Oh, no," Liet groaned. "It must be the N.S.B. again."

    N.S.B. stood for National Socialist Board. This was a political party siding with the Nazis. Most Dutch people considered them traitors – which some of them turned out to be – after the German army conquered the Netherlands in May 1940.

- - -

    We couldn’t enter the avenue. We had to wait for the parade of the N.S.B. youth group marching by. At home we made fun of them, especially since they wore uniforms and black caps with an orange center. Our parents said they even had the audacity to call themselves members of the House of Orange, and thought how ridiculous that was. The House of Orange for centuries represented the Dutch Royal Family, and here these morons were enthusiastically supporting Nazi politics!

    As we moved back onto the sidewalk Liet said, over the band’s racket, "They are acting like the Hitler Jugend." (Hitler’s Youth Party.) I could hardly hear her.

    "What do you mean?" I yelled.

    She put her mouth to my ear. "Don’t you know anything? Don’t you listen to your history teacher?"

    She sounded indignant. We waited impatiently for the marchers to pass. There were about 30 of them, reminding us of German soldiers we had seen in the movies. I recognized a boy in the group of marchers who lived a block away. He threw me half a smile, but I pretended not to see him. My parents often urged us not to associate with any member of the N.S.B.

    After the group had passed, Liet slid again onto the luggage carrier as I grabbed the bike’s handles. It seemed very quiet entering the first side street; only a few cars and bikers passed us. Most people were probably at home, listening to the latest British broadcast.

    After a short ride across the first cobblestoned street, Liet pulled at my coat. "Stop!" she called. "Can’t you feel the rear tire is flat?" Oh no. Now we had to walk the rest of the way or the tire would be ruined. So we walked and talked.

    Liet told me about her terrific history teacher who started each lesson with: "We live in a time when history is in the making." He also predicted that before long the soldiers of Hitler’s Herrenvolk (master race) would overrun our country. Yesterday he had said: "Look around you. How many pupils here have already fled from Germany? In this class of 25, there are 13 German pupils."

    I was shocked. "You don’t mean to say that he meant Jewish kids, like Ilsa Gross? How embarrassed they must have been. Weren’t you angry with him, Liet?"

    "Here, it’s my turn to push the bike," she said, and went on. "No, I think he didn’t mean to be unkind. He wanted us to be aware of the truth. Ilsa’s brother, Helmut, called out, ‘Sure, I am one of them, a German Jew, and proud of it. Don’t think many of us will still be here when the Nazis come to kill us!’ Miriam Cohen started to cry and ran out of the room."

    "No wonder," I said, angrily kicking a stone along as we walked.

    "Say, Liet, do you think the Nazis really kill Jews? I heard they send them to work camps. What do they have against Jewish people anyway?"

    "I don’t know." Liet shrugged her shoulders.

    "Do you know what Ilsa told me? I asked her why we never see her parents anymore. Remember, when they just moved across from us last summer?"

    Liet hoisted her book bag onto the bike’s seat, and said, "She’s your friend. I never talked much with her. Besides Helmut, doesn’t she have two little brothers?"

    "Yes, they’re cute. Ilsa and I used to take them to the park to play on the slides and swings. Last week she told me some awful things. For instance, last year, on the 9th of November, the Nazis smashed Jewish shop windows and burned synagogues in Germany. They call it the Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, and Hitler’s Brownshirts broke anything belonging to Jews they could lay their hands on, like they took over her father’s factory. Ilsa also told me that in 1935 her father had listened by radio to the Nazis’ rally in Nuremburg and heard Hitler boast that he’d made a new law depriving the Jews of German citizenship. After that her family, and about half of the Jewish people they knew, left Germany."

    "How do the Grosses know what happened last November since they had moved here by then?" Liet asked.

    "Ilsa’s parents have contact with a secret international Jewish news center."

    "She shouldn’t have told you that," Liet said. "Nor should you blab that about. You know our parents are involved in an anti-Nazi movement. I heard them talk with the Fenstras about setting up a secret center where Jewish immigrants can stay until they move to England. Didn’t they tell you not to mention such things to anyone?"

    I shrugged. She handed the bike back to me. My turn to push. Then she asked, "How come the Grosses speak Dutch so well?"

    "Oh, I thought you knew Mrs. Gross is Dutch, and they always speak it at home. Actually, the last time I saw Ilsa was more than a week ago. She was almost in tears when she told me her father hardly talks anymore or else he yells, especially when he complains to her mother that they don’t have the money to move to England. She said that they were recently informed that her father’s brother and sister-in-law with their children, in Germany, had been taken to a "work camp." There, her cousins with her aunt were separated from her uncle and they never heard from them again. She also told me that those camps were actually concentration camps where people were starved, tortured, and gassed. Do you believe the Germans would do that, Liet?"

    "I find it hard to believe. Remember our boat trip along the Rhine five years ago? No, you were too little. The Germans there were very friendly. After all, geographically speaking, they are our neighbors. I just can’t understand how they could do such horrible things."

    "Well, Ilsa’s mother has terrible headaches but tries to be cheerful with Ilsa’s little brothers who fight all the time. Her father doesn’t allow the boys to leave their home. Only Ilsa may occasionally go out, early in the morning, to do the grocery shipping. I think I’ll go and see her tomorrow. I haven’t seen her at school lately. Perhaps she’s ill."

    I was glad to see we were only a block away from our home. Turning the last corner, we saw Moeder beckoning from the porch where she’d been anxiously waiting for us. I shoved my bike under the stairs. Liet laughed.

    "Look!" she said. "There’s my bike! I forgot I walked to school this morning." That Liet, she could be such a nuisance. Moeder embraced us warmly, saying our meal was waiting for us. After supper we did the dishes and finished our homework, while our parents went to one of their meetings.

    Once in bed, I kept thinking about Ilsa, deciding to pick her up for school in the morning. When I had mentioned it to Moeder, she said that she and Vader also hadn’t seen Ilsa’s parents for a while. The Grosses used to stop by at least once a week. Moeder said she would call on them the next afternoon.

- - -

    I woke up at 6:30; washed, packed my books, and ran downstairs. As I was hunting for my coat, Moeder called, "You’re not leaving already? Have your breakfast first." I told her I was going to ask Ilsa if she’d ride to school with me today.

    "Good idea," Moeder said. "Ask Mrs. Gross if she needs anything from the butcher, and tell her I’ll stop by later." I left my books in the hallway and went out the front door. I pulled my coat tighter around me. I could see my breath making puffy clouds before me as I skipped across cracks in the stones to Ilsa’s front door. I climbed the steps of the stoop, but once at the door something seemed to prevent me from ringing the doorbell. In an instant I knew what it was. There was not a sound behind the door. Usually I could hear voices, most often Ilsa’s little brothers, or the sound of their running footsteps. I brought my hand up to ring … hesitated. Would they still be asleep? No, they were always up and about at this time. Still … they might be sleeping in. Somehow I just couldn’t disturb them. Perhaps they were ill, as Liet had thought. I stepped down to look in the front window of the kitchen. Usually I could see Mrs. Gross at the stove. Not this time. It surprised me that the curtains were drawn. Only a few inches were open at the bottom. I still didn’t hear a sound … and looked furtively around me before I bent over to look inside. The kitchen light wasn’t on, but the hall light threw long shadows through the door opening.

    When I saw them … I couldn’t believe my eyes. Were they all asleep at the kitchen table? … They didn’t move. … What was going on? … I shivered with fear, turned, and ran back home.

    Vader and Liet were having breakfast when I burst in and yelled, "Come quickly! Vader, Moeder, there’s something wrong with the Grosses! Hurry! Hurry!"

    "Calm down. Sit down," Vader hushed me. I could barely control my tears.

    "I’m coming, dear," Moeder said, getting her coat. I pulled her by her hand until we were in front of Ilsa’s kitchen window.

    "Look, Moeder. Here, below, through the opening in the curtains." I almost pushed her down. Then she saw … Mr. and Mrs. Gross each had a little son on their lap. They, as well as Ilsa and Helmut, had one arm clasped around their heads, which were lying sideways on the table, and with the other hand they held each other’s hands.

    "Mijn God," Moeder said. "Mijn God."

    I felt her tremble behind me; she then turned and gagged. Her face was very pale.

    "What’s the matter with them? Why are they sleeping there?"

    She hugged me tightly and said, "Their sleep is eternal, child. The oven door is wide open. They have gassed themselves and their children."

- - - -

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