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A New Rule

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

   (The winter of 1943. I was a teenager.)

    Under the German occupation we didn’t have any fuel. At night, in bed, under piles of blankets and coats, we huddled close to preserve our body heat. My parents slept on the outside of the mattress. We children were given the middle. As such, my parents were only warm on one side. And, oh, how cold their feet were!

    There was a remedy for this. Two fiber mats were placed at each side of the bed. After getting up, my parents scraped their feet back and forth on those mats to get their circulation going. With chattering teeth they dressed and pulled us out of bed to start the day.

    "Run, run to get warm!" we were told. We ran up and down the stairs, poking and teasing each other as Moeder carefully cut one slice of rationed bread for each of us. Vader tried to shave with cold water, frequently cutting himself.

    No electricity, no heat, no hot water.

    Vader was the first to leave home and walk to work, refusing to take one of the few overcrowded streetcars where, due to lack of soap and hot water, fleas and lice played hide and seek among the closely packed passengers.

    Moeder left our home to stand in line, hoping the butcher might have some broth to distribute. The German army brought him meat (stolen from our farmers) to prepare. Occasionally he managed to scrounge some broth for his neighbors.

    One icy December morning, the other girls and I parked our bikes, and ran up the wide marble steps into the high school. Originally the building had been a mansion. It had been built in the 1700s, and the pillars and winding staircases were still there. Although cool in the summer, now, without heat, it was as cold as a mausoleum.

    We stood shivering in the hallway until the bell rang, and were told that we could keep our coats, caps and mittens on.

    My classroom was on the third floor. Miss Bow, the teacher, stood in front of the door and told us to wait for the Principal who would have a special message for us.

    The Principal – who we called the Peanut because of her odd shape – was a kind, but strict no-nonsense woman. Soon she arrived and clapped her hands, which meant silence. She told us to move quietly to our desks.

    "Without exclamations," she added.

    It was so dark in the classroom. We looked at one another, wondering why all the windows were covered with heavy brown paper. The Principal brought her index finger to her lips; another sign for silence.

    "Before I hear any questions or curious remarks, I’ll tell you girls why this room has been somewhat changed."

    She sighed, pulled the sides of her girdle down, raised her eyes heavenward, and said:

    "We have a new rule."

    We kept mum. All of us waited for what would come next.

    "The rule is, girls, that no one, not any of you will be permitted to look out the windows anymore. She adjusted some loose pins in the braid around her head.

    "I know. I know," she went on. "I can read in your eyes that you wish to know WHY."

    She threw an especially stern look in my direction. I always asked questions.

    "I cannot tell you why. I have informed your parents of this decision and they totally agree. None of you must try to remove the paper or tear it. Don’t even go near the windows. Is that understood?"

    Several girls, as well as I, raised our hands to ask for the reason, but she said, "That’s all I have to say. Furthermore, any of you who break this rule will be seriously punished." She turned on her heel and left the room.

    Immediately we inundated Miss Bow with questions.

    "Why can’t we look out the windows?"

    "Do we have to sit in the dark all the time?"

    "Ja!" one girl called. "Why are we kept in the dark about this? My parents told me nothing."

    The teacher nervously twisted her handkerchief between her gloved hands.

    "Listen, girls," she said. "Perhaps I can explain the reason for this to some extent. Yes, it is dark in here, and since there’s no more electricity and the last candles were burned yesterday, we just have to make the best of the situation. You all know that the German embassy is located right next door. You may have seen the soldiers – uh, personnel – drive in and out of the parking lot or walking through the alley below. I guess there may have been complaints about you watching them from the windows."

    "So what? Don’t they like to see pretty Dutch girls?" a jokester called. Laughter rolled through the room until Miss Bow distracted us by distributing our essay assignments. Soon we were busy writing, our eyes glued closely to the paper, and intermittently blowing on our cold bemittened hands.

    After the first hour was over we had to wait for the French teacher to enter. Since I was a rather talkative and troublesome pupil, I had been exiled to the last desk in the room, directly next to one of the windows. I had frequently had seen cars come and go, and stiff-necked soldiers smoking in the alley. I didn’t like their loud guffawing and yelling, and their hobnailed boots clattering on the cobblestones. Occasionally one of them had looked up and waved, and I had quickly withdrawn. After all, those men were our enemies! Waiting for the teacher gave me time to think.

    "Why this strange new rule?" I planned to ask my parents. I could already hear Vader, who so often said: "There are too many unreasonable rules in our small country. Some of them ask to be broken."

    Last Sunday Vader took us for a walk in the countryside and we saw a sign which read: "Forbidden to enter."

    Vader laughed, saying, "Come on kids, let’s walk this way. Since it’s forbidden no one will come here, so it must be undisturbed and probably beautiful."

    It was a very nice small wood. We were silent in awe of it. When my brother later told Moeder about it, she scolded us and said we’d get into trouble doing such things. But Vader grinned.

    "Rules are meant to be broken!" he exclaimed. My parents didn’t often disagree but this was one of those times they did.

    Waiting for the teacher, with nothing to do, my mind started working. "This new rule is silly. I better find out why we can’t look outside. I’m going to find out what’s going on down there."

    The other girls stood in a clump, giggling, probably telling off-color jokes. I leaned sideways against my desk and surreptitiously began to pull a bit of the tape at the corner of the nearest panel. Just then the teacher came in and we quickly sat at our desks.

    It had been a long, cold day, and on my way home my feet felt like lumps of ice. To my pleasant surprise, Vader had chopped up one of the closet doors, and a tiny fire in the hearth warmed and cheered us up. I forgot all about asking my parents about "the new rule" at my school that night. Once in bed I decided I better not tell them about it. I didn’t like it when they disagreed with each other.

    The next few days, between classes, I leaned with my back against the window, and put my hands behind me, so no one could see me picking away at the tape. I thought, "If I make a small opening in the corner, it may look as if the tape has come loose of its own accord." I felt pretty foxy, because no one seemed to notice what I was doing. Still, I would have to bend over if I wanted to look through the small opening I’d made. That might arouse suspicion.

    At last! Three days later I had succeeded in making a small hole, big enough to peek through. The question was: How could I do this without anyone noticing? If someone, anyone, especially one of the teachers, would see me look out, I’d be in trouble.

    That afternoon an opportunity presented itself. We were called into the main hall for a lecture. Once there, I told the teacher that I’d forgotten my notebook and asked her if I could go back and get it. She gave me permission and said to make it quick.

    I ran back to the window, looked around to make sure nobody saw me, and glued my eye to the hole in the paper. I wished I hadn’t done so, and yet I couldn’t tear myself away from the gruesome spectacle below. I felt the hairs in my neck stiffen. I began to shiver uncontrollably.

    Four SS men, two on each side, held six men with their hands tied behind their backs, between them. Three of them were facing my way and I could see they were Jews, because they were wearing the yellow star of David on their coats. The SS men laughed, yelled, and spit at the Jews. I froze inside and clasped my nauseous stomach. With their nailed boots, they started kicking the men’s heads and faces. Blood spattered everywhere, yet the Jews didn’t make a sound.

    Never had I seen such horror! I leaned across my desk and vomited. Screams poured from my mouth. I screamed, and screamed, and stumbled out of the room into the hall where two teachers came running toward me.

    "What’s the matter? Where do you think you’re going?" they asked as they firmly clasped my arms.

    "Let me go, let me go!" I spat out, and tried to wrestle free.

    "I’m going down there and scratch their eyes out! Those dirty bastards!" I yelled.

    Now the Principal came. She told the teachers to let me go and put her arm across my shoulder.

    "Come, come with me to my office, dear girl," she coaxed. You must be tired."

    Suddenly I felt exhausted and let her guide me.

    In her office, she suggested I lie down on the sofa. She covered me with a blanket, tenderly stroked my hair, and put a damp towel on my forehead. I began to relax somewhat.

    "Now tell me what happened," she said.

    "I saw those dirty Moffen kicking Jewish men around. I’ll go down there and kick them around, and see how they’d like that!"

    "If you’d try that, what do you think they would do to you?" she asked.

    "I don’t care," I sobbed.

    "Well, I do," she said. "You would be arrested and maybe even taken to a concentration camp. Since I’m responsible for your behavior, they might also arrest me, and the school would be closed. Now I want you to calm down and think. Use your head. Of course I should have known you wouldn’t follow the new rule. But," she sighed, "I think you’ve been punished enough for breaking it."

    She gently massaged my back until I fell asleep.

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