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
(Autumn. Sometime during the German occupation)
I was sitting in the window seat in my room when I heard the clattering of hob-nailed boots on the cobblestones below. Looking down, I saw two helmeted German soldiers, accompanied by an arrogant looking officer, march by our house. When they stopped in front of the neighbor's door, the soldiers loudly banged on it with their rifle butts. I became as tense as a cat after a mouse. It was a "razzia" and I knew what they were after.
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The Dutch population had been informed that they had to deliver their radios to the German Occupation Forces.
People were kidding sarcastically: "The Moffen (Germans) don't want us to know that the Russians are pushing their army back!"
Not many citizens handed their radios over, only those who were afraid their kids would tell friends at school that their parents listened to the BBC. This had happened a few times. Some of those friends had parents who were members of the NSB -- National Socialist Party -- or traitors. The parents would report this to the invaders. They, in turn, would arrest those citizens and send them to forced labor or concentration camps.
This time, however, the occupation army was after something else. They were aware of the fact that radio receivers were operating in our neighborhood. Not too long ago one of my friends was arrested when she was distributing typed notes, derived from the latest BBC news. Her task, as a member of the Underground, was to trade the notes for food with those families who still had enough to share. She then would take the groceries to people who were hiding Jews in their home, and were short on food. Our Underground group was concerned about her. We didn't as yet know where she had been taken, and although she never carried a list of names of the food donors, she might be persuaded in several cruel ways to divulge information.
Another member, who had managed to escape from a transfer prison, had burn marks all over her face where the occupiers had applied lighted cigarettes to make her talk. Also, recently, every male between the ages of 16 and 60 was supposed to report his whereabouts, in order to be deported to work in the German munitions factories. Naturally, not many boys or men of that age were seen on the streets anymore, because some had already been arrested there.
My best friend, Kees Vleema, lived in a house at the end of our block. He was 24 years old and rarely left his home. Since I was only 14 and small for my age, I could move about more freely and was able to assist him with his resistance work. He would hang a white handkerchief from his window when he was going to listen to the BBC, which also meant that I could help him take notes, especially when Churchill was the speaker.
Kees had an interesting set-up. At the end of the second floor, in the bathroom, he cleverly hid a small radio. He had sawed a hole under the tub, just large enough to fit the radio, and the hinged cover was made of tiles matching the rest of the floor. This way the radio could quickly be retrieved and returned to its hiding place.
I went back to the living room. The butts of rifles were banging on the front door.
"What to do next?" I wondered as I re-entered the living room. Mrs. Vleema, her face a chalk-white, sat down across from me at the tea table. We saw that Kees had forgotten to take the radio with him and we looked at each other with fear-filled eyes. The front door cracked open with splintering sounds. I'll never forget Mrs. Vleema's presence of mind. She quickly picked up the tea cozy from the teapot and placed it over the radio. I thanked God that the radio was small enough to be totally hidden.
We sat frozen in our places as we heard the soldiers yell at the old neighbor lady, then as they made their way up the stairs, shooting randomly at the walls and hall closet, adjacent to the bathroom where Kees was hiding.
Barging into the room, they shot under the couch and into closet doors. Meanwhile, their officer leaned against the doorpost, slapping his little stick against the gloved palm of his left hand. He asked us if we spoke German.
We stared straight past him and didn't answer. He softened his voice and said insultingly that he knew we spoke German, but were rude enough not to answer him. He asked if we had a radio in the house.
Again we stared ahead and didn't answer. The soldiers threw clothes out of the closet, poked around in drawers, opened and shut the windows, and, for one or another crazy reason, shot into the ceiling.
Was Mrs. Vleema, like me, wondering if Kees had been shot?
"Gibst nichts hier" ("Nothing here"), one of the soldiers said. The officer beckoned and they marched down the hall. We could hear the sounds of their boots on the bathroom tiles.
"Was Kees still alive? Was he all right?" I wondered.
Next we heard them march upstairs to the bedrooms and go through the same routine of searching and random shooting.
At last it was over. They clattered down the stairs and slammed the front door shut. We could hear the old lady in the downstairs hallway.
I looked at Kees' mother and was shocked to see her face turn a deep red. We waited a moment in the deadly silence.
"I'll get Kees," I stammered. She merely nodded.
When I removed the panel from Kees' hiding place, he turned his head sideways and grinned at me.
"How the hell did I ever get in here? I wonder if I can get out?" I reached out for him and soon we embraced tightly.
"How's Moeder?" he asked.
When we entered the living room, there she sat, clutching the tea cozy tightly to her chest, her face a deep purple.
Her heart had stopped.
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