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2014, Aaron Elson


A Fatal Mistake and a Good Samaritan

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

    Sirens howled. Second by second, ear-splitting and screaming. Their squealing sounds made me tremble as I stepped off my bike. People gathered.

    "What now?" they yelled through the noise. "Why safety signals when the danger signals haven’t even sounded?" Many went back into their homes, shaking their heads. A girl my age and a man looked up and pointed.

    High above the northern part of the city large squadrons of huge planes were flying southward. The man moved close to my side.

    "Something’s gone haywire," he said loudly, staring up. "They’re going in the wrong direction. They’re bombers and not flying to Germany. British, I think. Where the hell are they going?"

    Frightened, we looked at each other, then up at the planes whose motors now were clearly audible. It seemed as if they were slowly descending. Steadily, they moved towards us, the sky darkening minute by minute. The man told me to hide. He raced away on his bike. The bombers rumbled right above me. Fierce whistling tore through the air, turning my surroundings into a black nightmare. I happened to be in front of my aunt’s house. I got off my bike and banged on the door with both fists until she opened the door. It was the last time I saw her. Heavy air suction pulled her back into the cracking house.

    The handles of my bike flew upward out of my grip. Then the bike jettisoned into the air like a staggering horse and was gone. Fear stabbed through me when the monstrous eggs fell around me in billowing clouds filling with plaster, wood, bricks, and shrapnel. I clasped my hands against my ears. Then, with a whoosh, I was lifted up and up, into the hellish roiling mass. Like a trapeze artist my body made turns in the air. Kandinsky’s paintings of flying creatures entered my mind. "Had they been in such immense pain as I?" It was as if my bones twisted and bent inside my skin. Next I was pushed down, forcefully thrown onto the sidewalk. I felt as if I disappeared. I found myself lying on a cart among several moaning, wounded people. A woman vomited on my skirt. Another coughed up blood. I hoped I would pass out again. I thought I was in Breughel’s hell. The pain in my head was unbearable. Their moaning made me want to get away from these weak, suffering people. Two men were pushing the cart.

    "Stop!" I called. "Where are we going? Let me down."

    "Now, Miss, you better lie quiet. We’re taking you to the hospital."

    "No way! Let me down. I have to go to my grandmother! She lives at the north side of town."

    "If you can make it by yourself, we’ve room for another." They helped me down, leaving me propped against a tree on the grass near the canal. I cried and cried.

    There was a gentle tap on my shoulder.

    "May I help you?" a low soft voice asked.

    "I don’t know. I can’t see you. I don’t know where I am."

    "Perhaps you can see me if I sit down at your side," a man said, hunkering next to me.

    "You have some shrapnel above your eyes and across your cheek. I can clean that up a bit if you’ll let me."

    All I could mumble was, "Yes, please."

    I could hear him tear some cloth. He said his handkerchief was large and clean. He lightly dabbed and bound my forehead. I could see again!

    "It was just some blood trickling over your eyes. I’ll wrap another makeshift bandage across your cheek. I’ll try not to hurt you." My mind overflowed with gratitude for his kindness.

    "Do you think you can stand up? Your legs seem swollen, but they don’t look like they’re broken." He helped me up, suggesting I hold onto the tree while he moved his bike to my side.

    "I’m glad you’re tall enough so that you may be able to slide onto the luggage rack. Can you manage that?"

    I could, and did.

    "With your added weight it’s impossible for me to get onto the saddle. Besides, you might slide off. I’ll walk and push you. Where are you planning to go?"

    "To my grandparents at the north side of town. I was evacuated and haven’t seen them for a month. They don’t even know yet where I live."

    I thought, I can imagine Grandma on her knees, praying.

    "What street do they live on?" I told him. He put my hand on his shoulder for support. We moved slowly forward.

    "I smell something burning. Is there a fire?"

    "Yes. See the flames? We may be able to avoid it, but the wind blows this way, so we must move as fast as we can."

    "Perhaps I can walk now."

    "No. You shouldn’t walk yet."

    I fell asleep for a while until scorching air awakened me. The stranger took off his raincoat and put it across my shoulders.

    "We’re at the edge, not too close to the fire. I’m sure we’ll have passed the worst in a short while. Just close your eyes again. You’ll be there before you know it."

    I did as he said and fell asleep once more. As he carefully settled the bike against a large elm tree I woke up, and he helped me slide down from the luggage rack. When he suggested again I hold onto this tree I could see his face. His deep-set blue-gray eyes peered at me with concern.

    "Are you all right? Is this where your grandparents live? Yes? Good. Just hang on and stay here. I’ll be right back."

    I saw him ring the bell. When the door opened he said something to my grandmother. He came back and removed his raincoat from my shoulders.

    "Goodbye. May you have a wonderful life," he said, as he stepped onto his bike and rode away. Grandma ran toward me.

    "My dear, darling Jo," she cried out. Embracing me, she led me into the house.

    "We’ve been worried to death about you. Look at you! We’ll have to find a doctor."

    "I’m all right, Grandma. Just my legs. I’m so tired."

    "Who was your friend? I saw him help you from his bike. We should have invited him in for some refreshments."

    "I don’t know who he is. I don’t even know his name. He took me all the way past the fire, and I didn’t even thank him."

    "Now, don’t you fret, dear child. I am grateful to the good Samaritan who brought you home."

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