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2014, Aaron Elson


Too Late

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

    Our network met in secrecy to find new hiding places for a large Jewish family. After a long search we thought we could place only six of them. But it was getting dark and each of us had to hurry home.

    The night was windy. The narrow street was hemmed in by tall step-roofed brick houses. Because of possible sudden air attacks their windows were tightly covered to prevent any light from showing. Only the left side of the cobblestoned street was illuminated by the full moon.

    I rode along on my bike on the dark side, hoping not to be seen. Gripping the handlebars tightly, I bent over to cut through the raw, biting wind. As I rode on, my stomach growled and hunger pains churned my bowels.

    The curfew was set for twelve midnight. My parents would worry if I were not home before then.

    In the winter of 1942 the German occupation army in the Netherlands laid strict rules. The reason for the curfew was that too many of their drunken soldiers were drowned nightly in the canals or killed in alleys.

    In various European countries some citizens took advantage of the Nazis= presence. In Holland a group of collaborators sided with the Nazis against their own countrymen. They even aided in persecuting Jews, and, at times, betrayed members of their own families. Frequently I overheard people say: AJust wait until the war is over. Prison will be too good for them!@

    I pedaled on, my teeth rattling. The bare rims of my bike=s wheels clanged across the deserted streets, noisily echoing from the walls of the dark houses. Not a soul was in sight. An eerie feeling, that I was alone in the world, overcame me.

    Had I heard the church bells chime eleven-thirty? Would I make it home by midnight? The wind hindered my progress and I felt cold and weak. Arriving at the next street corner I knew I only had three more blocks to go. Rounding the first corner I was exposed by the moonlight. I struggled on, willing myself with energy. Twenty Y maybe ten more minutes to go. Y

    Suddenly I fell over a pile of rubble, raked across a bomb hole where a house once stood. I hauled myself up. My bell rolled pinging away. There was no time to retrieve it so I climbed on my bike, relieved to be near the last corner.

    Then Y I heard a rustling sound, perhaps a rat. Y Did I hear a movement? Was someone watching me? In the semi-darkness an advertising kiosk seemed to move. Was I imagining things?

    My neck hair prickled and goose bumps ran down my arms. Cautiously I moved halfway around to the moonlit side. Then Y I saw a uniformed man sit against the post, with his upper body leaning against it. I peered ahead. The man moved slightly. I saw a glint of something Y Was it a gun?

    Stealthily I moved forward, not sure whether I should go on or turn back.

    "Help! Please, someone help me," he called. Then Y he slid down. His booted legs lurched toward me in the moonlight, scraping the sidewalk.

    Oh, my God, he=s a German soldier! No, no; can't be. He called out in Dutch. He must be one of those traitors. Seeing the hated black uniform I froze in my tracks. Lamely he waved an arm. I didn't see a gun but a knife handle protruded from his shoulder and a trail of blood was spreading down one side of his body.

    I recoiled. My first thought was, "Serves him right, the bastard!" His moans made me shiver.

    "Please help me, Miss," he said in a hoarse voice. Should I? Wondering if he were dying, I moved a bit closer. A cloud shifted and I saw his cap fall oft. His hair ruffled above his pale face. He was young, not much older than I. I tensed. Did he expect pity, this traitor?

    Resolutely, I turned away and mounted my bike. His voice keened after me. "Miss, don=t go. Please, help me."

    My angry heart was pounding, but my brain kept on reasoning.

    I thought, "The man could have a wife and children. He might wish to leave a message. Or perhaps he is a Catholic and wants a priest. Who knows?" Were there no others who could do something?

    I moved back and looked at him. He and I were alone. He was slowly sliding down the lantern post. I now felt I was a coward to let another human being down, when in need. I moved closer and asked him, "Is there something I can do?"

    Again his metal-heeled boots scraped toward the curb with agonizing sounds. His eyes stared up at me, then rolled back in their sockets; their whites showing.

    "Forgive Y" he whispered, and slumped onto his back. I reached for his pulse. Then withdrew. He was dead.

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