Spiders in Holland

I’m still relatively certain that if I wrote my grandmother’s book now, I wouldn’t do her justice.  After scrapping my first draft, I’m terrified that her stories will turn into mine again.  Recently, I got so frustrated with myself that I took a deep breath, put fingertips to alphabet keys, and banged out my favorite story just the way I remember her telling it.  Which makes it more mine than anything else I’ve written about her so far, but I feel like this time I’ve done her voice justice.

Yeah yeah.  I get it, you smuggy smugsters.

“Nazi Germany has occupied the Netherlands. What do you do: adapt, collaborate, or resist?” –Verzetmuseum

I was 13, so it was about a year after the bombing in the city center.  My father was working with the Resistance…well we all were, really.  My sister, Co, you know, at that time she was married and pregnant almost every year with one of the boys.  My brothers made a false bottom in the pram for guns, and we would smuggle them to the edge of the city.  Those stupid Nazi guards let us through the checkpoints because we were the ideal: blond hair, blue eyes, the perfect Arians.  Fuckin’ bastards.  They would cootchie-coo the babies and I’d think,  If only you knew what was under your  finger, asshole.  But to them we were just a perfect little family out for a walk.  They let us right through.

So right.  I was 13, and my younger sister, Yopi, of course was 12, and we were home with Moe [pronounced moo, Dutch for “Mom”].   I don’t know why we were home, but the guys were all out working, and we were home alone, just the younger girls and our mother.   Now my brother, Cor, he was a radio operator, you see.  He had a small radio that he would use at night to send intelligence to the English from the attic.  My mother hated it.  She told him to keep it out of the house but my father said it was fine.

Well, then we get a knock on the door.  And my mother looks at us, and we look at each other.  We don’t say anything but we look at each other, “Who’s that?  Are you expecting someone?  I don’t know.  Who could it be?”   So Yopi and I go downstairs with Moe to the door.  And it’s three Brownies: two younger ones, you know, and an older one, the one in charge.  And these guys were bad.  These were the real Nazis, not the German soldiers.  We called them Brownies because they wore brown uniforms. These were the ones that were taken as children and trained their whole lives to hate and kill.   If it had been anyone else it would have been okay, but the Brownies would shoot us on the spot and step over our dead bodies on their way to dinner without a second thought.

We knew why they were there:  Cor’s radio.  Moe pretended to be polite.  “How can I help you?”  But they pushed past her and went upstairs.  The three of us followed them up.  The commander told the other two where to search.  We were poor so we didn’t have much to go through, but they turned over mattresses and dumped out drawers, anything they could search.  Moe knew better than to ask questions.  One wrong move and all three of us were dead.  So we just stood in the corner in silence and watched them tear our little apartment apart.

The commander saw the attic door and ordered Moe to open it.  In German, you know, but Moe didn’t know any German.  I did, because we had to learn it in school, see.  So I translated.  And I had a good accent even though I only knew a year’s worth from school, but I had a talent for it.  German was so close to Dutch it wasn’t difficult for me at all.  So the attic door.   Moe opened the attic door, and the commander ordered the three of us to go up before him.  He wanted to search the attic personally.  I knew what he was doing: he would find the radio and shoot the three of us himself to show off to the younger officers.  Bastard.  I was so angry I didn’t even want to look at him.

He grabbed a bag of rags we kept up there…fabric scraps, you know, for patches and things like that…and I suddenly felt cold.  I didn’t know why, but something in the room changed.  I looked out of the corner of my eye at Moe.  And she had gone completely pale.  Now, my mother wasn’t afraid of anything, but she was as white as a sheet, so I knew something was very wrong.  I looked over at the commander.  He had a handful of rags.  And hanging from the bottom was a radio cord.

I wasn’t afraid, but I immediately walked over to him and put my hand on his arm.  He had patches on this sleeves, and patches, you know, on his chest , the ones that tell his rank and such.  So I put my hand on his arm, on the patch on his sleeve,  and I said in perfect German, “Oh!  These are so pretty!  What are these for?”  That fuckin’ bastard was so full of himself.  He puffed himself up and said something like Ach, Liebe! These are for such-and-such.  I don’t even remember what they were for, something about his rank.  And I knew I had him.  So I made my voice even sweeter, and I touched the patches on his chest and batted my eyelashes, and said, “Really!  And these, too?  They’re such pretty colors!  What do these mean?”  That disgusting old fucker.  He was so flattered that a pretty young girl would be interested in him that he put the rags, with the radio, back into the bag so that he could point out each patch and tell me what it meant.  I pretended to be fascinated.  “Gosh, that’s so interesting.  You must be so important!”

When he was done, he left the attic with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face.  He told the other two that the radio wasn’t there and ordered them to leave.  He turned around to wave at me before he left.  I batted my eyelashes and waved good-bye.  When the door was closed and my mother was sure they were gone, she collapsed onto the floor and sobbed.  My mother was a rock.  I had never seen her cry in all my life, and I never saw her cry again.  But that day…she said it was the closest she had ever come to seeing her family dead.

When my father came home, ho ho!  Moe chewed him out good, and Cor’s radio left the house.  Eventually he was taken off the street and put into a labor camp.  My father, too, and Adrian.  One night they just didn’t come home, and we knew.  No, I wasn’t afraid.  Moe said they would come home, and if Moe said it was so, well, that was it.  Moe’s word was law, you see.  She told us not to be afraid, so I was never afraid.  I’m more afraid of a spider in America than I ever was of a Nazi in Holland.

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8 thoughts on “Spiders in Holland

  1. This is a riveting story! You have told it very, very well, and what a wonderful project to choose to remember your grandmother’s life in this way. I really felt the tension and your grandmother’s bravery and fight in this telling. Good for you, Janine. Do keep it up!

  2. Can’t imagine my old grannie even knowing those expletives (but, who knows, maybe she did!). That said, the story is absolutely terrific! I broke out in a sweat and my stomach knotted up when the “Brownies” showed up. Not only do you tell the story well indeed, but you have your readers actually praying that that family ends up safely. Congratulations!

    • Thank you, Steve!

      I once visited during a World Cup semi-final involving the Netherlands. Every so often she’d yell at the TV in Dutch. After about the third time she looked at us sheepishisly and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you guys don’t speak Dutch. I’d make a sailor blush right now.” *LOL*

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