Stowaways

by MomGrind

This short nonfiction story was written by my daughter and is based on the true story of her great grandparents’ attempt to hide from the Nazis in occupied Holland. I realize it’s too long for a blog post, but it’s so good, I had to share it here today, Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Stowaways

 

They left without doing the dishes.

Arie got the call from Peter at the Underground Movement in the morning, when the sky still carried the remaining pallor of dawn, and they left the plates and silverware on the dining table and ran to get ready. The bags were already packed, mostly, so Miep and Arie needed only to throw in the last of their things. Liz, who had been sitting rather quietly in her high chair during breakfast, was startled by the sudden commotion and began to wail, kicking her legs wildly. Miep took her in her arms, changed her diaper quickly, and then put her in the padded basket that sat with the rest of the bags by the front door.

The three of them were ready in a matter of minutes. Arie donned his heavy winter coat and hat; Miep wrapped her scarf around her neck and then slid into her jacket. It was her nicest jacket, the pinstriped garment that matched her skirt, and she wore it only on the most festive, important occasions. She had worn all her best clothes today, because what did she know – they may be the last things of hers she ever wore.

Arie opened the front door and carried the bags into the trunk of the car while Miep settled Liz into the backseat. Then he ran back into the house, into the study, where inside a locked drawer lay a wrinkled piece of paper. He unlocked the cupboard and retrieved the note before running back to the front door, allowing himself one last glance back at the house. The kitchen was a mess. Dirty bowls with wooden spoons cluttered the counter, the empty teapot still sat on the stovetop with its lid raised in the air, little jars of sugar and salt and a bag of flour lay on the granite surface, still open. The dining room table was still covered with their painted china plates, soiled with crumbs, the silverware stacked haphazardly on top of them. Their porcelain cups held the dark remnants of strong coffee; the tablecloth had been pulled to the side a bit in their rush, leaving the cup of cream and the butter plate toppled over on their sides. The Gestapo would know they were not coming back.

Then Arie shook himself out of his daze, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him. Miep was waiting patiently by the car door, the cold wind teasing her hair, pulling a few dark strands loose from her neat bun. They each climbed into their sides of the car. Arie started the engine, and it groaned and coughed and sputtered deafeningly, trying to warm up in the freezing winter air. Arie took to the slip of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and placed it behind the steering wheel. 784 Walemstraat, Limburg, NL. The engine roared to life and they were off.

            Miep turned on the stove and set the pot of water on to boil. They would be having soup again tonight. Money seemed to be disappearing faster and faster, and nobody knew where it was going. Since her father had been fired from his job at the hospital (“Our patients will be more comfortable with an Aryan staff,” they’d said), Miep’s parents had been pinching pennies as much as possible. Miep helped out when she could; she knit socks and scarves to sell in the marketplace, worked odd housekeeping jobs for the other Jewish families in the area, and constantly learned new strategies of stretching meals. Tonight’s special: the boiled leftovers of their last couple of dinners – vegetable scraps, potatoes, chunks of meat – served in hot water in a sad interpretation of soup. Miep sighed as she stirred in the carrots.

            A motor sounded distantly coming down the street. The car passed a few houses and then stopped in front of Miep’s parents’ home. Miep wondered if it could be Arie. It was unusual for him to come by car, but you never know. Maybe his bike had a flat tire. Arie had taken to joining Miep’s family for dinner, and it was as much time each day as she could hope to spend with him. Although they were engaged, Miep had vowed to stay with her parents and help around the house. Marriage and moving out would just have to wait.

            The motor kept rumbling noisily outside. Suddenly Miep heard a car door slam loudly, and a mob of heavy boots thundered up the walk to the front door. Men’s voices shouted something indiscernible. Miep dropped her wooden spoon into the pot of soup. Her heart pounded in her chest, and suddenly all the air was gone from the atmosphere and her lungs gasped but breathed nothing in. Just as her brain unfroze, just as she was realizing what was happening, her mother ran down the stairs, calling, “What’s going on?”

            A brisk knock pounded on the door. Miep turned to her mother. “Do we open it?”

            Her mother’s voice was thin and hard. “We have to.”

            Miep steeled herself and opened the door. Three men in green uniforms stood stoically at the doorstep, clipboards in hand. Miep tried not to look at the big black guns on their belts.

            “Call to assemble for David and Eliazer Schasler,” shouted the tallest man, his voice sharp and icy and callous. Miep stared at him. Call to assemble? She knew, somewhere in her subconscious, what that meant. But that part of her brain was buried deep within the rest of her brain, which was petrified in her skull. She didn’t move.

            One of the men reached out and shoved her shoulder with the barrel of his gun. “SEND DOWN YOUR MEN!” he yelled, and only then did Miep turn to her mother, who stood paralyzed at the bottom of the stairs.

            “Dad – Eli – ” Miep stuttered, but her voice caught in her throat and she could say no more. At that moment, her father and brother barreled down the stairs. They had been playing a game of chess – Miep could tell by the looks of concentration still on their faces.

            “Rebekka, what in the world are you – ” her father stopped cold on the last step when he saw the Green Police at the door. Eli nearly slammed into him.

            What followed was only a blur in Miep’s mind for the longest time after. As she and her mother stood and sobbed, Miep’s father and brother were led into the green van roaring outside. “They are being sent to work in German factories,” said one of the men to Miep’s mother when she tried to pull Eli back. “It is of no significance to you.”

            Miep watched as her father was pushed into the back of the car. He looked back at her and mouthed something that she didn’t understand. Then Eli climbed in, eyes watering, and it occurred to Miep that she had not seen him cry since they were children. The door slammed and the van drove away.

            As it happened, the van was not going to Germany at all. It was going to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. Miep would later learn that her father and brother were killed there as soon as they arrived. She would wonder what her father had been trying to say, and she would realize she had never said goodbye.

            They had been driving for hours. The sun had fully risen long ago, and it now hung high in the sky, partially concealed by clouds, illuminating the vast green fields that they had been passing for what seemed like eternity. Liz wailed and kicked in her seat. Miep stared blankly forward.

“Where does it end?” she asked Arie. “How far do we go like this?”

Arie shook his head. “The Underground Movement only gave me the address and the directions. They are the Hellenbrandts, it says here. Herman and Nellie Hellenbrandt. They have two daughters. They live in a small Limburg village. We should be near now.”

With that, Arie swung the car quickly down a turnoff. Miep gasped and grabbed her seat. “I’m sorry, Miepia,” said Arie. “But you know that we cannot simply drive up there in our car.”

He parked the car on a dirt path leading through a grassy field. Cows grazed, mooing, in the distance. The strong stench of fresh grass and manure filled the crisp air. The three of them got out of the car, and Miep retrieved Liz’s basket, cradling the crying baby to her chest. Arie took the bags.

“We have some distance to walk,” Arie said. Miep nodded. “I hope that somebody will make good use of this car,” he added with a wry smile, and Miep almost laughed. Arie was always so serious. How he could suddenly make jokes now, of all times, was a mystery to her.

The three of them ducked into an orchard that seemed to stretch on forever. “We will walk through here,” said Arie, “until we get to Limburg. It is many kilometers.” He glanced down pointedly at Miep’s heels.

Miep shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “I’ll be alright,” she said, and they were off.

            When they reached Limburg, the sun had begun to dip in the sky and everything was colored a shade darker, like the town was bracing itself for the evening. Arie and Miep walked quietly in the shadows of the village, absorbing the prim, red-shingled houses with unusual interest. Miep could not help thinking that this was the last she would see of civilization for a long time – no, she must not think that way, she reprimanded herself. For all she knew this mess would be over within the month. But she found herself running her fingers over the smooth surface of every leaf, inhaling the musty scent of late afternoon with vigor, drinking in the sound of chirping birds, relishing in the taste of the fresh country air on her tongue.

House number 784 was a house like all the others, tucked away among a small niche of other houses set a ways back from the unpaved street. The couple stood, observing it, concealed behind a few trees at the end of the road. Liz keened to herself softly, and Miep stroked her downy head.

“Do we knock on the front door?” Miep wondered aloud. Arie looked puzzled. Miep’s eyes scanned the manicured front lawn, the trimmed green shrubbery, the neatly cut grass. They couldn’t well march up to the door and announce their presence to the neighbors. Then her eyes caught something wooden on the side of the house. “There’s a side door,” she murmured, half to herself. Arie turned to her and smiled.

“And they say a wife is good for nothing but cooking and sewing.”

They snuck quickly past a couple of houses until they reached the Hellenbrandts’, trying to appear as natural as possible despite their plethora of luggage. Then they cut through the bushes of the yard and darted to the side door, breathing heavily. Miep hesitated before knocking on the door.

At first there was nothing but silence, and Miep’s heart spiked with the sudden possibility that maybe – even worse than going into hiding – they would not be able to go into hiding at all. Maybe Herman and Nellie had changed their minds. Then there was the sound of muffled voices, then hurried footsteps, and then the door swung open hastily and a hand pulled the two of them inside.

Herman Hellenbrandt was tall, well-built, with tan-blond hair and even features. He was quite the perfect image that might come to one’s mind when thinking of the Nazis’ Aryan ideal – with the exception of him not actually being Aryan. Miep stared at him blatantly, trying to decide what kind of person he was, as Arie shook his hand. She was vaguely aware of the light wooden walls and floor, of the colorful tapestries hung around her in what appeared to be the dining room.

“Hello,” called a feminine voice from the kitchen, and a woman rushed in, wearing a dress and heels like Miep. Her brown hair was curled and coifed beautifully, and when she smiled Miep was reminded of a sunrise she once saw sitting on the roof as a child.

“I am Nellie,” said the woman, reaching out a hand for Miep to shake. She took it. “Miep, am I right?” Miep nodded, then found her voice.

“Yes. Yes! Hello. Good to meet you, and – thank you! – thank you so much for everything you’ve done.” Herman turned to shake her hand, and they shook awkwardly, his hand much too big for hers.

After the introductions, the four of them stepped back, each person standing with their respective spouse. After a pause Herman said, “Why don’t you go show them their room, Nellie, and I’ll fix for us something to eat. We can talk over dinner.”

Nellie nodded her head and motioned for Miep and Arie to follow her, only then noticing Liz bundled up in her basket. “Oh, how precious!” she cried, reaching over to cup Liz’s chubby cheeks in her hands. “What is her name?”

“Liz,” said Miep, beaming proudly. “Well, Elizabeth, be we call her Liz.”

“Liz,” repeated Nellie, laughing as Liz wrapped a tiny hand around her thumb. She turned to Miep, and suddenly her friendly features hardened with an almost imperceptible sadness. “My baby Mia looked just like her,” she said, her flat voice thinly veiling the tremble in her throat. “She died in a car crash just last month. There was an issue with the protocol; we still have not documented it properly. Herman hides the sadness better than I do. It is a mess.” She smiled then, perking up forcedly. “But why speak of this now? I do not wish to add to your burden. Come upstairs.”

Nellie turned and led them up a narrow wooden stairwell to the second floor. They passed a few bedrooms, one of which appeared to belong to a little girl – “Gisela,” explained Nellie – before climbing another flight of stairs, this one creaky and dusty and unkempt, with a cold metal handrail. When she reached the top, Nellie pulled on a string that dangled from the ceiling, and a square of wood came down, revealing another room.

“The attic,” Nellie called down. “Pass me your bags.” Arie handed their baskets to Miep one by one, and Miep passed them up to Nellie, who tossed them up through the opening in the ceiling. Then the three of them climbed through and stood in the center of an ancient, dusty attic. Nellie turned to Arie and Miep somewhat apologetically.

“To be fair,” she said, “this is better than where many other Jews are living right now.” Miep turned in a circle, observing her surroundings. The room wasn’t much. The bare wood beams of the ceiling hung low, and cobwebs dangled from every corner. A thick musty smell wafted into her nostrils, and the floorboards squeaked with every step she took (“You will have to avoid walking, obviously, if we should have guests,” Nellie said, following Miep’s worried glance downward). Then Nellie walked over to the far wall of the attic. “The Gestapo make regular rounds these days, checking for Jews. If they should come, you must run in here immediately,” she said, pulling on a few planks of wood. They came loose after some insistent tugging, revealing a dank, pitch-black closet of sorts. “You will not need to stay in there long. But whenever anyone else comes into the house, you must hide here and not say a word.” She looked toward the two of them to see that they understood. They each nodded dumbly.

“All right, then,” said Nellie, offering a tired smile. “Let’s go down to dinner.”

            The days passed by slowly, each the same as the one before it, yet infinitely worse. Miep and Arie and Liz left the attic only for meals, and when they did come downstairs, every curtain was drawn and the lights held low so that nobody could look in and see them. Miep spent her days caring for Liz, watching her grow, ever so gradually, before her eyes. She fed and changed her each day, sang her to sleep with a soothing lullaby, and held her close so that nothing could take her away. One snowy day, she had been talking to Arie by the one window in the attic, and when she turned around, she saw Liz crawling – crawling! – on her hands and knees, making her way steadily towards her. It was little landmarks like these that began to signify the passage of time. Days were measured in events, not dates: “It was two weeks after Liz said ‘ba-ba’,” or, “five days before Liz started teething.” Miep had to focus all of her attention on Liz, and thus she kept from losing her mind.

Arie had different methods. He had long conversations with Herman every day when he returned from work – they spoke of the economy, of the ever-growing war, of friends and family and the lives they had led before this chaos swallowed them up. When Herman was gone, during the day, Arie drew. He peered through the curtained window and drew what he saw in a sketchbook that Nellie brought for him. He drew everything. He drew the elderly couple that walked by every day; he drew the dogs that played in the streets; he drew the trees that thrashed wildly when it rained. He drew from memory, too. Liz in her blanket the day she was born; their old house, its paint faded but not yet chipping; their whole family sitting down to a festive dinner with friends, Miep’s best china laid out on the spotless tablecloth. Every time he finished a drawing, Miep would look at it and offer her critique, which always included some variation of the words “wonderful”, “stunning”, and “very realistic”. Then he would flip the notebook to a new page and start drawing something else.

Whenever a knock sounded at the door, Miep’s heart would leap out of her throat. Herman always added his signal – three loud taps of his foot – as Arie pulled Miep and Liz into the dreary closet behind the wall. There was no source of light in there, and it was all Miep could do to calm her racing heart and still her ragged breaths as they waited in darkness. Liz hated the closet, and Miep would smother her cries in her coat, hushing her with soft whispers and pats on the back. When the guests or the Gestapo left, Herman would wait a few minutes before tapping his foot again, six times, and then the three of them would burst from the confines of the closet, only then realizing that they had been partially holding their breaths.

Life went on like this for a year and a half. Winter turned to spring and then summer and fall, and the months cycled and cycled and the fear of being caught began to fade before the fear of the war never ending at all.

            The fiery orange leaves of fall were receding before the oncoming winter when a rapid knock came at the door. Herman tapped his shoe and Arie ripped out the wooden planks, ushering Miep and Liz into the closet before stepping in himself and resealing the wall. Liz was nearly two years old now, and starting to talk in broken strings of nonsense words. She managed to release a series of ba-ba-bas and gi-gi-gis before Miep covered her mouth with the fabric of her jacket.

From below, Arie and Miep could hear the deafening boom of heavy boots and the commotion of voices that came with the Gestapo. Another search? Miep thought, and so soon? The last one had been frightening enough. Luckily the Green Police had only gotten as far up as the second floor before deciding they were wasting their time. Now, though, the voices were louder, and Miep could hear them clambering up the stairs. Dear God, she prayed, keep them away from here. Let them search a little and then turn back. Please, please, God, I won’t think another bad thought in my life if you just keep us safe. Just turn them around. Please.

            But the Nazi soldiers didn’t even stop to look around the second floor. Beneath their shouting voices were the barely discernible voices of Nellie and Herman, arguing with them, saying enough was enough, that they had no right to be barging into the homes of good law-abiding citizens – Miep almost smiled at Herman’s nerve with that one, almost – but of course none of it made a difference. She froze as she heard the clunk of boots climbing the rickety attic stairs. No.

            Somebody tugged on the string and Miep grabbed Arie’s arm as the door to the attic came swinging down with a crash. A stampede of army boots boomed against the ground as, one after another, shouting German men piled into the attic. Gun barrels slammed against the walls. Miep and Arie could hear them circling the room, kicking at the wall planks, tugging at nails, seeing if something would come loose. They both stopped breathing. There was still a chance.

Then Liz released a long, thin wail. Everything froze on the other side of the wall. Miep could feel a heavy black oblivion pulling her in, could see gray spots darting before her eyes, could sense the sights and sounds of the world blurring and fading around her. Then there was an ear-splitting crack as a boot collided with the wall and shards of rotting wood rained down around them. Soldiers stormed into the closet, kicking, screaming curses, pulling them to their feet. A man grabbed Miep by the wrist and wrenched her from her place on the floor, knocking her into the wall as he dragged her down the stairwell. Someone yanked Liz from her arms and Miep screamed and kicked at them, fighting the soldiers who pinned her arms behind her back, until she realized it was Arie. She saw him slip Liz beneath his overcoat before a man struck her across the face with his rifle and she did not look back again.

At the bottom of the stairs, an important-looking man in green was yelling at Nellie and Herman. As Miep was hauled past her, Nellie whispered, “It was the neighbor. He saw me buying too much food for just the three of us.”

The group of soldiers dragged Miep, weeping uncontrollably, and Arie, who looked as though someone had stolen all signs of life from his face and left behind only a mask of stone features. The important-looking commander turned to his men, and in that split second Miep saw Arie hand Liz to Nellie, in a movement so small it barely caught her eye, and she wondered what he thought he was doing. The Gestapo didn’t care if you were a baby. Jewish was Jewish, and Jewish meant death.

“Take them to the truck!” the commander demanded in throaty German. Then he turned to Nellie and bellowed, “Give me the baby!”

“NO!” screamed Nellie. Her makeup was streaming in a colorful river down her face. “She’s not theirs – she’s MINE!”

Miep whipped around, dumbfounded. Arie looked at her as though she was insane.

“She doesn’t look like you,” challenged the man, but asked one of his soldiers to bring him a record book. “You say you are the Hellenbrandts?” Herman nodded, and the commander ran his finger down a page in his book. “Yes. Hellenbrandt. Nellie and Herman Hellenbrandt – ” here he paused and motioned to the two of them – “Gisela Hellenbrandt – ” he looked up and saw Gisela seated, trembling, at the foot of the stairs – “and… Mia Hellenbrandt.” Nellie nodded towards the screaming baby in her arms.

“Born the third of February, 1943,” continued the commander, and Miep held her breath. Only two weeks before Liz’s birthday. She understood now. Memories of something Nellie had said to her that first day resurfaced in her mind. My baby Mia looked just like herShe died in a car crash just last month. There was an issue with the protocol; we still have not documented it properly. And Miep realized that nobody in the Gestapo knew what had become of Mia. She realized what Nellie was trying to do.

The commander looked back and forth from Nellie to Miep to Liz for a long time. His eyebrows creased when he opened his mouth, and Miep’s heart fired off like a gun, and she knew what was going to happen oh God they were going to take Liz away and –

“Keep the baby.” The commander’s flat words sliced the air and for a second they didn’t register in Miep’s brain, or in Nellie’s, for that matter. Then Nellie smiled, relieved, and more tears flowed down her cheeks, and Miep thought that in that moment it looked as though Nellie was seeing Mia in Liz’s face.

“Thank you, good sir,” she said, before catching Miep’s eye. She held it for only a second, but Miep knew what she would have said if she could.

The commander turned to Herman then. “Why,” he asked, in a disturbingly cool, level voice, “did you hide Jews in your home?”

Miep cast her eyes down towards her shoes. Please, Herman, don’t say something stupid. You can just live out the rest of your life in perfect happiness if you don’t destroy it all now. For she knew the kind of person that Herman was, she knew him from the talks he had with Arie when they thought she wasn’t listening, and she knew the answer that was rising inside his throat. She wished he would hold it in, and for a moment, it seemed that he really would.

Then he opened his mouth. “Because I have a heart, unlike you MONSTERS!” he screamed, lunging for the man in green. “You soulless MURDERERS! You kill and torture other human beings, your own fellow MEN, and you see in their suffering nothing more than the slaughter of ANIMALS!” The men were on him then, beating him with their guns and their fists, pinning his arms behind his back, dragging him down the walk to the truck with Arie and Miep, but Herman wasn’t done. “You are evil demons with a hole where there should be a human heart, and when you die, you will burn in HELL like you deserve!” Someone wrapped a piece of cloth around his mouth, stifling but not silencing his maniacal screams. The soldiers dragged Miep and Arie down to the army van, shoving them into the backseat after throwing in a struggling Herman. The car was filled with the stench of gunpowder and leather, and Miep knew she should be feeling something, anything, but the whole world had shut down and gone black around her and she felt nothing at all. Only when she took one last look back at the perfect little house and its pretty green lawn did she feel a spark of some distant flame inside her heart. She may die, Arie may die, but Liz was still in there, alive. The whole world could do what it wanted now, all the people could be destroyed, she didn’t care – as long as they left Liz alone. And then the engine revved up and the van sped off, leaving behind a sobbing Nellie and a hysterical Liz, carrying Miep and Arie away.

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