A Great Cry in Egypt
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Bryna Hellman
For there was not a house where there was not one dead (Exodus 12:30)
‘I can’t hire you,’ Mrs. Pimentel said. ‘I’m sorry, Pamela, we’re all Jewish here.’ When Pam laughed, she looked surprised, even a little offended, and she pushed the identity card Pam had shown her back across her desk.
‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ Pam said, ‘It’s just funny because,’ taking the card, she dropped it onto her knees out of sight. ‘I thought you wouldn’t have me.’
‘Then why did you come?’ When Pam didn’t answer, she said, ‘If you knew I couldn’t take you?’
‘I didn’t know! I just thought perhaps! It’s just, I heard the nursery needed help, and I want so much to...’
‘Help?’ Mrs. Pimentel was giving her a chance to explain herself, not smiling, still surprised, but listening.
‘Yes, please. The thing is, I laughed because I thought you wouldn’t take me because I’m Jewish, and I thought my name would make you think I’m not.’
‘Wait, wait!’ Mrs. Pimentel had started to smile, her plump cheeks lifting to narrow her blue eyes. ‘Start over, slowly, and tell me who you are.’
‘My name really is Chambers. It doesn’t sound Jewish, I know, but I am, and I thought that’s why you wouldn’t want me. That’s why I laughed.’
Mrs. Pimentel put up her hands to smooth the waves of gray hair above her ears, then ran them down her cheeks and folded them under her chin. Pam waited, her eyes fixed on the older woman, her mouth half-open. ‘It’s nice to hear somebody laughing,’ the older woman said finally.
Pam leaned back and sighed. ‘Does that mean I can work for you?’
‘Yes, my dear, I suppose it does. That card,’ she meant the one she’d rejected, ‘is a very good forgery. Take good care of it, you’ll need it. Just let me have it for a few days, I’ll have to show it across the street.’
Across the street was the theater, or what had been a theater until the Gestapo began using it to hold Jews before shipping them to Westerbork. Pam had looked at it just before she rang the doorbell of the nursery. The two German soldiers on either side of the doorway were talking to each other, laughing, but one had his hand on his gun holster, and the other kept turning to check the sidewalk behind him.
Later that afternoon, after one of the nurses, Fanny, had taken Pam around the building, they went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. ‘Are you going to be living here?’ she asked. ‘I’m sharing a room with Sieny and Betty, that’s three of us already, but if Mrs. P. wants you,’
‘I told her I can live at home and come every day,’ Pam said, ‘and she said that was fine.’
‘We’ll be glad to have you during the day, and we manage most nights. It’s just, see, some evenings the SS come over and say they want some of the children back, and we have to get them dressed and bring them across the street.’
‘I thought they lived here.’
‘Oh no, they’re just here for a while, because they don’t want to have crying babies over there and kids running around. There’s hardly room for them, anyway, there’s hardly room for all the grownups. Mrs. P. says it’s filthy, there aren’t enough toilets and water, and the beds they have they give to the old people.’
‘But then, why do they want the children back?’
‘For the transports! You know what those Germans are like? They get a call that they have to send one hundred people to the railroad station, and if they don’t have enough, they come and get a few kids to make up the difference. See, the numbers have to come out right.’ Uncomfortable talking about it, Fanny stirred the tea in her cup silently, then went on, ‘It’s mostly the older kids, and they want to go back to their parents anyway, don’t they? To be together? And some parents want their kids to go with them. When are you starting?’
‘Tomorrow,’ Pam said. She would go home now and think about what she had seen, the babies sleeping in their cribs, the big, shadowy room where dozens of cots were lined up, each with a flat pillow and a neatly folded blanket, children playing in the sandbox in the garden, two of them wearing sunglasses too big for their little faces, the cook Hester in the kitchen shaking her hand and saying, ‘Oh good, we do need more help here, don’t we, Fanny?’
Walking home, she knew she couldn’t disappoint Mrs. P., just not turn up for work, but she didn’t know whether she could bear it if a child she liked was taken away. One little girl had run over to her in the playroom and asked, ‘Are you coming to take care of us?’ When Pam said yes, she’d asked, ‘Do you like to read books? Will you read to us?’ and clapped her hands when Pam said yes again. She might be there one day and be gone the next. She didn’t think she could bear that.
Telling Ted about it at supper made up her mind. He was enthusiastic, pleased for her that she’d found something useful to do and that she liked this Mrs. P. ‘Can she pay you something?”
‘Oh, I didn’t ask!’
‘Never mind, if she can, she will, and if she can’t, we’re managing.’
So she started. Putting on her uniform every morning, the starched white apron and little white cap, made her feel she could be useful. Fanny asked her to help with the babies, but she wasn’t much good at that and, after a while, Mrs. P. rescued her and put her to work with the bigger children, the kindergartners, she called them.
The first time Pam came in and missed two of them, a brother and sister, she hid in the bathroom and cried. ‘Look,’ Sieny told her, when she came in and saw her scrubbing her red face, ‘if it’s any comfort, those two wanted to go. They hated it here, the older ones always do. They’re smart enough to know it’s not going to last, and they can’t stand the suspense. At least, that’s what we think.’
‘That’s terrible, Sieny, I don’t believe it!’
‘What? That they want to go? Sorry, kiddo, that’s how it is.’
‘But they don’t know where they’re going, do they? To Westerbork? Is that what you tell them? My brother says that’s just…’
‘Shut up, Pam!’ Sieny interrupted. ‘We don’t tell them anything!’ and she went out and slammed the door.
Fanny and Sieny went in and out of the theater, picking up the children the German wanted to get rid of or taking them back. When the guards weren’t watching, they talked to the parents, asking them if they would let their child go to a family somewhere where it would be safe until afterwards. Pam couldn’t understand a mother agreeing to give her child to a stranger, but Fanny said some of them knew right away it was better. They were smart enough to see what was coming and they realized they had to trust somebody, even when it was a stranger.
It wasn’t true that people can get used to anything, but it made it easier when Mrs. P. asked Pam to help get the children into safe hands. Smuggling a child out was called disappearing it. One way was out of the playground behind the nursery. Mrs. P. would speak to one of the children beforehand, explain what was going to happen and warn the nurses. Somebody had arranged a safe address, a family willing to take a child, sometimes a family friend, and a courier they could trust to do it safely. While the boys ran and wrestled and the girls swung dreamily or skipped rope, somebody would look over the fence and motion to Pam, she’d whisper to the child who had been chosen, pick it up and hand it over.
When the plan was to take them for a walk and meet a courier, she knew how to count them before they started off, the guards watching and counting along with her, and then, when she came back, to count them so quickly that they couldn’t see there was one less. She had to make it look as if she’d come back with the same number or there would be trouble. The Germans had records and numbers for everything, even the infants they didn’t want to be bothered with. It was easier than it sounded, because the guards were half-drunk most of the time. Mr Suskind, the Jewish man who managed the theater, made sure they got their beers for lunch.
That summer morning, Pam parted the curtains with one finger and peered out. The theater gate was still closed, and the guards hadn’t come out yet. The children were waking up, and Hester was in the kitchen cooking porridge for them. ‘It’s lovely weather, a good day for a walk,’ she said. ‘Can we disappear one today?’
Mrs. P. picked up the phone. ‘I’ll call Dr. Slump, see if he has any addresses. If he can’t help, I’ll try to reach one of the students.’
‘I can take them to the zoo.’ It was around the corner and out of sight and, since there wasn’t enough food for the big animals and many of them had to be killed, there were almost no visitors.
‘If somebody can arrange a courier, you can take the baby we got last Sunday. The sooner it goes to a family the better.’
‘You know a man took little Mina from me yesterday?’
‘Didn’t Hester say? I told her! A man just walked up to us in the street and lifted her up and walked away. He didn’t even look at us.’
‘Did she cry?”
‘No,’ Pam said. ‘She put her arms around his neck, so I think she knew him.’
‘That’s all right then. Nobody takes a child except to bring it somewhere safe. Safer.’ She sat down behind the desk, picked up the phone and nodded when she heard the buzzing that meant it was still connected.
Pam went upstairs. In the biggest bedroom the four toddlers were lying quietly, and the older ones were sitting up, looking at a picture book or playing with the doll or the model car that was the only toy they’d been able to take with them from home.
‘Who’s hungry?’ Pam called out and all the hands went up. Sara, the oldest at ten, jumped out of bed to help her. She had been the youngest at home and treated like a baby, and here she could help the other children get dressed, tie their shoes, brush their hair, all the things she needed to do to show what a big girl she was.
Over the chorus of voices, Sara’s voice rang out, teasing and giving orders. What would happen to her if they passed her on? She was happy now. Suppose she ended up with a family that couldn’t see how eager she was to grow up? She’d hate it.
In the dining room, the other nurses were already eating. Pam put her charges at their table near a window and helped Hester fill the porridge bowls and milk glasses. There was always milk, Mrs. P. had her contacts with farmers and the Germans didn’t stop the daily deliveries. Porridge, potatoes, margarine, apples and carrots, a growing child needed all of that and more, but they were never hungry and they never complained, the way some of the nurses did about how much they used to have.
Just as breakfast ended, the doorbell rang. Pam’s hand jerked, dropping her spoon noisily onto the table. Hester, who was standing at the door to the kitchen with an armful of bowls, went in and shut the door behind her and Mrs. P. stood up, ‘I’ll go.’ She was always firm with the soldiers and they liked that. They knew where they were with her, no nonsense from her, they said.
Pam couldn’t see the front hall and there was too much noise around her to hear anything. Sara was telling Gerd, who was bouncing up and down in his chair, that Pam would read them a story after they brushed their teeth and not before. ‘Isn’t that so, Pam?’
‘We’ll have a story, Gerd, I promise,’ she said. ‘But you know, it’s such a nice day, maybe we’ll go look at the monkeys.’ She looked around and saw Mrs. P. coming back with a young man she didn’t know. A policeman? No, she was smiling. So was he. He must be a friend.
‘Girls, this is Dr. Hans, Dr. Slump’s assistant. He’s come to look at the babies.’
They shook hands and he told Pam, ‘You look like somebody I know.’ Behind him, Mrs. P. shook her head, and Pam said, ‘Oh,’ and that was that.
While the children splashed around washing hands and brushing teeth, she tried to choose a book. The school next door had given them their whole library when the Germans moved the pupils to another school. When she started to leaf through them, she realized most of them wouldn’t do. Peter Rabbit’s mother gave him medicine for his stomach ache, Goldilocks sat first in the father’s chair and then in the mother’s, even Babar got married and had a family. She couldn’t read those. One after another, she put the books back in the box.
Gerd came to stand near her. ‘Read about the wolves.’
‘Again?’ He nodded. He loved that story, they all did. She had looked up at them once while reading. They were sitting on the floor around her, quite still, some with their mouths hanging open, one of two sucking their thumbs. The story was about a wolf hunt a thousand years ago. It was exciting and the hero, Walter, was very brave. She supposed they needed to hear that.
‘Go and get it then.’ Pam sat on a low bench so they could see the pictures when she turned the book toward them sitting crossed-legged on the floor around her. ‘Start at the beginning,’ Gerd commanded.
‘Again?’ Yes, they wanted it from the beginning. ‘Walter,’ she began, ‘turned over on the straw. He woke up but not all the way. He was still dreaming and the dream frightened him. Down through the dark a monster came toward him. A gray monster that came down and sat on his chest. It spread its wings,’ she turned the book around so that they could see it was only a bird, and someone sighed.
‘Walter wanted to cry out but he couldn’t. He knew the monster could make him sick.’ The next sentences were the ones she didn’t read. They might be too young to understand what it meant to be so sick that you die, but she couldn’t risk it. ‘Walter woke up suddenly and saw what had scared him. An old gray chicken was standing on his chest!’ Everyone laughed. They loved the idea that you could be scared by an old chicken.
Mrs. P. looked in from the hall. ‘If you’re going to the zoo, you’d better get your coats on.’ Hans was standing behind her. He waved his fingers at Pam, and his smile said, ‘I’ll see you again.’
‘Read some more!’ Gerd urged, pulling on her skirt.
‘Two pages, then we’re going out. Look at that sunshine!’ She turned a page and read, ‘Walter pushed the chicken off his chest and it flew away cackling.’ Gerd started to cackle and the other children imitated him. When the noise died down, she explained, ‘Walter isn’t afraid anymore. He’s angry! Do you know why?’
‘Because he was afraid of a silly hen!’
‘Yes, because he had been afraid of nothing! Listen, ‘He spit out a piece of straw that was stuck between his teeth and sat up. Up over his head there was a hole in the roof where the smoke from his fire went out. When he looked up, he could see the sky and then he knew what kind of day it was. Sometimes he didn’t have to look, because it was raining or snowing and drops of rainwater or snowflakes were falling on his cheeks.
‘This morning the sky was pale blue. Walter knew that was good weather for wolves, and today was the wolf hunt! Oh, he thought, it had better not snow, because then they wouldn’t be able to see the wolves’ prints. Oh, this was a wonderful day, the day of the wolf hunt!’
Gerd applauded and then the other children did too. Pam showed them the picture of Walter sitting in the straw smiling. Then she shut the book. ‘Coats and hats,’ she said, and they jumped up and ran into the hall.
Halfway into her own coat, she saw Mrs. P. signaling her. ‘When you go around the corner,’ she whispered, ‘a young man will meet you. We’re in luck! Dr. Slump had a phone call from someone who can take a baby right here in Amsterdam. I’ve got one ready for you.’ She handed Pam a brown canvas backpack, not quite zipped-up, large enough for an infant wrapped tightly in a blanket, a bottle of milk, an extra diaper. ‘I’ve fed him, he’ll sleep for a few hours. Long enough.’
Pam buttoned her coat and adjusted the straps on the backpack carefully over her shoulders. If she were caught, they’d all be arrested, the children, Mrs. P., all the nurses, everyone. But there was no other way to do it, and the students who organized the disappearances were very careful. If anybody was around to see them, she’d just have to bring the baby back. She lined the children up in the hall, two by two, Gerd next to her, Sara at the end so she could shoo the little ones ahead of her.
From across the street, a guard was watching them. Standing on the sidewalk and fussing with buttons and caps, she waited until a tram appeared. The driver saw her and slowed down and, hidden from the guard, she and the children walked quickly alongside it. By the time the tram had reached the corner, she and the children were out of sight.
At the entrance to the zoo, a young man standing there eased the rucksack off her back. ‘Thanks,’ he whispered and walked quickly away around the next corner. There was nobody on the street but, even so, Pam’s heart didn’t stop pounding until they were safely inside.
When they stopped to look at the three monkeys sitting, eyes closed, near the bars of their cage, the door at the back opened a crack, and she saw a man peeking out at them. He had heard the children, and he smiled and waved, then shut the door quickly. There were people hiding there, sleeping on straw, hoping the Germans wouldn’t decide to shoot the last of the animals and close the zoo completely.
After the monkeys, the children wanted to see the tropical birds and the snakes, and then it was lunchtime and then a nap. Pam liked that hour, it gave her time to help Mrs. P. with her reports, all the records the Germans demanded of how many children there were in the nursery that week, how much food they’d bought, and how much money they’d been given and spent, even though it wasn’t their money.
When she went into the office, Mrs. P. was standing at the window and, without turning, said, ‘Pam, help me. Go in and talk to him. His name is Leo. One of the guards brought him over here this morning after you left.’
‘A little boy?’
‘Twelve perhaps, not more.’ The Germans had a rule that a child under thirteen was too young to keep in the theater, a rule they broke when it suited them. She turned around and apologized, ‘I can’t talk to him. Do it for me, please.’
‘Of course, but why isn’t he with the other children?’
‘He didn’t want to be, he said he had to leave again. So I told him to speak to you first, just for the records. Here, take him some bread and milk. He probably hasn’t eaten anything today.’
The tray in one hand, Pam opened the door and looked in. The first thing she saw was a violin, its nut-colored shape glowing in a slit of sun on the table. Then she saw Leo, slumped on a small chair so low that his head hardly showed above the table’s edge.
The room was half in shadow, the curtains almost closed. It was a small room where they could have quiet talks with children who were sad or angry or frightened, children who needed to sit on somebody’s lap or hold somebody’s hand. There was a bright blue table, child-sized, and four low chairs in four different colors. She put the tray down in front of him, ‘Have some lunch, Leo,’ she said. She sat down across from him and reached out a finger to touch the violin. It was a child’s instrument but a very good one. Her brother had owned one when he was young, but he hadn’t played much after he went to high school and they’d sold it.
Leo stared at the milk. ‘There’s plenty,’ she assured him, and he lifted it up and took a sip.
Pam knew not to start with questions. If they wanted to talk they would, and no question, no matter how well-meant or well-phrased, would be answered if they didn’t want to.
What a small boy he was, narrow shoulders and thin arms in a neat brown jacket with a Jewish star sewn on the breast pocket. His white hands were a little too big for his body, and his fingers were long and looked strong. From practicing hours every day? Probably. Oh the waste of it!
‘My brother Ted played the violin,’ she told him. ‘His favorite pieces were by Mendelssohn. Have you ever played anything by him?’
Leo shook his head. ‘I mostly play Mozart.’ He leaned forward and looked up at her. ‘When I finish the milk, can I go?’
‘I do have to know some things about you, just for our records. We have to know how many children come here.’
‘Are you a German?’
‘Of course not! I’m sorry, did you think we are? Of course not!’
He picked up the bread and bit off a corner, as though she had told him it was safe to eat. ‘My parents are across the street and they’re waiting for me, so I have to go as soon as I can.’
‘But Leo, they didn’t say to come right back, did they? Not really?’
He shook his head, too honest to make something up, or too tired or too hopeless.
She took a piece of paper from the shelf behind her and a pencil from her apron pocket. ‘Let’s start with your name and how old you are.’
‘Leo Weissman. I was ten last month.’
‘Ten? How long have you been playing the violin?’
‘Who was your teacher?’
‘Rosa Schwarz? I know her! Oh, she’s a good teacher.’
Leo sat up and smiled for the first time. ‘I saw her yesterday just before we left the house where we were hiding. She said, “Don’t say goodbye, Leo, say till we meet again.” She said it in French to my mother and father.’
Pam nodded. ‘And Rosa says you are her best pupil, I’ll bet.’
He nodded and smiled again, stroked the violin with one finger, then picked up the glass of milk and drank it all. When he sat up straight, he looked older than ten. Small and thin as he was, there was no baby fat on his cheeks, and his mouth was firm above a proud chin.
Pam thought he was beautiful, precious. This little boy and his talent must not be lost Somehow she had to protect him and it. ‘Leo, this school is full of kids. We get them from across the street, because the soldiers can’t take care of them. They give us everyone who isn’t thirteen yet. Little kids are a problem for them.’
‘I wouldn’t be a problem.’
‘No, of course not. But you’re not a big man yet, are you? The Germans want people to go to work for them, you see, so they only want to hire grownups.’ Hire! What else could she think of to shield him from knowing what was happening to his parents? What other lies? ‘If you had to work hard all day, you would get very tired and maybe even sick. I think that’s why your parents were pleased you could come here.’
Leo shook his head.
‘Leo, look at your hands,’ she went on. He looked surprised and she said again, ‘Look at them, Leo! You’re going to be a great violinist, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you want? What your parents want? So your hands are important. You can’t go and work for the Germans, it would be so bad for your hands. You can’t want that!’
‘No,’ he said, but she didn’t know what he meant, no to what? ‘No, I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to hide anymore.’ He stood up and pushed the violin across the table to her. ‘Keep it for me.’ He opened the door before she could get up.
When they went out to the hall, Mrs. P. was standing with her back to them, talking to a girl Pam didn’t know. She turned and saw Leo halfway to the front door and drew a loud breath, too surprised to move or speak. The door closed quietly behind him. Pam went to the window and watched him cross the street and walk through the gate between the guards. Too busy eyeing a girl walking past, they didn’t look at him.
Mrs. P. banged both her fists hard on the table. ‘I don’t want that to happen again! Don’t ever let it happen again!’
‘Oh, Mrs. P., there isn’t anything in the world that could have stopped him. He’s a little boy and he wants his mama. I couldn’t tell him where she was going, what was going to happen to her and his father, could I?’
‘I know, I know! I’m not angry with you, my dear. I’m just so …’
They both started to laugh. Who wasn’t angry these days? It was better than being discouraged or frightened. Pam had seen the faces of German soldiers stopping men to examine their identity cards. They often looked angry, maybe because at least some of them didn’t like where they were and what they were doing. The Dutch police all loved what they were doing, how important it made them feel. Her brother Adrian said they had been the scum of Amsterdam and still were, never mind how fine they looked in their fancy uniforms.
‘Pam, this is Jo,’ Mrs. P. said. ‘She’s going to be helping us with the children, helping them to disappear. I wanted you to meet her so you’ll recognize each other later on.’
Shaking hands, Pam wondered how old Jo was. Old enough to be trusted with a child, with the chance of being caught and arrested?
‘I’m supposed to give you something from your brother,’ Jo said, and she handed Pam an envelope with her name on it in his bold handwriting.
‘Do you know him?’
Jo nodded, then laughed. ‘I’m not supposed to say, of course. Adrian’s always warning us.’ She looked at Mrs. P., who smiled and put her hands over her ears. ‘I deliver papers to his group, that’s how. And messages.’ She buttoned her coat, shook hands with Mrs. P. and again with Pam and left.
Pam sat in the room where she had met Leo and opened Adrian’s letter. ‘I’m going to be gone for a few days and I don’t want you and Ted to worry. Tell him tonight. It’s just some business I have to attend to, nothing serious. Take care, Adrie.
She tore the sheet of paper into little squares and stuffed them into her apron pocket. It was nice of Adrian to think of them, surprising really. He would turn up after his few days laughing and prancing and feeling like a hero, so she didn’t need to think about him in the meantime. Anyway, it was impossible to think of anything but Leo and how they couldn’t save him. In the building across the street, sitting on the floor with his mother and father and the other prisoners, Leo was waiting for the next thing to happen. Nobody knew what that was, except that it began with the trains at a small station outside the center of the city. The Germans said they needed people to work for them, but they were taking children and old people and even people too sick to walk by themselves. They weren’t going to be much use in German factories or on their farms. Where did they go? First to Westerbork, and then?
In the early evening an open truck drew up in front of the theater, and a line of men and women came out and climbed awkwardly up into it. They helped each other lift their canvas sacks in, one for each of them. Pam watched for Leo and saw that one of the men reached down and lifted him up and that he sat down on his mother’s lap. The noisy motor sprang on, the truck bucked a little, so that the prisoners grabbed each other for support, and they roared off.
She was not going to cry. It wouldn’t help Leo or his mother and father or the others. The baby that had disappeared today might grow up to be something wonderful. They were doing that at least. Mrs. P. had put the violin in the safe under the stairs. He said, ‘Keep it for me.’ Perhaps the nursery would be there when the war ended and he came for it. Perhaps she would.
Copyright © Bryna Hellmann 2012
“A Great Cry in Egypt” is an excerpt from Hellmann’s unpublished novel, The Time Between: 1940-1945.
Bryna Hellmann was born in the United States, and in 1957, she and her newly-naturalized German-born husband left San Francisco for a two-month honeymoon in Europe, where they’ve lived ever since. Between 1977 and 2006, she founded and managed a private high school and a private college, the first in The Netherlands to offer an American-style humanities program coupled with an innovative communications program. Teaching writing in English gave her weekly contact with all her students and appeased her frustrated wish to write full-time. Since retiring in 2006, 79 years old and still healthy and alert, she has written three novels for early readers; a memoir of her Polish-Jewish ancestors and her husband’s Juden-frei German family; and an as yet unpublished novel, The Time Between: 1940-1945, about three Jewish girls living in occupied Amsterdam. That book was inspired by the sad fact that her Dutch students knew not much more than the story of Anne Frank about what was a physically, emotionally and morally challenging part of their country’s past.