Underground in Amsterdam
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Mary Dingee Fillmore
As she scanned the faces of the other five workers she’d been trained not to recognize, Rachel was sure she’d seen the old man sitting across from her before. Her chair felt rickety. Despite the warm July evening, the Amsterdam basement smelled moldy, and the air felt slimy and chilly. At least, if anything went wrong, there was an exit into the back garden. She was thankful to be young and strong and a good runner.
Their host was a man she thought she’d seen before, Mr. De Vries, a short elderly figure with a slight hump on his back. He kept trying unsuccessfully to focus on the urgent subject that had brought them together for a rare meeting: brainstorming more addresses where people could hide.
“Why are the raids getting so much worse?” a young woman with a perpetual frown asked.
Rolling his eyes, a man who called himself Walther snarled, “It’s the property they’re after! What else?”
Rachel pointed out that all Jewish assets of any size had long since been seized. What more could the Nazis want?
“Our apartments and all that fine furniture the rich Jews brought with them from Berlin.” Walther spoke as if this was crushingly obvious.
“Just a minute,” an icy male voice interjected. His accent meant he was probably a German refugee. “We’ve been warning you about the Nazis since 1938. Most of us had to abandon everything to come to Amsterdam. We thought other Jews would take care of us . . .”
“And we have,” Walther said. “We’ve done nothing but collect money and food and everything else for you for the last four years. All you do is complain.” His face tightened.
“Excuse me,” Rachel said. “Aren’t we all here for the same reason—to get as many Jewish people safely underground as we can? It’s high time we talked about where we’re going to get the new addresses.” She looked at her watch, which already said 7:30. Even though she was twenty years old, Rachel’s parents would be beside themselves if she wasn’t home before the Westerkerk carillon signaled 8:00 p.m., first with a sonorous musical phrase, then with the deep bells. As of a few days ago, it was Amsterdam’s curfew, not just the hour.
“Come on,” Walther said. “Anybody with brains hid before now.”
“Don’t be sure,” Rachel said, wincing as she thought of her own father’s refusal to give up his medical practice. “We need a plan.”
“You’re right,” Mr. De Vries said. “Let’s get on with it.”
They talked about which churches might help, and each person promised to ask anyone they knew personally whom they could trust. Just as they were wrapping up, Rachel looked at her watch again.
7:45. Too late to walk home. Her bicycle had been confiscated, and the Nazis had just banned Jews from the trams. Rachel’s breath fluttered, but what could she do? During the months she’d worked for the underground, she’d never stayed out all night. If only this had happened before the Nazis had cut off the family telephone, she could have simply called her parents and talked to them.
The meeting broke up quickly, and those who lived nearby scattered. Only Rachel and Walther were left with Mr. De Vries. He asked them both, “Don’t you have to go before the curfew?”
“It’s too far,” Rachel said. “I’m afraid I have to ask you if I can stay with you and your wife.”
“Of course, I’d be delighted to have you. My wife is long gone so she can’t welcome you, but there’s a couch you can sleep on, if you don’t mind.” Mr. De Vries actually looked pleased at the prospect.
“I’m in the same fix,” Walther announced. “I can sleep beside Rachel on the floor.”
She flinched and opened her mouth to protest.
“No, young man, you cannot,” Mr. De Vries replied. “If you really don’t have a place to go, you can sleep on the floor beside my bed.” Walther glowered but followed him and Rachel up three narrow flights of stairs.
After closing the curtains and windows tight for the blackout, they stayed up late talking and speculating about where the raids might strike next, and what it would take to get the Nazis out of their country.
“I don’t care what you say,” Walther kept insisting, “until the workers —”
Rachel didn’t argue with him; it wasn’t worth it. She agreed with some of what he said, but wearied of his knee-jerk reactions. At one point, Mr. De Vries said, “At least I’m too old for the Nazis. They’ll never draft me. And who would want this little place? Not a German officer, I can tell you that, or even a corrupt Dutchman.”
Walther puffed out his chest. “I’m sure they’ll try to find me,” he said proudly. “The right-wing Dutch police never did like radicals, and they have a new excuse now. Many of my comrades are already in prison.”
“Prison” — a word Rachel tried not to think of. If she had only her own safety to consider, she would have scurried through the streets to get home and taken her chances. She winced when she thought again of her parents’ worries for her, but she couldn’t risk being captured. She knew too much now. However hard she worked to forget and scramble the places where she’d delivered false identity papers, she couldn’t get rid of all the addresses in her head. Her nightmares regularly included an interrogation in which she spilled everything. At least she knew only fake names rather than real ones.
Mr. De Vries handed her a blanket despite the temperature and a fine grey coat to use as a pillow.
“This is so beautiful,” she said. “I don’t want to crumple it.”
“I made that coat myself when I was a young man. The client died, and his wife gave it to me.”
“You’re a tailor? Do you know Mr. Haber in Kerkstraat?”
“Of course. I still do some alterations for his shop.” She must have seen him there, delivering something. “Nobody’s clothes fit any more. We’re all too thin. Bring your winter coat directly to me before the fall comes, if I’m still here. I daresay it’s too big for you now.”
“Thanks. You’re right, it is.” This seemed like the least of her worries, but it was a kind offer.
Rachel cleaned her teeth as well as she could in the basin and sought out the toilet down the hall. It was terribly quiet by then, 11:00 p.m. She was uneasy in the hall by herself. Back in Mr. De Vries’s apartment she felt safer; how odd that it was he, not the stronger young man, whose presence reassured her. She was drifting off to sleep when she heard a vehicle screeching up the street. She jolted to a sitting position. The noise halted about half a block to the north. Rachel got up and headed for the window.
“Don’t open the curtains!” The tailor spoke sharply, rushing into the living room in his pajamas. “We can see anyway. I’ll show you.” A bay window at a slight angle allowed them to peek past the long slit between the blackout curtain and the glass.
A German military vehicle halted, spurting Green Police everywhere. Dozens of them. Rachel involuntarily grabbed the tailor’s hand, and he held it tight. “The boy’s asleep,” he whispered. “If they come up here, we’ll have to hide him. And you.” But where, in this tiny space? After all the chances Rachel had taken delivering false papers and underground news sheets, would she be rounded up in an ordinary raid, more or less at random? Her breath pounded against her ribs.
Below, the Nazis were pounding on doors and ringing bells. And, from the clanging sound she heard, smashing through a lock. Moments later, a screaming woman carrying a toddler was thrust into the street. A tall soldier slapped her hard, and she staggered before he pushed her and the child into the back of the truck. A man, apparently her husband, rushed out to join her with a suitcase, probably prepacked per the Jewish Council’s instructions “just in case.”
Rachel realized she must be hurting the old man’s hand. She tried to release her grip, but couldn’t. The tears on her face were cold and strange, like someone else’s. How she wanted to look away as the street filled with people in their night clothes, some grasping at the sleeves of their captors, apparently trying to bargain. At any time the Nazis might hammer on the door downstairs.
A girl about five years old held her mother’s hand and obediently climbed into the truck: a child Rachel might have saved. Somewhere deep within, in a moment of brutal, intuitive clarity, she knew the girl would never return. The life force inside Rachel surged into another deep knowing — if she avoided being captured that night, she had to hide and take her parents with her, whether they wanted to go or not. Earlier, she could not have lived with herself had she left the Nazis to overrun her country unchecked. But she was not going to follow the example of her first several underground leaders, who had worked to save others until they themselves had been killed. Her father would have to listen to her at last and give up his home and his medical practice. Rachel had a life to live, and she was determined to live it.
The police were hauling a man by the shoulders of his trench coat. Her own shoulders jerked upwards as he was tossed in with the others. Hands reached out from the back of the truck to try to cushion the blow. The tailor wrenched away his hand, made a gagging sound and sagged onto a nearby chair. Rachel rushed to give him water, as though it could wash away what they had seen.
“What’s going on out there?” A rumpled, half-dressed Walther emerged from the bedroom. Neither Rachel nor the tailor answered. The young man rushed to the window, tore open the blind and gasped when he glimpsed the scene below.
Rachel ripped the cloth out of his hands and closed it instantly. “Are you crazy? They’ll come after us if they know someone’s here.”
“But they’re taking people away! We have to stop them!” He rushed back to the bedroom to finish dressing.
Grabbing at his sleeve, Rachel ran after him. “No! You can’t. You’ll get us killed.” The tailor followed them.
Walther’s eyes glittered with excitement. He leaned on the wall to get his shoes on. “Don’t be stupid! At least we’ll put up a good fight.” He glanced up as he pulled out the tongue of his shoe, then jammed in his heel.
Rachel’s training for dangerous situations flashed into her mind. Walther couldn’t be reasoned with. That she knew. He would tear out of the door on a rampage. The Nazis would gun him down and storm the building. She and the tailor would be on that truck in less than half an hour.
When Walther looked down, and his hands were busy with his other shoe, Rachel hit him as hard as she could, full in the face. Blood surged from his nose, and he shrieked. The tailor sprang forward and muffled the terrible noise with his hands.
“Keep him still for a minute,” Rachel said. She seized the advantage, pressing directly on his carotid artery. He slumped in an instant.
She recoiled, shaking as if she were in the truck going over rough pavement. Had she actually broken his nose? Would she have killed him if he hadn’t passed out?
The tailor touched her hand, which quivered with pain. “You saved our lives.”
Rachel looked at him blankly. He seemed so far away. When she stepped away from the bed, her shoes stuck to the floor. She couldn’t speak. Walther — thankfully still breathing — had fallen back on the mattress. His blood had stained her dress, his shirt and the little rug by the bedside. It smelled tinny. What had she done?
“Come and sit with an old man. I’ll bring you something hot to drink.” Mr. De Vries led her back into the living room and over to the couch, where she half reclined as he washed his bloody hands, then boiled water on the tiny stove. “Just a pinch of this brown stuff and a little sugar,” he said.
Rachel felt very, very sleepy. Drinking too much beer must feel like this: her extremities and her thoughts were floating clouds touching a hilltop for an instant, then blowing off and touching another. She remembered her mother’s mother and the afternoons when they had baked cinnamon-scented cookies and other treats. “We may not go to synagogue that often,” Oma had said, “but we eat right for the holidays.” Rachel could smell the butter in the air, the cinnamon she loved to sprinkle in the right places.
Someone was touching her hand — oh yes, a nice elderly man. She sort of remembered him. “Drink this,” he told her and guided her hand around a hot mug. But she’d rather sleep, she was so tired. She slumped farther down against the couch’s soft cushions. He cupped his hands around hers and raised the mug to her lips. Something sweet touched her tongue.
As she was about to drink, she thought of her father, and sputtered the hot liquid out. “I have to go home!” she said. “They’ll be so worried.” Why was she out so late? She couldn’t remember.
“Drink this, and don’t worry. You’ll go home in the morning. It’s too late now. Let me tell you a story about where I was born.” The man kept raising the sweet, hot drink to her lips. The tale he told entranced her in spite of her worries, and she soon fell asleep.
When Rachel awoke hours later, she could make out a dozing figure sitting beside her. “Where am I?” she asked in alarm, waking Mr. De Vries. Gently, he reminded her of the night before, more fantastical than a legend, and drew the curtains to reveal the newly risen sun. Rachel, seeing the blood on her dress, remembered. Then she looked at the closed bedroom door.
“How is he?”
“He’s been snoring to beat the band since around 2:00,” said the tailor. “I’ll see to him. He’ll be happier if you’re not here when he wakes up. People pay to have their Jewish noses redone; you did it for him without charging a guilder. Go home and reassure your parents.”
She had to get back as soon as possible, and it was a long walk. Her raincoat would hide the bloody stains on her dress. Rachel tore herself away from the tailor after thanking him as best she could, not without tears on both sides at their farewell. Rachel knew the Nazis would probably catch Mr. De Vries soon unless he hid, but that was up to him, not her. It was her own family she had to save now.
The journey home through the warm, sunny morning was a blur. Rachel hardly noticed the canals. Running would attract attention, so she walked as fast as she could. When police and soldiers were stationed ahead, she slowed to the pace of a busy woman doing an urgent domestic errand. Nobody stopped her. Finally Rachel heard the song of the Westerkerk carillon, its sweet notes soaring over the low boom of the deeper ones. The music enveloped her, as it had every quarter-hour since she was born, as though she were already at her own front door. Could she find a place for herself and her parents to hide where they could still hear the bells? Who might help? She listed every Gentile friend and acquaintance she could think of as she rushed home.
Convincing her father would be the real challenge, although his arguments had shifted. The night before her meeting at Mr. De Vries’s, they had fought again. “How would we live in hiding?” Jacob had sounded incredulous. “Where would our food come from? How would we get books to read? It’s completely impractical.” He had walked away from the circle of light over the table. She and her mother had exchanged weary glances. There was no point in pursuing the issue then, so they went into the kitchen to prepare supper.
With the water running, Mams had startled her by saying, “We have to get out of here. How can we convince Paps?”
“I don’t know. But if we don’t hide, I’m afraid.” Rachel had surprised herself by slipping into her mother’s arms. She couldn’t tell Mams about her life underground, but she drew comfort from her mother’s hands stroking her back, and the faint smell of lavender.
“If you hear of somewhere we could go, tell me, and I’ll start asking, too. Maybe if we had something specific to propose, he’d come around.” They’d left the topic for the night.
Hurrying along the brick sidewalk, Rachel hoped that, by telling her father what she had seen with her own eyes, she would persuade him they couldn’t wait any longer. She didn’t want to tell him anything about what she had done. What would she say about the blood on her dress? She’d come up with something, as she had so many times.
Finally, she saw the carved gablestone above her own front door. Never had the figure of the woman with the anchor and the dove, poised over the word HOPE, seemed more ironic. Rachel ran the last few paces, unlocked the door and shouted as loudly as she could, “I’m home!” Then she sat down on the bottom indoor step and wept, but not as hard as her father did when he ran down the stairs and knelt, taking her in his thin arms. Mams leaned over him to kiss Rachel’s head. “I thought you’d be all right,” she said, “but your father has been frantic. See, Jacob, she’s fine.” Rachel’s underground leaders had insisted that she keep her parents in the dark for her and their protection, but Mams probably knew. Paps didn’t.
Rachel pulled back from Paps’s embrace to look at him — unshaven, as he never was, his eyes scarlet-rimmed, his cheeks strangely hollowed. He looked at her uneasily through a film of tears, as though he had to verify she was actually his daughter. He clutched her arms, trying to find words.
They stood together, and then Rachel held her father, feeling his bones and the trembling in them. This is what it will be like when he’s an old man, she thought. If he lives to be one.
“Paps, I’m so sorry. We have to talk.” Her words were muffled against his shoulder.
“Yes, we must.”
The three went upstairs into the morning light. Through the window, the sun sparkled on the canal, glorious and indifferent.
“Take off your coat and stay a while,” her mother joked.
“Not quite yet,” Rachel replied. “I’d like to change first, if you don’t mind.”
Jacob looked stricken at the thought of her departure, even a brief one.
“All right, I’ll stay.” she said. “It’s just that I’m a mess. I’m afraid my dress is covered with blood.”
“You were attacked?” Jacob bolted out of his chair.
“Uh, no,” Rachel temporized. “Why don’t I keep this on for a minute?”
Her mother said, “You’ll have some coffee? It’s already made. I kept telling him you’d been delayed, and that you’d be back soon after daybreak, but he wouldn’t listen. Finally I went to sleep on the couch while he sat by the window. But I did wake up at four o’clock and kept him company for the rest of the night.”
“What happened?” Jacob asked, his face tense and lined.
“I was with friends,” Rachel began. Her mother tried not to smile. “One of them had a bloody nose, so I stayed to help him. It took a long time, and suddenly it was too late to come home. I knew you’d be upset, but they’ve started raiding Amsterdam South, and that’s where I was. I was afraid to leave.”
Her father started to speak, but Rachel held up her hand. “No, Paps, it’s not a rumor. I stayed overnight at Mr. De Vries’s, an old man who was kind to me. We saw the Nazis break into buildings, drag people out and shove them onto a truck, even children.” She waited for her father’s shocked protests.
Instead, he said, “I know. One of my patients from the Jewish Council told me something big was planned. That’s why I was so afraid last night. I thought they had taken you.” His voice shook again. “We can never go through another night like that, your mother and I. We have to go into hiding until this is over.”
The women turned to him, open-mouthed. “What did you say, Paps?”
“We have to hide.”
At last! Rachel thought, and said aloud, “I’ll start looking for a place right away. I know people who might help us.”
“No, no.” Jacob shook his head dismissively. “We already have a place; we just have to make contact.”
Mother’s and daughter’s eyes went wide.
“How long have you been thinking about this?” Mams asked.
“I wasn’t. It was Wim.”
“Wim?” Ten years ago, Jacob had met Wim when his leg had been broken in a construction accident near the clinic. A fellow worker had dashed into the clinic for help. Because Wim couldn’t work until the break healed, Jacob had visited him at home in the Jordaan every week until he was walking again and never accepted a fee.
“Wim came to see me a few months ago.” Jacob regained his composure as he sipped the hot brown liquid, amplified by a tablespoon of brandy. “He said he wanted a check-up. I thought it was unusual, since he only comes when he’s sick. I asked him why he was there. I thought it might be a family problem.
“‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘I have a cousin you may want to meet. Her name is Els Brinker. Her address is 452 Elandsgracht.’ I asked if she was ill and started to make a note. He shook his head, reached out and touched my arm. He didn’t use force, but there was no question of my continuing to write, either. ‘Don’t write it down,’ he said. ‘Remember the address. She has a nice big basement, and she likes guests.’ I didn’t understand at the time, but now I do.”
Suddenly Rachel longed to be in her own room, take a bath and go to bed. Her body felt thick. She could hardly move. Her mother read her face and said, “Good, that’s settled. Everyone’s used to your going out every day, Rachel, so you should call on Mrs. Brinker later today. Take your false papers — don’t look at me that way! I know you have them — and, of course, don’t wear the star. For now, why don’t you rest? Then we’ll have lunch, and you can go. And as for you, Doctor, I’ve never seen you look so peaked and dishevelled in our whole married life. Shave before you lie down, please. I won’t have whiskers like that in my bed.”
Jacob and Rachel let themselves be led upstairs, he to his shaving mirror and she to the tub. By that time, Rachel’s fumbling fingers couldn’t undo the buttons on her blouse. Her mother helped her as if she were still a child. “You were at a meeting, weren’t you?” Rachel nodded. “That’s what I thought. Bloody nose? I wasn’t born yesterday, even if your father was. We might be able to save this skirt. I’ll soak it in cold water, and then you can scrub it out. Just step out of it.”
Half an hour later, Rachel awoke in the cooling bath water as her mother shook her. “Wake up, sleepy head, and put on your nightie. Don’t drown in the bathtub, please.” Rachel let herself be dried off and sensed the cool muslin slipping over her head. She hardly spoke as she found her way to her clean bed with her mother’s help.
At last, the three of them could hide together and have some chance of getting through the war. Her work for the underground was over, at least for now. As Rachel dropped off to sleep, the Westerkerk carillon played the intricate musical phrase that foretold the full hour, then struck twelve. Elandsgracht, Rachel thought. Just two blocks away – but in a basement. We won’t even be able to hear the bells.