This an excerpt from Gerda Vandenhaak’s “Geertje: War Seen through the Eyes of a Child as an Adult”
I am lining up for food. I can feel the crackling of the papers my mom put under my jacket against the wind. I have in my hands a round brown enamel little pan with two black handles. The edge is black too and there is a chip broken off the edge. We line up at the soup kitchen. I see no adults. It must be for children only. But I do not see my brother and sister. The soup smells good. It is grayish brown. It makes me feel good inside….
I keep looking at my legs. They feel so heavy. I am surprised every time I look at them. They look the same. It seems like I am wading through something heavy. I don’t know why I feel this way. I did not find much food today, only a white paper bag with some powder in it. I don’t know what it is. I did not even steal it. I just found it on a windowsill.
When I walk into the house, mom right away puts her arms around me and says: “What’s the matter?” Nothing is the matter. I only have this powder and I hand it to mom. Mom smiles and seems to be happy with it. “Salt,” she says, “Real salt, this is great.” She pulls me towards her and holds me and then I tell her about the dead people and the three that we knew. Mom cries and I let her. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Yes, I checked,” I tell her. Then my mom holds me so tight, it almost hurts, but it also makes me feel good. Mom says it is a good thing that they do not shoot children, so I won’t tell her about the twins….
My brother and I are standing outside in the darkness. Our backs are pressed against the wall of our house. I am seven and my brother is five years old. I can feel the roughness of the wall under my left hand. My brother is very brave. He holds my hand very tightly. I am never afraid. My mother said to wait before we start walking, to wait until we could see. And if we were afraid to look up to the stars and God would look after us. We have to get some milk for the baby. Mom only has water for her. We have to go to the second farm. Mom said not to go to the first one. We walk slowly, we do not talk, not even whisper. People are not allowed to be outside after eight. We come to the farm and knock on the back door, it opens and a hand pulls us inside. The door is closed behind us and then a candle is lid. The warmth of the place puts its arms around us. “What do you want, you are only kids,” a voice says. We ask for some milk for the baby. The farmer’s wife smiles at us and says, “Yes.” I can feel my insides again. The farmer’s wife says we can come again, as she fills the milk container. When we get home, mom hugs us so tight, it almost hu rt again. Mom loves us so much….
I did it! All morning I had waited on the side of the road with the other kids. The trucks with the sugar beets would come by. This was the place where the trucks really slowed down, because of the curve. I had jumped on the back of the truck and now had three sugar beets – two I grabbed and one that fell down after me. My arm was scraped and blood trickled down one leg, but I did not feel it at all. I was so overjoyed with the beets I ran all the way home.
My brother and I cleaned the beets in the kitchen sink and then we sucked on them. I can still taste and feel the breaking of the beet skin. It felt funny and ribbling. For the next two days we sucked the beets. At night we would climb in mom and dad’s bed and huddle together under the blankets. I don’t remember what happened after that. But I do know that was the last time I needed to steal food….
I sit between them, my mother and her friend. We are taking the horse and buggy to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, to visit dad and the friend’s husband. The buggy belongs to the friend. We have two plates of food wrapped in towels, in the back. They talk softly right above my head. I can hear every word. The steady talking makes me sleepy. I am so hungry and now we are bringing food to the camp. Why? We need food ourselves! Suddenly we are there. I even see my dad. He is wearing pajamas… strange. Mom’s friend talks to the guard. The guard shakes his head. Mom starts to cry, so the guard does not look at her again. We go to the fence. The men all look funny, as if they are dead. I have seen dead men, but the men here still walk. They guard starts yelling and the men leave, including my dad. He looks at us, his eyes are very strange. Then he leaves too.
We go back home. In the back are two plates of food. Mashed potatoes with red cabbage. Mom says we can share it when we get back home. I want to eat it so badly, but I keep thinking of my dad and I feel bad about wanting the food. I don’t want to feel anymore….
I am setting the table in the dining room. Mom is singing in the kitchen and that makes all of us happy. She got a whole whack of potato peels and she washed them and washed them. Now they are cooked and she added some red cabbage. Mmm… It smells good and we are getting a meal today. It is my brother’s turn to sit in dad’s chair today. As usual, I open my eyes real quick, just for a second, while mom prays. I am sure that when mom prays, God, Jesus and the angels are there in the dining room with us. Again I was not quick enough.
We start to eat, then suddenly a siren, shooting and yelling. We all jump up and run to our hiding places under our house. We have three hiding places under our house. I know that, but mom does not know that I know that. I have taken my plate of food with me and go to the farthest corner of the place, my little brother next to me. Other people are coming in and find a place to sit. I hold my plate close to me, my arms protective above it. Someone sees my plate and food and wants to take it away. I start to cry and suddenly there is my mom. She says: “This is still my house and this is my daughter. This is her food and she is going to eat it.”
My mom sits next to me and I still remember the feel of her arm around me as I was eating then. I just could not stop crying and my sobs fill the room. People are telling me to be quiet, but I just can’t. I eat and I sob and sob. Even when I was quiet my body kept shaking. All night my mother kept her arm around me. My big sister was on the one side and me on the other, my brother next to me. I did not care about all the other people, just about us and my mom. All night long there was yelling and loud noises around us and all night long mom prayed. First out loud with all the people and then softly just with us….
Mom woke us up and told us to get ready, quick. “Dad is home,” she said “and we have to flee.” In minutes we are on the road, mom pushing the baby buggy. In the middle of the night we ran. All I remember is the confusion at first: the shooting, yelling again, the piercing scream of some missile and the terrible fear. We wound up in the middle of a skirmish near Nykerk. A soldier came and told dad to go the other way. I remember hiding under a bridge and waking up in the morning in the middle of a field with dad’s arms around the three of us. We started walking again along a path at the bottom of the dike. I remember mom pushing the buggy and in it the baby and a little pan of cooked horsemeat, taken from a dead horse behind our house. I remember dad suddenly having a bicycle. He was walking alongside it, my oldest sister sitting on the crossbar. I remember my brother walking in front of me, step by step. His feet were bleeding and we were walking on all alone in the countryside. Late in the afternoon we rounded a curve in the dike and we saw a farmhouse. I can still see it. It had orange ribbons all over it and a sign that said they were free!!
We did it. We somehow had broken through and were free. I really did not know what that meant. They, the farmers, welcomed us and took us in their home. The farmer’s wife set us all at the table and gave us a bowl of hot oatmeal. Then she poured milk over it and brown powder. Brown sugar, she called it. Dad prayed with us. His voice again sounded funny and mom cried. It was the most wonderful meal I had ever tasted. We all sat there and smiled at each other and cried some more. Dad said we were free and the war was over. We would never be hungry again. The next day we reached our destination, Putten….
This first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Reformed Perspective.