Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Jaap and Hester and Bets and Herman and Heini and Toni, the story of a friendship beyond wars.

I wanted to do this blog around May 4th, as my contribution to the endless goings on around the memory of WWII. We are in the gardens, so this is late. Be patient, the relevant part is coming. First, we are setting the scene.

For a nature loving city child even an urban back yard was joy.

My paternal grandparents lived in The Hague, within walking distance of a beach, on a spacious triangular square [sic] with a large planting of shrubs and flowers in the middle. Notenplein 50 was a ground floor flat. No front yard, the windows of the living room were flush with the sidewalk. Anyone could look in, though people rarely did. I loved the feeling of being both snugly inside and almost outside. 
I thank Shers Gallagher for sending me this picture!

A dear online friend sent me this picture after she read the post. There were no parked cars in my memories.

There was a backyard.  It had a small paved section, then a lawn, and in the middle of the lawn a gold reinette apple tree. At the very back there was a chicken coop. I was a fearful child with no pets at home, leery of life forms that possessed teeth, claws, beaks or talons and could not be reasoned with. I have no memory of  the chickens themselves. I could not tell you what they looked like and if we actually got eggs from them. But to this day, years after I have kept many a flock for both eggs and meat, the sound of chickens clucking reminds me of waking to the pleasure of being in Opa and Oma's house. 

Our yard was separated from the neighbours by a sturdy hedge. A small section had been removed on one side, so we could visit Opa's brother's house next door by going around the back, from kitchen door to kitchen door. To a city child this was a delicious bit of country living. 

In 1961 I was preparing for the grueling final exams for the Gymnasium. Somehow it was decided I should spend the Easter vacation at Notenplein 50, because the place would provide more quiet for studying. Oma was widowed by this time.
The chickens were gone, the apple tree in rough shape. But the gap in the hedge was still there, and in the evenings we would go watch TV with Oom Herman and tante Bets.

This is where we get to the title for this post. They had company too: long time friends Toni and Heini, who were, gasp! German. We did not know any Germans personally. The memory of the war and occupation was still quite fresh. As my brother said, we were raised to be without prejudice, except for Germans. Though our always fair father admitted there might be some good ones. Mind you, he added you had to bring a flashlight to find them. So here were these nice old people, and it turned out they were friends not only of our great uncle and his wife but of our grandparents as well.

The three couples had known each other since the twenties, brought together by the same international choir "The Voice of the People", that had led Opa and Oma  to practice Danish. Heini and Toni were sweet and simple people without a lot of education. They were certainly no one's embodiment of evil.
Heini was minus one arm, courtesy of WWI. Their only child, a son, had been sacrificed to WWII. 

Oma's only sister, who did not have the protection of a gentile husband, had died in January 1945 in Auschwitz. I never realized till much later how close the sisters had been. Rosa was a single mother and worked while my grandmother cared for her daughter. As a child I knew nothing of this and it was never talked about. I did not even know that Oma was Jewish till I was 12. I wonder now what it had been like for all of them, how they maintained the friendship through the years. 

I like the fact that they did. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

For May first: a memory of singing The International.

The time: between three and four in the morning of March 26, 1969. 
The place: a small apartment behind the upper row of 3 windows in the house you see here, Westerstraat 191, Amsterdam. At the time it was used for housing  married student couples. We had been assigned a flat in September 1965. It was incredible good luck and I was very happy there.

The picture dates from 2009. By this time the gentrification of the Jordaan neighbourhood had been under way for decades, as had the wave of privatisations. We were a very fortunate generation. Did we even know it? Not really. We were too busy identifying with every oppressed group around.
Being oppressed was status. We digress.

Later that day we would board the plane that would take us to Canada. We had celebrated the last night there with the two other couples who had apartments in the building. In the mainly empty flat we sat around on the floor with bottles of booze. At some point the need for coffee arose. The grinder had been sold, the small espresso thingy packed. Chris had the brilliant idea of grinding coffee beans with an empty coke bottle and boiling it in a saucepan, coffee Tobruk style.

And, for whatever reason, we ended up drunkenly singing the International, in several languages. One of our housemates had spent time in Italy and sang that version. Somehow the name Togliatti featured in it. His lovely wife was Danish by origin and sang it in Danish. Not that any of us knew the whole text. We mainly roused the wretched of the earth. Was it the straight laced student of economy from the top floor who sang in French? "Debout, vous damn├ęs de la terre!" Memory fizzles out there. 

Anyway, it was a grand time, and I think of it every time I either hear The International or have to improvise a way to grind coffee.