For those just starting out, read the previously published post…Uncertainty: Prologue
Abba and Eema had a plan. They knew one day the Nazis would come for us, and we needed to be prepared when that day should arrive. So on Sundays for the past few months — when the goyim1 were at church — we would practice our escape to Venlo, where Abba kept a small storage room above a shop on Jodenstraat. We pretended to make it look like an innocent outing in the countryside, but it never seemed right to me. I couldn’t pretend how unfair it was that we should lose everything that Abba and Eema had worked so hard to achieve just because we were Jewish.
Ordinarily, Eema packed a lunch, and we’d gather inside the delivery van with our empty suitcases and drive to the farm on the edge of town where Shaina Maidel lived. While I spent a few minutes with my horse, the rest of the family moved merchandise from the van to the trunk of Abba’s Opel. Then we were on the road again. We would drive to Duisburg, and enjoy Eema’s picnic on the grassy hill overlooking the riverbank where the Ruhr flows into the Rhine. We would nosh2 on Eema’s cold chicken leftovers while watching the steamboats navigate the confluence.
Afterwards, we would cross the German border into Venlo–a small Dutch town with a small Jewish district–where Abba thought we would be safe from the Nazis. If Eva and I helped Abba carry his merchandise from the Opel to the second floor storage without complaining, he would buy us something sweet from the Kosher bakery on the ground floor.
Sunday was a good day to cross over. There was less traffic on Sundays, and fewer guards at the border crossing where we’d always have to stop and show our papers. Abba’s and Eema’s papers were different from mine and Eva’s because our nationality was German, and theirs was Polish, so it always took a little bit longer to sort things out at the checkpoint. This was the riskiest time during the trip.
Eva and I knew from Abba and Eema to be extra quiet when we got to the border so as not to attract attention. Sometimes, Eva and I would make a game of it so she wouldn’t be so frightened. We would imagine what the guard looked like standing outside the gate in his underwear, but Abba said we should take it more seriously. Of course he was right, because things didn’t go as planned in what was to be our last practice before the Kristallnacht3 pogrom shattered the night.
On this day our suitcases were packed, and we had more than the usual cargo in the trunk. When we approached the checkpoint gate, we slowly rolled past an older man laying on the ground outside his open car. He was trying to cover up and protect himself from a soldier who was beating him bloody with a rifle stock. With each jab of his rifle the soldier was yelling something obscene. Eva couldn’t help herself. She got upset and started to cry.
“Why are they doing that to the man?” she wailed.
I tried to quiet her by cradling her under the picnic blanket. “You have to keep your voice down, Eva. If you don’t, they’re going to catch us.”
But I couldn’t completely stop her from whimpering. As I peeled away the blanket, I noticed the guard glaring at me through the backseat window as we came to a stop in front of the guardhouse. Abba rolled down his window to present our papers. With every turn of the page, the guard scrutinized our identities against our pictures. When he got to Eva’s papers, he demanded to see her face, still hidden beneath the blanket.
“Show yourself!” he ordered.
Abba tried to explain. “I apologize, officer. She’s not feeling very well. We are on our way to see a doctor in Venlo about her condi…”
“Silence!” the guard interrupted. A loud gunshot rang out behind us near the old man on the ground, and I willed myself to ignore it.
The guard returned his attention to the backseat. “I said show yourself!”
All of which intensified Eva’s crying. She slowly pulled the blanket away from her face to reveal her swollen red eyes filled with tears.
The guard returned to Abba, impatiently tapping our folded papers against his gloved hand. “Juden!?” he expressed more than he asked. The guard already knew the answer to his question, having noticed the “J” on Abba’s passport before the exchange.
“Yes, officer,” confessed Abba, his voice filled with resignation.
Handing back our papers, “You will not be continuing into Nederlands,” he informed. “You will turn around and return to Essen. Do you understand?”
“Yes, officer. Thank you, officer.” Abba accepted our passports, rolled up his window, and u-turned the Opel in the direction of home. I instinctively shielded Eva’s eyes as we drove past the beaten driver who was laying perfectly still in a small pool of blood from a bullet to his head.
Usually, after returning home from Venlo, Eema would prepare dinner while Eva and I would listen to Abba’s critique of our performance during the escape drill. “You can’t be just a little bit right,” he’d say emphatically. “You have to be one hundred percent right, as if your life depended on it!”
And how do you get to one hundred percent?” Eema always quizzed from the kitchen.
“You have to learn from your mistakes,” I would state with assurance.
“Right you are!” asserted Abba. “And what do you think would happen if I always made one hoyzn4 leg longer than the other?”
Now it was Eva’s turn to answer. “We would lose all our customers, Abba, and then we’d end up in the poorhouse with the other beggars.”
It was a scary thought, but not as scary as the encounter with the guard. On that night, Abba didn’t have anything to say at all. He kept to himself, smoking his pipe and reading the paper in his favorite armchair. Eva cautiously approached him and climbed into his lap, forcing him to adjust his newspaper.
“I’m sorry, Abba. I didn’t mean to cry. It’s just that when I saw that man being hit by the soldier, I imagined that he was doing that to you.”
That evening, Abba explained that hatred towards Jews was increasing, and it was just a matter of time before the German soldiers became more aggressive. He was already aware of several instances of Jews being arrested and deported back to Poland. “Your mother and I are very worried about your welfare, so we decided that this time we were leaving Essen for good and going to stay in Nederlands. But I guess it didn’t work out that way.”
Eva locked her long arms around him and held him closely. “That’s okay, Abba. At least we’re all together.”
3“Night of Broken Glass”