Uncertainty: Chapter Sixteen
“Frohe Weihnachten, Oberpräsident,” echoed Max, with a doff of his cap.
“And a Merry Christmas to you as well, Herr und Frau Köhler,” greeted Terboven, while keeping his horse on pace with the wagon as it rolled toward the Bahnhof entrance. “And what business brings you to town on such a fine morning?”
“I’m surprised you need to ask, Herr Terboven!” I asserted. “One only needs to look at this magnificent Tannenbaum on the platz as an answer to your question.”
“Aha1! he exclaimed. “I have to agree with you. I too am drawn to it. It fills me with a great sense of Stoltz2 whenever I gaze upon it. In fact, it transcends its simple purpose of being a tree among trees in a forest that few would ever notice, let alone appreciate. But out here, on the platz, it becomes a sacred symbol to our Fatherland. This splendid tree personifies the strength and perfection that is Germany, and stands as a testament to the powerful bond that exists between the citizens of Germany and their love of Führer. Heil, Hitler!”
I sensed Terboven waiting for the requisite “Heil, Hitler” response, but he was met with uncomfortable indifference.
“Wouldn’t you agree, Herr Köhler?” he asked, looking miffed and wanting more than a tacit understanding. Max pulled the reins on Shaina Maidel and slowed the wagon to a full stop. Terboven circled around the wagon, and pulled his horse up beside Max.
“Forgive me, meine Oberpräsident, for having a wandering mind, but when I look upon this mighty tree, all I can see is eighty years of slow and steady growth cut down in fifteen minuten3 by your men. If I close my eyes, I am left to imagine the tree still standing in the feld. But in reality, there is a gap in the landscape that matches the hole in my heart from the sadness I feel.”
“Ja, but it is a noble sacrifice for the Reich, Herr Köhler. Is it not?” baited Terboven.
“It is, Herr Terboven,” I interjected, “and I have brought my beautiful nieces–who happen to be hiding in the back of the wagon–to show them the beauty that Gott has created, and the precious gift their Onkel has given to the town.
Max turned in his seat to roust the girls under their blanket. “Are you ready for your surprise, meine darlings?” he called out.
Berte and Eva slowly revealed themselves–lifting the blanket from their huddled mass–and carefully pulled themselves up to face the Tannenbaum directly.
“There it is, girls! What do you think?” Max asked, grinning.
“Onkel Max, it’s so beautiful,” gushed Berte, to the edge of exaggeration.
“Wunderbar, Onkel Max! It’s the most beautiful tree I think I’ve ever seen,” Eva overstated.
“Bitte, can we get a closer look, Tante Ilse?” begged Berte.
“Can we?” chimed Eva.
“Where are your manners, children?” I scolded. “How do you address this fine officer?”
“Frohe Weihnachten, sir,” curtsied Berte.
“Frohe Weihnachten,” mimicked Eva, clinging to Berte.
“Heil, Hitler,” chirped Terboven, with a tip of his hat.
I signaled my approval. “Much better, girls,” I lauded.
“Now climb down from there,” I advised, “and be very careful not to catch a nail with your fancy new Christmas outfits.”
My heart was racing. With everybody watching, I approached Shaina Maidel, wanting to say goodbye without arousing suspicion, but I couldn’t find the right words.
“Thank you for taking me to the Bahnhof,” I whispered.
I gently stroked her muzzle and looked into her deep brown eyes. She nuzzled against my shoulder in response, and nudged the paper sack in my hand.
“I know what you want,” I predicted. I opened the sack and withdrew an apple for her to see. “Is this what you want?” I teased.
Shaina Maidel tossed her head and whinnied. I took a bite and offered her the rest. The apple was gone in a flash, but she was back to nibble at my palm.
“You’re welcome,” I offered, and walked back to Tante Ilse. A wave goodbye to Onkel Max…
“I will wait for you on the south side of the station,” he announced,
…and the three of us walked to the Bahnhof, arm-in-arm. Gott sei Dank, our backs were turned, because I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
“Ride with me, Herr Köhler. I will escort you to the other side,” I offered.
It was better for the horses to be on the other side of the Bahnhof and away from the pedestrians and automobiles that were constantly in motion on the north side. Besides, there was something that was bothering me about Max Köhler’s attitude and answers that demanded more time to assess. Perhaps, a few more questions were in order to satisfy my curiosity.
“It’s really unnecessary, Oberpräsident. There’s no need to go out of your way. I believe I’ve already taken up too much of your time,” he indicated.
“Unsinn5!” I replied. “It’s no trouble, I assure you. Besides, I have an hour of time to kill before my wife and daughter return from the holiday performance under Ihre Tannenbaum6.”
“Very well…if you must,” remarked Herr Köhler.
Children of all ages and levels of anxiety were being processed alphabetically at a long table inside the terminal staffed by Kindertransport agents. I directed Berte and Eva to the P-Q-R-S line, where a volunteer was waiting and eager to assist us.
“Family name, bitte,” she requested.
“Strawczynski, S-T-R-A-W-C-Z-Y-N-S-K-I,”provided Berte.
“Given names?” she asked.
“I’m Berte, and this is my shvester, Eva,” reported Berte.
The agent sorted through stacks of name cards with hanging string, conveniently organized in boxes under the table, until she came across the two designated for Berte and Eva.
“Are you the girl’s mother?” she asked, pursuant to releasing the name cards.
“Nein. I’m the Tante,” I lied.
“Do you have travel papers for the kinder?” she inquired.
While in transit to the south side, I attempted to manuever around a menacing squad of Hitler Youth–intentionally crossing in front of Shaina Maidel with designs on annoying her–but the moment they spotted Terboven, their behavior was beyond reproach. They quickly filed past the wagon and aligned in a perfect row with arms extended in a synchronized salute. “SIEG HEIL!”
“What a nuisance,” I spoke under my breath.
Terboven dutifully returned the salute. “What wonderful kinder we have in the service of the Reich,” he boasted to me.
“May I see your papers, Herr Köhler?…Just a formality,” explained Terboven.
“If you must,” I accepted without objection.
I rummaged inside my coat pocket until they were available, and handed them over. After a cursory examination, Terboven held them up to the light, and returned them intact.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked, innocently. My response was intended as a rhetorical question, but I think it may have come across sarcastically.
“I see you have no children, Herr Köhler. Why don’t you tell me about Frau Köhler, bitte,” he directed. “And tell me when you discovered she was a Jüdin!”
“Oh meine Gott! What are you doing here?” I couldn’t believe my eyes, I was so ecstatic. I surrounded Toni Ehrlich and Sully Greenberg with both arms. All of us came together for a group hug, but found the hanging name cards to be an annoyance around our necks.
“You have no idea how much I missed you!” I sighed.
I sensed Eva was feeling left out of our close circle, until she spotted Sully’s shvester, Rosa in the background, and the two of them enjoyed their own special reunion.
“Where have you been?,” asked Toni. “Sully and I were so worried about you.
“It’s true,” sounded Sully. “It’s as if you and your mishpucha disappeared.”
“We did,” Eva broadcasted, still locked in Rosa’s embrace. “We were in hiding.”
“Eva! You promised Eema that you’d never tell!” I admonished.
“But these are our friends, Bertie, and I’ll bet that we’re all traveling to Holland together,” she predicted, which spurred all of our friends to nod in agreement.
“Don’t you see, Bertie? This is Abba’s final surprise!”
I spotted Tante immediately from her red beret, but I wasn’t sure if she could see me. She was weaving through the crowd on the platform like a ballet dancer, gracefully dodging the grown-ups who were frantically searching the long line of railcar windows for a final glimpse of the other half of their heart. We exchanged a wave when our eyes finally locked, and her face quickly changed from sad to glad.
I followed Rosa Greenberg to car number three, where the seven and eight-year-olds were sitting. At first, I thought it unfair to be sitting with the younger children, since I was almost nine, but after Bertie and I were sorted by age, and separated at boarding, I was delighted to sit with my friend, Rosa.
We found seats together by the window facing the platform, where I could see Tante standing with scattered groups of moms and dads united in their grief, and fighting to grapple with sending their children off to an uncertain future. I could also see Onkel Max in the distance. He was standing on the wagon, wildly gesturing to the officer on the horse who appeared to be pointing a gun at Shaina Maidel.
“What are you doing? What do you want?” I implored.
Terboven’s weapon was drawn, and pointed directly at Shaina Maidel.
“I want the truth…” insisted Terboven. “…but all I get is Lügen8!
As Terboven’s anger was building, his volume increased. “I ask about Deine Frau9, and you lie. I ask about the kinder, and you lie. I ask about your allegiance to the Reich, and you lie! Lies, LIES, and more LIES! WHEN DO I GET THE TRUTH!”
“But I’ve been telling you the truth,” I cried.
“Gotteniu10! Onkel Max is in trouble,” I blurted. The steam whistle blared and the railcar lurched forward. I never heard the shot, but Shaina Maidel crashed to the ground, tipping the wagon and throwing Onkel Max off-balance, and flying through the air.
I remember screaming, but I don’t remember anything after that…
…until I woke up in Holland…
…without my coat.
The End of Part One
Part Two: Holland
6your fir tree