A few weeks ago I went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa with my daughter Irene and her husband Joe. We went to see my granddaughter Natalie play the role of Anne in the “Diary of Anne Frank.” We had to take two planes (both delayed) and, after that, we had to rent a car and drive another hour to get to Natalie’s college.
When I got to La Guardia Airport at nine in the morning the line for inspection was as long as from here to heaven. Luckily, my daughter had made reservations for a wheelchair for me. The wheelchair was waiting for me, and we immediately went to the front of the line. I was wearing a gigantic shoulder bag filled with sandwiches and other paraphernalia which I couldn’t fit into my carry-on. It was so heavy that the attendant who wheeled my chair nearly keeled over when she took it from me. We all had a good laugh, she probably thinking if she can carry such a heavy bag, what is she doing in a wheelchair?
We did not arrive until seven that evening. I was so tired from the long trip that I fell into bed immediately. When I opened the curtains the next morning I saw endless rolling cornfields under a perfectly blue sky. It was majestic and very soothing at the same time. I had never been in this part of the U.S. and, for me, it was breathtaking.
My children had gone to see the play the evening we arrived and they were very moved and loved it. Irene warned me not to forget to bring a box of tissues.
During the afternoon, we went to see Natalie at her college. She was very pleased to see us - particularly me. We spent the rest of the day together and went out for dinner. Natalie had to leave at six o’clock because the performance started at seven thirty.
The production was remarkably professional and Natalie was luminous. In fact, she was the play. I was so proud of her! When I looked at the playbill I read that she would like to dedicate her performance to her Bonmama. That’s what my grandchildren call me. I was very touched; I had not realized how closely she had associated this play with me.
The next morning at breakfast in the motel we read a whole page about the play in the local newspaper, The Gazette, with a big picture of Natalie and the man who played her father in the play (one of four other professional actors). This is what it said: "Embodying the spirit of Anne Frank has been an emotional journey for student actress Natalie Kropf. 'Both my grandparents were in the holocaust,' says Kropf, 21, a junior majoring in theater at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. 'My grandmother lived in Holland – in The Hague - and was about the same age as Anne.' 'It’s really brought me closer to my own personal history and made me curious to learn more about it,' Kropf says. 'A couple of years ago she actually wrote a little memoir for her grandchildren that documents her escape from the Nazis and everything that happened. Up until that memoir I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now. I just knew that she had escaped it. It’s such an important part of history. Our generation has grown up hearing about it, but the people who lived through it might not be here for the next generation. How are they going to hear about it, except from textbooks? They need to learn how it happened so it can never, ever, ever happen again.'”
I was overwhelmed; I had not known that my being in Holland under the German occupation was so real to her.
The play was at the Riverside Theater in Iowa City for the next three weekends. My other two daughters, Ruth and Debbie, went to see the last performance in Iowa City.
I had gotten used to being forbidden to go to a park, a movie, a café, a swimming pool—every day there was another set of restrictions—but this was beyond anything I could have imagined. I had somehow hoped all along that if I could only stay in my house, with my parents and my two brothers, and see all my friends, it would be all right. What I didn’t know at the time was that most Jews in our town had already been kicked out of their jobs and were becoming paupers. I was sixteen and very much occupied with my teenage problems and pleasures.
That day, my home-room teacher Mynheer van der Poel, asked Jewish pupils to stay after school. There were about five of us. We were sitting in the empty classroom wondering what this was all about. He told us that we couldn’t come back to school anymore, it now being against the law for Jewish pupils to attend school. With tears in his eyes he said goodbye, shook hands with the boys and kissed the girls. It was unreal! I was shaken to the core.
Bicycling home, I felt very cold. The stores were brightly lit and people were doing their Christmas shopping. Life around me looked the same as always, only for me it had changed. For the first time I felt different from anyone else, and for the first time, I was truly scared. Would they come and get us in the middle of the night?
The last letter I wrote to you from Nice was returned to me, "ADDRESS UNKNOWN." Address unknown! You were born in that house! I was writing you how we finally made it to the unoccupied part of France, after many scares and hardships. How was I to know that you were already in Westerbork? I had just said good bye to you, a few months ago. I was not allowed to tell anybody that we were leaving, taking a chance trying to get out, but of course I told you. We never had any secrets from each other, not in all the years we were best friends. We were inseparable, as adolescent girls can be. We always wondered how it would feel to kiss a boy and if we would ever get married.
Do you remember that last summer when we got on our bikes and went to Groningen, where we stayed for a week at your grandparent's farm? It was so much fun and we felt so grown up.
You never knew that I got married and had children, and lived a whole full life. When shall I ever stop feeling guilty that I was so lucky and you were not?
I heard later that all the Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David with "Jood" written on it, that all bicycles and cars were confiscated and that public transportation for Jews was forbidden. What about all those people who were elderly and had difficulty walking? I heard also that you could only buy food and other things, such as medicines, during the one hour a day allotted to you. Every day new laws, new restrictions! How did you ever manage?
After the war I returned briefly to Holland and I saw your brother at a lecture. He had survived, the only one of your family. He had been hidden by a Christian family. The weird thing is we never even said hello to each other. He did not come over to me; maybe he was resentful that I was here, and his family wasn't. Why I did not approach him and tell him how happy I was to see him I don't know. All I could remember, that last time I came to say goodbye to you, was him sneering at me: "There is no need to run, running is for cowards, nothing is going to happen to us, not in Holland, the Dutch people would never allow it!"
When he went into hiding, did he try to save you also? Maybe he did and you were betrayed. Maybe the prevailing thought was that only the men were in danger and that the women and children would be allowed to stay at home. Even before I left, there were new and different rumors every day. There are so many maybes! I could have tried to talk to him and ask him, but this was right after the war and nobody asked questions. It was too painful.
Dear Greetje, as I am in the last quarter of my life, I felt the need to tell you what a good friend you were and how dear you were to me.
When I was about seven years old, my father was always inventing things. It must have been during or just after the depression; I am not quite sure. Every year or so he came up with a new invention which would make us all rich. The last one I remember was a contraption whereby every time one used the toilet, a fresh layer of toilet tissue would miraculously appear on the seat. I didn't quite know how it worked, only that it was supposed to be very hygienic. My two brothers and I laughed hysterically every time the subject came up.
One day, a very imposing gentleman came to our house to evaluate the invention. There was a lot of discussion back and forth. I heard the gentleman say that an attendant, who wiped the toilet seat with a cleaning rag after every use, would do just as well. Whereupon my father reiterated that a cleaning rag would spread germs all over the place. This went on for quite some time while the three of us in the back room had a lot of fun listening to all this. I was too young to understand why it was so funny, but my brothers thought it was funny, so I did too.
I needed to ask my mother something, so I walked into the front room. My mother pulled me toward her and proudly introduced me to the gentleman as her little daughter. I saw that he had a very red and rugged face.
Just the day before, we had read a story in school about this nice butcher with a very red and beefy face who always added some bones for the dog. I wanted to be extra nice to this strange man and said to him, "You have a real butcher's face."
Everybody stopped talking and the man didn't look at all pleased. My parents were very embarrassed and told me to leave the room. Needless to say, that was the end of the visit and the end of the invention.
My remark to the stranger became a steady joke in our family which I never heard the end of. Every time somebody said something inappropriate, we all said immediately, "You have a real butcher's face."
Copyright © 2005 - 2009 by Sabine Rosenberg