A Day Trip to Rotterdam, Part 2

This is the second and final part of the story, which was published in Pilcrow & Dagger this fall.

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The soldier in front of Lieke stopped at the front-most compartment door in the next car and knocked. A quiet voice said, “Enter,” and Lieke was led inside. The spacious compartment had only one occupant– the German officer with the scarred face. The young soldier said, “Heil Hitler,” and saluted.

The officer looked up and said, “Yes, what is it?”

“Sir, it is this woman and her baby. There is something suspicious; the baby will not stop crying.”

“So you have brought me a woman and a crying baby. Is it now my job to quiet babies?”

The young soldier flushed. “Sir, we believe that the baby may be a Jew.” He pronounced the word as if it were a contagious disease.

“Ah.” The officer surveyed Lieke and Emma, and his intelligent, steely gaze seemed to take in everything in an instant. “Perhaps you are right. This will need to be addressed. Leave them with me and I will see to it personally.”

“Yes sir.” The small group of soldiers backed out of the compartment and closed the door behind Lieke, who stood motionless, terrified yet defiant. The man appeared to be in his late 40s, and even without the scars he would have looked threatening, with hard, pale gray eyes and an angular, evil looking face.

“I am Captain Adler,” he said in Dutch. “What is your name, young woman?”

Lieke trembled, but found her voice. “My name is Lieke Meijer, Captain.”

“Lieke, please tell me where you are from, and where you are going.” Half mumbling, Lieke repeated the story of visiting family in Rotterdam with her baby for the weekend, and about her husband stuck at the factory. He asked where her uncle and aunt lived, and she told him the address on Hondiusstraat where she was supposed to deliver Emma, not knowing any other streets in Rotterdam.

“I see,” said Captain Adler. “Sit down, Lieke.” He reached out an open hand, offering her a seat across from him. She sat, clutching Emma tightly. Then, in a firm voice, he said, “Your baby is very beautiful, but she seems unhappy. Let me hold her.” Lieke shrank away, and Adler said, “If what you have told me is true, there is no reason for you to worry. Now give her to me.”

Filled with horror, Lieke reluctantly passed Emma across the aisle to the Nazi captain. With a surprising gentleness, he picked Emma up, bounced her softly on his knee, and held her close, rocking her, speaking to her in German under his breath. Emma immediately stopped crying; she stared at Adler with fascination, then giggled.

“What a lovely baby girl you have, Lieke. Yes, what a lovely girl you are, little one, aren’t you?” Emma cooed. Lieke said nothing, terrified and astonished at the same time. Adler looked into Lieke’s eyes and said calmly, “Lieke, is this baby a Jew?”

Lieke felt like screaming, but managed to say, “Of course not, Captain Adler. She’s no more a Jew than I am. She takes more after my husband.” Adler nodded and passed Emma back to Lieke. Emma grabbed at Lieke’s nose and made a happy, gurgling sound.

“I understand,” Adler said. “However, I think we need to verify this further. You realize that if she is found to be a Jew you will have broken the law? The penalty for this crime is death.” Lieke nodded, aghast. She did not trust herself to speak. She noticed that the train had stopped, and glanced out the window to see a platform. The station behind it was a ruin, although much of the rubble had been removed; like so much else, it was hit in the bombing of Rotterdam. “Good, we have arrived,” Adler said. “Please come with me.”

He stood up, limping toward the door, which he held open for her. Reluctantly she followed him through the exit and down a makeshift step onto the platform, where the group of soldiers stood waiting expectantly. Adler looked at them and said, “You have carried out your duty well, men. There may be something to this after all.”

The one who had apprehended Lieke before eagerly said, “Shall we take her to headquarters, sir?”

“No. I will do it myself. I want you to go back to Amsterdam and keep your eyes open for similar schemes– I have a feeling that this is not the only case.” The group looked disappointed, but they set out to re-board the train, leaving Lieke alone with the sinister captain. Throngs of passengers were moving along the platform and Lieke again considered breaking away, trying to lose herself in the crowd; but there was nowhere to run, and she would likely be caught. She would have to wait for a better opportunity.

As if sensing her train of thought, Adler grabbed her arm with a painfully strong grip and said, “Please, if you will come with me, I will take you for some further questioning. It will be easy enough to verify your statements; we should be able to sort the matter out quite quickly.” He walked toward a wide thoroughfare, and she had no choice but to accompany him. After a while he let go of her, but walked a pace or two just behind her, saying nothing. Somehow Emma had fallen asleep in her arms.

Lieke thought of her parents at home, expecting her back in a few hours after a pleasant day with friends. She thought of her father’s paralyzing fear, his stolid unwillingness to take any kind of risk, and this made her angry. She was risking everything, even her life, but she did not regret it at all. The only thing she regretted was that she had failed. But she could not fail! She could not let Janneke and Dr. Eisenstein down. She heard the uneven steps of the limping Adler behind her. When they passed an alley, or perhaps one of the bombed-out buildings that were littered throughout the city, she would run and try to hide; she felt certain she could move faster than him, and if Emma would just stay quiet they could make it. He might shoot her in the back, but if she went meekly with him she would likely die anyway, so it was a risk worth taking.

Lieke suddenly became aware that the footsteps behind her had stopped. She turned around to see Captain Adler looking down a side street to their left. He said, “Is this not the street where you were to meet your so-called aunt and uncle?” Lieke looked up at the street sign and saw that it was indeed Hondiusstraat, where she was supposed deliver Emma to Mirjam van Houten. Her stomach dropped once more– she had foolishly told him the address. Would Mirjam also end up being taken for “questioning?” Had she sentenced another woman to death?

Adler paused for a long time, and finally said, “Well then, you best be on your way. I’m sure they are waiting for you.” He immediately walked past her, continuing up the main street. Lieke did not understand what was happening. She did not move, unsure if this was some kind of cruel trick. He looked back at her and said sadly, “We’re not all bad.” Then he turned away and limped ahead, never looking back.

Lieke carried the sleeping Emma up Hondiusstraat to number 124, where Mirjam van Houten ushered her in, and for several minutes Lieke could say nothing, sobbing tears of horror, bewilderment, relief, and joy.

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Day Trip to Rotterdam, Part 1

This story was published in Pilcrow & Dagger in October, as part of their “Scary Stories” issue. Part 2 will follow next week.

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The Netherlands, spring 1943

The baby would not stop crying. Lieke rocked her gently, cradled her, cooed to her, all to no avail. The other people in her compartment either stared or pointedly looked away; no one offered to help. It had been this way for a while now, and the train was still at least 20 minutes from the station, moving slowly through the farmland and canals of the polders south of Leiden. The world looked calm and pastoral out the window as they passed stone villages nestled between dyke and canals, windmills turning sluggishly in the breeze against the bright sky.

Lieke was 20, but she looked even younger– young for a mother travelling alone. The infant, Emma, looked nothing like her; Lieke was blond, fair, and sturdy, a typical Dutch girl, but Emma was tiny and dark– dark hair, dark eyes, and skin several shades darker than Lieke’s rosy whiteness.

And now there was the crying that could not be stopped. Lieke didn’t think Emma would be hungry yet– she had given her a bottle of fresh milk after leaving Amsterdam, and Emma had fallen asleep in her arms. Perhaps the uneven motion of the train was upsetting her. Lieke had no idea what to do.

Lieke rehearsed the story in her mind once more. She was going to Rotterdam to visit her aunt and uncle for the weekend; her husband was too busy with his work at the munitions plant to come with her. This had worked once already with the tall, stern guard who questioned her at the station. The man was Dutch, but whether through fear or duty, the local police were now more or less an extension of the German army. Such a group of Dutch officers had stormed into her friend Mila’s apartment last month and taken her and her entire family; no one had seen them since. The station guard’s gaze lingered on Emma for a few seconds too long, and he’d looked back and forth between them several times; but he said nothing, allowing them to board.

Lieke was most worried now about the loud group of 6 or 7 Nazi soldiers who had spent the beginning of the trip walking up and down the train. She could not tell if they were under orders to patrol or simply wandering aimlessly, harassing passengers for their own amusement. A couple of them had appeared to be drunk, although it was only 11:00 in the morning and they were in uniform. One of these, a young man with a leering grin, had leaned in to pet Emma as if she were a puppy, making her squirm in her sleep. He had then said in German, “What a pretty baby, and such a pretty mama as well,” and had run his hand through Lieke’s thick hair, resting it on her shoulder. Lieke recoiled, and the group laughed and slapped their comrade on the back before moving on to the next car. The soldiers had not passed by in a while, but they might reappear at any time. There were also several Dutch policemen on the train, and she had seen what looked like a Nazi officer with a grim, scarred face limp aboard the car in front of hers back in Amsterdam Centraal.

Lieke lived in the Amsterdam Canal District in a small apartment with her parents above the neighborhood grocery they owned, which these days had little food or customers. Before the war she’d spent a year at Amsterdam University training to be a teacher. She’d had the top marks in her high school class, and continued to do well at the University. But since the invasion she had stayed home to help with the shop at her father’s command; he was paralyzed with the fear of something terrible happening, barely willing to let her out of his sight. Her brother Thomas had been killed two years ago in the German blitz. He’d enlisted in the army not long before, and was stationed in the west near the German border. His unit had been taken by surprise, was outnumbered and outgunned, and was decimated almost instantly. He had been the same age Lieke was now.

This morning she told her parents that she needed a break, and was spending the day with her friend Greetje. Her father didn’t want her to go, but her mother had intervened: “Thomas, she is not a child anymore. We don’t need her today– let her go have fun with her friends for once.” At last he had relented, and she walked down the cobbled street into the sunny morning.

She did meet her friend Greetje, a tall, brown-haired, gentle girl who had stayed on at the University of Amsterdam and was now a year away from getting her degree. The two of them walked in a tense near-silence along the canals for 15 minutes until they came to a narrow brick house on Kerkstraat by the Amstel River. No one appeared to be there, but Greetje had a key and led Lieke inside, where they heard the muffled sound of a baby crying from somewhere below. Lieke had never been to the home of Dr. Hendriks, her mathematics professor. He was an indifferent lecturer, but he seemed like a kind, caring teacher, always finding extra time to help his students. The crying stopped after a minute or two, and the house seemed unnaturally still and quiet– the grand piano and phonograph in the living room were shut, and the kitchen looked abandoned. In a hushed voice Lieke asked where Dr. Hendriks’ family was; Greetje whispered that they were staying at their country house, and that only he remained in the city.

The young women moved quietly through the dining room and into a bookshelf-lined study that was littered with papers. Greetje pointed to one of the bookshelves, and the two of them dragged one side of it away from the wall, making a great crunching noise as it scraped across the floor. They looked at each other with chagrin, and strained to lift one corner of the shelf so that it would move quietly.

Behind the shelf was a white door with the handle removed on the outside. Greetje rapped lightly on the door and said, “Dr. Eisenstein? It’s me, Greetje, with Lieke van der Meer.” They heard footsteps ascending a staircase, the click of a lock, and the door opening inward. A dark haired man in glasses and filthy clothes greeted them, saying “Good morning ladies. Welcome to my humble abode.” He turned and led them down the narrow stairs.

Lieke remembered Dr. Eisenstein, her European history professor, as a young, dapper, lively man, always quick with a joke. His telling of history was full of stories that made the past come alive; sitting in his lectures she had dreamed of becoming a historian, or perhaps making a grand contribution to history. He had been one of her favorite teachers, and certainly the most handsome. Now he looked gauntly thin with sunken eyes, his jacket torn and shabby.

At the bottom of the stairs they emerged into a dark, dank cellar lit by oil lamps set on a table. In places there was over an inch of water on the floor, and the rock walls dripped with moisture. In a somewhat dryer corner there was a mattress on the ground, a couple of wooden chairs, a clothes chest and some stacks of books and papers. In another corner was a chamber pot, and the smell of human waste mingled with mildew almost made Lieke gag. Sitting in one of the chairs was a dark haired woman nursing a small baby. She was just as thin and disheveled looking as Dr. Eisenstein, but a fierce beauty was still evident. She looked only a few years older than the two young women. She sang softly to the suckling infant, but her voice was broken– even in the dim light Lieke could see tears glistening on her cheeks.

Eisenstein said, “Hello Greetje, Lieke. Good to see you girls again. This is my wife, Janneke and our daughter Emma. I’m very sorry to introduce them to you under such circumstances.”

Greetje seemed to have been struck speechless, so Lieke said, “It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Eisenstein.” Janneke smiled, and looked directly into Lieke’s eyes, transfixing her gaze.

“Please call me Janne. I don’t know how I will do this. I don’t know if I can… but I need to thank you. Thank you so very much. You’ll never know what this means to me.”

“We’ll do anything we can to help, Janne. Anything,” Lieke said. Greetje, tears running down her own face, nodded in agreement. Dr. Eisenstein looked to Lieke and said, “You understand the plan?” She knew it well by now, but they went over it once more. It was simple enough: she would take Emma to the station and board a train for Rotterdam. If questioned, she would adamantly claim to be Emma’s mother, with the story of visiting the aunt and uncle. In Rotterdam she would go to 124 Hondiusstraat, where she would leave Emma with a woman they knew and trusted, Mirjam van Houten, and head back to Amsterdam. Mirjam would smuggle Emma aboard a fishing trawler; this was to meet up with another ship, which in the dead of night would transport Emma and Mirjam to Liverpool, where the Eisensteins had cousins. It was a perilous undertaking that could go wrong at any stage, with perhaps the most dangerous being Lieke’s own role.

Eisenstein said, “You understand, we would never send her away if we didn’t have to. But if anyone ever decides to search Alexander’s house… and in these times they certainly may… They will surely hear her, and then all of us– Alexander and his family as well– will be caught. So we must do this. We will be reunited once this madness is over.”

Janneke looked thoughtfully at her husband as she stroked Emma’s head, then back at the girls. “What Isaac isn’t saying, and will not say, even to me, is that he believes the rumors to be true. I believe them too. I think that they are taking the Jews in order to kill them… they are murdering us one by one. They will not rest until we are all dead. I don’t know how this can be, how such hatred and evil can exist in this world, but I know in my heart that it is true. In all likelihood, Isaac and I will not survive this war. We will be caught and disappear as so many before us have disappeared. We are not asking for your help to save us. We simply hope to save Emma. We hope that she will grow up, will see an end to war, will live and prosper with her new family. Lieke, we pray for your safety, and for your success. Please help my Emma. Please save my baby. You must.”

As Lieke sat rocking the crying Emma in the stuffy train compartment, she heard Janneke’s words over and over, pictured her pleading gaze. She could not let her down. They were approaching the outskirts of Rotterdam; just a little longer and she would be safe.

Just then a Dutch policeman walked past the open compartment door and looked in. He stared straight at Emma in Lieke’s arms, looking back and forth between them as the guard at the station had. Lieke tried to smile sweetly at him, but she had a strange dread in her stomach. The policeman gazed at them a little longer, then continued down the corridor. Lieke was so tense that she could hardly breathe.

A few minutes later three of the Nazi soldiers from before entered the compartment. The same young man who had drunkenly touched her pointed and said, “You, with the baby, come with me. We need to ask you some questions.” Lieke replied in her best German, “But my little girl is almost asleep, sir. Perhaps this can wait till another time?”

The man shook his head. Looking at her with a dreadful coldness, he said, “You must come now,” and stood waiting, his hand resting near the pistol in his belt. Lieke nodded and stood up, cradling Emma tightly. She looked around for help, but the other passengers in the compartment were staring out the window or at the floor, motionless and silent; it seemed to Lieke that they had been frozen into statues. In the corridor the soldier who had spoken led her forward, the other two walking close behind. Emma was now wailing louder than ever; Lieke guessed that the infant sensed her agitation, and surely craved the comfort of her real mother.

They passed through the doorway at the front of the train car, and as they marched the short distance between cars Lieke had a thought that she would grasp Emma tightly, break away, and leap over the railing and off the train, over the side of the dyke the tracks ran along to whatever lay beneath. This might kill them both, but for a wild moment it seemed like the only possible solution; but before she could get up the courage to act, they were at the door to the next car and it was too late.

To be continued. Part two will follow next week.