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