by Mike Biderman
“Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now?”
Amsterdam, October 29, 1942
The jackboots above our cramped hiding place sounded different. Jan, the hotel proprietor, had warned us about the German’s daily routine of foraging for liquor and wine in the basement’s musty storage shelves. On those occasions their footsteps were briskly paced. These were slow and deliberate, accompanied by a faint tapping and sporadic barking of a dog.
Muffled voices coming closer.
Our initial instinct was to hide, but we knew this was absurd. We were stuffed into a tiny room. Mama, clasped her arms around Papa. He motioned to me to stay silent. I held my breath. The barking turned louder. We heard scraping sounds above us.
Suddenly, the trap door lurched open. A growling black dog leapt down towards us, baring its canines. It was quickly tethered by a pair of dark leather gloves.
A voice bellowed in German. “Komm raus, dreckige Juden, mit die Händen über die Köpfen"
Another cried out in Dutch, “Please Jakob, don’t disobey —they'll shoot. They're telling you to come out with your hands above your heads.”
The trembling voice sounded like Jan’s. My father made eye contact with Mama and me, despair and desperation etched in his weary eyes.
Papa grabbed the ladder and settled it against the covert portal. I was the last to ascend. As ordered, we raised our hands above our heads. Flashlights glared. Our eyes squinted in the brightness. I could barely make out a group of Gestapo agents, clad in grey-belted top coats and black wide-brimmed fedoras.
An agent grabbed each of us.
The Nazi constraining me was slight of build, not much taller than me. His wire-rimmed spectacles reflected the basement’s dull lights. He smiled, revealing an even row of chalky teeth.
Against the distant staircase, I noticed a lone figure standing in the shadows. He was clutching a short-barrelled Luger pistol in one hand and the dog’s leash on the other. The dog, unrestrained, lay beside him. He pointed in my direction and shouted:
“You tell your father that we know he has diamonds. If he wants to continue breathing, tell me where he's hiding them. Make it quick. Patience is not my virtue!”
There was a brief silence. I panicked. I needed to gather my thoughts. He walked towards us, a sinister smirk on his drawn face.
“Quickly!” he shouted, pointing his pistol at Papa.
I began to shake, my throat tightening. “Please ... father ... tell him!”
Papa lowered his head. The agent bridling him grasped him by the throat.
Mama screamed, “Jakob, dear God, tell them for the sake of your family!”
Papa remained silent.
Mama began to weep, “I'll tell you—”
“No, Sarah! ... My wife is not well. She’s lying.”
Papa gasped for air, from the agent’s tightening grip.
“They’re ... downstairs ... in the safe. I have the combination. I beg of you, please let go of my husband!”
He loosened his hold and began to lower himself down the ladder.
We flinched at the sounds of wood and metal crashing against the floor, accompanied by broken glass. The agent reappeared, his face flushed, breathing laboured. He held the small metal safe and our wireless set. It was still tuned to a muted voice on Radio Oranje, the Dutch Resistance broadcast on the BBC.
My captor lifted my chin, pressing his face against mine. His breath reeked of tobacco and drink.
“So, you've been listening to the lying dogs. What is your name?” he demanded, speaking in flawless Dutch.
I turned my head, refusing to answer. His thumbs twisted my cheek with a savage force.
“Speak, Jew girl!”
“Anna,” I whispered.
“Anna ... Okker.”
Papa tried to break his captor’s grip. “Let go of my daughter, you filthy pig!”
Mama fell to her knees, weeping. “I beg of you Jakob. Don’t upset them. They'll kill you!”
The agent placed the safe on the floor and shoved his weapon against Papa’s temple.
“Diamond swindling Judenschwein. Open the safe NOW. My tolerance is running out.”
Papa looked up towards the basement's wooden rafters. He muttered a prayer in Hebrew. I could make out some of the words. “Exalted and hallowed be God's great name”... The mourner's Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
“No more games. Give me the combination.” The agent cocked the Luger's hammer. The hollow sound echoed off the musty concrete walls.
Mama collapsed. I lunged forward. “I beg you, Papa, please help him open the safe.”
Papa shook his head, tears flowing from his eyes. He picked up the safe and turned the tumbler dial, his hand shaking. The first attempt failed. I panicked.
Did he forget the code? Is he thinking of sacrificing himself for the sake of a bunch of gems? Doesn’t he care about his family?
On the second try the vault opened. The agent turned his weapon down, and greedily scooped up its contents. After giving the stones a cursory look, he took out a white handkerchief from the pocket of his top coat, and gathered them up. He tossed the empty safe down into our hiding place. It crashed to the floor, the clang of metal against concrete reverberating from the darkness.
The thumping sound of heavy boots approached us from the stairs above. I recognized the green uniforms of the Orpo police officers, the Nazi enforcement unit responsible for keeping law and order amongst the Dutch citizens, particularly Jews. Behind them, three officers followed in tow, each restraining a captive: two men and a woman. As they approached closer, I recognized Emma and Jan, my parent’s best friends. Emma's eyes were red and swollen. Jan’s head was bowed. I noticed a patchy streak of dried blood on the side of his head. Beside him was an older man slumped over, his clothes and hair dishevelled. His eyes reminded me of a wounded animal caught in a hunter's snare. He looked familiar.
The officers dragged the elderly man towards us. The gun-toting agent turned to Papa and addressed him curtly. “Do you recognize this man, Shylock?” Papa looked up but didn't speak. “Then perhaps I can refresh your memory. Is this not your good friend who managed your crooked diamond business? The one you could always depend on?”
The elderly man cried out, “Jakob, please forgive me. May God forgive me! They threatened to shoot my wife and children. I had to choose! I had to make a choice!” He wept uncontrollably.
I recognized the broken man. It was Mr. Klonenberg, the manager at Papa’s factory. Our families had enjoyed many holidays together. We sat together at Passover seders and enjoyed family celebrations.
Papa shook his head, but kept his silence.
I tried to make sense of his wordless response.
Was he showing sympathy for his friend's dilemma, or was he sickened by his betrayal? But then, what would I have done as a parent? Would I risk my own family’s lives to save a Jew? From the core of my soul, could I really blame Mr. Kronenberg for betraying my family? What if the shoe was on the other foot? If I had to choose? Our dear friends had risked their safety to protect us. And look what’s become of them.
The agent holding Mr. Klonenberg looked around the room. He loudly addressed his fellow officers. “Observe men how quickly these pathetic, money hungry subhumans can turn on each other like rabid dogs.”
Papa, his face red with rage, lifted his head. “Rot in hell, you and your depraved leader. I will celebrate with God when the Allies crush you!”
The agent laughed. He lit a cigarette with a slow deliberate motion, locking his eyes on Papa. He moved closer, exhaling a cloud of smoke onto his face. Glaring at Papa, he stubbed out the cigarette across his forehead.
“Bastard!” he cried out, trying to stifle a scream. The Nazi rubbed the ash towards his nose and cheeks. Papa reached out, attempting to grab the agent's hand.
“No, Jakob, they’ll kill you!” Mama shrieked.
“Listen to Mama,” I pleaded.
The agent swung his pistol's handle against Papa’s skull. He collapsed to his knees, blood spewing from his naked scalp.
I screamed, trying to break through my handler’s grip. “You monster! He’s done nothing wrong.”
Mama was frantic. She struggled to free herself, collapsing on her knees, screeching incoherently. The Gestapo agent waved over the Orpo officer.
“Take them away. Show them how we deal with slimy insects.”
I watched in horror as they dragged my parents up the stairs, trickles of blood trailing Papa’s heels. Mama turned towards me, her eyes vacant.
The agent pointed to the officers restraining Jan and Emma. “Give these two Jew-hiders a lovely guided tour of Scheveningen. Let them join the other filth who refuse to respect our Führer.”
My captor asked another officer to relieve him. He grabbed my hands and wrenched them behind my back. He looked young, not much older than myself, revealing the blond Aryan features, much treasured by Hitler. His piercing azure eyes were void of emotion. They mirrored a boy who could turn sadistic on a whim, and relish every moment. He lifted my chin, trying to force me to look at him. His badly stained fingers smelled of tobacco and gun powder. I diverted my eyes in defiance.
“Look at me Jew bitch! Where's your respect?”
I tried to turn away.
He clutched the back of my neck and shoved me towards the staircase. “Follow me boys,” he instructed the others. “I’ve got a little treat for you!”
I began to panic. “Where did they take my parents?
I shouted, “Please, let me join my parents. They need me ... I need — !”
He thrust his rifle’s barrel against my back. “Shut up!”
I stumbled up the staircase. We reached the hotel’s modest lobby.
“Outside, you bitch,” he ordered, his lackeys eagerly trailing.
My eyes winced from the bright afternoon sunlight. After months in our dark hideout, the sun was blinding. It reminded me of the happier days of my childhood, following the crowds of families exiting the Saturday cinema in the late afternoon.
I shivered in the crisp air, lightly dressed in a thin cotton dress and a light sweater. I looked around, hopeful for some sign of my parents.
The officer ordered me to move, but I refused. I asked him again where my parents had been taken. He grunted. I felt a cold, metallic object press against the back of my neck.
I staggered forward. A short distance away, I caught sight of a long column of men, women, and children being led up a tree-lined street. Armed police officers flanked them. The civilians were shuffling along slowly, clutching suitcases and bags. A convoy of green military trucks, shielded by loose-hanging canvas tops, idled on the side of the road.
My thoughts turned to the frightening rumours that had been scattering throughout the Judenbuurt. Whispers about a camp at Westerbork. Jews being transported there as a temporary drop off before being sent to permanent camps in Germany and a Poland.
No, please God, it’s impossible. The camps ... no, they can’t be ... What are they planning for us? Would we survive? Was there any hope?
I began to tremble. I felt light headed.
The officer forced me away from the street towards the rear of the hotel. I feared I would collapse. A short distance away I saw an elderly Hasidic rabbi slumped over a prone body. Both were surrounded by a semi-circle of Orpo officers, Gestapo agents, and civilians. The officer pushed me closer. The rabbi was davening in prayer over a lifeless, naked woman.
I gagged at the grisly site before me. A bloody gash extended from the woman’s chest to her navel. Beside her body I saw what looked like a squid or octopus. It reminded me of the fish stalls at the Uilenburgerstraat Market. Horrified, I recognized the remains of an unborn baby.
I vomited. Its savage force shook my body. Bile burned deep in my throat.
The religious man stood, trembling, a deep rage reddening his eyes and face. His lips quivered. With a palsied hand he pointed to an officer gripping a rifle’s blood-stained bayonet.
“Filthy animal! How can you live with this? You’ve murdered this poor woman and her baby. By God’s decree, they will be revenged.”
The officer moved closer to the rabbi. He spoke in Dutch. “Don't threaten me with your god rubbish.”
The rabbi raised his bible and pointed it at the officer.
The officer snarled, “Take that filth away from my face.” He rammed the butt of his rifle against the rabbi’s back. The cleric whimpered in pain as the holy book dropped against the canal’s fractured wall. The officer peered down on his writhing victim. He smiled and lifted his weapon. Calmly, as if flicking away an annoying housefly, he thrust the bloodstained bayonet deep into the cleric's chest.
Horrified, I watched the rabbi reel back, his eyes rolling upwards. Somehow, I could not turn away. Ribbons of blood oozed from his mouth. I caught the eye of a young German soldier standing a short distance ahead. He quickly looked away, but within seconds, turned back to face me. He resembled my brother Nathan—the athletic build, the same penetrating greyish green eyes, sad and introspective.
Feeling faint, barely able to support my wobbly legs, I slipped from the officers grip. I looked up. A group of Dutch policemen were leaving the hotel’s entrance. They were dressed in their familiar black uniforms, the gold coloured buttons lining their chests, reflecting the light off the high noon sun. They staggered down the steps, rifles slung erratically over their shoulders chanting a popular Dutch drinking song.
The last policeman to step down called out to the agent struggling to hold me up. “Kriminalsekretär,” let us relieve you.” He glared at me. “We will take care of her.”
I hated the Dutch police. Filthy turncoats! Papa told me that it was no secret that they received cash bonuses for each Jew they rounded up. But we all knew that their hatred toward us was more than enough of an incentive.
Why were we hated so? What had we done to deserve this oppression? Are we not like everyone else? Why was our religion so despised? And mostly, where was God?
A tall, older officer with a pronounced limp and a severely pockmarked face jerked me up by my wrists. He shouted out to the officers, “Boys, let's have ourselves some fun. Follow me!” I assumed he was their superior.
My heart throbbed. Blood hammered my ears. Something horrible is happening!
The group of policemen laughed as the officer dragged me towards a decaying garden shed at the rear of the hotel. I tried to skirt the discarded petroleum cans and small hand tools. Pieces of brown, dried-out sod and straw were strewn along the faded wooden floor boards.
“Let me go. Please. I beg of you. I’ve done nothing wrong. Mama, Papa!”
The officer threw me down. I fell backwards, my elbows breaking the fall. His bulking body held me down. He lifted my chin and tried to force his tongue into my mouth. The smell of whiskey and garlic made me retch. I tried to turn away.
“Don't resist, dirty Jew slut. It’s time you enjoyed a real Dutch man!” He turned back. “Hoi Kasper! Over here.”
A short squat police officer, cigarette dangling from his mouth, jogged towards us. The older officer stood up, watching the younger officer pinning me down my shoulders with his coarse hands.
The senior officer walked away and shouted, “Okay you hard-up mosquito dicks, get your hands out of your pockets.”
A hand reached up my legs. I tried to resist, but I was pinned down. I felt a finger groping my private area. I tried to scream, but an officer clamped his hand over my mouth.
“Move bitch, and I'll rip your tongue out!” He let go to test my compliance and then lifted my dress. I tried to kick out, but was no match against his bulk. He ripped my undergarments away, and pried my legs apart. I felt sharp fingernails piercing my inner thighs.
And then, what I feared most. The searing pain unbearable. He grunted like a starving animal pressed upon its prey. He finished quickly.
Somehow, I managed to lift my head. A line of officers stood idly by, chatting away, awaiting their turn. I shuddered.
The officer holding me down shouted out to another. “Horst, what's the matter? You don't want to join in? Don't worry we won't tell your girlfriend!”
“Or your mama!” another taunted.
“Maybe he's afraid!” the elder one jeered. "But don't worry Horst, if it's your first time I guarantee it won't fall off!”
The men howled with laughter.
“Next!” shouted out an officer. “Hurry up Karl, my snikkel is going numb!”
A hand crawled up my chest. It fumbled with my bra, undid the straps, and outlined my nipples. I felt his calloused finger enter me.
I screamed, “Stop, you're hurting me!"
He lifted his head, the stench from his rotting teeth, sickened me.
“Shut up, Jew slime!”
He lifted his body. I felt the cold touch of a pistol’s barrel pressing against my temple. The sound of a zipper. “Open up whore, and do something useful with your filthy mouth!”
Metallic click ... A cocked gun ...
Marion ... Nathan ... Michiel ...where are you?
Dazed, I raised my head slightly, enough to spot the young German soldier resembling my brother. He did not lower his gaze. His eyes spoke pity and terror. As if witnessing an execution.
I began to lose consciousness ...
About the extract
This an extract from a historical novel that is a work in progress. It is a chronologically wide ranging novel that focuses on a Dutch family from World War Two until the 1970’s. In this chapter Jakob Okker, his wife Sarah and youngest daughter Anna are forced into hiding by the increasing threats by Nazi occupied Amsterdam. They find shelter in their friend’s hotel. They are captured by Gestapo agents thanks to the betrayal by an employee of Jakob’s diamond factory.
About the author
Michael L. Biderman is a retired social worker, having spent most of his working life advocating and counselling disadvantaged youth within the local school board. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He attended York University in Toronto and graduated with an Honours B.A. in Canadian Literature and Indigenous Studies. One of his Can. Lit. lecturers was Margaret Atwood. He attended a poetry workshop taught by the prolific Canadian poet Irving Layton, a mentor of Leonard Cohen. He has a selection of his poetry published by York University Press, introduced by Professor Layton. He has also had several poems published by the University newspaper. This is his first attempt at fiction writing.