THURSDAY: The Smoke Under the Floorboards

BY SUSAN McCRAE

Copyright is held by the author.

1941
TINA WAS BUSY weeding her small front vegetable garden, staking the runner beans and picking peas as she went. She would have to leave weeding the tobacco and potatoes for tomorrow, as there wouldn’t be time before Maarten awoke.

Maarten would be three next month and was growing quickly; he’d be tall like his father. These days it was harder to persuade him to nap in the pram, when he wanted to get down and play. She smiled and admired her beautiful boy with his dark wavy hair. That gift from his father accompanied his sparkling black eyes.

Tina wondered how she would manage shoes and a new coat for him, before winter. She’d used her ration coupons to buy fabric, which his godmother stitched into pants for him. Her father would help but she didn’t want to ask him. She knew if he offered though, she’d have to accept for Maarten’s sake… if only Bram were here.

Bram Vos, her new husband, had been rounded up in the last sweep by the Nazis to provide forced labour for their building projects and to make munitions. He had been gone two weeks. Not certain where he was, she knew only that most of the men from Alkmaar had been taken to the labour and concentration camp at Amersfoort, on the Eem River. She imagined him there.

Tina got word from Amersfoort that Bram’s cousin was trying to discover whether Bram was there. She had befriended one of the cooks at the camp, a local woman who was allowed to go out and shop at the market, and the cook would let Marien know.

The Amersfoort labour and concentration camp was set up in early 1941, as soon as the Germans consolidated power after invading the Low Countries. Because most Dutch men would not fight for the Nazis, they were rounded up to serve as slave labour. Many were sent to Germany and some even to the front lines to carry equipment and supplies.

Tina knew from first hand experience that worse things were happening to people — especially to the Jews like her first husband, Max Stein. She stopped weeding and indulged in remembering Max. “How I loved that man,” she whispered. She was thankful to have known such great passion and intimacy, even though the scathing loss of him followed. At least she had Maarten.

They had to be very careful not to mention Max, so it would not occur to anyone, that Maarten was fathered by a Jewish man. Her father and Bram had taken him to be baptized following his birth, when Tina was still prostrate with grief. Although she felt disloyal for allowing it, she would do everything possible to protect Maarten. In German occupied Holland, there were few options.

Johanna Trevor, her childhood friend, bounced around the corner, a paper package under her arm. “Ho Tina, you’ve been busy,” she said, noticing the pile of weeds and another of peas. “I’ve brought you some fresh herring from the fishmongers, in case he ran out before you got there. We have to grab what we can, when there is something to cook.” Her long wavy blonde hair was caught up in a knot at the base of her neck to be out of the way when she was doing the sewing and tailoring, which supported her family.

Smiling, Tina rose from her weeding, and hugged her friend. “Well I’m glad you found some Jo, come and join Maarten, father and me for our meal, won’t you?” she asked. “Your godson will be happy to have a playmate.”

As if sensing playtime, Maarten awoke. “Tanta Jo, Tanta Jo,” he chanted when he saw her, and raised his arms to be picked up.

“Marti, my favourite boy,” Jo said as she lifted then swung him around. Both giggling, they sat on the step and hugged. While she engaged Maarten in singing silly rhyming songs, Tina went inside.

Standing at the sink, washing the fish, Tina allowed herself to reminisce a little more about when she and Max had met. He had been so tall, with handsome dark features and elegant stature. She had been attracted from the moment they bumped into one another when lining-up for tickets by the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Being well mannered, he had let her and Johanna go ahead of him.

As they chatted in line, she discovered that he and Pieter, his brother had travelled by train and bus to get there from Innsbruck, Austria. She had bicycled with a group of friends, camping through the Netherlands and Germany to Berlin, as many young people were doing. Max was impressed by her perfect German, which she explained was the result of her frequent visits with an Austrian grandmother. How different she and Max had been.

Tina went to check on Maarten and her friend.

“Any word about Mr. Vos?” asked Johanna. She avoided using Bram’s first name so as not to upset Maarten.

“Not yet, but I hope there will be something in the mail from Marien tomorrow.” Tina sat shelling peas into a blue-and-white-enamelled colander, as Johanna entertained Maarten with hand made wooden toys at a small table. “If he’s not there, I’ll start hunting in other camps,” she said quietly.

Getting up, Tina said “We’ll have peas, potatoes and a little cooked rhubarb with your fish, if that suits you Jo.”  She began to prepare the meal.

Her father Willem Vander Berg returned. A tall burly man with wisps of grey hair, he had been a widower for several years. Kissing her cheek he whispered, “any word today?”

Tina shook her head. They gathered, sitting around the oblong table to eat, settling Maarten on a pillow tied to a chair.

“How was the mill today?” asked Tina.

“Slow again,” said her father. “It’s too early for there to be much new grain and most of last year’s supply was confiscated months ago by our new governors. There are a few bags of sugar beets from before. I’ll bring them tomorrow to boil for something,” Wilhelm said ruefully. “But I’m not sure what we’ll do to feed this growing boy.” His blue eyes smiled as he reached to ruffle Maarten’s hair.

“Know any good recipes for sugar beet mash Jo?” chuckled Tina. It was a standing joke among Dutch housewives that all the Germans had left them to cook with was pig food.

Two days later, a letter arrived from Marien lamenting not locating Bram in the Amersfoort camp. Tina asked her neighbour to watch Maarten so she could go to the Mill, let her father know and have a good cry.

“How could this be,” she wailed. “I’ve only been married to Bram for a few months and now he’s gone and I think I’m pregnant again.”  She sobbed a few minutes against her father’s immense chest. “How can I be a widow twice, and the war’s not even over?”

Willem did his best to consol, letting her cry until she quieted. “We don’t know that anything has happened to Bram, now do we?” he said. “He’s a very resourceful fellow, so let’s try to find out where he has been taken, before we despair.” He patted her shoulder. “I will speak with the Commandant at the Stadhuis Office and see if he can find out something. I’ll bargain some flour for the information.”

“You have flour?” said Tina, jerking her head up.

“I always try to keep a little back,” he replied, content that she was distracted. “For special things, like this.”

****

1942
The day was bright sunny, before the clouds rolled in from the sea. The orange tulips, which Bram had planted two years ago in celebration of Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday, were in brilliant bloom. They grew along the front fence of their row house, on a small cobblestone street close to the Waagplein, one of two central squares in Alkmaar. Their colour celebrated the House of Orange from which the Queen was descended; they honoured her despite her exile. If Bram had been home, he would have cut some to pin onto neighbour’s coats; a mild form of resistance, and a reminder of what had been taken from them.

Tina was enjoying their defiant beauty, when the shadow of a passer-by caused her to glance up. Backlit by the sun, the silhouetted figure was ragged and dirty, with a brown matted beard and straight hair drooping in unwashed strings. The man stopped by the gate.

A raspy voice said, “Tina, do you not know me?”

“Bram,” she squealed as she recognized him and threw her upper body over the fence to embrace him. She didn’t mind the unkempt smell and was grateful for the warmth. “Are you really home?” she whispered.

“I’m here,” he said, kissing her face, then taking her hand. “Let’s go inside.”

Tina began to barrage him with questions.

“Inside,” he said softly. “Where is Maarten?” he asked as they entered the house.

“He begged father to go to the mill with him today. But what about you Bram? What’s happened, where were you? I was so worried, we couldn’t find you,” she said, her eyes full of tears.

“I’ll tell you all about it. But first I’m desperate for a bath, a shave and a change of clothes before Maarten gets home. I don’t want him to be frightened by how I look or smell.”

Tina took his face in her hands, “he loves you Bram, as I do. We’ll never be frightened of you.”

They kissed until he gently moved her aside and looked her up and down, noticing her swollen belly.

“Tina?” he queried.

“Yes Bram, we’re having a baby.”

He grabbed her and swung her around, kissing her neck. “That makes me so very happy Tina, and everything I went through seems more worth it.”

“First the bath,” Tina said, smiling and  swiping at her tears, as he put her down.

As Bram towelled his hair, clad in clean clothes, he pulled up a chair and motioned Tina to sit. “I am so glad to be home. But Tina, it has to remain our family secret for as long as possible,” he said. “I escaped from the camp they took me to at Schoorl, about 50 miles north, in the dunes. They were going to transfer me to a camp on the moors across the border in Germany, so I found a way to get out of there and come home.”

Bram recounted his escape and journey home, after months away. Walking and staying out of sight of military trucks and vehicles during the day, he relied on farmers along the way who gave him places to sleep, sometimes in the kitchen, usually with the animals. They fed him with whatever they had, and gave him bits of food for the journey. One had lent him a bicycle for the final leg home, which he left by agreement, at the church on Laurenstraat for the farmer to pick up.

“I have to avoid being caught.” He paused. “You see, since I escaped from a camp, I will be dealt with much more harshly, if I’m found again.”

“Then we must be sure you aren’t found,” said Tina. “But how can you possibly hide?” she asked.

“On the way home I had time to imagine possible places. I have an idea. Come with me.” Arm around her waist, he led her to the parlour off the kitchen.

“Remember, there is always an air space left under the floor in these houses,” he said. “I should be able to make a bed in the space there, under the floor.” He smiled at Tina’s astonishment. “Should we have a look before the others get back?”

There was a small trap door under the Persian carpet. They moved the rug and it took both of them to pull up the heavy door, dislodging it from where it had lain, undisturbed for some time. There was a depression more than a metre deep and almost the length of the parlour itself. A few old items had been tossed there:  an old bicycle frame, a brown suitcase with a broken hinge, and several jars for storing or preserving food.

“The jars I can use,” said Tina.

“We’ll throw the bike frame in the canal to keep the German’s from getting it,” Bram said.

“This is bigger than I thought. Once we clean the animal droppings and the junk, we’ll put some blankets and a candle to read by,” he said. “It should be fine for as long as they have a search going on; it’s usually only a day or two. The rest of the time, I’ll stay in the house or in the shed at the back,” he said.

Noticing the frown on her face, he took her hand, “I don’t want you to worry Tina, and I’ll talk to your father about it first, if you’re afraid of me staying here.”

“Oh Bram please, it’s not worry. I just wonder how you will possibly manage under there; things like going to the bathroom!” She looked so serious, he laughed, and she joined him, just as they heard Wilhelm and Maarten come up the walk.

Returning the door and carpet to their places they scurried to greet them. Tina went first. “I have the most wonderful surprise,” she said with a grin and turned to Bram, standing in the doorway to the parlour. “Look who’s come home.”

Maarten ran to him. “Papa, papa, you’re home,” he cried.

Bram scooped the small boy up for an extended hug. This wonderful child was such a gift; Bram had even seen him born.

Tina had fled back to Holland from Switzerland, when she was five months pregnant. Her unexpected arrival was fuelled by fear for her own safety and that of her unborn child’s. It was sparked by the tragedy of Max’s death, at the hands of the Nazis. She came back to live with her father and resume her life as a gentile. Many neighbours knew she was marrying an Austrian when she left in 1936, but few knew that she had wed a Jew and lived as one. Tina was devastated by the sudden loss of her beloved young husband.

Bram was working with Wilhelm in the Mill at the time, and hoped to buy it from him one day. Together the two men nursed her back to mental and physical health. They took turns, along with family, a neighbour, and her friend Johanna, in caring for baby Maarten as she recovered. Bram loved her almost from their first meeting. Patiently, he helped with her care and Maarten’s, loving the baby almost as easily as his mother.

Tina’s grief had receded slowly. With its retreat, she reinvested herself in her son, and in making a life for them in Alkmaar. The more devoted she became to this mission, the more her heart opened, making room for another, for Bram. They were married at Christmas, six months before Bram had been taken by the Nazis.

****

1943
Bram was leaning over, helping Henrietta to put on her sweater and strap up her shoes. “Come Henny,” he urged “we will go fetch Maarten soon.”

The petite toddler leaned her head back to look up at him “Marti?” her big brown eyes were bright with anticipation.

“Yes, Marti, your favourite person in the whole world,” he said, swinging her up to finish the dressing job.

In back of the house was a swatch of tile, in front of the shed, where she played with Maarten’s old wooden blocks and cars. It lay beside the stand of six tobacco plants, in front of which, potatoes grew. The dried tobacco leaves, which he and Wilhelm cured in the attic, were the best bartering tools they had.

Bram lifted Henny into the Pram and took the back streets to the school, so as not to be too visible. It had not been practical to remain completely hidden, but he preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was not an easy feat; a man pushing a pram was eye catching. Tina was working at a convalescent home with civilians, nursing them back to health as best she could, with almost no medicines or supplies. It was up to him to fetch Maarten.

He saw his brother-in-law across the street and waved. “Dirk, how are things?” he greeted. The tall robust man walked solemn faced across the street, breaking into a smile as he ruffled his niece’s hair and gently stroked her cheek.

“I just got word from the underground that the German’s are doing another round up starting tomorrow,” said Dirk. “You need to be extra careful. Shall I come and stay with the children so you can prepare?” he asked.

Bram shook his head. “Maybe later. Tina will be home at five, and we’ll talk about the arrangements.” He added, “I want to come to you tonight though, and work more on the project, before I have to disappear.”

Dirk, Bram and three others were engaged in forging ration books and stamps, a risky but necessary endeavour; an important part of the Resistance effort. They distributed the books to those who needed them most: families who were hiding others like downed Allied flyers, Jews and others who were undocumented, or on the run.

“I’ll let you know tonight what help we need.”

He picked up Henny and carried her in one arm, so he could push the buggy more quickly over the cobblestones. “Let’s race,” he said, making a game of the rush. With her small arm around his neck, she chattered to him in a language of her own invention, as they neared the school.

Maarten was dressed and reading while he waited for them. Just five, he had learned to read last year and he was so excited by what he was learning. He pushed Tina and Bram to let him go to school early and was accepted. Ever since, he read whatever he found, whenever he could and soaked up everything the school offered.

“Marti, Marti,” Henny sang when she saw her brother. His name was the first word she had learned. She threw her arms around his neck. “Marti push?” she asked.

“You get in the carriage and I’ll push you Henny,” replied Maarten. As was their custom, Bram sat the little girl in the pram, with Maarten’s school bag. They started back home, Maarten pushing and Bram steering.

That evening, their supper was ‘hutspot,’ a dish of potatoes, carrots and onions mashed together, and a thinly sliced sausage, which Tina had managed to find at the market. Bram put the children to bed, and read them a story until Henny fell asleep. He stopped and whispered to Maarten, “I will have to be away for a few days and I want you to look after Henny and help your Mom.” A common occurrence, Maarten nodded as Bram tucked him in.

Tina, her husband and her father, arose early the next morning and settled Bram beneath the floor. He had a couple of books, blankets, water, candles, matches, a bit of food and some tobacco. Wilhelm went off to the Mill to prevent any damage, in case it was searched. The children would stay for the day with their aunt and uncle.

Tina’s hands were shaking as she made mashed sugar beet ‘pancakes’ with mashed sugar beets and the bit of flour her father had gleaned from shaking out the flour bags at the mill. The little cakes were cooking, when there was a knock on the door. Her heart sped up as she went to the parlour to ensure everything was in place, turning over the small picture which hung above the stove. On one side was a pastoral scene, which she turned to the other: from the cover of Mein Kampf, a photo of Adolf Hitler.

She noticed the smell of tobacco in the parlour, but there was no time to open the windows. She hurried to the door, opening it to three German soldiers, the youngest of whom could not have been more than 16 years old.

“Come in, welcome,” she said in perfect German, her voice steady despite her racing heart. They were taken aback by her command of their language; most of the Dutch refused to speak German to them.

“We have come to take your husband,” they told her, swallowing as they eyed the cooking pancakes.

“He’s not here,” she said briskly. “You’re welcome to search the house,” she added, “and when you’ve finished, if you’re hungry, I might have a pancake ready for you.” Tina knew that these low- ranking troops had not much more to eat than the civilian population. They were hungry too, and although she hated the idea of giving them the family’s scarce rations, she knew they would search less diligently, if the prospect of something to eat was assured.

When they entered the parlour, the picture of Hitler surprised them. From the conversation she overheard, about her impeccable German and the picture of the Fuehrer, they wondered who she was and what her connections to their commanders might be.

They ascended the stairs, where she could hear them searching the bedrooms. They proceeded to the attic on the third floor, where the tobacco was curing and extra winter clothes were stored. When Tina glanced into the parlour, she saw a trickle of smoke wafting up from under the floor boards beside the Persian carpet. Frantic, she hurried over and stomped on the boards, just as the soldiers came down the stairs.

Waving a kitchen towel in her hand to disperse the smoke, her voice shook as she said to them, “Why don’t you help your self to a little tobacco from upstairs?” They thanked her, as two went back to get the tobacco.

“Come to the kitchen,” she said to the third soldier. “Have a pancake and some homemade beer.”

He sat at the table and stared at her. “Frau, we know he is here. We could smell the tobacco burning. But we won’t look any more today.”

Tina was stunned and couldn’t move. She looked him in the eye for several seconds and nodded once. Hearing the other two on the stairs, she took a deep breath and said as cheerfully as she could, “In here, I have some pancakes and a beer for you.”

They sat and consumed the food and beer with relish, chatting among themselves about mundane matters, mindful that their hostess could understand every word. “Please have a smoke,” said Tina, offering them cigarette papers, a match and an ashtray.

She sat down with them, as they rolled their cigarettes. Trying to appear sociable, she asked them where they were from and about their families. The youngest was only 15, from a farming family just across the border near Gronau. The other two had left wives and children behind, one in Dusseldorf, the other in Lindau, on Lake Constance.

When they had finished, they arose; bowed, saluted and thanked her. One of the soldiers hung back and said, “Tell him it will be all over by five o’clock this afternoon. Make sure he stays hidden until then.” He clicked his heels and left.

Tina had barely latched the door before she slid boneless to the floor.

5 comments

  1. Eugenia Sagardia

    This story is very real, moving, convincing and beautifully told. Even in a country like Canada we should not take freedom for granted. Thank you

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