Marcel Möring – A Family Walk
I often fall asleep with a very specific image in my head. Why that particular image should appear when I’m lying in bed with my eyes closed and feel sleep slowly taking possession of me I don’t know. But I do know what it is and when: Enschede, the autumn holidays from primary school, half-way through the 1960s. We’re living on Bruggerstraat, a block of brand new houses, freshly delivered. On the opposite side of the street there’s a patch of waste ground with a rusty little factory train track, and further off on the left some warehouses and sheds. There’s also a rag dealer’s that will later go up in flames. That day I’m lying, like the other boys from the neighbourhood, on the bank of a dry ditch watching the fire engines trying to put out the raging flames. While we’re lying there I tell them that my father’s the boss of the factory fire service, and that our car has a specially reinforced roof so that the firemen can stand on it when they’re putting out fires. He really is part of the fire service at the textile factory. Whether he’s the boss I have no idea, and the thing about the car isn’t true at all. Our first car is a tiny Renault Dauphine. There’s nothing special about it.
By a ditch in the waste ground there’s a lonely oak tree, battered by weather and wind, capricious and powerful. In the autumn holidays us boys used to gather there to look for acorns for our pop-guns. Next to the tree there’s a little ford that we use to get to the other side. It’s the kind of spot where the edges have been worn away by countless boys’ feet slipping and slithering down it until they can set foot on the other side. I once misjudged a step and spent a whole afternoon running about with sopping shoes. You didn’t go home for something like that.
I see that tree and that spot in my half-sleep. It’s the light of a sunny autumn day. A troop of rasping, cawing crows flock around the oak-tree’s crown. Half waking, I know everything that’s on the periphery of that spot: the council street-cleaning building, the factory train track that runs alongside it, the paved road towards the Volkspark and the cork factory where eventually another fire will break out. One day a car crashes into the traffic light there. My little sister and I go and inspect the damage, and I pick up the broken hood that held the lightbulbs. In my bedroom there are stones that I’ve picked up on strolls, exotic shells I was given as presents, a whole collection of bicycle lamps, electric wires, switches and transformers, and a bit of granite that my grandparents brought back from a holiday in Switzerland, which comes from the Matterhorn and is also carved into the shape of the mountain. There may also be a piece of traffic light in there. On the way hope I stick my finger in the hole with which the hood was screwed on, only to discover that I can’t get my finger back out again. It’s a tough bit of plastic, so big that my sister has to run back to fetch help, because I can barely carry that great chunk of traffic light all on my own. At home they try butter and washing-up liquid, but nothing does any good. Some hours later my father suggests freeing me by sawing the hood off my finger. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. I’m very curious. I need to figure out how things work, how they fit together, what I can do with them.
When I close my eyes the tree by the ditch and the crows around it appear all by themselves. I have no idea why, but it’s an image that leads me into a state of deep rest. Oak trees and crows a positive connotations for me: my favourite tree and my favourite bird, even though I also describe my depressions as a black crow. But then again I’m very familiar with depression, nothing goes deeper, and for a long time it may well have been my most intimate relationship.
In that state between waking and sleeping, I can also walk down the footpath along the tarmacked road, to my grandparents’ house. They live on Ijsbaanweg, a dead end on the dyke that lines the harbour, bordered on the other side by the even higher dyke carrying the dual carriageway that connects the city with the world. The house is almost at the end of the street. I remember it as being enormous, but that may not be the case. In the low garden there are a plum tree and the walnut tree that my grandfather and I will one day chop down. To the rear is the greenhouse where my grandfather grows plants. The dry smell of soil and wood hangs in the air. Pleasantly warm. Under the tables where plants and cuttings are potted there are wooden crates, towers of red earthenware flowerpots slid into each other, sacks of potting soil and compost. My grandfather is a big man with coal-shovels hands, but his fingers are a watchmaker’s when he’s potting delicate plants. It’s a place I like coming to, because of the warmth, the smell and not least the suggestion of ‘another world’, but I’m not allowed to touch anything. That’s one of the few prohibitions in my grandfather’s house. As the first, and at that time still the only, grandchild, I enjoy almost boundless freedom. When I pick at the fragile woodwork of the grandfather clock my mother gets angry, but my grandfather smiles and shakes his head. The same as when I find a little pot of white paint and write the letters N P, for Niet Parkeren, on most of the tiles in the courtyard behind the house. My grandfather has to turn all the tiles over, a task that costs him a day, but he can’t help laughing at my misdemeanour. I’m allowed to do almost anything. So he lets me, all on my own and without any interference on his part, make a kind of gazebo in the back part of the garden, a circle of white gravel, with three cast iron chairs around a little table, a path leading to it and plants surrounding the whole thing. At the end of the day my grandparents came to admire it, and in my memory tea was even drunk then, while from down at the dyke fame the sounds of ships being loaded or unloaded. My grandfather has a teacup in one hand, and in the other a cigarette with smoke wafting up from it. My grandmother, her grey hair run through with black tied in a bun, looks neat and tidy, as ever. She is a woman who appears serious, even severe but everything about her is warm and loving. The jumpers I wear, my vests, even my socks, were hand-knitted by my grandmother using the very finest needles. She’s also famous for her cooking. I like eating at her house best. Even when on one occasion she makes soup out of a tin and I tell my slightly wounded mother that it’s better the one she makes.
I spent the first few years of my life on the top floor of my grandparents’ house. My grandfather had had it converted so that my parents could live there after they got married. There was a housing shortage and my parents didn’t have a lot of money. My father was still studying in the evening and my mother had given up her job as an executive assistant when I was born. There are photographs of my thin, nervous mother, her thick black hair in a bun, a fashionable twin-set and the plump baby that’s me. I weighed eight and a half pounds when I was born. That weight swiftly fell away. My mother couldn’t feed me, but because I didn’t complain and no one noticed that I was slowly starving to death it was a long time before anyone found out. In the end I was taken back to the hospital where I was born and so, my mother always said, my life was saved.
I know my grandparents’ house better than the one we went to live in later on. Without a doubt that’s because I was with my grandmother a lot. I loved her more than I loved my own mother. She was the centre of my existence. I understand very well why prehistoric cultures worshipped a mother goddess. There was nothing I wanted more than to be near her all the time. My grandmother was the reason why at every free moment – I was about seven or eight – I would walkthe few kilometres from our house to Ijsbaanweg. Once with both knees in bandages because I’d had a bad fall. I remember standing waiting to cross the road, and being very aware of my own heroism: hobbling, with clear signs of my injuries, on the way to my grandmother’s. And the whole world being able to see it. If I had been Catholic I would probably have developed stigmata.
Her early death – I must have been about fourteen – was the greatest shock of my life. I remember that we, by now living in Assen, went to the funeral in Enschede one day and that we stopped at a shopping centre because there was something that my mother needed to get. A warm, sunny day. A faint light through the dusty windscreen of the car. Suddenly I burst into uncontrollable tears. Over the death of my grandmother. But even more than that, I say hiccupping and sobbing to my father, over the sheer injustice of it. There are so may bad people in the world, and she of all people was the one who had to die a long and painful death of lung cancer. My father’s explanation, that death and life are not dependent on goodness or badness, doesn’t help. I’m a fourteen-year-old who still finds many things incomprehensible, and the idea of ‘life, the universe and everything’ as a matter of chaos and chance may be going a bit too far.
The reason I was so moved by her death, of course, was that it was the first one that was close to me. But there was more, particularly her unconditional love. It’s not by chance that my earliest memory is the one in which I wake up in my grandparents’ bed, her bed. Sunlight falling softly through the window, a yellow curtain stirring in the morning breeze, her voice coming out of the kitchen and across the courtyard, while the radio plays: Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and the moon up above and a thing called Love. The bed is big and soft and I’m aware of the huge privilege of lying here. I don’t know how trustworthy that memory is. Something in me whispers: too Freudian. On the other hand there are reasons that we use the word for that kind of image. I remember when that memory first came to the surface. I was writing my first novel, Mendel’s Inheritance (now simply Mendel), and looking for ways to give my main character more of a history. I had always assumed that my memory was poor, and that for that reason I barely had access to autobiographical material. Could I improve that? Could I, for example, walk back through my memories? And might I then, at the point where remembering seemed to end, catch a glimpse of something dimmer, something further away and more indistinct? And would that be the loose thread in the fabric, and if I was able to pull on it and unravel it, would it take me even further? In some cases the experiment delivered demonstrably ‘true’ memories, and in other cases images and situations that I hadn’t been able to reach. Like waking up in my grandmother’s bed. That memory is pin-sharp. The song on the radio dates from that time as well. But memory is a capricious mistress likes to mould itself to the desires of the person doing the remembering. It’s true for me, whether it really happened or not. Incidentally, I’ve discovered in the meantime that my memory is actually very good. Not where debates and data are concerned, but that has to do with my reluctance to leave the house. The past, on the other hand, I can usually step into easily. So much so that I can walk around inside it and discover details that previously escaped me. My grandparents’ house, which I haven’t visited since my youth, is still familiar to me. The stairs going up end in a balustrade with spindles that my mother once stuck her head through as a young girl and got stuck, after which my grandfather had to free her with a saw… The kitchen with the granite counter, the old-fashioned black stove, the table below the window where we had breakfast. The little courtyard with the wooden bench against the wall and the green painted clinker-built wooden fence…
After the funeral my parents decided that I should stay with my grandfather, so that I could keep an eye on him and make sure he was already. It’s only now that I find myself wondering whether that meant that I didn’t have to go to school. And also, incidentally, why it seemed like a good idea to leave a fourteen-year-old behind with his recently widowed grandfather. I cooked for us in the evening. After eating we had coffee, and then we watched a ‘krimi’, as my grandfather called it. He would have a jonge jenever gin and sometimes if I asked nicely I would get one as well. It was a strange, unreal situation that I escaped by roaming around area where a new district was going up. There I would stop among piles of prefab door and window frames and smoke a cigarette that I’d managed to snaffle. In the evening I lay on a mattress on the ground in what had been my grandmother’s sewing room. I was very unhappy and cried every evening; very softly, because at the same time my ears were pricked, listening for what my grandfather was doing When he eventually went to sleep I imagined him lying there, on the side he always lay on, next to the empty spac that my grandmother had left behind. One morning, when he had gone shopping, I went into his bedroom and looked at the bed, to see what my grandmother’s absence looked like. Her part of the twin bed was neatly made up, while his had been hurriedly thrown together. The irrevocability of that bed… It made me think of her long grey woollen pleated skirts, what they smelled like when you buried your face in them. The time she took me to an inn along the road from Enschede to Hengelo. We had drunk tea (her) and lemonade (me) and in spite of her encouragement I had refused to go into the playground, even though there were no other children there. One autumn afternoon, a quiet day that couldn’t make its mind up whether it was going to rain. When it was time to go home the last bus drove past us and we had to walk the whole of the last bit. I shut the bedroom door and went outside, where I wandered around among the construction site. Pools of water lay among the brick foundations, bits of PVC piping lay scattered about, along with sawn-off pieces of wood and broken bricks. As I walked around I realized that I could no longer remember my grandmother’s voice. Her posture, her gestures were all clear in my mind. But the sound of her voice had gone. I climbed into a stack of window frames and crouched in the shelter of all that wood feeling miserable.
My grandparents had hauled themselves up from the working class. At the time when they met he was, in terms of his civil status, a factory worker, and she a weaver. They probably worked in one of the many textile factories in Enschede. In one way or another they broke free of that existence. My grandmother became a teacher at the domestic science school, while my grandfather worked as a freelance gardener and had a bicycle business on the side. Their big house went up on the Ijsbaanweg and in 1942, when the air-raids were at their height, they were joined in some unfathomable way by my mother, who was seven at the time. Her slightly older sister lived in a different household in Enschede. Throughout their lifetimes, my grandparents remained members of the VARA broadcasting company, they were loyal subscribers to the omnibus volumes published by the Workers’ Press, their votes went first to the Social Democrats and later to the Labour Party, and they were also members of the humanists’ association. Was it a sense of socialist justice that led them to take in a little Jewish girl? Was their desire for a child (they were involuntarily childless) so great that a clandestine little girl fulfilled a wish that could never otherwise have come true? My grandmother had had thirteen miscarriages. Only now do I realise that my own existence was possible because she couldn’t give birth to a living child herself.
I was never able to ask her, or rather: I never dared to ask her what it meant for her that I wasn’t their real grandson, and she wasn’t my real grandmother.
I only discovered that myself when I came home after an afternoon playing outside, to tell them that my friends and I had discovered ‘the Jews’ gold’ when we’d broken into a basement through an open window. I must have been about ten. We were standing in the kitchen, my mother and I. She looked at me and said; ‘You’re a Jew yourself’. And then out came the whole story, almost as if it was a relief to her finally to be able to talk about it. The fact that she had found refuge with my grandparents, which meant that they weren’t my grandparents, the camps, her mother who was murdered in Sobibor, lots more family that ‘no longer existed’. She concluded with the warning that my grandparents mustn’t know what I now knew. I understood that. They might think I’d stopped loving them as much. And that wasn’t the case. Blood bond or not, my in-hiding-grandparents (if that’s a phrase) were my grandparents, and the affection was reciprocal and great and deep.
I could have known that something wasn’t quite right in the story about us and who we were. For example there was a third grandfather, my mother’s real father. He had, according to very untrustworthy family history, survived the war in Norway. Every now and again he came in a car from Rotterdam. Once he brought me a toy version of a Rotterdam bin lorry. Apparently I didn’t think it was strange that I had three grandfathers.
Some time in the early 1960s the visits stopped. I assume that was my mother’s doing. She wasn’t terribly keen on relationships, not even with people she had close family connections with. I think she’d rather have had no contact at all rather than risk the chance of losing somebody. When Sam, my first child, was born, the following day she sat on a chair opposite me and said, ‘Now all you can do is lose him;’ That was her frame of reference: loss.
Since receiving my mother’s new information, I was very sceptical about what adults called ‘reality’. Like all children, I had thought the world was as it appeared to me, and that I was what I was. That didn’t seem right. I had been living with an idea, a fiction. Chance had revealed something about my family and myself, and now I had to deal with the fact that not everything was how it seemed, and the fact that I was Jewish. That didn’t come as a pleasant surprise. I didn’t want to be ‘something’. I wanted to be like all other children, ‘normal’. But my mother had spoken with a gravity that had made an impression on me. ‘That ‘you’re a Jew yourself’ also had something unreal about it. I knew the Old Testament so well that as an eight or nine-year-old I could have reeled off the whole thing by heart, up to and including the obscurest little prophets. When I was at primary school my father had given me a children’s version of the Old Testament and I’d devoured it in a month. After that I reread it secretly in bed, by the light of a torch. I was so absorbed in it that I could literally step into the book and walk hand in hand with Abraham through his world. The heat the sun, the light shimmering above the desert sand, the herd that seemed to walk in the mirage over the water – I saw it all, I was there. The Jews in the book were alive for me, but they had nothing to do with the reality in which I was proclaimed to be one of them in my mother’s kitchen. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with this revelation, other than read even more. For the time being I decided to keep my being Jewish to myself. For my mother it was also something that she preferred to hide, even when there were matzos on the table at Pesach (that was at a time when ‘crackers’ weren’t on sale in every supermarket), and there was a menorah in the window. But there were always moments when it would bubble back up. For example when we saw Ramses Shaffy singing ‘Sammy’ on television and my mother said all of a sudden, to no one in particular, that the song was about the sorrow of the Jews after the war. It wasn’t like my mother to make such categorical statements. She was talking about herself, that much was clear. It turned out many years later, that ‘Sammy’, according to his singing partner Liesbeth List, was about a mutual friend who had a bad trip after taking LSD. Incidentally he wasn’t Jewish either, but in fact it didn’t make any difference. Just as ‘Sammy’, for my mother, wasn’t about the affluent 1960s and the drug use that went with them, her other favourite song, ‘Laat me alleen’ (‘Leave Me Alone’) by Rita Hovink (a heartfelt lament about the pain of love), was about sorrow that can’t be shared, the loneliness you feel when faced with incomprehensible events that are bigger than you are. In my mother’s case: the Shoah.
My mother opted for forgetting. In this case the Freudian term ‘repression’ may perhaps be better, because if it’s clear that something is about the Shoah, then forgetting is out of the question. Repression sometimes works, for a while. Some Israeli scientists studied the emotional and social advantages of repressing the trauma of war, and it was revealed that the technique provided a better quality of life up to the age of sixty. After that it starts going wrong. Repressed memory is a serpent that dwells deep in the caverns of our consciousness. Inevitably a day will come when it stirs. That’s when resistance declines and the armour crumbles: when you get older. Then everything that seemed to have been so successfully forgotten returns at full strength.
For my mother, the confrontation with the beast of memory occurred in two parts. I was to blame for the first, when I forced our family not to keep kosher, but at least to eat in a kosher style. That must have been in the early 1970s. Apart from the menorah in the window, the matzos at Pesach and of course a strong sense of connection with Israel, our Jewishness barely existed. In the latter respect, by the way, we were no different from the Dutch. In those days everyone was crazy about Israel. A people that had risen like a phoenix from the smoking ruins of the war, all those sun-tanned sabras doing battle with the stubborn land, the socialist ideal made flesh in the form of the kibbutz, shared property and shared parenting, a tiny little country resisting the aggression of the surrounding Arab states manfully and with great success. Israel was a bright-eyed little seal among nations, the one little village in Asterix that bravely resisted the mighty Roman Empire.
Under my tyrannical rule, our new diet became the starting point for a slow return to something like Jewish life, a journey crowned a few years later when my father commissioned the local goldsmith to forge a whopper of a Star of David for my mother’s birthday. Clearly something was changing in her, in us, but also in the world around us, because from that day onwards she wore the star almost like a provocation, and strangely enough hardly anybody reacted to it, apart from the one person who asked if she worked for the television company TROS, which has a similar logo. Wizo, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, re-entered my mother’s life, as did long telephone conversations with other Jewish ladies in Northern Holland. But it wasn’t all positive. This was also the time when on the fourth of May, Dutch Remembrance Day, we sat down in front of the television to watch the solemnities on Dam Square in Amsterdam, at the time still a less formal commemoration and certainly one less dominated by military display, still all about ‘the war’ and less about the pr machine of the powers that be. When the silence in Dam Square made way for the sound of everyday life and the presenter announced the schedule for the following day, 5 May, Liberation Day, I heard my mother saying loudly and clearly: ‘There is no liberation for us. Every day is the fourth of May.’
Translated by Shaun Whiteside