Tom Rooduijn – Amstel 278
It’s 11 January, quarter past eight in the evening. Fritz is sitting at his desk. It’s dark outside. The ground is thawing after a couple of days of frost, mist hangs over the Amstel. British planes buzz high in the air, answered by anti-aircraft guns which make the glass rattle in the cabinet. Shrapnel slams down onto the roof and the quay. Fritz thinks of the destruction the British air fleet will wreak again tonight.
The stress has him longing for tobacco, but that is almost unobtainable. He would like to travel, but where? Even camping or going for a walk on the beach is prohibited. In the evenings the Rimathés stay at home. Restaurants have become expensive. Cafés no longer serve wine or spirits. Only members of the Kultuurkamer perform in the theatres and concert halls these days. The cinemas are restricted to propaganda or German entertainment. When key basic needs are no longer met, Fritz psychologises, tensions arise. Although he owns a radio, a full library and a gramophone with records, the desire for new stimuli is growing.
That’s why one evening the Rimathés visit Broadway Palace, the variety theatre with the lighthouse on the corner of Amstelstraat and Rembrandtplein. ‘It might be depressing, watching those thin girls yawning as they go through their dance steps,’ Fritz reports afterwards, ‘but we were out and about for a little while. On the way back we felt at ease, as if a burden had been lifted.’
In bed, Fritz and Georgette talk about trips they have made. In their imagination they trace routes through the cities they have visited and remind one another of a painting they admired and a restaurant where they had a pleasant meal. Wistfully they recall their last vacation in Saas-Fee.
The raids continue. The victims are taken away on trams and trucks at night, so many Amsterdam residents do not notice. Fritz and Georgette again learn of Jews from their broad circle of acquaintances who have been arrested. The Gestapo visited the gynaecologist Rosalie Wijnberg seven times and ransacked her house, taking her with them on the eighth raid. As she dressed, she took poison, after which she was transferred to hospital on the point of death. The doctors went to great lengths to save her life, but after that she was capable of little. ‘What humanitarian aim is served by this “salvation”,’ Fritz writes, ‘if she still ends up in the hands of her executioners?’
Lazare’s previous landlady, Therese Birnbaum, has also been taken to the Joodsche Schouwburg with her son Jules.
Lazare is registered at the address of his brother Isidore, but his registration has expired because Isidore is in Westerbork. ‘My father-in-law must ask permission to change address,’ writes Fritz. For safety reasons it is better if he does not live in the house on the Amstel. ‘Whatever he does is wrong. And a Jew who puts a foot wrong is beyond salvation.’
Fritz despairs at the ever intensifying hunt. ‘Men, women and children flee from one house to the next, each night they hide with different helpers – who themselves are committing a crime – living in constant fear of death. A gruelling existence.’
In the hour between dog and wolf, Géza and Fritz bring a suitcase of apples, twenty kilos of peas and some vegetables to the house on the Amstel. ‘I’m on the point of bankruptcy,’ Fritz complains again, ‘but at least there is something to eat other than that never-ending cabbage.’
Fritz notes a progressive deterioration.
Men make children with young women and turn their backs on them. The Dutch, who normally live according to principles and traditions, have abandoned all civic values. Now it is ‘every man for himself’ and ‘grab what you can’. Even the police are doing it. During raids the residents are forced to look on, under threat from armed officers, while the police strip their houses bare.
Although Géza and Lazare’s gluttony irritates him, Fritz shows understanding for the greed with which they approach the supplies: ‘Their attitude is: we might as well eat and drink today, denying ourselves nothing, because tomorrow we’re doomed anyway.’
When a package arrives from friends in Lisbon containing coffee, tea, cocoa powder, a bar of chocolate and five tins of sardines, the Rimathés catch themselves at the same gluttony. Right away they brew fresh coffee. Everyone is euphoric at the aroma, which permeates the entire house. Georgette and Fritz have a piece of chocolate with it, which they allow to melt on their tongues like manna from heaven.
In the morning of 19 January, Fritz cycles through the Jewish quarter. He crosses Sint Antoniesbreestraat, until recently one of the busiest streets in the neighbourhood, and is distressed to see it as good as deserted now.
In the afternoon, friends of the Rimathés request a hiding place for an 18-year-old boy. The Rimathés give their tacit assent. They frequently host people temporarily in hiding, as becomes apparent between the lines of Fritz’ diary: ‘You mustn’t stop to think about the fact that by helping these unfortunate people you’re risking your life.’
It’s almost warm in the final weeks of January. ‘As if spring is on its way,’ writes Fritz. He wants to have a work of art repaired, but the framer does not have the materials. And even if he had, says the man, he has no staff left. ‘All the young men are gradually disappearing abroad.’ Fritz sees that the trams are increasingly frequently driven by women. There are also fewer men working on the trains. ‘In the best case scenario they’re now driving trams in Berlin,’ he writes, ‘and they’ll be back.’
On 23 January, in subdued tones, the British Minister of Defence announces the advance of the British in Libya and that of the Russians on the Eastern Front. ‘What a difference from Hitler’s triumphant shouting,’ Fritz comments. Along with Georgette he attempts not to view the news remotely but to envisage the human tragedy.
Later that day he notes that the raids are taking on increasingly cruel forms, with sick and disabled people now also being taken away. Dries passed a house just raided by the Grüne Polizei. He saw an old, crippled woman fall down on the pavement and an officer pull her up by her hair. The evacuation of the Apeldoornsche Bosch psychiatric institution on the night of 21 to 22 January also reaches Fritz’ ears. He is upset by the report that patients and staff members were ‘roughly pushed into trucks by the SS and transported away’.
‘Horrendous scenes played out,’ he writes. ‘Fleeing residents and carers were arrested in the surrounding area. Some succeeded in hiding with the help of farmers. As to the fate of the hundreds who were arrested, there is no doubt… Shocking.’
After Fritz has expressed his willingness to take the risk, Lazare registers himself as a resident of Amstel 278. Fritz writes tersely about the consequences.
‘At least make preparations, then, in case they come for you,’ Fritz urges.
‘No,’ says Lazare resolutely, ‘I won’t think of packing my suitcase. They can go ahead!’
Fritz cannot understand Georgette’s stepfather, who refuses to see the seriousness of the situation.
In the evening they drink the last bottle of wine alongside a modest meal. ‘A little indulgence like this brings us a moment’s happiness,’ Fritz writes.
The first day of spring is bleak, uncomfortable for the countless people who have run out of fuel. In the house on the Amstel there is still just enough coal to warm the front room. Fritz sets out early to find fresh food. On the black market he encounters a motley group of traders: besides the usual disreputable sorts, there are also forced labourers in hiding and NSB members.
Everyone improvises to keep their head above water. Fritz looks on in disgust as even Frits Maandag sells bottles of wine to sordid bars for 15 guilders apiece, which are then offered to customers, watered down, for 25 guilders: ‘Everything and everyone is for sale, including the women who populate these bars.’
He cherishes few illusions as to the benevolence of human nature: ‘In hunger or scarcity, people elbow their way through life.’ A message from Vught confirms his misanthropy: even there, no mutual support exists, only hate, envy and theft. ‘And that amongst people who share the same fate,’ writes Fritz. ‘No, humans are evil by nature. Wherever we look, we see hypocrisy, corruption and blind egoism.’
As a cause of the decline he mentions the measures – dressed up as virtuous but in fact criminal in nature – deployed by the Germans and their NSB acolytes.
Do they think we haven’t noticed the hypocrisy? Or do they feel a naïve need to justify themselves? I am ashamed of my faith in my mother’s people. I once admired their high morality and virtue. The treacherous Nazi regime that has established itself here has brought moral downfall.
On 22 March the roar of aircraft can be heard above the layer of cloud, drowned out once in a while by screeches from a colony of gulls that have landed on the bank of the Amstel. Suddenly Riet sees a parachutist bobbing in the wind and descending to the north of the city. Not long afterwards, a burning four-engined aircraft falls from the clouds, its engines shrieking. The plane turns a couple of desperate circles and crashes down, a black column of smoke rising from the landing site into the sky. ‘Another family will be waiting in vain for their son tonight,’ the housekeeper sighs. However horrific the consequences, the aircraft passing overhead feed their hope that the German war machine is being further sabotaged. Riet’s husband, who works in a German military garage, is already seeing the supply of parts stagnate.
The next day Fritz hears from a doctor that the crashed plane was a British Flying Fortress that landed on an empty school in the Spaarndammerbuurt district. The doctor saw the aircraft turning in lower and lower circles after it was hit, the pilot trying his best to prevent it from falling on the city. German soldiers shot down the enormous bomber as it scraped over the rooftops. Two pilots jumped out and on landing were greeted with a standing ovation from Amsterdam residents. People from the neighbourhood tore off pieces of the parachutes to take home, until soldiers put an end to it by shooting into the air.
On 24 March Fritz listens to the Weltchronik on Radio Beromünster. ‘After the tragic debacle on the Eastern Front,’ Jean Rudolf von Salis presents his analysis, ‘in the west the morally and materially weakened Germans now await “the greatest war operation ever”, as the British General Montgomery described the invasion in his announcement. The Germans are no longer fighting for Lebensraum or against bolshevism, but for their nackte Existenz.’
While the newspapers have to maintain the impression that the German army has everything under control, Fritz suspects that these are ‘the final convulsions’. Gradually more and more German soldiers are leaving Amsterdam, he observes, and fences and bulwarks are disappearing from German institutions.
Two days later, around three o’clock, there are sounds of sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Immediately afterwards, the house begins to shake intensely. There are dull explosions in the distance. That evening the Rimathés hear that two Schnellbootbunkers have been bombed in the port of IJmuiden.
On 31 March the Rimathés have a ‘salutary’ talk with their friend Hajo de Boer. The couple attach a great deal of value to the humanist ideas of this journalist and lawyer, who divorced actress Ank van der Moer at the end of 1941. Fritz begins talking about an observation by Joseph Goebbels which he read in Das Reich. The minister of propaganda states that the Germans are hated because they are superior. ‘Always that same overconfidence,’ Fritz remarks. ‘Why does this nation fail to discern the truth of their moral collapse? Why keep on fighting, with their backs to the wall?’
Hajo has heard on the radio of the total destruction of the centre of Frankfurt. He too wonders why the Germans do not surrender. ‘The country is completely ruined!’ He is disgusted by the pointless deaths: ‘Have they completely forgotten all those innocent citizens and millions of young men who have died in wretched, lonely conditions?’
‘And here the raids simply continue, in stadiums and cinemas,’ Fritz exclaims indignantly, ‘to recruit youths for slave labour in Germany.’
Georgette fears a great flood, when the Atlantic Wall is penetrated on the coast of the Netherlands. Hajo does not expect an invasion in this vulnerable delta, but in more southerly regions. After his departure the Rimathés go straight to bed.
Fritz has only just fallen asleep when Georgette nudges him awake: ‘It’s the doorbell!’ Fritz turns on the light, walks to the window and sees figures at the door.
‘Grüne Polizei, open up!’ they call to the lit-up window. Georgette jumps out of bed and presses the alarm button. Fritz puts on his slippers and dressing gown, shoves his teeth in (‘I don’t want to feel inferior’) and calmly descends the stairs.
At the door are two Grüne Polizei officers and a Dutch policeman in civilian clothing. The Dutch officer, around 55 years of age, fat and coarse, launches his offensive from the bottom of the stairs: ‘We’re looking for Lazare van Amerongen.’
Fritz replies that he is in hospital recovering from a sterilisation procedure. The officer asks whether anyone else lives in the house.
‘No one,’ Fritz replies calmly. The officers go upstairs, stop at the second floor landing and make as if to open Géza’s door. Fritz tells them they need the next floor up. They continue on up, check identity documents and start an interrogation. The two Germans are around 25 years of age, Fritz guesses. One is a typical Grüne officer, tall and strong, classically athletic, he observes. The other has a leptosome physique and is more arrogant. The Dutch officer keeps his hat on and behaves intimidatingly, and the Germans follow suit.
Fritz is forced to answer the same questions a couple of times, clearly in an attempt to catch him contradicting himself. From time to time they interrupt him with, ‘You’re lying!’, ‘No wisecracks!’ or, ‘If you don’t tell us where he is, you’ll go to jail!’
Fritz repeats calmly that Van Amerongen left two weeks ago to undergo sterilisation. The officers then search the house. On descending the stairs they stall at Géza’s door again, but Fritz cunningly ushers them out.
Once the officers have left, the Rimathés throw themselves into each other’s arms, their knees shaking. Then Fritz gives the all-clear signal. Géza and Selma emerge in their pyjamas, calm but pale. The police called at their place first, they say, after which they immediately went into hiding. Georgette pours glasses of lemonade. Géza wonders whether the raid has anything to do with the arrest of Rudi Pollak the previous week at the station. Rudi has a great deal of sensitive information.
Before going to bed, Fritz takes half a Sedormid tablet.
The next day Georgette sets off early for Mon’s place – where her stepfather has now moved in. The hunt has moved on from mixed marriages to Jewish ex-partners, widows and widowers of non-Jews, so Lazare, aged 62, is now roaming the city.
The next few nights, no one in the house can sleep properly. Fritz suffers palpitations and loses two kilos in three days.
Translated by Anna Asbury