Deeds of Small Calibre

Deeds of small calibre

(translated from the Dutch by Eva van der Meer)

My granddad had a gun. He kept it in a cloth in his slaughterhouse, not openly displayed but stored in a drawer. When I was a child, I once held it – it felt cold and heavy. I remember wanting to look in its tube and even actually wanting to turn the gun barrel towards my face. But I dared not do it.

     ‘Durst,’ my granddad would have said. I would not have durst to do it.

     Later on, when I was about ten years old, my mother told me that my granddad had been in a concentration camp. Some Germans had entered his butcher's shop and taken him. He had had to go via Rotterdam to Vught. Camp Vught.

     My mother had been a nine-year-old girl with braids clinging to her mother.

     That night, in bed, I pictured what had happened in order to give it a different outcome. In my nightly visualization, my grandma came from behind the counter the moment the Germans raided the shop.

     ‘Sausage is rationed,’ she said with arms akimbo. ‘You can’t have any sausage.’

     By creating confusion, she enabled my granddad to quickly hide. Being at the back of the shop, he fetched his gun and ducked into the kitchen area. Suddenly it was not a butcher’s gun with a firing pin anymore, but a real one with bullets. As soon as the soldiers entered the cooking area, my granddad shot them  – bang! bang! – one by one. Sometimes I would also dream that he first tipped a kettle of boiling water onto them and killed them collectively just like he would do to the pig he brought from the market in Rotterdam on Mondays.

     ‘Mart,’ my granddad and grandma would say, for that matter. Speaking in South Holland dialect, they would not say market but mart.

 

What are the facts?

     My granddad, Gerrit Vervelde, was picked up in the South Holland town of Oud-Beijerland, at Westvoorstraat 16, in July 1943. He was at Camp Vught until 10 December – as prisoner 6643 in barrack number 17. That is what it says on his registration card.

     Dressed in overalls, he had had to shift cobblestones from one pile to another and back again. He once told my mother about a fellow inmate who had not been able to cope with the work. The man had been too ill to be present for roll call at dawn. But it had been out of the question for him not to show up, so they had pushed him in a barrow to the roll-call place. The man had been kicked in the legs drooping over the barrow's edge.

     ‘Get up!’

     Officially called Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch, Camp Vught had fallen under the SS in Berlin, yet it had been operated and guarded by Dutchmen. So it is likely that the man had been ordered to get up with a Dutch ‘Opstaan’ rather than a German ‘Aufstehen’.

     The prisoner had tried to get up but he had lacked the strength to support himself with his elbows and had fallen back into the wheelbarrow. He had died.

 

For a long time I did not know why my granddad had been in Vught. I assumed he was a hero who had performed deeds of resistance at the risk of his life. Or, at least, that he had clandestinely provided families keeping people in hiding with some extra meat – on top of the rations. I would not allow myself to think that he might as well have been arrested for usurious trade or black-market dealings.

     It was only after I ended up in a war myself – in the early nineties in the Balkans – that I began wondering consciously whether my granddad had done something gallant or something cowardly.

     It started when I moved to former Yugoslavia as a young journalist in 1992 – keeping a flack jacket from Harskamp Barracks in my luggage. Being stationed in Belgrade, I reported on ethnic and religious bloodbaths I did not understand. I thought I had to remain impartial, otherwise I would be a worthless reporter. After all, it was not my war. But before I knew it, I was in the middle of it.

     One day I was tipped-off: a boy had fled into the United Nations Office in the station area. Pedja was his name. He was 19 years old. His parents were stuck in besieged Sarajevo and he refused to fire at them from the hills. He asked if I would like to interview him.

     Pedja had curly hair and deep-set eyes. Over a cup of coffee in the UN Office, he told about his fear of being handed over to General Mladić's for court-martial as a deserter.

     I gave Pedja my card and wrote my piece for the newspaper that same afternoon.

     That night the doorbell rang. It was Pedja holding a plastic bag in each hand. He asked for a place to sleep for the night. ‘Tomorrow I'll leave again,’ he said. ‘Then I'll take the bus to Macedonia.’

     I let him in and showed him to my sofa. Pedja kicked off his pumps, walked on the floor in stockings and put his belongings at the head of my couch.

     The next morning he left for Skopje, but Pedja was taken off the bus at the first police control. That same afternoon, he was at my door again.

     This is how Pedja came to stay with me for some time and how he came to go along playing football in the park on the River Danube. That was what we – foreign affairs correspondents – did for exercise in Belgrade. Between times, I travelled to the front, I visited Sarajevo, spoke to victims and culprits, and then when I came home, Pedja would be acting increasingly nervous.

     ‘Is anything wrong?’ I asked him one night. I did not care that my duty-free whisky was finished. But the papers on my desk were not in order anymore.

     Pedja buried his head in his hands. After sitting like that for a good while, he pulled down his fingers forcefully, briefly leaving white lines on his cheeks. Then he confessed that he had been spying on me, on us, the foreign affairs correspondents playing football.

     The police had not only taken him off the bus but they had also interrogated him and put him on the spot. He had been allowed to go on condition that he would report on information about me and my colleagues once a week. They needed to know who our sources were and what was on our agendas. If he would not cooperate, he would be handed over to General Mladić's for court-martial.

 

I tried to work out for myself whether anyone had been endangered by Pedja. Shortly before, my Serbian interpreter had smuggled me through the siege of Srebrenica. I had seen the despair and hardship of the rounded-up East-Bosnian Muslims – tens of thousands of them in a cut-off valley. On our way back from this ghetto, me and my interpreter had been picked up by Bosnian-Serbian besiegers and intimidated by the school principal at Bratunac , Master Nikolić. It had felt as if we had walked into a trap. My interpreter had been called a traitor who had to be 'trained'. Nikolić was an intelligence agent who, even then, had made us tremble and is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence in Scheveningen – for his share in the Srebrenica Massacre.

     Even when we eventually had been allowed to leave, my interpreter had been terrified that Nikolić – as a way of 'waving goodbye' – would fire some loose shots at our car.

 

Was Pedja the one who had been telling on us?

     I do not know.

     Maybe it was naïve of me to bring him into my home. Still, I have never regretted that I did. He rang at my doorbell and I let him in. Sometimes you do things on an impulse. Sometimes you do them because it is your plain duty. Sometimes you do them because you dare not say no. Maybe, something similar applied to Pedja. He said he refused to kill and plunder – that was the reason why he had fled. But he probably just feared for his own life, as well.

     I think our motives for doing the things we do are rarely unambiguous. But every deed always has a certain weight, which can balance between two sides – it can be either gallant or cowardly.

 

My granddad Gerrit had not resisted when he had been arrested in the summer of 1943, much as I would have liked that as a child. For one thing, it had not been Germans who had stormed into the butcher's shop. It had been Dutchmen, NSB members – Dutch national socialists – from the village. They had had an arrest warrant with them and had said my granddad kept money of people in hiding, of the arrested Koopman family, to be precise. Without saying a word, my granddad had fetched the claimed money from behind the tapestry in the dining room. He had changed out of smock into a coat and had gone along with them.

      The Koopman family – father, mother and three children – had lived on Westvoorstraat 11. Before the war, they had had a savings and loan bank called Koopman. They had bought their roast beef and braising steak at my granddad and grandma’s who, for their part, had kept an account at the Koopman Bank – businessmen amongst themselves.

     ‘They should have emigrated when it was still possible,’ I once heard one of my uncles say. ‘Plenty of money.’

     But they had gone into hiding. One day, father Koopman had walked into the shop and taken my granddad aside at the butcher's block. He had been carrying an envelop with money in it and had asked if his neighbour would take it for safekeeping during the war. At intervals, someone would come and ask for it using a codeword, in order to take some money out of it. My granddad had taken the envelop without a word.

     This is how it had gone: a neighbour who had his back against the wall thrust an envelop in his hands and he took it. For this deed, my granddad had to endure Camp Vught's regime of terror for five months, and my grandma, my uncles and my mother had to bear agonies of suspense about whether they would ever see him again.

     Marked off on the scale of war suffering, these are grazes, scratches. But this is not the whole story. The lot of the Koopman family has been recorded on a registration card, as well.

     I will read aloud:

 

     Hartog Koopman

     Oud-Beijerland, 24 November 1889

     Sobibor, 9 July 1943

 

     Helena Koopman-Hamme, wife

     The Hague, 6 June 1891

     Sobibor, 9 July 1943

 

     Franciska Koopman, daughter

     Oud-Beijerland, 7 September 1919

     Sobibor, 9 Juli 1943

 

     Johanna Marie Koopman, daughter

     Oud-Beijerland, 9 February 1922

     Sobibor, 9 July 1943

 

     Meyer Koopman, son

     Oud-Beijerland, 2 October 1924

     Sobibor, 9 July 1943

 

They had been in hiding at two addresses, one in Delft and one in Rotterdam.

     We commemorate them, today and every 4th of May – for as long as there will be months of May. We commemorate them and the hundreds of thousands of others: victims of violence in the Netherlands and far beyond, in the Second World War and afterwards.

     Commemorating is more than standing still. It is also: defining our position, re-evaluating our course and, if necessary, changing it – to make sure that we do not head for another war disaster. The gravest threat we are facing today is that the load may shift, our crown jewel, our most precious possession, being: Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution, which states:

 

All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.

 

Just solemnly and collectively swearing ‘Never again Auschwitz’ will not be enough. Lately the cables have been fiddled with again.

     Do we want that? Are we letting it happen? Are we doing anything about it?

 

This is how I see it:

     By helping his neighbour, my granddad offered resistance to the 'our-own-people-first' dictatorship during 39-45, just like Pedja offered resistance to the 'our-own-people-first' madness in the Balkans by deserting in 1994. These may be deeds of small calibre. Yet they are important, as many small deeds together may tip the balance.

     In my granddad and grandma's butcher's shop, there was a traditional pair of scales with separate brass weights ranging from a kilo, half a kilo, and a hectogram – down to the smallest ones of five grams. If any groups of people threatened to fall overboard by the 'our-own-people-first' thought again soon in Europe, on which side would we put our weights? Would we gravitate to it or would we provide a counterweight?

 

     Postscript

 

After confessing, Pedja moved to a flat where my interpreter had already accommodated some fled relatives of his. There, Pedja fell in love with one of my interpreter's nieces. Even before the war was over, they immigrated to Canada. Today, they are married with three children and live in Toronto.