(Soup kitchen in Amsterdam; © Beeldbank WO2/Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam/Sem Presser/J. de Jong; from Anne Frank’s Amsterdam)
In May 1945 the Netherlands are finally liberated. In the first few days, Anton’s uncle cycles off to discover what happened to the missing Steenwijks. Almost immediately he learns that Anton’s parents were executed that same night along with twenty-nine hostages (? my dictionary translates gijzelaars as ‘hostages’ but I’m not sure that’s the right word here); some weeks later they discover that Peter was shot dead that same night.
Anton grows up with his uncle and aunt; childless, they treat him as their own son. He does well enough at school and goes on to study medicine at university. He does not return to his home town. In the summer of 1952 he is invited to a party there, in Haarlem, and rather reluctantly he goes. Disturbed by the memories the place evokes in him and irritated by his friends’ discussion of the war in Korea, he leaves and walks back to his old home, now an overgrown, weed-filled patch between the two neighbouring houses, like a missing tooth. The straggly trees are ‘just like those which can be seen sometimes in sixteenth-century paintings, with an angel on a hill and a crow which stares malignantly at a monstrous little man’ (zoals die soms op zestiende-eeuwse schilderijen te zien zijn, met een engel op een heuvel en een kraai die kwaardaardig naar een monsterachtig mannetje staart; mannetje can mean ‘stag’ or ‘bull’ as well as ‘little man’ and I’m not quite sure what’s meant here, especially since extensive searches with Ms Google have yielded examples of no such paintings). Anton is also reminded of something his uncle told him about northern France, where farmers plough around certain spots because they are mass graves from the Great War. He imagines that beneath the nettles some bricks and fragments of his old home remain.
As he stands there, he sees old mevrouw Beumer waving to him from her window; he shrinks away, but she is calling him in. She is kind and motherly, gently scolding him for staying away so long, making him a cup of coffee. Meneer Beumer sits in a chair, his eyes cloudy with dementia and unable to recognise Anton. Mevrouw Beumer chatters about the new neighbours – meneer Korteweg and his daughter moved away shortly after the Liberation – and her sadness at the tragedy which befell Anton’s family, especially the death of Peter. Then she tells him that she saw her mother ‘fly at’ one of the men that night. Horrified, terrified, Anton starts to flee, but not before mevrouw Beumer has added that there is a monument with his family’s name on it ‘where it happened’ (waar het gebeurd is), which he pauses to see. His parents’ names among those of the gijzelaars moves him: apart from a couple of photographs his uncle possesses, this is all that remains of them. That and himself.
Back at home Anton accuses his uncle of failing to tell him about the monument, but aunt and uncle are amazed because they clearly remember not only what they said but his response: ‘You said that these stones could be stolen from you’ (Je zei dat die stenen je gestolen konden worden; in other words, he said that he didn’t care).
The house was the last place that Anton saw his family alive; for him it is their grave even though their bodies do not rest there, the place where they all died even though they were killed elsewhere. But Anton also gives the site a sort of context, in the art of the Old Masters, in the mass graves of the First World War. To do this, he has to step outside his emotions to some extent and regard their deaths through his intellect; it may make them easier to bear. After all, for the past seven years Anton has coped with his terrible loss by utterly suppressing it:
His family was consigned to a place of which he seldom thought but from where at unexpected moments a fragment emerged: when he was looking out of the classroom window, or standing at the back of the tram: a dark place of cold and hunger and shots, blood, flames, screams, gaols, somewhere deep inside himself and almost hermetically sealed up there. In these instances it was as if he remembered a dream, but less what he had dreamed than that he had had a nightmare. Only in the heart of that hermetic darkness shone sometimes a blinding point of light: the fingertips of that girl on his face.
[Zijn familie was ontweken naar een domein, waar hij zelden aan dacht maar waar op onverwachte momenten soms een flard van opdook: als hij op school uit het raam keek, of op het achterbalkon van de tram: een donker oord van kou en honger en schoten, bloed, vlammen, geschreeuw, kerkers, ergens diep in hemzelf en daar vrijwel hermetisch afgesloten. In die ogenblikken was het of hij zich een droom herinnerde, maar minder wat hij gedroomd als wel dat hij een nachmerrie had gehad. Alleen in het hart van die hermetische duisternis schitterde soms een verblindend lichtpunt: de vingertoppen van dat meisje over zijn gezicht.]
He has avoided all references to the war, poems and novels about that period; he shuns Haarlem for years until the party. Does this make the visit there all the more traumatic? In choosing to return to his old home, it seems as if Anton is deciding to open himself up to the ghosts. It is perhaps too soon, and when mevrouw Beumers reveals that she knows something more of what happened, Anton retreats, closes up again, asks nothing. After he has confronted his uncle, he thinks about boring into the earth in a flameproof suit until just his feet protruded out of the other side; then he would pause for a moment before retreating back into the earth and floating weightlessly at its centre which seems the only safe place to think about these events.
(Bomb damage in the Von Zesenstraat; © Beeldbank WO2/NIOD/J.A.J. Rikkert; from Anne Frank’s Amsterdam)