by M.J. Lagaay-Braam, VELP (Gld. )
It was February 1944 in occupied Holland during the war. My husband was ‘underground’ the Germans had summoned him several times for work in Germany. For years we had succeeded in finding a way out, misleading German recruiting offices. But finally the so-called “Letzer Aufruf”, the last summons, reached us and my husband had no choice. He was ordered to leave Holland the next morning at, six o’clock by train to Germany. Instead of that, however, he took a train to ‘somewhere’ in Holland and lived for the rest of the war ‘underground’.
This meant that my life was not safe either after this and I too had to leave our house, which was temporarily taken over by some elderly friends.
I went to a small village in the centre of Holland living with a family F., where I took the place of the mother who had committed suicide as a result of the miseries of the war. To all people in the village I was the lady whose husband was in Germany.
But when the family F. had gone out, I was able to meet my husband secretly and to have him as a hidden guest. And in December 1943 I found myself pregnant. This was a great surprise after a marriage of six childless years. However, how could we arrange the birth of the child, where could I go and live? There were a lot of cares in those days and everything together made me physically weak and restless. I longed so much to be with my husband again.
After a secret meeting in a train we decided we must go back to our own house in The Hague. The Germans by that time had lost track of my husband's going and had practically given up their fruitless search for him. The friends in our house would gladly give us the opportunity to live together in our own house again as they could always go back to relatives who lived in the country.
We decided to move to our beloved home on the 26th of February and were to meet each other in the train.
I packed all my things that I had taken before to the family F., including my dear cat in a nice rattan basket. The main thing I carried, however, was a leather travelling bag containing all our valuables i.e. jewellery, cash, bankbooks, identity cards, coupon books, ration cards, passports, papers of value, licences for the baby-outfit; in short, it was our “everything”, it was all we could live on, having no income, living a non-existent life.
When we entered the house we knew we were taking many risks - but also many joys.
By then my husband had obtained false identity cards, coupons etc. and I carried an official document saying that my husband was working in Germany. The consequence OF this was that I was the only one of us who could deal with anything in our daily life. My husband lived a concealed life, did secret jobs, was most of the time inside the house and never showed himself in public.
The day after our arrival the first things to be done were the official arrangements at several municipal offices for my change of domicile. All the official papers had to be altered and for that I took my old bicycle and started a long exhausting trip from, one office to the other.
It was a cold rainy day and everywhere I came I had to stand waiting in long rows op people - waiting and waiting for my turn. I was then five months pregnant and could hardly bear to stand any longer. Moreover I carried with me the same bag I had the day before in the train, still containing exactly the same valuables, cash etc. representing all our means of living. The bag for this reason was cumbersome, especially when cycling in the rain and cold.
After having finished the several jobs, I was exhausted and going again to my bicycle I decided to tie the bag on the back carrier. A glimpse of a thought flashed through my mind: “If I were ever to lose this bag, life would be impossible for us”. It was everything we had to live on. But this was only a second and I struggled on home through the drizzling rain.
Coming near our house I passed a grocery shop. I stopped, put my bicycle in front of the shop and bent to take my bag off the carrier.
I looked.......I stared......my bag was not there. I looked again; unbelieving, I felt with my hands, but only the leather straps remained hanging down. My bag, our "life”, I had lost. I felt like screaming, but my throat was dumb and I stood there in emptiness. If the ground under my feet had opened I would rather have disappeared from earthly life than anything else. I looked at passers-by on the street with empty eyes and thoughts. What, what could I do!
I had been riding a long, long way. Thousands of people in the busy traffic had gone over the same streets as I had. It was useless to go back. I had lost my bag and somebody must have found it.
I was near a police station. Kind policemen listened to my crumpled words. They promised to do their best. I told them there was no reason for me to go home, not one cent left, no papers to get ration cards for us or the outfit for the coming baby. They tried to calm me and I finally departed; my legs were like lead. What had I left to go home for?
My dear husband sat in the room at the window waiting. I could not open the front door. I had lost the key. How could I tell him about the disaster?
He heard my sad story.
We could not talk, our minds stood still. Slowly my husband got up. He risked his life on the street, went to the post-office to phone the bank, where we had some savings, to stop any payment. He went so far even to go to a municipal office, where he could not identify himself without risk, to ask for replacement papers and coupons (which were practically never given). But being there and being questioned about his job etc., he fled in an unguarded moment from the office, realising that he as an “underground”; man could not do anything without coming into touch with the Nazi’s.
In the meantime I was alone in the house seeing no solution; even for bread I had no coupons, no money. I watched the people in the street; I watched their faces - meagre, undernourished. They were all badly clad, struggling for the scarce and poor food during those months of the war.
Would any of them, finding my bag, bring it back in these needy times? I thought about my nearest friends, one by one. Would they bring back the bag? I knew several of them would now even try to cheat shopkeepers with coupons; others were dreaming of finding coupons on the street and having a reasonable meal once again.
I sat there and could not move. My husband came back, tired and distressed. Silent, no words were able to express our disastrous situation. The traffic in the street was crowded. A big coal-truck stopped in front of our house, a black coal-dusted man in rags stepped out and walked up to our front door. I knew we had ordered no coal and knew that he was at the wrong address, as so often happened. So I opened only the little window in the door to say he must be wrong.
He looked at me, and asked if a certain Mrs. B... lived here (it was my maiden name). My eyes opened wide, it could not be true! This must be connected with my bag. I tore the door open and stammered trembling: “Have you found my bag....?”
He came in, all black and dirty he stood there, said nothing for the first minutes, looked unsure and finally the words came, soft and seriously: “Yes, madam, I have found your bag.”
We faced each other silently. It was a holy moment in our lives. That something like this could ever be true in this world! I gave him my hand and asked: “Do you know what this means to us?”
He nodded, but confessed that it had not been his own honest character that had put him to this deed, but his wife's. She had found in the bag a letter from my mother from which she knew I was expecting my first baby and how sad our circumstances were. This had led her to ask him to tell us of their find.
He said we could fetch the bag from his house at nine o'clock in the evening.
My husband and I went there together, deeply impressed. We found the address, in one of the poorest streets of the city. We had never before seen such poverty and bad living conditions. There were several children and they all lived and slept in one bare room.
We had taken some eggs, which I had brought with me the day before from the village where I had worked. The youngest child, aged about four, had never seen an egg and asked what it was.
Then we came to the moment of accepting the bag. The man asked us to check the contents, which we could not do, feeling it an insult against the great honesty of these good people.
We rewarded them, for which they were very grateful, but which could not ever make up for our feeling of indebtedness.
6881 KE VELP (Gld.)
Gepubliceerd met toestemming van Marguérite Helene Francis LAGAAIJ.