It was a May evening in Rotterdam, in 1940. A boy sat on the breakwater of Rotterdam harbour and stared out at the cold grey sea, at the ships in the harbour and beyond it. He sat quite still, his chin resting on his knees – but his brown eyes were alive and anyone looking closely would have seen that he was almost quivering with excitement. A tug was guiding a ship out of the harbour, out of the river and to the open ocean. Out to the wide world, to freedom. Ten-year-old Dirk always felt as though he would explode with yearning as he watched scenes like this one. Where was she going? What was she carrying? Would she come back?
One day, he always swore, one day it would be him on one of those ships, sailing away from Rotterdam. Away from the family shop, and his family and the bondage that came with those. He knew what cargo he would be carrying. None! None whatsoever. When he left the world of his tormented childhood, it would be without a single thing to tether him to the past. Nothing to tie him to the prison he called home or the torturers he called parents. The answer to the last question he knew, too. He was never coming back.
But, for now, he felt the coolness through his shirt and knew that nightfall was not far. He had to get back and make sure that his chores were done before the evening meal. There’d be trouble if he didn’t. The boy flexed the muscles of his back. They still ached from the previous night’s beating. There would probably be some kind of trouble and another beating tonight as well. There almost always was. But if he gave them any reason to suspect that he had been lying, escaping their control with fabrications of extra lessons at school, then there would be real trouble. That he didn’t want. Then they would lock him up again and he would be kept from his beloved harbour. The thrill of defiance, of snatching the power and control into his own hands for one syrup-sweet moment, was not worth the price. So he unfolded himself and began to trudge resignedly back along the breakwater, back to town.
Later, Dirk remembered that afternoon as if it had been frozen in ice, like the canals in winter. Because nothing would ever be quite the same again. For a boy too pre-occupied with his own troubles to bother himself with the broader shifting of currents in the adult world, the change came with a shocking abruptness that left him breathless. That night – the night of 14 May 1940 – Dirk was ripped out of sleep by the sounds of explosions, by flashes of searing light across the sky. Almost before he had time to realise what was happening, the bricks and beams and glass of the tall narrow house that had been his parents’ shop, his parents’ home and his prison, were raining down around him, as he and most of Rotterdam ran crouching and dodging for the bomb shelters. The Germans! The Germans were attacking.
The world seemed to dissolve into a maelstrom of fire, smoke and brokenness. Around him there was blood, screaming, terror. Yet as Dirk stood there in the midst of it, turning every now and then to take it all in, he felt the strangest tingling throughout his whole body. It was a terrifying and yet simultaneously wonderful sensation; a sensation of pure exhilaration. He was transfixed by what he saw. He knew its name. It was power.
In Germany, another ten-year-old stood at a third-floor stairwell window. A girl, Rosa. She stood beside her mother and a gaggle of curious neighbours, vying and jostling to get a view of the drama playing itself out in a residential street in Duesseldorf on a quiet Saturday afternoon. The family that lived down there, across the street, was Jewish. The Rosenkrantzes. A quiet, pleasant couple – he, a doctor; she, a teacher – and their daughter, Ruth. She was a small waif-like thing, with enormous dark eyes that peered up at you shyly while she played with the ends of her long black braids. The family had been respected and even liked, in a vague sort of way, until recently. As Hitler’s reforms breathed new vigour into the industries that were the lifeblood of the city, the neighbourhood began to distance itself from the Rosenkrantzes. No-one quite knew why, but there was a sense of ‘something’ coming, something in which the good solid citizens of Duesseldorf did not want to become embroiled.
So now, they goggled out of their windows, unmoving and apparently unmoved, as tall thickset young men in brown uniforms shoved Herr and Frau Rosenkrantz into the street, so roughly that Frau Rosenkrantz fell and cried out. No-one came to her aid. No-one intervened as another uniformed thug pulled little Ruth out of the house, so harshly that she lost her footing on the stairs and was dragged out on her back, bouncing down the steps to the street, one step at a time, screaming in fear.
Rosa leaned further out of the window and stared at the other child in mingled fascination and horror. They were the same age, she and Ruth. They used to play together, until Rosa’s mother had forbidden it with no more explanation that a fearful expression and a shake of her head. Now she leaned forward and instinctively reached out towards her former playmate. “Ruth!” she called.
Instantly, several pairs of hands snatched her away from the window. Her mother’s hand clamped over her mouth. “Um Gotteswillen, Rosa, what are you thinking?”
“Do you want to get us all arrested and sent to the camps like those dirty Juden?” shrilled fat scruffy Frau Schmidt, who lived in the basement.
Most of the rest of the neighbours pushed and hustled their way back to the window. Elbowing each other out of the way, they all leaned out even further than before. As one, they jabbed their right arms outwards sharply. “Heil Hitler!” they bellowed in a unified show of patriotism and solidarity with the uniformed men below.
Only Rosa’s mother, with her frightened eyes, and the strange quiet Herr Landmann from next door stayed with Rosa. She was scared, confused. What had she done wrong?
“Rosa.” Herr Landmann took her face gently between his hands and looked deeply
into her eyes. “Listen to me, Rosa. I know you are a good girl, a clever girl. I know you don’t want to bring trouble to your family. You must listen to me. You must understand. These are difficult times. You will see many things that are strange, that will frighten you. But if you want to stay safe, and if you want your family to stay safe, you must learn to look away – and you must learn it quickly. The secret to surviving these times is to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, know nothing. Just keep your eyes down, your mouth shut and do as you’re told. Then you will be fine. Do you understand what you must do, Rosa? This is very important. You do understand, don’t you?”
It was 1956. A beautiful, calm, warm night on a silky-smooth ocean under a sky of blue-black velvet studded with diamond stars. The cruise ship reverberated with the laughter and gaiety of a generation celebrating life, celebrating youth. They were a generation sick of war and destruction, of the grey-grim grinding poverty of post-war Europe. A generation that would give anything, anything at all, to feel the fizz and exuberance of youth intoxicating them, propelling them forward into a bright new unknown future.
As the ship glided through the warm night towards the tantalising promises of the port of Cape Town, a young Dutch chef abandoned his galley and his pots for a starlit rendezvous on deck – a rendezvous with a beautiful young German woman who had come aboard in Hamburg. Their names were Dirk and Rosa.
The years slipped by quickly. There were lives to be re-invented. Before they knew it, romance had swept Dirk and Rosa into marriage, into a new life in a new country. Into the creation of new life – a daughter, Heidi.
The bright gaudy ‘70s dawned. Heidi was six years old. Her parents’ marriage lurched into its twelfth year. For Heidi, a bright new world should have been opening before her as she made her first appearance on that stage called Big School. So much that was new, so much to see and hear, so much to learn. But Heidi’s ears, Heidi’s eyes were already full. As she sat at her desk in her new school dress, still smelling of shop and ironed starch, she did not hear what her teacher was saying. She heard instead her mother’s voice. “Remember, you do not tell what happens at home. That is our business. You keep your eyes down, your mouth shut, and you do what you’re told. That way you won’t shame us. That way we’ll be safe.”
Beyond those words, Heidi could hear yet other sounds. A cruel, hard laugh and a harsh voice. “You think you can control me with your clever words and your cold looks? Think again, bitch. Nobody controls me. Not ever again. I control you. Go on, beg me not to hit you. Who’s in control now? Who has the power now?” Then the crash of glass breaking, and of her mother sobbing.
With her eyes closed and her hands over her ears, there was one more sound that filled Heidi’s head, one she could not block out. The sound of her bedroom door opening, the creak of someone leaning on her bed, a weight pressing down on her small body and then a soft chuckle. It was just a little laugh. But it held the sound of absolute control, absolute power.
Heidi knew she must not say anything. Not now, not afterwards. She must make no sound. Only that way could she keep her family safe. She pressed her eyes shut and let her mind drift away, far away, where the words and the sounds and the feelings could not reach her.
It was parents’ evening, the first one for the anxious parents of the new crop of little scholars. Dirk and Rosa shuffled forward for their turn with the smiling teacher.
The young woman ushered them in and pointed towards the small chairs that stood around one of the square group desks. This was her first teaching placement. She felt almost as nervous as her small pupils had on their first day of school, and now as the anxious parents whom she hoped to impress. “Heidi is a very pleasant little girl. Always neat and polite and helpful. Quite competent in her classwork. Not brilliant, but then few children are. She’s settled very well, seems to be happy at school. You have every reason to be pleased, even proud.”
“Is there anything we can do to help her with her work?” Rosa asked, concerned at the label of ‘competent, but not brilliant’.
The teacher’s smile broadened and she laughed a little. “Not really. Maybe a prick with a pin, every now and then, to wake her up. Such a little day-dreamer. Some days I think she’s in a world quite her own. But no, she’s fine. No need to worry, none at all.”
If this causes you distress, please contact one of the following support organisations (in South Africa, 24/7):
- Lifeline South Africa 0861 322322;
- South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) 080 012 1314