The worst in some people elicits the best in others

ROGER SIMON

April 23, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

I was in high school, over at my girlfriend's house, where her parents were entertaining a visitor from Holland.

He was in America because his daughter was an exchange student. He lived in Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, famous, he informed us, for its cheese.

Which is to say it was one of the most boring evenings of my life.

Eventually, the conversation got around to what conversations always got around to in the '60s: how easy it was "for the kids today."

Yes, yes, the visitor said. His youngest daughter, born after the war, had no idea how terrible things had been: the German occupation, the fear, the starvation.

"And for the people in our basement, awful those days," he said.

What people in your basement? I asked. It was the first thing I had said all evening.

He turned toward me and lowered his voice, a reflex from the old days. "The Jews," he said. "In the basement."

Why did you have Jews in your basement? I asked.

He shifted his coffee cup from one knee to the other. "We will talk of something more pleasant, yes?" he said.

Wait a second, wait a second, I said. I want to know why there were Jews in your basement.

"To hide them," he sighed. "To keep them from the Germans."

OK, OK, I get it, I said. Are you Jewish?

He look shocked. "How could I be Jewish?" he said. "If I were Jewish I would be dead from the camps."

And he explained how when the Dutch Jews were being rounded up by the Germans for deportation, some non-Jews hid some of them.

He pointed at the tulips that our hostess had in a vase.

"In the last days before the liberation, this is what we ate," he said.

Tulips?

"The -- how do you say it? -- the bulbous," he said.

The bulbs, I said. You ate tulip bulbs?

"There was nothing else," he said.

And the Jews in the basement? I asked. What did they eat?

He sighed again. "You will be a journalist one day, I think," he said.

No, I said. A playwright. What did the Jews in the basement eat?

"What we ate!" he said. "What else would they eat?"

I mulled that over.

But you were starving, I said.

He nodded, stirring the long-cold coffee in his cup and looking a thousand miles over my shoulder.

And you shared your tulip bulbs with the Jews in the basement?

He gave a little wave of his hand, a wave of dismissal.

What if the Germans had caught you? I said.

He made a small shrug. "I suppose the camps," he said. "We didn't think about it."

Baloney, I thought to myself. I'll bet he thought about it every day and every night. I'll bet he thought about it every time he heard a tread on the stair, a knock on the door, a siren in the street.

Your wife, I said. Your children. What would have happened to them if the Germans had found the Jews in the. . . .

"All the same," he said. "The same, the same. Let us now stop this and talk about America."

And the conversation spun away to more pleasant lands and pleasant days.

But I couldn't help wondering if I would have done what he had done. Risking your own life was relatively easy, I supposed. But ++ the life of your family? And for what? A smudge of faces in the basement, a few numbers that didn't get added to the 6 million?

I didn't talk to the man again until the evening was over and he was pulling on a gray overcoat and putting a funny black hat, a homburg, I guess, on his head.

Were they your friends or something? I blurted out. The people in JTC the basement. Did you even know them?

He looked at me, and when he spoke his voice was very sad. "This makes no matter I think," he said. "Yes?"

Yes. It makes no matter.

Then he briefly laid his hand on my shoulder and I remember how the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

Yesterday, while I was watching the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I felt that hand on my shoulder again.

And I wondered what an odd creature is man that the worst of times should create the best of people.

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