Remember the Volendam

Steamer: The Balkan crisis reminds a writer about a small, weathered Dutch ferry that carried some 50 refugee Austrian children to freedom in England 60 years ago.

May 16, 1999|By Hans Knight

WHENEVER I see the kids of Kosovo with no names and little hope gazing from the television screen between the commercials and the precision airstrikes, I feel an unaccustomed urge to pray for a miracle. I wish that the Volendam would, in some form, rise from her watery grave and carry the kids to a place free from fear.

The Volendam never was much to look at. She was a small, weathered Dutch ferry steamer, and she shuttled between the Hook of Holland and Harwich, England, during the late 1930s.

She must be long gone by now, and chances are that she is hardly remembered. But on Feb. 20, 1939, the Volendam transported some 50 "non-Aryan" refugee children, ages 7 to 15, to England, courtesy of the Quakers, who disdained "ethnic cleansing" before the term was born.

The Quakers had a dingy office on a narrow street in Vienna. The line of people outside the office, stamping the ground to keep their feet warm, usually was a couple of blocks long from morning to nightfall, and once you were inside, you would be interviewed by Miss Kelsy, a slender British girl with glasses and snapping blue eyes. She spoke German with a delightful accent and was so gentle in a remote way, you were almost sorry when you finally got the affidavit that spelled the end of your acquaintance with her, because it meant you'd soon be leaving Hitler's Austria.

There would be just time enough to stuff your cardboard suitcases with some clothes and maybe teddy bears and even a favorite brittle record or two, which would probably break before journey's end.

The kids assembled in the evening in the Westbahnhof in Vienna, where the train stood ready and the hissing of the steam from the engine drowned out some of the last words -- promises to write, admonitions to behave -- that passed between the children and the parents. Few wept. The parents held their tears so they wouldn't upset their children, and the children, except for one or two small ones, felt there was nothing to cry about. The separation wouldn't last long, they were told, and they believed it.

The train pulled out and gathered speed, and the kids settled down and ate their oranges and drank cocoa out of thermos bottles, although their parents had told them to save it all until the morning. The older kids immediately hoisted themselves into the baggage nets, which made softer beds than the wooden benches. The boys talked about soccer and the latest version -- this in whispers -- of what happened when Hitler, Goering and Goebbels were received by St. Peter in heaven.

The train chugged through the night, and suddenly there was a commotion. As the kids looked out the windows, they saw an illuminated cross atop an invisible church tower, and the cross seemed to hang in the sky. Some kid shouted, "We're in Holland."

Everybody went crazy. The girls started yodeling and screeching. The boys punched each other with joy and yelled, "Down with Hitler!"

Soon the train rolled to a halt, and as the kids stumbled out, they smelled the sea for the first time, and then they walked, two by two, across the wooden gangplank, and the sea air mingled with the thick scent of oil, and they were in the Volendam.

It was very late by then. In the communal cabin, the kids huddled in white, woolen blankets as the boat heaved out of port. The sea was rough, and some of the spray burst into the cabin. Nobody sang or joked. They were too cold and tired. But then one small girl started to sob out loud for her mother. The other kids tried to hush her up, partly because they wanted to sleep, partly because they felt a vague embarrassment, something they resented and couldn't express.

Then there was a loud knock on the cabin door, and a rich, female voice shouted, "Make the door open." A large Dutch woman with a round face appeared, swung a glowering glance around the room. She saw the sobbing girl and sat at her bedside until the Volendam landed in Harwich.

The train to London was warm, and railway waiters served the kids poached eggs on toast and something that looked like Viennese coffee but was actually tea with milk.

The station where the train halted resembled the Westbahnhof in Vienna, except that it smelled more of iron and fog, and the boys swaggered about on the platform, trying to took as nonchalant and reserved as they had heard the English were. One girl walked up to a tall, thin man in a raincoat and slowly asked him, "Excuse me, sir, but are we in London town?" The man smiled briefly around his pipe. "Yes, my dear," he said. "You are."

Then, one by one, the cluster of kids melted away, as the strangers who would give them homes picked them up.

Few of the voyagers of the Dutch ship Volendam would see their parents again. But the children didn't know this at the time, and so they'd had a wonderful trip.

They were free.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadephia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department.

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