By John J Kirkwood
Netherlands, 1944. A village where Jews are hiding in Northern occupied territory is alarmed to find out that a new governor is to arrive within the month. The man is a reputed monster, no doubt sent by the SS to root out the Jewish population that has been rumored to be “festering” in the area.
Word comes to the community that a local businessman has a solution. On the eve following the next Sabbath, a boat will arrive providing an escape for us to flee through the Biesbosch to the liberated area in the South. The cost is small for such a great risk. But something doesn’t feel right.
You inquire among friends who have friends who know this businessman. Your fears are confirmed when you find out that this man has been a Nazi-sympathizer who has business ties with the Nazis, and has done very well. You even find newspaper articles that show this businessman cavorting with Nazis. And to your horror, even the notorious governor.
You rush home to warn your family. They refuse to listen. You go to the rabbi and leaders of the community, they seem fearful and dismiss your news as fear mongering. The more evidence you share, the more they speak of the evil of the coming governor, and when you persist they accuse you of being sympathetic to the occupiers.
You go back to your brother and sister and beg them to listen. Your sister refuses and warns you not to bring it up again. Your brother gets so infuriated when you show him a picture of the businessman with the Hauptsturmführer, that he punches you in the mouth.
On the night of the escape, curiosity and fear get the best of you. You arrive at the shore and see a row boat taking your friends out to the waiting fishing boat. It makes several trips and you’re torn between swallowing your pride and running out to catch the last boat or staying put in the shadows of the treeline.
You see your sister, Miriam, and your brother Yitzhak board the last boat. It’s not full, there’s room aboard. You stand up but your legs won’t carry you, there’s still a nagging pessimism that you hope isn’t arrogance. And then they’re gone.
Now you can only make out the silhouette of the fishing vessel against the night sky. There are no lights on the boat to betray it, just a faint moonlight. The boat turns and slowly makes its way to freedom.
A wave of guilt rushes over you. Though indifferent to your own well-being, you suddenly feel shame. All you can think of is how foolish you were to try to talk those that you love out of escaping. What if they would have listened? What if they were standing right next to you seeing the last hope of life and freedom drift off into the dark horizon.
Your regret is shattered by a bright light. A boat has appeared next to the fishing vessel and a spotlight illuminates the startled cargo. There is screaming, and shouting in German, and then a burst of smaller lights that precede the horrid staccato sound of machine guns.
It comes on like thunder and then it trickles to a stop. Finally, just a few random bursts and then, nothing. You fall to your knees and weep uncontrollably. Miriam, Yitzhak, your rabbi, the little girl and her mother that hid in the same barn as you for the last month, gone. All of them, gone.
And then you see it. A faint ripple on the water that grows closer and closer to shore. You make out a figure crawling on all fours up the shoreline. You hear his breathing. You rush out of the shadows and offer up a prayer, hoping this might be Yitzhak. You grab him by the shoulders and he lifts up his head, his body tensing until he recognizes you. It is not Yitzhak.
“Reuben, it’s ok, it’s me, it’s me.” His body goes limp and he falls back to the ground. You stand up and offer him a hand. He takes it and rises to meet you eye to eye, your right hand holding his, your left hand steadying him on his shoulder.
He spits in your face. He pushes you away. He disappears into the forest.
A month later you pick through the garbage and find a day-old newspaper. It shows the arrival of the new governor. The town has thrown him a welcome party. Over the Hauptsturmführer’s left shoulder is a familiar face. The businessman who had promised deliverance, raising his glass for a toast.
The date was January 20, 1944. How strange though, the paper had a typo. It read January 20th, 2017.
A few years after the war, you see Reuben once more. He sees you first and has already started to cross the street. You begin to raise your arm in welcome when you realize what he is doing. He’s purposely avoiding you. It was then that you had the fleeting feeling that maybe you would have been better off boarding that boat.
No! And how foolish to even think it. Truth matters! No matter what, truth is worthy of all our small sacrifices and inconveniences. And maybe, in some future day, posterity will take note.
*Inspired by Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, and the 2016 Presidential Campaign