She used to say that people thought no one would wear an expensive looking piece of jewelry unless they had nothing to hide, and that was how we managed to come through safely. She and Father knew.”
Nathan turned to me and said, “Do you understand what I mean; what she meant, Miss Julie?”
I thought, yes, I remember how Mr. Matthew Soames, Jeweler thought I was a very wealthy woman just because I had the pendant.
“Yes,” I said, “I understand.”
“But we knew it was just a lucky charm… a worthless, but very lucky charm that saved us from…” and at this, Sarah looked out of the window, and I saw tears in her eyes briefly.
“Tell Mrs. Thompson about the Major,” said Nathan, and if you can’t remember the details, I’ll help. After all, I’m a much younger man.”
I looked at the three of them and thought that they were, none of them, younger than seventy-three and Helmut was most probably about eighty-six or more, but they were all bright, and intelligent and completely youthful in their attitudes.
“OK,” said Helmut, “are you sitting comfortably?”
Then he turned to me and asked, “We’re not boring you are we Miss Julie?”
“Heavens no,” I said. “I’m fascinated, tell me about the Major.”
“I’ll get us something to drink,” said Sarah, “tea or coffee?”
“Let me, please Auntie,” said one of the young family members, “don’t start too quickly, I love this one.”
In addition, two of the grandchildren, or some other of the relatives; I could not work out which were which, went out, while Helmut started the tale. Helmut was telling his version of the Exodus, as the coffee arrived. They also brought in a big cake, which looked as if it would have fed the five thousand and small plates for everyone. The young man and his sister handed out the coffees and cake as Helmut continued.
“So we arrived in a little town on the German side of the Belgian-German border. It was not so much a town as a village with a railway station in it; but the line was not a local line. It was a real mainline that travelled into and through Belgium. Moreover, as far as we knew, hoped and prayed, into France on the other side. It was late afternoon and we were dazed and tired.
Nevertheless, our journey looked as if it were made, one more step towards safety. Father had said that we would have to get to the other side of the country, if possible. Liege was the nearest big town on the Belgian side; a University town, and he said that we would at least be out of Germany. And with a bit of luck we might be able to reach France.”
“If only they had known then what would happen when the French capitulated and that then the Nazis started sending Jews out of France to concentration camps,” said Nathan.
“We were so close to Belgium, it was exciting, and Sarah and I thought we could just drive across. However, it was not as easy, of course. We looked of ways to cross the border, but no matter what road we went down, whether large roads going to and through the towns, or small country lanes, there were barriers up and always a few soldiers or border guards on either side; either sitting in the late afternoon sunshine, or inside their little huts.
Some of the guards would be chatting amiably to the guards on the other side, and at one road, they were having a game of Boules together like old friends. It was only when we turned up that they became more aware of their duties, and said that we must show our papers before we could cross the barrier. Both Mother and Father had documents of identification and some sorts of passports, and Grandmother had hers also, but Sarah and I did not have any identification that we were prepared to show, and of course, Nathan was still a baby."
"Of course, we could only go across as a family, and our parents were beginning to think that we would have to return to our home, as money was not running out, but apparently, there was not as much as they thought they would need if we had to keep on driving and around like that. Yet just as worrying: our fuel was running out too. All sorts of checks were being made whenever we tried to buy fuel. We were told almost everywhere that Ethanol was getting scarce and that the ‘county needed it more than we did."
“So we had to drive back to the little town I told you about. My parents had the idea that perhaps
they could show their papers and pay some sort of price for tickets, lie, and say we were only going to Liège or somewhere in Belgium for a couple of days. They were so desperate; they were beginning to clutch at straws.”
“It was getting quite late, by now and they arrived at that little town again. Then, as we rounded a corner of the road leading to the barriers in front of the station and the passport control on the road; right near a sign, which told us the way to the station, I heard a little voice cry out beside me. It was Grandmother.”
“‘Heavens!’ she cried, and pointed with one trembling hand.
“There was a lorry standing beside the road, and standing beside it, were several German soldiers in uniform. They were just loafing around, smoking, laughing, and relaxing. Moreover, to make matters worse, there was a group of Brown Shirts standing near them exchanging friendly insults. They did not look particularly sober, either. They were strutting around like real bullies.”
“There came a thump from the back seat. Mother looked around, and Grandmother had fainted.
It could have been lack of food, because she was too nervous to eat and when we had been driving around, looking for some way out, she had refused to even drink any water, either hunger, or old fashioned terror. She was just slumped against me, and making funny noises at the back of her throat.”
“I thought she was dying,” said Sarah.
“She wasn’t dying, but she was panicking and seriously so,” said Helmut, continuing with the story.
“After managing fairly well all through our Exodus, Grandmother lost her nerve completely. The poor old lady was shaking and crying so much, my parents decided to drive past the group of men and hope that she didn’t draw attention to us.”
“Father parked the car in a little alley, and then they half carried Grandmother into a little café and bar. Mother brought us all to the back of the café bar, encouraging Grandmother to try to walk straight and not tremble so much. She was shaking so much. We went to sit in a kiosk right at the back, hoping that we would be unnoticed back there. Father went to the bar and ordered some brandy for the adults; not because they were celebrating or wanted a drink… but simply to try to steady Grandmother’s nerves.”
“What none of us had noticed, however, was that a Wehrmacht Officer was sitting in a kiosk only a few meters from where we were sitting. We think he was a Major. We did not know if he was in full uniform, with his officer’s cap on the table and they were drinking wine together. Father came to our kiosk and put the bottle of brandy and the glasses on the table, and then looked into Mother’s eyes. She was looking at him with the most serious face and rolling her eyes towards the Major. My father sat down so casually and after a minute, he casually looked towards the couple. He turned back to us and started talking in the most ordinary way, but his face looked grey. He brought his hand above the table and with the slightest of movements and raising his eyebrows only by the tiniest amount, indicated that we were to stay there and hope that we remained unnoticed.”
“Obviously if they had suddenly rushed out, we would have drawn attention to them,” said Nathan.
“Then…,” interrupted Sarah, “to make matters worse, several soldiers barged into the café! They started walking up and down between the tables and up to the kiosks. They leaned over people, and demanding to see their papers.”
“That’s right,” continued Helmut, “and within a couple of minutes they would have reached our kiosk, and with Grandmother saying ‘Oh Heavens’ (or Ach Himmel! In almost a parody of a Jewish accent), all would have been up. We would be done for. Then, a miracle really happened.
The Major turned to his Lady Friend, ’Excuse me, My Dear,’ he said casually. He picked up his officer’s cap up and placed it carefully on his head, ‘I have a little matter to attend to.’” Helmut paused.
“The Major sauntered to our kiosk; just managing to put his shoulder in front of one of the soldiers who was wandering up towards us. He bent his head slightly and gazed into Father’s white face. We must have look like a row of corpses; a line-up of white-faced ghosts. We were so terrified as the next.”
“‘You waster,’” he said to Father, and his voice was cold, calm, and arrogant.” Helmut shifted in his chair.
“My father started to rise, as he looked intently into the eyes of the major,” ‘where have you been, and you’…as he turned to Mother, ‘is this a way to impress your employer?’”
“Before any one of us could reply, even if we had known what to say, ‘and this is my wife’s jeweler. Who gave you permission to wear this? I am checking on this as soon as we get home ‘and in a lowered voice, he said, ‘to England.’
"Then he held out the hand for the pendant which my mother was wearing. She handed it to him and I could see her dear hand trembling.”
“‘Stop wasting time hanging around in bars. The driver is outside; get your lazy backside into the car and wait for me there. Moreover, get your blasted family into it too. Quickly’, he sneered.”
“Your papers,” said the soldier who had stood behind him all this time, as he shuffled from one foot to the other.
"The Major turned slowly, and glared at the soldier." ‘How dare you,’ he said, in a steely voice. How dare you ask for papers when you cannot even dress yourself? Do up your buttons before me…’ and he looked at the insignia on the soldier’s lapel. ‘What a sloppy regiment. I will be reporting you, soldier,’ he said sneeringly as he turned to our family, ‘still here, move, before you’re unemployed.’"
“He took a menu card from the table and scribbled on it. ‘Give this to the driver outside… Now!’ he said.”
“Returning to his Lady friend, he sat; took her hand in his, ‘Now, my Dear, where were we?’“
“We made for the door, where a large car stood just within a couple of meters. My father gave the menu card to the driver; a young man who stood with his foot on the running board. He looked at us all somewhat quizzically, ‘No luggage?’”
“‘Helmut. Sarah,’ said my father, and nodded his head to where we had left the car, down the alley. We returned shortly, carrying all our worldly possessions. That was the last time we ever saw our lovely car.”
“We waited in the Major’s car for about an hour; unable to speak. The young driver stood outside in the warm night air; smoking and whistling quietly to himself. Eventually the Major emerged from the café bar with the lady on his arm. A taxi appeared from nowhere. She got in. He joined her for a couple of minutes. The door opened. He got out. A hand waved from the window.”
“‘Next time,’ said the woman’s voice.’"
“The young driver opened the car door. The Major entered. The Major sat.
”On!’ said the Major.
In addition, ‘On!’ meant we sat in the car as it drove up to the barricaded main gates of the station. ‘On!’ meant we followed, like lambs to the slaughter, as the Major boarded the train. We waited while the Major gave the driver instructions to wait for the next train, and to put the car on it and make sure that it got to the Car Ferry in Dunkerque.”
“Once on the train, a steward in white jacket and black trousers led the Major to his cabin. ‘Go and find some accommodation for my staff,’ he ordered, ‘and come back when that’s done… and take these wretches with you,’ he said pointing at Sarah and me. ‘Come, Karl; I want a word with you,’ he said to Father. ‘You stay outside,’ he said, to my mother and Grandmother.”
“We went off with the steward, leaving Mother and Grandmother in the corridor outside the Major’s cabin.”
“Apparently, as soon as the steward had gone, he opened the door and asked the two ladies into his cabin. As the Major pushed the catch on the door, he turned to Mother, ‘Please, Madame, excuse the charade. I meant you no insult.’
He took her right hand in his, and turning it over, placed the pendant in it and then closed her fingers over it gently. ‘I believe this is yours,’ bowing low over her hand, he kissed her wrist. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘we have to deal with Belgian Passport Control. What documents can we scrape up together?’”
Stay tuned for Chapter 8