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The "Watergraafsmeer" is a quarter of Amsterdam that had
been a small independent village until the twenties. Exactly on the border between this
quarter and the city was a canal, because it was a polder. I lived on the street that went
down from the canal to the bottom level of the polder, about 12 feet below sea-level. My
parents rented the third and fourth floor of a house that was built in 1903, that had only
four floors. The Watergraafsmeer has always been a typical middle-class neighbourhood and
our street was no exception. Our street, the Bredeweg (Broadway!!), had a nice patch of
grass with trees in the middle and was indeed quite broad. Some of the house had been
built there before it became a street and still had the grandeur of an old-fashioned
villa. Right across the street from our house was the biggest of them all. Here lived the
Heukemeier family, father and mother and thirteen children, most of them girls. All the
children of the family resembled their father, which was bad luck for them. Mr.
Heukemeier had a flourishing music publishing business, having the rights on some
orchestrations of Beethoven's work. In the fifties there were very few cars on our street
and when someone had bought a car usually all the kids from the street were invited for a
little tour--except of course when Mr. De Miranda bought his Messerschmidt, a two-seater
car made of leftovers from aeroplanes of WWII. Mr. De Miranda was one of the very few
Portuguese Jews who had survived the camps and came back to the street where he had lived
before: on top of that he drove a German car that looked most like the cockpit of a
Before the war there must have been more Jews on our street, but no one liked to talk about that. Now it was a mixture of Protestants and Catholics, with a Protestant majority. There were three ministers living on our street: one Mennonite, one Dutch Reformed and one even more Dutch Reformed. I come from an old fashioned Catholic family and we did not understand much of the details of the differences between those ministers. We were brought up to believe that they were all heretics and that we should not play with their children. Being an altar-boy I tried to stick to that rule. Sometimes that was very hard, because they had the best football games on the street.
Then there was the doctor. He had changed his name from Poorte to Poortenaars, because he thought that sounded much more reliable. He was not our family-doctor, though he lived next door and was a Catholic too. My father did not like him and that was reason enough. Only when I had once again fallen on my head when driving my scooter from the top of the street down, was he allowed to stitch me, because it happened right in from of his door.
We always called the beginning of the street near the canal"on top of the street" and the other end "the low part". Our house was next to that of the doctor in the middle. On all four corners of the street were shops. On the top of the street was a green-grocer and a cigar-shop, on the low part a book-store annex toy-shop and a cheese-shop. They all did fairly well, except for the green-grocer. He was a strange man. He had divorced and married again, which was "not done" in those days. He had three children: one from his first marriage, and two from the second. He had not been very inventive in finding names for them: both his sons were called Kees and his daughter Klaartje. Sowe called them big Kees and small Kees, if we called them anything. Mr Red, that was the name of the green-grocer, had the bad luck that on the low part of the street, right in front of the cheese-shop Nathan had his oranges and other fruit on his cart.
Nathan was a very quiet and extremely friendly man, who always had first quality fruits. He and his wife, whom every one called "auntie Bets", were a meeting point in the street. Whenever someone was sick on our street, auntie Bets would come around with grapes or oranges: "That's better than what the doctor can give you", she used to say. And I saw her quite often, because I was a sickly kid. And if it wasn't for me, than for one of my brothers or sisters: we were six all together.
Mixed marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics were wrong, as far as I knew. But with a Protestant, that could still work. But Nathan was a Jew and Aunt Bets was a Catholic and I thought that was very bad. But when I asked my father once about that he said : Nathan is a saint and he had a very hard time during the war, so I think the Lord agrees this time.
On Saturday Nathan would not be there, only Aunt Bets. She let the older boys from our street deliver fruits and tipped them quite good for that. At the end of the day, Nathan would arrive to take the cart home. Then all the kids would gather around him, because he would give away the last fruits that were not sold that day.
One Saturday, I must have been six or seven, we gathered around the cartagain, just before five o'clock, when we all would go to the house of one of the kids who had television. There we would watch a children's show and eat our fruit and go home. We gathered round Aunt Bets to get our fruits, when a man joined us and also wanted some fruit. Nathan said, that he should have come earlier, that he was closed and that he was only giving away fruits to the kids.
Then the man said something I shall never forget: "They should have gassed all of you". I didn't know what that meant then. But all of a sudden Aunt Bets stopped passing fruits to us and stood right in front of that man and asked him to repeat that. The man, who was not from our street, tried to get support from the grown-ups that always watched when Aunt Bets gave away the fruits. He repeated : "They should have gassed the lot of them; don't you all agree ?" Then Aunt Bets walked up to him and hit him straight in the face and again and again. She was a very strong woman and the man never had a chance. She beat him up thoroughly, while the whole street watched. When she was finished with him, someone called an ambulance, which arrived with the police. No one was willing to testify about what had happened and the man screamed in vain that he wanted his rights.
I was very impressed by this event and asked my father what the man had meant. And my father told me. And I could not believe that such things had happened. That Nathan was the only one of his family who had survived the holocaust. That millions of others had been killed, even kids like me. From that moment I tried to read everything I could get my hands on that was about the war and being sick a lot of the time I had lots of opportunity to read and I learned to read whole books way before the other kids of my age did that.
Nathan died a couple of year later and almost everyone from our street went to the cemetery to say a final goodbye to him. No one dared to go to the synagogue, we did not even know where it was. I though that he got more flowers on his grave than a king. The king was dead and Aunt Bets did not continue the business for long. But she stopped after we moved away from Amsterdam.
Sometimes I still go to my old street. There is another fruit-seller on Nathan's spot. The bookshop now sells computers, the cheese-shop is a delicatessen, but the grass and the trees are still in the middle.
Groningen, The Netherlands