Last weekend we had another family reunion, though this time only six of us managed to meet in the Quality Inn Motel on High Street in Echuca.
Of the four who stayed away – three brothers had elected not to come from the onset – two offered excuses, one said nothing and the fourth, one of my three sisters, was forced to stay away by the floods. She could have managed the trip to Echuca, she emailed, but she might not have managed to get out again.
It rained all the way from Melbourne to Echuca and we stopped for lunch at Heathcote in a place called the Gaggling Geese. It seemed an apt description, for indeed late at night as the six of us gathered together in one of our motel rooms with at least three extra spouses, we gaggled like geese, though there was less of the hostility of our last reunion to which every sibling came.
This time the angriest folk had stayed away, and yet my oldest brother and I debated the ‘facts’ of history and whether or not we had any right to speculate on what might have happened to our grandparents in prison all those years ago, on the grounds that we still did not know the ‘truth’.
We did not possess a transcript of court details and so far none of us, my brother included, have managed to secure the records.
Earlier when I told my supervisor at the university about the facts Barbara van Balen had unearthed in Haarlem, that both my grandparents had been imprisoned in 1941 for a period of time, my grandmother for embezzlement, and my grandfather on charges of ontucht, she said,
‘Sounds like they could have been running a brothel.’
I had not put the two events together in my mind. Embezzlement, I understand is theft of some sort that involves deception, while ontucht, which can be defined as vice, prostitution, lewdness suggests maybe even more than incest. But I have no evidence.
How could I find out? I spoke to my mother. ‘Were Dad’s parents running a brothel?’ I asked.
‘No. No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Other people would have known about it. He was in the government. He had a good job. I think maybe he got coupons. They could have played with that, got coupons under false pretences, to get more food.’ She sounded impatient.
‘It was idiotic times, not normal at all. It was not like it used to be in Holland at that time. The Germans were there, not the Dutch government. All the good judges had retired. The whole country stopped. Professors at universities stopped. Schools stopped. My own father did not have a job. Colleges were closed.
‘No. No. It could not have been that. It probably had to do with coupons. There were people willing to do work. The NSBs, we called them, Nationalist Socialists. They were with the German government, Dutch people sympathetic to the Nazis. They did the jobs, they were a small group but they were powerful and they spied on us.
‘I remember sitting next to a woman on the tram,’ my mother continued. ‘It must have been the second year of the war. We still had trams. The woman said to me,
“Be careful of what you say. There’s an NSB agent sitting on the tram.”
‘In that first year of the war things weren’t so bad. We still had coupons. But by the third year of the war we had nothing.
‘It must have been coupons, because they had more food than others. That’s what you noticed.
‘Where I lived on the second floor above a printing shop, I noticed the woman who lived below. Her husband was a seaman but I never saw him during the war. Later I understood they were NSB, because she got food too.
‘In those last years the Germans had special kitchens and those people who helped them got food. After the war, the woman downstairs, her husband was put in gaol.
You had to be so careful in those years.’ My mother paused.
I told her then about my trip in 2006 through Haarlem on a bicycle with my new German friend, Heidi.
‘I didn’t know you had a German friend.’
‘I met her at the conference,’ I explained. She lives in Amsterdam and we took the train together from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.’
‘When you’re older you think more about the past,’ my mother said. ‘We called the prison the Parapluie. Of those things I don’t think. I don’t dwell on them but on what was nice. Otherwise you get sad and morbid, if you live alone. So I think only over the happy times. I think about my Haarlem cousins, what happened to them, how they married.
‘With your dad’s family I tried to be good to them and meet them before we married. But they were strange. We let them know when your first brother was born. We didn’t get an answer. They didn’t come to see us. They were very strange and after that I thought if that’s how they feel, I’m not interested.
‘So then I stopped trying to visit. Before then I always said to your father, they are your parents, we have to try. But then I realised they are not much chop.
‘After what they did with our wedding. [August 1942] His father would have performed our wedding, but he didn’t even come. We waited an hour and they just let us sit. We didn’t care about the legal part because that was not what we considered our wedding. But we couldn’t get our coupons till after the legal wedding, then we could get blankets and stuff. So after the legal wedding we could buy the things we needed and then six weeks later we were properly married. That was in 1942.
‘I was lucky to get material for my wedding dress because I knew a man who managed a VD, a big store nearly as big as Myer. I asked him could he get some white silk or satin or whatever,
“Can you get me six metres?” and he got me six metres and more of an orangey taffeta which I didn’t like. I’d have preferred peach, a paler colour but it was all we could get. The manager gave it to me and said, “This is the last, nothing comes any more”.
Then later when she got married, my cousin asked to borrow my wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. And I gave them to her.
‘It was a very hard time. On the other hand everyone suffered. We still gave parties and insisted that everyone dress up. Fellows wore their … we call them smoking, their dinner suits, because you couldn’t go out after eight o’clock till next morning at six. So we had to make the most of it. For three years we had nothing, you had to make it yourself.’
Years later at this our most recent family reunion my brother made a point: ‘Ontucht’ he said, ‘could also mean adultery.’
I did not have the presence of mind to suggest to him that they do not put you into prison for adultery, at least not as far as I know, not in the western world.
My brother also suggested that my grandfather, as the person in charge of births, deaths and marriages in Haarlem held a significant role. He could have helped people to establish their identity, and thereby rule out the possibility of Jewish ancestry, even if they had paid for it, as I imagine some might have done in order to stay safe from the Nazis.
Such a role made my grandfather powerful and it is a power he may have abused.
But this, too, is speculation, much as my mother speculated when I asked her about my grandparents’ imprisonment.