It was a very old church, although not as ancient as many throughout the Netherlands. And it was right on the street, middle of town, lined up amid all the brick houses. It was the church where the woman whose book I was writing occasionally met her fiance, both of them involved with the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, a time when it was dangerous for them to be together.
It was old-fashioned conservative, this church. The people stuck to principle and would not be moved, a conservative pitch it took from its own region in a town named Spakenburg, a area of the Netherlands known for its religious zealotry.
There were few English speakers in the place the day we walked in, at least not among the old folks. It was a Monday, as I remember. I’d wanted to see what the church looked like because two people, deeply in love and deeply in trouble, met there clandestinely, the Nazis searching for both of them. I needed simply to see the place.
Even though my family and I were a language apart, it wasn’t long before the old folks inside understood what brought us there. It helped immensely when I told them I was a Professor in a Reformed Universiteit, doing a book about the Nazi occupation.
One of them, an old man, grabbed my elbow and pointed upstairs. We followed–myself, my wife, and my children. In the balcony, he pulled back a huge throw rug to expose a space cut out into the wood floor, a space as tall as a man. He reached down, pulled a handle, and a section of that balcony floor opened on a hinge to a big, walk-in closet.
He didn’t have to tell me the story, and he didn’t try. “Razzia?” I said, and he nodded. That hiding place would fill up with men if and when the Nazis rolled up outside, which they did, looking to pick up slave labor for German factories. What the man wanted me to see was the hiding place his church had created for its men a half century before.
I’ll never forget looking down into that darkness and feeling some of the resident fear that must have run through the pews downstairs when razzias came. I’d stopped at the church simply to see what it looked like. The balcony hiding place was pure blessing.
But another image from that visit stayed with me too. The floor up there was crawling with candy wrappers, hundreds of them, so many they had to be deliberately scattered. Once the old hiding place was back beneath its throw rug, the old man looked around, pointed at the mess, and muttered some old Dutch proverb I couldn’t translate, something I knew was akin to “kids these days.”
That hiding place seemed to me to be a holy place, a holy place in a holy place; and it just seemed wrong that those kids would litter up the place they way they did, as if it were their calling to make a mess. All those candy wrappers seemed sacrilege. My mother would say it seemed almost like spotten, a profanation.
Not long ago, I sent for a book I’d seen referred to often enough to make me believe I had to read it. I get myself nickle-and-dimed to death buying used books at four bucks a piece through Amazon, and this one looked good–With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History. It’s reminiscence, but more than a memoir, a story told by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun to Josephine Waggoner back in 1933, both the women mixed-blood Lakotas, in 1933, when they were winter residents of the Old Soldier’s Home in Hot Springs, SD.
The tale those two women tell is very special, a delight and a feast–at four bucks, a steal.
There’s no candy wrappers inside, but somehow I felt the same sadness when I held that wonderful book. It’s used, removed from a library–I get that. All libraries have to clean house, hard as that must be. They have to cull their stacks, just as I do. If readers don’t check out the book, it gives its property rights to another. Times change. Sure. I get that.
But the stamp on this wonderful reminiscence of a woman trying to piece together a history of her people says “Sinte Gleska University Library.” Its prior owner was a library on the Rosebud Reservation, a library for students who, I can’t help but believe, should be reading this story.
All things must pass–I get that. And it’s up to some of us, I guess, some who feel so called, to take hold of a hand brake once in a while and try to tell the stories we’d otherwise likely forget, just as
Bettelyoun and Waggoner did once upon a time so wonderfully.
Maybe more than a few of us, too. When we reach a certain age, we’re all storytellers. The Minnesota comedian/prophet Kevin Kling claims that he spent half of his life running away. But he’s older now, and he thinks he is spending the other half running back. There’s something in the measure of that line suggests to me just where I am.
You can throw a rug over that line, that idea. You can litter it with candy wrappers and take it off the shelf, but that doesn’t mean the idea is any less true–or any less worth repeating again and again and again.