City of Light 1945
They were standing behind a fence. This time I wasn’t dreaming, unlike that time when I saw two priests walking with a boy between them, dressed in a black skirt. I wasn’t quite sure about the boy. Clothing was scarce, but a faded, short cotton skirt, why should he be wearing that?
The prisoners of war were real. They stood huddled close together in a private garage, the door of which had been pulled open and replaced with bars. Most of them were under twenty, some no older than fifteen. Blond and dazed.
Seeing them there, in their oblong cage, gave me a hot sensation of freedom. For many days I had been roaming the city, without fear, but also without joy. The forty boys in their pen made me feel certain, for the first time, that it was over.
I walked back, stood on the other side of the street right across from the garage and yelled: “Krauts!” Apparently they didn’t understand me right, because one of them mimicked a kiss with his lips. Another one beckoned me.
‘Come here, you…’
I understood a little german. Hitler had forced us to learn it in elementary school.
‘No,’ I shouted ‘Schweine! Krauts!’
One of the prisoners shook his fist at me. I wished a Canadian would pass by, who would shoot and kill him. Imagine we would have dared to shake our fists, only a month ago.
‘You will be shot dead,’ I shouted over my shoulder while walking away. And because I happened to know that word also: ‘Heute abend.’
Even as prisoners they were still insolent. We would never be able to keep all of them locked up forever. Before we knew what happened, they would rebuild their factories and make weapons again. Of course they wouldn’t be allowed to have an army anymore. But given a few thousand Krauts with guns, buried in their gardens, or hidden between old newspapers in their attics, they would assault us again. With impotent fear and hatred I thought of the worst words I knew: ‘Asshole-cads. Murderers. SS-men.’
Our liberators, cheerful boys full of good will and vague ideas, were no match for this nation of professional killers. If only I could warn someone, a general or a minister, that they should at least see to it that those Krauts didn’t get their mitts on any weapons.
A little later, at the bombed out square, I’d forgotten all about them. I decided to play blindman’s bluff. I often played this game in the evening with Tessa, when we were allowed to take a walk after dinner. Now I wanted to try it in the daytime, and by myself. It was still too early for the swimming pool anyway. With my arms stretched out stiffly in front of me, eyes almost closed, I walked staggering and groping along the buildings. Someone spoke to me.
‘Y’all shouldn’t do that. Y’all shouldn’t make fun of it.’
I opened my eyes and saw a grey man in a grey suit, deep lines in his cheeks.
‘It is a disability which y’all shouldn’t make fun of. And y’all could fall in those holes too.’
Uncle Sem with the purple cheeks used to say when we were visiting: ‘I will keep an eye on you!’ and then, smiling, he pinched my cheek.
I was terrified, there in his dark stairway. Now he was dead (‘didn’t come back’) and I finally saw the holes I had this indefinable fear of. Uncle Sem couldn’t keep me there anymore and the Krauts were behind bars.
I didn’t know if they or the Allied forces had bombed the holes in the city. It wasn’t just rubble, but also halves of floors that were suspended in the air, sometimes still with a table on them, or a bed. An iron bedstead, its mattress burned or looted.
‘Ce qu’il a commencé par l’épée, je l’acheverai par la plume,’ I told the man. Whenever we were caught doing something by strangers, Tessa and I pretended to be French. I had learned maxims from the quote book.
‘What did you say?’
‘Honoré de Balzac.’
The man shrugged. A woman with a wicker basket passed by, walking on wooden shoes.
‘A little strange,’ the man told her. ‘Or maybe a Belgian refugee.’
The woman nodded in agreement.
They let me go. I didn’t dare to play blindman’s bluff anymore. Walking the ‘swimming pool’ walk from the Dutch children’s book Kees de Jongen, I continued on to the community pool.
The sign by the entrance said that this hour was for boys only. There was a long line at the ticket box. I joined them.
With my short hair and this long raincoat they won’t notice anyway, I thought.
And I was right. I got a ticket, walked with the others through the damp corridor where strange noises could be heard. In the changing cubicle, a shelf that doubled as a seat locked the door, no one could get in, and I was very contented.
In my black cotton swimsuit I walked towards the medium-deep pool. I glanced at my chest for a second. A fat boy, I thought, reassuring myself.
After swimming one lap, I got out of the water to go to the deep pool.
‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ A boy stopped me.
‘It’s not for girls now. You have to come back later.’
‘I have a ticket,’ I said, pushed the boy away and got back into the water.
A little later the pool attendant whistled for me to get out of the water. The boy was standing next to him, and others approached, curious. All of them were wearing swimming trunks, I saw.
‘She has to leave, she is a girl,’ the fattest boy said.
‘You heard him,’ the attendant said. ‘You have to go. This hour is for boys only. Didn’t you see the sign?’
Humiliated, I got dressed. The assholes. Later, I would ring the bell at a house.
‘Ma’am, I’ve just come from the swimming pool. Your son’s clothes got wet accidentally. He asked me to get him dry pants and other things.’
‘Oh, do you know him?’
‘We are school friends.’
With those clothes I would change on the heath, just outside the city. If I buried my girls’ clothes there, I would be able to live as a boy from then on. No one would have the guts to chase me out of the pool after that…
All of a sudden I remembered the looks of the attendant and the boys. From my short hair to my breasts, to the crotch of my black swimming suit. The bastards. Well, I would never swim again, or only in countries where there were no separate hours for boys and girls.
Slowly I walked through a street in a modern suburb. I looked at the houses one by one to see if a boy of around thirteen years might live there. A boy who currently wasn’t home.
‘Ma’am, your son asked if I would get him dry clothes.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am a friend of his.’
‘Alright, come on up.’
‘Give me short and long trousers, please, so he can choose which ones to wear.’
But I didn’t dare to ring the bell after all.
When we got back after the war, my father and I, we were standing downstairs in a landing. Then my mother, half crying and incoherent, let us come upstairs. In a strange bourgeois room with yellow wooden furniture, she embraced my father. I was standing in a corner between the door and a cabinet. A blue beret on my short shaved hair, a long blue gabardine raincoat that reached far below my knees.
‘Who is that boy?’ my mother asked eventually.
‘The one you brought.’
‘But darling, that is Simone.’
‘Child, I didn’t recognize you at first. You have changed so much.’
‘How y’all doing, mother?’ I asked.
‘She speaks so strangely,’ my mother said.
‘That is dialect. She had to adapt in the village, for her own safety. She will unlearn it, don’t worry.’
‘We should find other clothes for her soon,’ my mother said.
Everyone was sitting at the table in the house on the Bloemlaan. It was yet another temporary house, as we were still waiting for the liberation of the Western part of the country.
‘You’re late,’ my father said.
I told him about the Krauts behind the fence in the garage.
‘Serves them right,’ my mother said, while she put the food in covered dishes on the table.
‘Let them be treated like animals,’ my father said. ‘That is still better than they deserve.’
‘Did you really see it?’ Tessa asked.
‘They were Wehrmacht Krauts,’ I said. ‘They were still wearing their stinking uniforms, but the stripes and other things were taken off.’
‘If I had seen them, I would have spit in their faces,’ Tessa said.
‘Finish your dinner, sweetheart,’ my mother said.
Tessa’s parents were transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz. There, they were gassed to death, her father after six months, her mother after a year.
Tessa’s father had been a violinist in the Eastern Symphony Orchestra before the war. Her mother was a singer.
I was not allowed to talk about music in Tessa’s presence. Even the radio was switched off immediately after the news if there was a concert. It wasn’t that Tessa reacted overly sensitively, but my parents felt they ‘were doing something’ this way.
I didn’t talk about the swimming pool. They hardly ever asked what I did with my free time.
After dinner Tessa and I went for a walk.
‘Look, stars,’ I said, pointing over the heath that bordered on the Bloemlaan. ‘During the war I read a story about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. If you could travel faster than light, you would end up in the past.’
‘How is that possible?’ Tessa asked. ‘Would you arrive in the past of earth? Or the stars?’
‘Whatever you want, I think. I would like to travel to ancient Persia.’
‘Or to the time before the war,’ Tessa said. ‘Is it already possible?’
‘No, he just discovered it. They don’t have a machine for it yet.’
‘A time machine.’
‘Yes. If we meet someone, shall we ask him: “Sir, do you have a time machine?”’
‘Sir, do you have time machine?’
‘What do you mean?’ the man asked. ‘Do you want to know what time it is?’
‘No Sir, we want a time machine.’
‘I think you are being very impolite,’ the man said.
‘Oh, really? Do you want to fight?’ I assumed a boxing posture.
‘Oh, c’mon,’ Tessa said.
‘I could have taken him easily,’ I said. ‘Such a weak asshole. Here, feel how strong I am.’ I flexed my biceps, hard as steel after years of farm work.
In my bedroom I took my cousin Jacob’s uniform that he’d left with us from the closet. He was a sergeant in the liberation army.
I made a ball of handkerchiefs, which I shoved in the pants. I looked very manly now. Even in a bathing suit I wouldn’t have been chased out of the swimming pool. But I couldn’t think of a way to swim with a ball of handkerchiefs without them getting wet and slipping out.
After I had looked at myself in the mirror, front and side, I undressed. I went to bed, switched off the light, and began my exercises. They were a series of magical formulas and images, which should help me acquire the missing sex organs, and would also shrink my breasts to their natural flat state.
Often I thought I saw the beginning of results the next morning. My chest seemed a little flatter, and I thought I felt the beginning of a swelling of which nature had sadly deprived me at birth. When I took off my pajamas, I was deeply disappointed each time. But I didn’t give up. I just made the magical thought formulas gradually more frequent.
For several reasons a quick transformation was necessary. In the first place, my female anatomy and physiology shouldn’t last much longer, or my body would be spoiled forever and the change would be impossible.
In the second place, it was humiliating for me, as a boy, to be treated as a girl by others much longer. The ridiculous girls’ clothes and accompanying playing habits and other behavior became increasingly tortuous.
In the third place, I wanted to be a sailor or a pilot, and women were banned from both professions.
In the fourth place, I noticed that as you got older, the hateful difference in freedom between boys and girls got worse.
I pitied my parents though, that one day I would stand before them as a boy. They were so happy that I was a girl, they assured me time and again. But there was nothing to be done. They would have to console themselves with Tessa as their foster daughter.
I was amazed that so many people were men in this life, and that of all people I had to be a girl. It was a matter of luck. You had a fifty percent chance at birth to be a boy. Why did I have such bad luck?
Incredible bastards, like the germans, murderers, Dutch nazis, really stupid boys like Koos Westra, dull ones like Hein ter Velde, still were all men.
Lots of girls didn’t care that they had to wear weird clothes that inhibited them when playing, or that they would have to do the dumbest and most boring work at home, if they wanted to get married. I did care.
What did God have against me that he hadn’t let me end up on the good side, like the forty Kraut boys in the garage, like Koos, Hein, my cousin Jacob, tens of thousands of soldiers in the liberation army, like half of all people?
I tried to imagine what it was like to be born a boy. You wouldn’t be amazed about it. It wouldn’t seem a big deal that your body was right the way it was. That you could play soccer, roam the city at night and talk to girls, swim at the boys-only hour. Choose a profession and work in that profession after you married and had children. That you didn’t have to do frumpy things like needlework or setting the table. That you were part of the people who achieved something in the world: soldiers, scientists, ministers, explorers, engineers, directors and not of the silly half that had to do the same housework no matter if they were high or low class. Who didn’t earn money themselves, who had to doll up like peacocks to please the other half.
I understood that if you were born a boy, you would think it normal to be a boy. You wouldn’t be able to imagine what it was like to live in a female body as a human being and live the role of a woman.
I saw the Canadians in my mind’s eye, who drove into villages, beaming, during the liberation. They looked strong and confident. I saw the girls who threw themselves at them, who offered themselves like things. Things to be used.
Usually I walked to and from the high school, which was located in exactly the opposite part of the city in relation to the Bloemlaan. I was used to walking long distances, with bare feet or clogs, and now I even had discarded soldier boots, given by the Red Cross.
One afternoon I was tired and tried to hitch a ride like many other children did.
A Canadian jeep stopped. A corporal of about forty years old was behind the wheel, a soldier of around eighteen years old sitting beside him. I wanted to sit in the back of the jeep, but they wanted me to sit in the front, between them.
After we rode for a short while, the youngest Canadian put his arm around me and began to stroke my breast with his left hand. I was surprised that this felt so nice. I would never have thought that something so sensitive, vulnerable and cumbersome could provide such delight. So this was what breasts were for!
And then I got scared. I didn’t want to be stroked by a Canadian boy, not even if it caused this pleasant sensation.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Do not. No!’
I looked at the older driver, who surely would forbid this. But instead of scolding the soldier who could have been his son, he only laughed. He said something encouraging to the boy and to me:
‘Kiss him. He is nice.’
I knew there was more brotherhood between men than between women. Now I saw how far that comradeship went. The driver had a higher rank, he was much older than we were, he was in charge. Still he was with the boy, against me.
The soldier tried to kiss me, but I turned my head away. Now the driver also put his arm around me and stroked my other breast. His hands were rougher that those of the boy, who was quite beautiful, very blond and soft, but his touch wasn’t unpleasant either.
At a bend in the road the driver had to use his hand to steer, but first he gave me a soft push which made me fall against the soldier. He tried to kiss me again, in vain, kept stroking my breast, and grabbed my skirt with his other hand.
‘No!’ I yelled in my poor English. ‘I will there out. Stop!’
Wrestling ensued. Almost crying, I begged the older driver: ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’
All of a sudden he stopped and let me out of the car. It was a quiet road through a wooded area. The boy wanted to jump out of the jeep and come after me, but the driver stopped him.
‘Do you want to get back in?’ he beckoned. I shook my head: no. He said something to the boy. They both laughed and drove away.
Sometimes I was allowed to accompany my parents to the Red Cross office. There were lists of people there who survived the german concentration camps, but who were now in Sweden, for example. There were also lists of people who were dead or assumed dead. Survivors had seen how they were tortured and murdered.
The longest lists were those of names without anything written after them. Those people were not in liberated areas, but there wasn’t anyone who could say they saw them die, either.
Whenever I joined them, my parents asked about the same list of names, about forty relatives and friends. I asked about Werner Bijl.
Werner and I had been at the school for children with stars for a year, before it really started. He was my friend. He was so good at math that he was the best, even at the Jewish school. He mostly got As, sometimes an A+. He also was good at language, but he wanted to be an engineer.
During the break, when we were playing horse and rider, together we were an invincible team.
His tall stature, blond hair, blue eyes and advantageous last name provided him with a good chance at survival, or so I thought.
One day it said, after his name: ‘Probably deceased.’
‘What happened to him?’ I asked the lady behind the desk.
She looked at me, leafed through some papers, and told me what a survivor had reported.
Werner was put on a transport with his mother (his father was already dead) to a camp in Poland. Many people died on the train, and later, when they had to walk through the snow, countless numbers had fallen. Werner survived for three months in the camp. Then, a survivor saw how he was taken to the gas chamber with a group of other children. That man himself was sick. He saw the children go there, nothing more.
‘And now?’ I asked. I heard my own voice from afar and saw myself standing at the table: a little girl with an almost completely shaven head, in a raincoat that was much too long.
‘We are waiting for confirmation by others,’ the lady said. ‘Then we will be certain.’
‘So he is actually dead?’ I asked.
‘Gassed,’ the lady nodded.
It was already dangerous to walk around in the city, but once, just before we went into hiding, I was allowed to go play with Werner. He had things to do physics experiments with. The afternoon I visited him, he taught me how to make electrical switches, parallel or in series. We made lamps go on and bells ring.
His mom came to get us for tea at four o’clock.
I could see she was interested in her son’s experiments.
‘Werner will be an engineer,’ she told me with a German accent. ‘He will go to Delft later. Won’t you, Wernerchen?’
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