First of three parts
On a fateful autumn evening in 1938, Leo Vroman and Tineke Sanders were seated one person apart at a student club dinner in Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands. The two had never met. When the young man separating them stood to leave, Leo turned to his right and, as a way of being friendly, offered Tineke some of his rice. She shook her head and her eyes briefly met his. In that instant, the course of Leo's life was transformed.
"My God," he thought to himself. "My wife."
There was no obvious logic to it. He was 23, a graduate student in biology, already a cartoonist, painter and poet. She was six years younger, an exotic-looking girl with dark skin and dark hair who had recently moved to Holland from the Dutch East Indies to study medicine. He was jolly and irreverent. She was quiet and studious. He was Jewish. She was not. No matter. It wasn't even love that Leo felt for Tineke that first night but more of a visceral certainty after one glance, a knowing that they would someday be married.
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He did not say a word to anyone the rest of that first night. He kicked an empty can on the short walk back to his room. He cursed, wondering what he should do next. What was it about that first glance?
The question followed Leo for the next seven decades, on an extraordinary journey that included his escape from the Holocaust and years of deprivation as a Japanese prisoner during World War II. The mystery persisted as he gained international renown as a scientist and one of Holland's most admired and beloved poets. It has lasted into later years that are being lived, strangely enough, in a retirement community in Fort Worth.
For Leo, his public life would always be a footnote to his private one, his love for Tineke and a destiny shaped in that instant in a dining hall, sitting next to a girl six years his junior. What was it about that first look?
Leo would never really know.
Kisses and raindrops
On that first night, Tineke thought that Leo seemed like a nice guy, but old. (She guessed about 30.) In the weeks to come, the two met again at the student club and seemed to hit it off, though Leo kept his epiphany to himself. Tineke invited Leo to join her mother and brothers for dinners in their apartment. (Her father had remained behind in the Dutch colony that is now Indonesia.) She was glad for a new friendship in a strange place, but in her mind, friendship was all it would be.
On Nov. 7, 1938, Tineke and one of her brothers visited Leo in his apartment. When the brother left them alone, Leo delivered his pronouncement.
"This is going to be more than a friendship," he said. "If you don't feel the same way, I can never see you again."
Tineke was stunned. She drew patterns on a tablecloth with her finger, fumbling for an answer.
"I'll have to think about it," she said.
Leo was crestfallen. In the weeks to come, he disappeared whenever they saw each other at the student club. But the certainty never really left him, the sense of inevitability, and Tineke soon had her own vision. One day that fall she imagined a morning of their married life, when Leo would be eating his breakfast in his pajamas, not having brushed his teeth, sleep still in his eyes, his unruly dark hair messier than usual.
"That would be nice," she thought.
On Nov. 26, she wrote Leo a letter.
"Okay," it said. "Let's give it a try."
A week or so after that, on a rainy night near a canal in Utrecht, Leo kissed Tineke for the first time. As a medical student, she thought kissing on the lips terribly unhygienic. Leo kissed the raindrops on her cheek instead. Seventy-one years later in Fort Worth, he wrote a poem, Cold Rain.
But it is that Godly night
under the dripping park light
that I then mostly miss:
my chilly mouth of my first kiss
on your cheek so cold and wet,
both so naked and helpless yet,
and this I know:
not since these seventy years ago
has a drop of water ever been
so quenching, and so obscene.
Though never formally engaged, Leo and Tineke always assumed they would be married some day. They walked the streets of Utrecht reading poetry. They carried on long conversations about art and literature. They visited exhibits. They shared meals with approving families, his family and hers. At one dinner, when Tineke brought tablecloths to Leo's parents as a house gift, Leo, his father and brother put them on their heads and danced around the table like Bedouins. Tineke was flabbergasted.
"I think I know why you love her so much," Leo's mother once told him. "Because she's so quiet."
Each continued their studies, their love deepened, and the growing danger in Europe seemed strangely distant. Jews from Germany and across the continent were fleeing into the Netherlands because the country had remained neutral in World War I and everyone assumed that would be the case if war came again. Leo and Tineke felt compassion and concern for those displaced by the Nazis but doubted they would be directly affected themselves.
Leo planned to spend the May weekend in 1940 with Tineke and her family. He packed pajamas, his toothbrush, a razor, and his current research paper -- on the possible inhibitory effect of sunflower shells on the germination of sunflowers -- expecting a relaxing, uneventful time.
Early on Friday, May 10, Leo was awakened in his room by what sounded like doors slamming high above him. He rose, put on one sock and was holding the other in his hand when he heard on the radio that Germany had invaded the Netherlands from the east.
He never forgot the look of the sock in his hand, red dots on dark blue, or the sense of loss that something terrible was sure to come. The noise he heard above him was the firing of anti-aircraft batteries, preparing for a possible German assault by air.
Before leaving for Tineke's, he looked around his room as if for the last time. He had a map of Europe on his wall, where he had stuck little flags to chart the Nazis' advance. One flag was placed at Holland's border.
Fleeing in a taxi
At Tineke's, he helped her family tape blackout paper over the windows. Over the weekend, they saw exhausted Dutch soldiers who had returned from the front. A military installation was located near Tineke's home, and on Monday the family was ordered to wrap a few belongings in blankets and evacuate.
She and her brothers rode bicycles to a church on the outskirts of Utrecht. Leo and Tineke's mother took the bus to the same church. They prepared to sleep in the pews. But late that day, the pastor came into the sanctuary, his voice quivering as he announced that Holland had just surrendered.
The news was a thunderous dose of reality for Leo, reminding him of the reason so many Jews had fled Germany in the previous years. He decided to flee himself as soon as he heard, though he had never seriously contemplated it before. Others advised him to wait, that there was no need to be hasty. But Leo had a vision of being consumed by the enemy because he was a Jew.
He and Tineke walked for a few minutes together in a meadow near the church, holding hands. Tineke offered to go away with him, but her mother refused to let her because she was too young.
A taxi ordered for Leo by the pastor arrived at the church. Tineke wept as they walked toward the car. She held a small mirror and caught a glance of her tear-reddened face as they said goodbye.
"I look like a boiled tomato," she said.
Leo climbed into the taxi and told the driver to head west, away from the advancing Germans. As the taxi drove away, Leo felt as though a rubber band was being stretched between him and Tineke, one that he was certain would eventually snap.
The taxi drove on through the night, the southern horizon aglow like a sunset from the German bombing of Rotterdam, the attack that had quickly brought the small country to its knees.
Next: Leo escapes into the North Sea on a tiny boat. In occupied Holland, Tineke wonders for years whether her beloved is alive or dead.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544