Second of three parts
On the night of May 14, 1940, with the Nazis approaching from the east, Leo Vroman decided to flee Holland, joining other Jews rushing to escape the spreading menace. For two years, he had loved Tineke, the quiet, dark-haired medical student who was six years younger than him. She was not Jewish and would stay behind. Leo kissed her and climbed into a taxi that drove off west toward the coast.
On the way he persuaded the taxi driver to stop in Gouda, the small city in the Netherlands where he had grown up. His father taught physics, his mother math. They knew the risk of staying in Holland but had decided to remain. Leo's mother, however, had his passport ready that night. She also gave him 200 guilders (about $100).
His next stop was the home of a family friend in The Hague, who, in turn, directed him to a nearby harbor. Beneath a street lamp he saw a small group of people, Jewish refugees, seeking to escape. The refugees were negotiating to purchase a sailboat from a fisherman. Leo contributed some of his money. There were eight of them, including Leo and a couple with a young girl, who squeezed into the tiny vessel called the Emma.
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They had no clear destination, just away, out into the North Sea as the sun came up on a calm morning. They spoke about possibly sailing south toward Belgium or France, which had yet to be conquered. An army officer on board took charge and ordered the passengers to lie flat whenever aircraft approached. Leo was told to lie at the bow and keep watch for mines. He heard the water rushing by, feeling more and more separated from Tineke.
Even with the danger, he had a vague hope that the desperate voyage would fail, that the little craft would be forced to turn back. Leo would then return to Tineke, come what may. But after eight hours on the water, the Emma crossed paths with a larger trawler whose crew offered to take them to England, a distance of about 100 miles. The sailboat was abandoned. When he boarded the second boat, Leo knew there was no turning back. He might never see Tineke again.
A few days after Leo's escape, Tineke and his mother retraced his steps to the harbor and found the man who had sold the group the Emma. The fisherman remembered Leo, and told them that he had gotten away with the others.
An hour or two after the group's escape, German soldiers had arrived to close the port, the two women learned.
Leo spent a few months in England, then traveled by ship to the Dutch East Indies, where Tineke's father still lived and was a prominent bureaucrat in the education system. Leo and Tineke exchanged letters. In the country that is now Indonesia, Leo was allowed to finish his graduate studies in biology, safe and relatively comfortable until 1942, when the colony was also consumed by war. Leo was conscripted into the colonial army and captured by the Japanese without ever seeing combat.
He was moved from one prisoner-of-war camp to another, first in Indonesia, then in Osaka and Nagaoka on the Japanese mainland. Prisoners were fed beans and a cup of rice. Leo's weight fell from 120 pounds to 78. Twice, he nearly died from pneumonia. One night, a cheerful, robust sailor named Balieu was brought into the barracks for sick prisoners and placed in a bed next to Leo.
"Look at that," Balieu said.
"Look at what?" another prisoner responded.
"All those lights. All those little lights," Balieu said as he died.
Other prisoners, dozens of them, also died from hunger, disease and despair. Late in the war, Leo was nearly killed by Allied incendiary bombs. But through it all, he was curiously serene. The worst thing he could imagine -- separation from his beloved Tineke -- had already befallen him. His Japanese captors could do no worse.
Every day, after hours of forced labor on Japanese docks, he returned to camp and wrote scores of poems using pencil on toilet paper or whatever other scraps he could find. He wrote a novel called Tineke. He thought of her constantly, taking out a little booklet that he had made before the war, with Tineke's photograph on every page. In his darkest moments, Leo imagined that she had married a bald German with one leg. But even if she did, Leo believed, Tineke would always love him. They would always love each other.
Conditions in Europe
In 1942, a Red Cross postcard informed Tineke that Leo had been taken prisoner. Her last message from him came from the camp in Osaka, but after that, for the last two years of the war, she heard nothing. Every week she scribbled out Red Cross messages and sent them away, but there was no reply.
In the Netherlands, conditions gradually worsened under Nazi occupation, especially for the Jews. Forced registration of the Jews was followed by their arrests by the tens of thousands and transport by rail to concentration camps across Europe. Leo's father died of a heart attack in 1942. Several months later, Tineke was visiting Leo's mother when German soldiers arrived and ordered her from the family home. Eventually Leo's mother was transported to a camp in Czechoslovakia.
Tineke went to work as a maid when the Dutch universities were closed. One of her brothers joined the underground and killed German soldiers on night raids. Fewer and fewer people in Holland had running water or electricity, and the only food came from soup kitchens. Starvation became increasingly common, especially in winter. Word spread about the terrible fate of the Jews. Three of Leo's young Jewish cousins disappeared and were presumed to have been exterminated.
About 100,000 Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust. Among them was a girl named Anne Frank, whose father was an acquaintance of Leo's family. Tineke thought about Leo a few times a day, wondering where he was, whether he was alive or dead. But she did not allow herself to dwell on their separation. Once a month but no more, she found the container of Leo's hair tonic that he had left behind in her home. It had a distinctive aroma, Leo's smell. She opened it, put it to her nose, and Leo came back to her.
On May 5, 1945, Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands. Leo's mother had survived and joined another son in Palestine. Tineke learned her father had also survived in Indonesia. She resumed her medical studies in Holland.
In August 1945, Leo's first inkling that the war was over came when prison work crews were brought back early from a Japanese factory. The camp commander gathered the prisoners to tell them but did not say who won. Allied planes appeared over the camps, dropping Spam and biscuits beneath colorful parachutes.
American servicemen who liberated the prisoners seemed impossibly muscular and healthy. One pilot asked Leo to carry a small box of food onto a plane, but he was too weak to comply. The pilot saw the emaciated figures of Leo and the others and wept.
A few weeks after the war, Tineke found a postcard in her mailbox: Leo was alive in Manila. It was like a door had opened. For the first time in five years, she felt safe to contemplate a life together.
While recuperating in Manila, Leo received the first correspondence from Tineke in two years. It was a Red Cross postcard, that by rule needed to be 20 words or less. "Father died," Tineke wrote. "Mother in Palestine."
The next said, "Love, Tineke."
Leo felt that he had not survived in vain.
Coming Tuesday: A wait for the Queen Mary -- and a reunion long delayed.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544