Chapter 2 - Sneek, Friday August 11 1944.
Herr Dahlmann sat taking his breakfast in the Heerenvain hotel that had been taken over by the Gestapo. It was their headquarters in Friesland. He was called to the phone.
‘Yes it is. Good morning Fraulein Sangstrom.
‘Please call me Elfride, she replied in her sluttish style.
‘Good morning Elfride.
‘I have been thinking about your request made to me during the week. I think I can help you.
Dahlmann sat down at the telephone desk and picked up the pencil.
‘I was speaking with Freddie about his sons, in a general way of course, and he mentioned that Ben had always been chased by a girl in his class called Annika. He couldn’t remember her family name.
Dahlmann’s eyes narrowed as he allowed himself a small smile.
‘This is very interesting information, Elfride. I knew I did the right thing by speaking with you.
He could sense her smiling through the phone. It is astonishing, he thought, how flattery always works.
‘So I thought this morning that if you go to the High School and look at the records for the graduation of 1941 you will find this Annika’s name and address. If anyone in Sneek knows where he is she will.
‘Why would that be, Elfride?
‘Because she is a little tramp and goes to bed with him at every opportunity. He is always keen to create these opportunities according to his father. If he is still in Sneek he will be bedding this girl.
Dahlmann took all the information down.
‘Thank you Elfride for this. You have proved most helpful; more than helpful. I will make sure that the Reich Commissioner Dr. Seyss-Inquart, knows how helpful the Sangstrom family has been to the Reich.
‘Thank you, Herr Dahlmann.
‘Please, Elfride, call me Ernst.
They exchanged their end of call pleasantries with smiles and soft tones.
Dahlmann returned to his table and resumed his breakfast.
‘I am awake, he replied with his eyes closed. I have been awake for half an hour.
She turned on her side and smiled at him as he lay there with his eyes still closed.
‘That is a whole opportunity lost, she whispered.
He assembled a slight smile then slowly turned his head and faced her.
‘I thought about it, but I don’t act on every thought I have. This is one of the better lessons I was taught by the Calvinists at Daventer.
‘My loss, said Helen kissing him on the end of his nose.
‘Also mine, he remarked as he sat up and put his feet on the floor.
His elbows were placed on his knees; he leaned forward and put his face in his hands. She arose from the bed and put on her bath robe. Going into the bathroom she turned on the shower. Erich sat naked on
the side of the bed and silently said the ‘Our Father’ prayer as he had been doing every morning since he was fourteen years old.
She left the water running for him as she stepped out from the shower.
‘Go and see Max today, he said. Take him some clothes, some books and some food; not too many and not too much. I’ll arrange it with Captain Tuemler. No silliness, please Helen.
‘Why don’t you just release him, Erich?
‘Thank you Frau van der Waal, he said half smiling, but I do not yet need advice on how to do my job.
She stood there for a few moments and looked at him standing in the shower. The water fell onto his head, rolled down over his back and continued to fall over his thin and muscular frame. He looked intently in the mirror as he shaved. She wondered what she was doing sleeping with him, although they hadn’t got all that much sleep over the week since he arrived with his bottle of red wine. She knew that she loved him, although she couldn’t explain it … love being a true mystery that defies politics and wars and especially defies analysis by the people involved … but she wondered whether he loved her. He wasn’t particularly communicative about himself and he discouraged any questions about his work. He talked easily and with intelligent interest about a great many things, trivial and important; but the fog in which the real Erich Collbach was shrouded did not invite entry.
‘A German officer must always look his best, given his circumstances. They taught us this at Officers School.
He was not smiling. He meant every word of it.
Ten minutes later he was dressed in his newly washed and pressed uniform. Given his circumstances he did indeed look his best. He sat at the table and quietly ate the simple breakfast Helen had prepared. Without looking at her he put sugar into his coffee and spoke softly.
‘I really like having meals in a home with one other person. The pleasures of army and group life are slowly starting to fade for me. My age, I guess.
Helen made no reply that he could hear.
‘Yes, she thought, this may be able to go somewhere and be something.
He continued to eat in silence.
‘What time should I go to see Max?
‘Between twelve and one; the prisoners are fed in that hour. Their food has improved a little. They now get fruit; not much, but some.
‘Thank you, Erich.
He finished his breakfast and picked up his coffee.
‘Do you trust me, Helen?
‘I haven’t given that question any thought, Erich.
He stood up and put his army jacket on.
‘After you see Max give it some thought and let me know the answer, he said with his first full scale smile of the day.
Ben woke up with a fright. He was sweating a little. He had suffered another bad dream. The stress was starting to bend his mind a little. Some confusion was creeping over him. He wasn’t sure what to do next. He knew he couldn’t go back to the farm in Wurttemburg although he had perfectly legal travel documents that allowed him to do so. The recent events in Germany had made his situation extremely perilous. At twenty one he was very keen to make it out of this war alive.
He opened the small parcel of food that Stephen had left the night before at their agreed drop off point. He ate everything.
The sun was climbing out from the eastern horizon into a warm day. Although the wind was weak the windmills were turning; Ben loved that sight and had done so since he was a child. The turning windmills re-enforced his feeling of belonging to the land under his feet. He had always felt a deep and emotional attachment to Holland. It was not an attachment to any particular aspect of the country, it was more a love of a place where he knew he was happy and had his life under his own control as a personal possession. He knew Holland’s ways and secrets; he knew her virtues and vices and he felt that indefinable sense of really being Dutch. He knew what it meant to him even if he couldn’t explain it to others or himself. He loved his homeland.
The water in the canal was placid and cool. As he hadn’t bathed for four days he decided to strip off and go for a swim to wash himself and try and calm his agitated mind.
While diving to the bottom of the canal and swimming among the reeds it occurred to him to visit his mother very early the following morning. That idea made him feel better and he allowed himself to float to the surface.
The canal barge where he hid was among a dozen old barges strung out along the rarely used stretch of the canal. The barge belonged to the Mayor of Sneek. He had given Ben the key to it a week earlier when the Mayor ran into him in a back lane of the town. The Mayor had been seeing a patient and Ben had been talking in a garage with Stephen and other young fellows in the resistance.
Ben swam under the barge and came up on the port side between the barge and the canal bank. He climbed into the barge, dried himself and dressed. No one ventured into that area much as there was no need to; the canal was now a siding where old barges were kept. The traffic flowed in the newer and wider canal opened in 1939. Ben didn’t use any light during the night so he picked up the newspaper that Stephen had left the previous evening and went into the inner cabin of the barge where the portholes let in the daylight. He locked the cabin from the inside and sat down to read the paper that was put out by the occupation authorities.
The lead story in the newspaper concerned the trial in Berlin of Count von Helldorf, the Police President of Berlin and his involvement with the July 20 bomb plot against Hitler. Adverse mention was made of the now famous, very rich Catholic landowning von Stauffenberg family in relation to Lieutenant Colonel von Stauffenberg. The Lieutenant Colonel had planted the bomb next to Hitler in his conference room at Rastenburg. The bomb exploded, four men were killed but Hitler was not one of them. Wurttemburg was very far from Rastenburg, both in miles and in world view.
Ben looked for the name of Major Tobias von Stauffenberg. It didn’t appear in the article.
‘Good, he thought, they are not onto Toby. I hope he is back in Paris.
He smiled with satisfaction and continued reading the newspaper.
‘You’re looking better Max, said Erich as he placed the cigarette packet and matches on the table.
‘I feel a bit better, he replied picking them up.
‘Your mother will be here today to see you.
Max almost jumped in his seat.
Erich just looked at him somewhat surprised that someone would doubt him.
‘Herr Dahlmann of the Gestapo is now interviewing the members of Ben’s graduation class of 1941. Will he find anything?
‘A lot of the class is missing; two were killed in fighting with the resistance and many of them are conscripted workers in Germany. I don’t know who could tell Dahlmann anything.
Erich said nothing at this.
‘Today when your mother comes here she will fill your head with hopes of release. Don’t have these hopes, Max.
Max looked crestfallen. Erich looked at him with a tinge of empathy. He remembered his first Christmas at Deventer in 1916. He so looked forward to going home for the ten day break. With no explanation of the hunger in Germany as the Great War dragged on he was kept at the college with his older brother Berndt and didn’t see Germany until Christmas 1918. He was crushed with disappointment and carried the wound with him for years afterward.
‘If I let you out Max, Dahlmann would arrest you within the day. You would then be his prisoner and not mine. Think about that.
Max looked at the floor and nodded his head a little in acknowledgment.
‘Major, why did Ben run away from the farm in Germany? Two months ago he sent me a letter saying he was enjoying it.
Erich had no intention of telling Max why his brother ran away; instead he reverted to his main question.
‘Where is Ben? He will fall into my hands or Dahlmann’s hands. You should make a choice, Max, between us. Do you want Ben in my hands or the hands of the Gestapo?
‘What is the difference?
Erich made no reply. He sat and asked himself the same question. He wasn’t especially happy with the small number of differences he could enumerate.
Max turned and looked intently at Erich.
‘How do you know my mother will be visiting me today?
‘Please sit down, Fraulein Annika.
She did so. The look of barely suppressed terror on her face told Dahlmann he would have an easy time with her. Some of the other young Dutch men and women he had spoken with over the past week were not frightened of him. He disapproved of their courage.
‘I am looking for Ben van der Waal. I am told you may be able to help me.
‘I don’t know where Ben is, sir.
‘You sleep with him, Fraulein, so I won’t accept this answer.
The blood drained from Annika’s face. Dahlmann went in for the kill.
‘When did you last sleep with him?
He looked at her with the cold stony face that was a Gestapo specialty. She cracked.
‘Where did this rendevous take place?
‘At Stephen’s house.
‘Who is this Stephen?
‘He delivers food supplies around the town and in the neighbourhood.
‘Where does he live?
‘Napjus Straat 30.
Dahlmann picked up the bell on his desk and rang it vigorously. An officer came in.
‘Go this evening, at dinner time and arrest everyone at this address, he said handing the paper to him.
‘Now Fraulein we will start at the beginning of the story of you and Ben van der Waal. I suggest you co-operate with me and that way I will not send you to Germany to spend the rest of the war in the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck.
Annika slumped forward a little and started to cry.
Erich stood in the doorway to the Mayor’s outer office and looked at Helen with the vaguest of smiles. It was a few seconds before she and Irena looked up from their typing and noticed him.
‘Good afternoon, Major Collbach. Are you here to see the Mayor?
‘Yes Frau van der Maas, he replied equally smoothly, I am here to see the Mayor as well.
She stood up and went into the Mayor’s office. The Mayor came into the outer office and greeted the Major.
‘Would you like some coffee, Major?
Helen went to prepare it.
The Mayor and the Major made some polite small talk for five minutes as they settled into their chairs. Erich ended this politesse by putting his hat on the Mayor’s desk.
‘Dr. Vorst please allow me to be direct with you. You must know that Herr Dahlmann is now interrogating class mates of Ben van der Waal.
‘Why would he be doing this?
Erich looked at the Mayor with ice filled eyes as Helen entered the room with the coffees.
‘Don’t annoy me doctor; it is not a smart move.
Helen put the coffees on the desk. Erich did not look at her.
‘Dahlmann is interested in Ben van der Waal, doctor, because this boy is the assassin.
Helen froze and stared at Erich. He did not look at her as he spoke.
‘Thank you Frau van der Maas for the coffee, he replied in his best official tone.
Helen turned and left the room without saying a word.
‘Doctor, this whole situation is a very complex matter. You are unaware of the degree of the complexity so you are at a disadvantage. Unfortunately for you I cannot tell you anything much. What I can tell you is that it would be better for everyone if I had Ben van der Waal and not Herr Dahlmann.
‘How do you know that Ben is the assassin, Major?
Erich reached over to the coffee and slowly prepared himself a cup of the quality Javanese coffee that, despite the war, was readily available in Holland via a Portugese trading company called PATCO. He slowly added cream and sugar. He weighed up the pros and cons of answering the Mayor’s question while he prepared his coffee. He took a sip of his coffee.
‘I have spoken with the people in Germany who sent Ben van der Waal to kill Dr. Shirach, the Deputy Reich Commissioner for Holland.
The Mayor spilt some of his coffee on his shirt.
Ten minutes later, Erich left the Mayor’s office.
‘Could I have a word with you please, Frau van der Maas?
He spoke looking directly at Irena. She stood up and picked up some files.
‘I’ll return these to the registry Helen.
Erich waited until she had left the room and closed the door behind her.
‘Did you see Max?
‘Yes, thank you.
‘Do you find him in good order after one month in German hands, he asked with a grin?
‘The bruises and wounds on his face and body will heal.
She was not smiling.
‘He told you how he got those, so there is no need to be angry with me, Helen.
‘I’m angry with all Germans at the moment.
He smiled and nodded his head slowly.
‘I’m also a bit angry with some Germans myself Helen, so we are natural allies.
She relented and smiled at him.
‘Yes, Max told me how he got those wounds and bruises. He spoke well of you.
‘Can you answer the question I asked you this morning at breakfast?
She looked at him with a resigned expression.
‘You’ve captured one of my sons and you are in pursuit of the other one. I am also one of your prisoners, Erich.
‘That answer is obscure like a passage from the Old Testament.
The phone on Irena’s desk rang. They both automatically looked at it as Irena came back into the room. She picked it up.
‘Yes, she said.
She listened in silence and with a frown.
‘Be home by six ‘o’clock for dinner, Stephen.
She replaced the phone.
‘Annika Brand was taken from her workplace at lunch time by Gestapo and is not yet back home. She was not taken to the prison here. Presumably they have taken her to the Gestapo headquarters at Heerenvain.
Erich looked at Helen expecting an answer to his unspoken question.
‘She is Ben’s girlfriend, Erich. Ben was with her for several hours last Friday afternoon.
He put on his cap and left the room without a word.
Helen and Irena looked at each other.
Irena’s eyes were wide open with surprise as she spoke the single word.
Ben rode his bicycle along the raised track that ran between the fields and the dyke. To his left was the farm of his best friend Willem. They had played football together at school and were an effective pair on the field, leading the Sneek team to two consecutive Friesland High Schools championships. The track ran for several miles parallel to the old canal that held the barge where Ben was hiding.
He was heading to the old Evangelical church graveyard where Stephen left his food supplies every day. The pastor of the church made a point of not noticing either Stephen or Ben. The pastor’s wife had put out the metal pot into which the food was placed to keep it away from foraging animals.
Five Allied airmen, two Australians, an American and two Englishmen were buried in the graveyard. Several graves had been dug in expectation of more burials. Damaged Allied aircraft often crashed in Friesland as they struggled back to Britain from the horrendous bombing raids on Germany. By August 1944 over half a million Germans had been killed in the bombing raids. Erich Collbach’s wife and daughter were among them.
Ben approached the graveyard from the east. He could see the church house from a rise in the east. He looked for a red blanket on the washing line that would indicate to him Germans or other trouble in the area.
As he sat at the back of the church house under the elm tree eating his food Ben read the letter from Stephen. He was sorry for Annika; he knew she would not be able to deal strongly with her Gestapo ordeal but she didn’t know where he was. She couldn’t tell them anything about him, except how much she loved him. This fact wouldn’t help her with the Gestapo any more than it helped her with Ben.
Herr Dahlmann was standing outside the hotel in Heerenvain as the three cars pulled up. The Gestapo officers removed Boudewijn, Stephen and Irena and took them separately to different cells in the police station opposite the hotel. Annika had been sent back to Sneek to be held in the prison on Kleine Kerkstraat. As she loved Ben so much, Dahlmann thought Ben might also love her; that was the clear impression that she gave him. It may therefore be useful to have her as bait for him. In Dahlmann’s experience with the Gestapo since 1933 twenty one year old boys often do silly things.
He adjourned to the hotel dining room for his dinner, very pleased with himself for having captured the leader of the resistance in Friesland. Annika, unlike many of her classmates, had been very helpful in her talk with him. Fear, he thought, is a much under-estimated policing tool. He made a decision to use more of it in the future. By sending Annika to Ravensbruck in the next week fear would grip all Ben van der Waal’s classmates as he re-interrogated them.
‘That may loosen the tongues of some of these overfed Dutch heroes, he thought.
‘Captain, please go to the prison kitchen and have two proper meals sent up to this room. Full proper meals, like you and I would have at dinner. See if you can find a bottle of wine. German wine, I don’t like French wine.
Captain Tuemler turned to leave the interrogation room as Max was brought in. Erich smiled at him and Max returned the smile, weakly.
‘Don’t be down hearted Max. I’m doing everything I can to keep you safe.
They sat down and Max took a cigarette from the packet on the table.
‘Ben’s girlfriend, Annika, has been interrogated by your friend, Herr Dahlmann of the Gestapo and is now back in this prison. I was just speaking with her.
‘Did he torture her?
‘Girls like Annika never need to be tortured. They have no resistance. Only strong people like you need to be tortured.
Erich gave this compliment to Max deliberately.
‘Why haven’t you tortured me, Major?
‘Because only the weak need to torture their opponents. I am not weak.
He smiled at Max and extracted a corroborating smile from him.
Erich continued to talk casually with Max about various matters until the meals were brought in. Max was very surprised to see the food and his eyes opened wider at the sight of the wine.
‘Would you prefer beer to wine, Max?
‘The wine is suitable, thank you.
They began their meals. Max ate with determination. Erich said nothing; he took some paper and a pen from his coat.
‘I want you to write a letter to Ben. You can write what you want. I would be happy if you tell him about me and how much I want to talk with him.
They looked at each other across their dinners.
‘At some point Max, you have to decide whether you trust me.
‘If you want me to trust you, you must also trust me. Why did Ben run away from that farm in Germany? Why was I arrested?
Erich looked at his meal and slowly put some potato and gravy on his fork. Max put down his knife and fork and picked up the red wine. He filled both glasses.
‘Very well. Ben did not run away; he was sent back to Sneek by people whose names you don’t need to know. You were arrested to send a signal to Ben that he had to fulfill his part of the bargain once he got back to Sneek.
Erich looked carefully at Max.
‘I have answered the two questions you asked Max. You are now asking more questions and that is not our agreement.
Max took a mouthful of the wine.
‘I want you to write the letter.
Max made no reply; he returned to silently eating his dinner. He glanced at the apple pie sitting next to the bowl of potatoes. Erich finished his wine slowly. After a few minutes Max spoke softly as he finished the meal on his plate. He looked again at the apple pie.
‘My mother spoke well of you today. I know my mother Major. She has always worn her emotions on her sleeve. She is not very Dutch in that way.
‘Your mother strikes me as very much a Dutch woman.
Max licked his lips and blurted out his question.
‘Major, are you sleeping with my mother?
‘I am not here, Max, to have this sort of discussion with you. What I want from you is that letter.
‘If you are fair with me, Major, I will be fair with you and give you your letter.
Erich added more wine to their glasses.
‘Are you sleeping with my mother?
‘No, replied Erich calmly.
He slowly pushed the pen and paper toward Max.
‘Write the letter and then we will have the apple pie.
Max pushed his empty plate aside and picked up the pen.
Erich sat quietly reading the three page letter to Ben. Max smoked a cigarette and finished off the last piece of apple pie. He emptied the wine into his glass and drank it.
‘Thank you for the meal, Major.
Erich didn’t answer him as he folded the letter and put it in the envelope he had in his pocket. He went to the door and whistled through the grate. Max stood up to leave with the prison guard, a Wehrmacht soldier in his forties … a hard unthinking man with hard unthinking eyes. As Erich turned back to him Max put out his right hand. Erich looked at it and then shook his hand.
‘It is a good letter Max. It will find its way to Ben.
Erich put his hand on Max’s shoulder as he moved away with the guard.
‘Stay calm and hope for the best, Max.
He made no reply as he left the room.
Captain Tuemler entered the room as Max was leaving.
‘Dahlmann has arrested Boudewijn Grund and his wife and son. The girl Annika told me that he is the leader of the resistance in Friesland. The Gestapo has asked me to hold her until they collect her. I think they are going to send her to Germany.
‘Do as they ask Captain. Don’t cause any trouble for yourself. If he really is the leader of the resistance around here I expect they will all be sent to Germany.
Erich found Dahlmann sitting in the lounge of the hotel in Heerenvain that had been taken over by the Gestapo as their headquarters. He was sitting on a blue sofa receiving the praises of his subordinates for his capture of the resistance leader in Friesland.
‘I had no idea it was this Grund fellow. The girl Annika just blurted it out, fortunately. Let this be a lesson to you young fellows; never interrupt someone when they are babbling words, useful information will very often be found among the babble.
Erich stood in the door way and listened to them talking. After a minute one of the Gestapo men indicated Erich’s presence to Dalhmann.
‘Major Collbach, he said unctuously, is this a social call?
His colleagues laughed.
‘In a manner of speaking, yes Inspector. I was wondering if I could have a discreet word with you before you offer me your hospitality?
Erich smiled his usual seductive smile and transformed himself into a pliant guest of these men. Dahlmann stood up and walked toward him.
‘Let us sit in the Dining Room.
After ordering some coffee from the woman setting up the Dining Room for the next meal, Dahlmann and Erich sat down.
‘I understand that congratulations are in order. Prinz Albrechtstrasse will be very pleased with your capture of the leader of the resistance in Friesland.
Dahlmann smiled with cold eyes.
‘They will be even more pleased when I have him shot in the town square next week.
‘Why would you do that? replied Erich keeping very calm.
‘The papers tomorrow will carry my ultimatum: either Ben van der Waal presents himself to me or Herr Grund will be shot. His wife and son will also be shot.
‘I don’t think this threat will get van der Waal into your hands.
‘I don’t think so either, at least not immediately, replied Dahlmann with a casual smile. It’s not meant to do that; it’s meant to divide that tiresome little town of Sneek into pro and anti van der Waal factions. This technique of shooting whole families until hidden people surrendered was very effectively used in Crete. The Greeks were hiding a lot of Australian soldiers. We shot entire Greek families and the Australian soldiers in hiding did the proper thing and gave themselves up; decent fellows, these Australians. The dead family of the local resistance leader should bring a similar result in Sneek. Out of this division of the town will come the betrayer of van der Waal.
Erich said nothing in reply to this ferocious statement. He thought back to his dinner at Lake Garda in Italy the previous year. Field Marshal Rommel and some other senior generals and some of their staff officers had come together very quietly to hear the well connected Major Junger tell them about the atrocities occurring in the East. Atrocities committed principally by the SS but also including Wehrmacht offenders in large numbers. Erich had sat with three members of Rommel’s staff, all majors: Joachim von Helldorf, son of the Police President of Berlin, Claus von Brauchitsch, son of the famous Generalfeldmarschall and former Commander in Chief of the Army and Tobias von Stauffenberg, the brother of a man soon to be world famous. Each of them had been mortified and rendered speechless by the information from Major Junger. The discussion Junger had privately with the four of them after the dinner had been one of the most memorable nights in the war for him. Looking at Dahlmann Erich could easily understand how unimaginable atrocities in the East could occur.
‘Shooting the family may irritate some officials in Berlin who want this whole Shirach matter kept quiet.
‘I work for Herr Walter Schellenberg in the Gestapo, Major. I do not care who I irritate in Berlin or anywhere else, as long as I don’t irritate him.
This was very unpleasant news for Erich. Schellenberg was a powerful and senior Gestapo official and a determined national socialist. He was the sort of man who got results and cut corners to get them. A public execution in a small Dutch town wouldn’t faze him. The impending defeat of the Third Reich did not slow down these men at all.
‘Can I ask that you do not rush forward on this matter. I may have something for you in exchange for these shootings.
‘Ben van der Waal.
On the drive back to Sneek Erich felt himself slipping into a kind of minor depression, a mental and spiritual tiredness; this was an increasingly common feeling for him over the past year. His smile faded and he looked despondently ahead of himself as he drove down the highway. His mind caught flashes and jumbles of his life … his wedding day with his unhappy father cold and distant toward his bride; his fighting in Poland where he saw his first atrocity, a small one (if there can be such a thing); some bits and pieces from his school days … cold days and colder masters teaching a frozen version of the life affirming love taught by Jesus; mental snap shots of Colonel General Count Maximilian von Kliest-Duchau his great patron, friend and protector in the Wehrmacht; scattered and unconnected images of the Christmas holiday in Salzburg in 1930 that he had taken as a young Lieutenant with the uber-Prussian and impossibly suave Colonel von Kliest-Duchau; that memorable holiday where, after a long siege of Erich’s heart and body, the Colonel accepted with good aristocratic grace the very polite and final refusal of the young Lieutenant to become the Colonel’s lover.
‘You can say no Erich, but you can’t stop me from loving you, replied the Count to this bad news.
These thoughts and flashes whirred through his brain as he drove steadily forward to Sneek and Helen.
‘Helen, he thought, what can I do? Should I take up with her?
He smiled as he realised that his father wouldn’t like her.
‘That’s a good enough reason to take her, he thought.
But he knew that it wasn’t a good enough reason. He had already committed that mistake with Ulrike and now she was dead and his daughter as well. His mind drifted to his six year old Max, the son and love of his heart living with his uncle Berndt, a doctor in the military hospital in Regensburg. His eyes filled with tears as he remembered the child clinging to his neck and the heart broken weeping of the boy when he last left him two months previously.
Erich looked at the speedometer and slowed down.
He let himself in with the key Helen had given him. She was in the kitchen washing up.
‘Have you eaten, Erich?
‘Yes, thank you. I had dinner with Max.
He was smiling at her intentionally.
‘How is he?
‘OK, I suppose. I answered some of his questions and he is a little more settled. I think he now knows that I am not an enemy … well, not a personal enemy.
Helen put on the kettle to make some coffee. She came and stood in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the sitting room.
‘Irena asked me at work whether I was having an affair with you.
‘What did you say?
‘What could I say? I had to tell her the truth.
Erich dropped his smile.
‘And what is the truth, Helen?
She stood and looked at him as the kettle whistle blew. The question stayed unanswered as she turned and went back to make the coffee. Erich went to the radio and turned it on. He moved the dial up and down until he found the Munich station he was looking for. The overture was playing. He smiled as he recognised it.
‘Do you like opera Helen?
‘I can take it or leave it.
‘Shameful answer, he replied with a mock frown.
‘What is this on the radio?
‘‘Samson and Delilah’. It is by Camille Saint-Saens and is in French.
‘Very appropriate for us I should think, she replied as she came into the sitting room with coffee and some biscuits she had made the previous evening.
‘What temple do you expect me to pull down? The prison holding Max?
She didn’t answer him but put the cream and sugar in his coffee and handed it to him.
‘Is it possible Erich for you to let my two sons live?
He looked at her with a slightly wounded expression.
‘I have no intentions of hurting either of them Helen. The Gestapo intends to kill Ben and send Max to a concentration camp. I am saving Max’s life by keeping him in jail and I am trying to find Ben to save his neck as well.
She made no reply to this outburst by Erich. He seemed anxious to convince her that her sons were safe with him. She wanted to believe him but couldn’t quite commit to actually doing so. Erich drank some of his coffee and looked at the radio.
Act One of the opera began.
Willem walked into the barn and called him several times. Ben came around the partition doing up his pants.
‘I was having a piss, he said with a grin.
‘On my hay?
‘That’s the least of your problems, Will.
Willem put the change of clothes on a hay bale. Ben started to strip off all his clothes and underwear and put on the clean clothes.
‘Thank your mother for this from me.
‘She doesn’t know anything. I wash your clothes; I put them in with mine.
‘You’re a brave man, Willem de Groot. The Gestapo would shoot you for this.
‘They have to catch me first. Besides, you’re my friend and we are both Dutchmen.
‘Spoken like a true hero, replied Ben doing up his shirt.
‘I have bad news, Ben.
The smile had faded from Willem’s freckled face. Ben sat down on a hay bale to put on the clean football socks and tie up his black tennis shoes.
‘Boudewijn, Irena and Stephen have been arrested by the Gestapo. They were taken to Heerenvain. Annika is in the prison at Kleine Kerkstraat.
Ben remained seated.
‘How did this happen?
‘According to Marianne the Gestapo arrived about 6.30 this evening and arrested everyone at Napjus Straat 30. She phoned me as soon as they left the street.
Ben knew that Marianne, Willem’s girlfriend, lived at Napjus Straat 42. They had all been to her birthday parties at the house.
The two young men looked at each other in silence.
‘The only connection I can think of Ben is Annika.
‘Annika? Why Annika?
‘You were with her in Stephen’s bedroom last Friday. He told me.
‘Yes, he replied with slightly guilty expression.
‘I’m not blaming you for that Ben. Everyone knows that Annika has chased you since we were all sixteen years old. You being you, we all know that any opportunities offered to you by anyone will be taken.
They both smiled at this fact but Ben felt a little more guilty as he looked at the barn floor.
‘You think she told that to the Gestapo and they just arrested everyone at the house?
‘It looks like it.
They fell silent again.
‘I’ll get food to you at the churchyard now that Stephen is arrested.
‘Thank you Willem. Don’t let your mother know and do it after dark on your bike not the truck. I will collect it before I go to sleep. It’s best if I don’t tell you where I’m staying.
‘Do not tell me, answered Willem emphatically.
Ben explained to him where the metal pot was situated and the system with the red blanket.
‘I should take extra care now that they have been arrested. I will stop moving around for a while. Please leave me some reading material when you bring food.
‘I’ll do that. Would you be better off leaving the area?
‘No. I won’t do that. I will stay here while Max is in prison.
‘I’ll see if I can find out how he is doing. It has been a month so far. Stephen’s friend Lukkie has a cousin who works in the prison kitchen at Kleine Kerkstraat. I’ll go to Lukkie’s garage tomorrow.
Ben looked at his best friend and smiled a sad smile.
‘Don’t make any enquiries about Annika. We don’t know if she has some deal with the Gestapo.
Willem looked surprised.
‘She would never betray you Ben.
Ben picked up his dirty clothes. He put his hand in the trouser pocket and took out the Afrika Korps handkerchief. He scrunched it up in his hand as he transferred it to his pocket. Willem didn’t notice this as he put the dirty clothes into the bag he had with him.
‘You would be surprised who can betray who in the world today, Willem.
He thought of Tobias von Stauffenberg and hoped he was in Paris. He really hoped that the Allies captured him and finally took him out of danger.
‘Stay here for a few minutes Ben and I’ll go and get you some food. My mother is up at Grandma’s tonight.
‘Bring me few novels and the newspapers you have, replied Ben.
Helen lay on the sofa with her head in Erich’s lap. Her eyes were closed as were his. She was thinking about him and he was thinking about Samson. He held both her hands as they rested on her stomach.
‘What will you do after the war, Erich?
‘What needs to be done, I suppose.
‘Will you re-marry?
He looked down at her and smiled his standard seductive smile.
‘I’m the marrying kind, Helen.
‘Will you have any more children?
‘That depends on the wife. Women decide these issues.
She moved her hands from his and took his hands into hers.
He smiled as he recognised the music leading up to Delilah’s great aria.
‘I love music. Do you understand French?
‘I’ll translate this aria for you. I love the human voice in song.
‘I love you Erich.
He looked down at her and kissed her gently.
‘I know, he whispered.
Delilah crept up on Samson and whispered in his ear.
“My heart opens itself to your voice,
like the flowers open to the kisses of dawn.
Erich kissed her again.
“But, O, my beloved
to dry my tears
let your voice speak again.
Helen looked up at him with her eyes swimming in tears.
“Tell me that to Delilah
you will return forever,
repeat to me tenderly
the oaths of other times,
the oaths that I loved!
She kissed him passionately … to which he responded.
“Ah! respond to my tenderness!
Pour out to me this intoxication.
Helen stood up and took him by the hand. Samson softly cried out to Delilah …
“Delilah, I love you.
She undid Erich’s shirt and kissed his chest. He let it fall to the ground. Smiling, he kissed her and led her to the bed. He laid her gently on the bed and knelt down beside her. Delilah resumed her siren song to enchant him whom she desired. Erich whispered the words in Helen’s ear as he slowly undressed her.
“When one sees the wheat
the blades undulate
under the light breeze.
So trembles my heart,
Ready to be consoled
By your voice which is dear to me!
He began kissing her naked body. She responded with a quiet intensity. The pools in her eyes slowly overflowed.
“The arrow is less quick
to carry death,
than is my love
to fly into thy arms!
He continued kneeling by the bedside and loosened his clothes. They would drop off as he stood up.
“Ah! respond to my tenderness!
Pour out to me this intoxication!
The audience on the radio interrupted the scene with a burst of intense applause. Erich stood up and moved into the bed.
‘Erich, I love you.
He kissed her lips as he entered her.
Ben looked at his watch as he cycled up to his mother’s apartment: 5.22am. It was still dark with the dawn, like the allied armies, just starting to win the struggle with its nemesis. He opened the door and walked in. Placing his bike against the wall he went into the main room. He kept the lights off and went into the kitchen to get some milk.
He had seen Major Tobias von Stauffenberg enough times in uniform to recognise readily the shoulder insignia for a major in the Wehrmacht. The light that Helen had turned on when she came out from her bedroom fell most clearly on Erich’s shirt lying on the floor. He said nothing to his mother.
Helen looked at the shirt and couldn’t think of anything to say for a brief moment.
‘I assume you are Ben van der Waal, said Erich casually, coming out from the bedroom in his trousers and standing behind Helen.
Ben paused before he spoke.
‘Yes, major, he finally said.
Erich moved passed Helen and extended his hand. The smile was not far behind.
‘I am Major Erich Collbach. You’re a hard man to find, Ben.
‘That is my intention, replied Ben shaking his hand with all the confidence of a man who had a gun in his jacket pocket.
‘Some coffee and toast would be nice Helen.
She was glad to have something to do and leave the room.
‘Can we sit down Ben?
‘Why is Max in prison?
‘His arrest was ordered by General Olbricht in Berlin.
‘General Olbricht is now dead, major.
‘Yes, I know. If I release Max he will be arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Germany. With the present hysteria in Berlin he would likely be dead within a month.
Ben pondered this remark as he looked past Erich toward his mother’s bedroom. Light fell into the room illuminating the state of the bed.
‘Why would Olbricht do this? Toby … Major von Stauffenberg told me that everything would be alright with my family.
‘The Major was not the decision maker in this matter. Others made the decisions. Armies are like that, Ben.
Helen came into the room with coffee and toast.
After he put some toast on a plate for Helen and poured her a cup of coffee he turned to Ben.
‘Do you have Dr. Shirac’s briefcase, Ben?
‘Have you opened it and read the documents?
Ben smiled in response to Erich’s sunlit expression.
‘No. The bag is still locked. Presumably the key was in Shirac’s pocket.
Erich took a bite of his toast onto which he had put plum jam.
‘Good. This simple action has saved your life.
Helen looked at him with a stare. She put her coffee down.
‘There are innumerable Wehrmacht officers who would have killed you Ben had you read any of the documents in that bag. Do you want me to take this bag off your hands?
‘I’ll trade you the bag for Max.
‘That’s not the deal you made with Tobias.
‘Arresting Max was not part of the deal either.
‘No, it wasn’t but it is to Max’s current advantage to be my prisoner and not the Gestapo’s prisoner.
Helen put her coffee down.
‘What is all this about?
‘I can’t tell you mama.
Erich looked at her with a hard expression.
‘Do you really want to know, Helen? It will put your life in danger.
‘Don’t tell her please Major.
‘Call me Erich.
‘I want to know, she said.
The two men looked at each other. Erich finally spoke.
‘Even before the bomb went off Major General Shirac had been investigating the anti-Hitler plot … the Stauffenberg plot which put the bomb under Hitler on July 20 just past. He had drawn up a very long list of Wehrmacht officers in France and Belgium and Holland who were in the plot and were ready to participate in a military coup against National Socialism as soon as Hitler was dead. To deal with this problem of Shirac an important military conference requiring Shirac to go to Sneek on the 24th July had been planned by General Olbricht. Shirac was to be killed as soon as possible after the bomb was set off on the 20th. The plotters, through Tobias von Stauffenberg the brother of the man who placed the bomb next to Hitler, arranged for Ben to come home and shoot Shirac and grab his briefcase. Max was arrested on the 10th to put pressure on Ben. General Olbricht did not want Ben to get cold feet at the last minute.
Helen looked puzzled.
‘The briefcase has the list of Wehrmacht officers who were ready to mount the coup, mama. Why are you involved in this Erich?
‘I was sent from Italy by a Wehrmacht friend in Berlin. He is an old friend and a senior officer who was also secretly in the plot. I have to retrieve the briefcase and destroy its contents.
‘How could this Tobias get you into this, Ben?
‘Toby and I are friends, mama. Of course I would help kill Hitler’s regime. They have conquered my country and look what they have done to Germany!
He had a look of anger on his face.
‘The situation is now more complex Ben. The Gestapo has arrested people in their pursuit of you.
He looked at Helen.
‘The head of the Gestapo here, a creature called Dahlmann, intends to shoot them if you do not turn yourself in Ben. You were in their house last Friday.
Ben looked appalled.
‘And his wife and son, added Erich.
‘When will he shoot them?
Helen stood up and moved to sit next to Erich. Ben looked a little uneasy.
‘Ben, she said, Annika is in jail here in Sneek.
‘I know, he replied. What will happen to her, Erich?
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Anything could happen when you are dealing with the Gestapo.
They all fell silent. Helen stood up and picked up Erich’s shirt. She gave it to him and he put it on. He was starting to resemble a German Army officer. Ben experienced, in a slighter form, the ambivalent feelings of repulsion and attraction that he felt on the farm in Wurttemberg.
Erich looked at Ben.
‘You must give me the briefcase, we must get you and Max to safety and I must prevent the shooting so much desired by Herr Dahlmann.
‘The Gestapo tortured Max.
Helen was looking at Ben with a cold and bitter expression. Erich put his hand into his trouser pocket and pulled out the letter from Max. He handed it to him without a word.
Helen and Erich sat still while Ben read the letter from his brother. He cried a little during the reading but recovered himself quickly enough.
‘Max says that he trusts you, Erich.
‘I’ve asked your mother the same question and received an Old Testament style answer for my pains.
He looked at her with a sly smile and quietly took her hand in his. Ben looked with some little unease at this scene of his mother and her lover from across the lines holding hands. He thought momentarily of the only time he had been inside the Stauffenberg Castle in Wurttemberg; into the rooms occupied by Tobias. It had been in the darkness of night on that occasion as well.
‘Now I will ask you, Ben, if you trust me.
‘Do I have a choice?
‘We always have choices Ben. I see that you do not read contemporary French philosophy.
Neither of them took up his invitation to be a little light hearted.
‘How are you going to solve these situations Erich?
He looked at Helen and squeezed her hand a little and then looked at Ben.
‘I am going to give you, Ben, to Herr Dahlmann of the Gestapo.
Link here to Chapter 3.