We were in Spakenburg, the Netherlands, the whole Schaap family, because I wanted to see what that world looked like–I had to see it to write about it. We’d scored some cheap tickets–the early 90s–and thus decided to take the kids too, our first international trip. I wanted to see places Diet Eman had told me about: that little Christian school in Holk, the roads north from Arnhem once filled with refugees when Operation Market Garden went bust, and simply the kind of farm where she and her fiancé hid so many Jews. I wanted to see her world.
She’d said she and Hein, both of them Resistance fighters, would meet clandestinely when they could. One of the places was a church at Spakenburg. They could meet and celebrate communion together in a place no one knew either of them.
I wanted to visit that church. The immensity of emotion they must have felt racing within them was simply beyond my imagination: two young-and-in-love, hard-core Resistance workers dancing at death’s portal–and her wedding dress hung for most of the war in her parents’ home in Den Haag.
It wasn’t a Sunday, but the day we came to Spakenburg, lots of people were in church. The old fishing town had a reputation as a conservative place, but we were surprised that there were very few English speakers. Our kids were just old enough to be embarrassed at their dad’s wierd combo of wild-eyed gesticulation, too much volume, and strangled German. In fact, all my daughter remembers about the being there is being totally embarrassed.
“Professor,” I said, pointing at my chest. “Schaaps,” I told them, trying to lasso the family with my arm. “Professor at Gereformeerde Universiteit in America,” or something lamely equivalent in equally lame pronunciation.
A man more versed in English showed up smilingly, so I attempted to explain why this American family with the Dutch name happened to walk in to their church unbidden. He seemed to understand, then motioned us along to the balcony. When we got upstairs behind the pews, he kicked away a throw rug, and there, beneath, was a door cut into the floor. He grabbed at an inlaid handle and swung it open.
I don’t know if he used the word razzia, but I knew he was showing us an otherwise invisible hiding place where people like Diet and Hein could have escaped into on that Sunday night they were together here–if the SS had pulled up outside.
There were no inscriptions with hearts or valentines. Our translator could not have known either Diet or Hein. But what he’d shown me was what I came to witness with my own eyes. I could not have guessed that this particular church would have built-in sanctuaries–in the sanctuary–to hide those who needed hiding, but there it was, open in front of me. I don’t understand how artifacts gain their referencing, but I’m old enough to understand the significance of a hangman’s noose, a catlinite peace pipe, and, of course, the cross. I’d seen right then what I’d come to witness.
We were aware that Spakenburg locals would occasionally don traditional costuming and look straight off the streets of an Orange City Tulip Festival. They were a odd, conservative people, who lived in a country and culture among Europe’s most progressive. When we came back down to the church’s social hall, we’d become celebrities, a young couple from America, with a real Dutch name too yet, and a Professor, in fact, at a Reformed college. We were a phenom.
They were proud of what was going on in yet another big room, this one full of homemade goods. The church was raising money for a mission somewhere in Africa. We’d walked into a church fund-raiser. I told my wife and the kids that we couldn’t leave without buying something. “If you see something you like,” I said, and then nodded.
Lying right there on a table in front of me was a neatly folded work shirt–two big, front pockets. I picked it up, admired it. “Mooi,” I said, or something similar, but a woman stepped up and just about tore it from my hands. “Niet voor een prof,” she said, or something similar–beneath the dignity of my office.
I don’t believe other members of my family bought anything—I think not, but I bought a pair of thick wool socks.
Now we’ve had a couple mild winters here, but this one has been a terror—more snow than we had all last year, deadly temps, vicious wind. In a downstairs closet, some really warm clothes were packed away, wraps I hadn’t pulled out for some time. When I found the box, down there beneath a sweatshirt or two and some long underwear, tucked into the corner was a pair of heavy wool socks—my Spakenburg socks. Just like that, the whole story replayed.
I’ll be 75 soon. My wife and I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to get rid of stuff, the inevitable ticking of the clock right there behind us. It’s time to be down-sizing, saving our kids’ at least some of the heavy lifting.
What about those Spakenburg socks?—that’s what I’m asking myself. Even my children don’t remember their significance. I’m the only one who imbues them with a story I’ll never forget. Besides, I tell myself, who knows?—they may be of use someday in the Home.
Then again there’s that other voice: “Nope,” it tells me, “a sock is a sock is a sock. Give ’em away to Zestos, the clothes bank up the street.” To anyone else in the world, potential warmth is the only qualification of any regard. I can just see it—hear it: Lenore’s looking through the stacks at Zestos. “Oh my word,” she says. “You don’t see real wool socks like that anymore. I’ll take them for Elmer.”
But dang it, it hurts. Even though in the last couple years they never got out of the box of winter stuff, it seems some kind of sacrilege to give ‘em away because it’s giving away that whole story, isn’t it?
But then I think of it this way: given our circumstance here and now, chances are that no one named Elmer will wear my Spakenburg socks. Right now, it’s likely his name will be Luis or Pablo or even Jesus, and he may well be here without documentation or awaiting a hearing. He may wear them to a milking parlor or construction site and never have heard of Spakenburg. Could be, when he pulls them off at night in this cold world, he can’t help but think how blessed he is to be here where his family is safe and he’s in thick woolen socks.
And maybe someday his kids will remember the Spakenburg socks because they’ve never forgotten how hard the old man had to work in those early years. Maybe they’ll smile when they’re picking through Dad’s things. Maybe one of them will keep them, just to remember. Maybe she’ll hold them in her hands and tell herself that now she’s ready to try to tell his story.
I like that. It’s a story I can live with.