Monday, February 25, 2008

Helen and the Bontekoes...

In the singular flick of a tattered switch, Helen's status went from icon to legend.

Our landlord Jan came over late Sunday morning to replace a broken dimmer in our front room, and we pleasantly received far more than we bargained for. In exchange for being rapt listeners, Jan bestowed some amazing history about the place we call home...our beloved Helen van Herengracht.

Or just Helen, for short.

Jan's knowledge and ownership of our huis comes through the family of his wife, Liesbeth. The Bontekoes.

After having heard all that Jan had to say about Helen's history, I was rather amazed at the fact that Dave and I had never really inquired about her past. Here we are, living in what now feels to me like a national landmark, and before Jan came to fix our light switch, we could have said only two sentences about her lineage.

Jan's tellings were so perfectly crafted that my second hand recreation will pale in delivery. But, better late than never, it is a collection of tales worth sharing. Here is a down payment on the unabridged version...

I could easily begin with the Countess who, around 1780, lived in the apartment over us, or maybe even Helen's previous occupation as a grain storage house from 1620-1700. But it's the stories that begin around Helen's 295th birthday that grab me the most. (Hard to believe that the bit about a countess didn't top the charts, but in an odd way, those tales seem nearly commonplace to me now. After all, this is the second place in which we've lived with a building date that precedes the birth of America by over 100 years. Lately, I'm captured by stories that are far enough out of reach to be considered "history," but near enough that my imagination can assist my understanding. Practical shoes and rising hemlines are much easier for me to fathom going up and down our 44 steps than tight bodices, petticoats and wooden shoes. I even think twice about wearing Dr. Scholl's on our crazy stairs.)

At that time - between the first and second decades of the 20th century, the building next to us had been a "fabriek"...a factory. The man who owned this factory employed Mrs. Bontekoe as a secretary in his office...our current front room, and Mr. Bontekoe as a worker in the factory. As this business man aged and came to the point of retirement, he offered to sell the factory building, what is now our apartment and the one above us (where Jan and Liesbeth - Lies, for short - live) to the Bontekoes.

They bought the entire space, quickly sold the factory building, and made residence in what is now our apartment. (As a side, for those of you who have seen our safe, you can easily imagine that room having been an office of some kind)

Jan, who was born the same year as my mom, describes his father-in-law as an excellent craftsman with a generous - perhaps to a fault - way about him. It seems Mrs. Bontekoe was the number-minded bottom line of the two, handling most of their financial and business affairs.

After giving us an idea about what kind of people they were, he went on to share with us that they had been a part of the Dutch Resistance Movement in World War II.

At the risk of losing their own lives, Mr. and Mrs. Bontekoe hid a Jewish family in their home for over two years.

Jan now had our complete attention.

The way our house and Jan's are connected is kind of like the shape of an 'H'. The left vertical line, the horizontal line, and the bottom half of the right vertical is "our" house. And the top half of the right vertical - extended by another 30% or so - is the house of Jan and his family. So we both have windows - on the "inside" of the 'H' - that face each other.

The first day Dave and I met Helen, I had noticed a menorah in one of the windows of Jan and Lies's house. I had wondered for many months who in their household is Jewish...if both Jan and Lies are, or if maybe just one of them is. And thanks to a broken water heater, I was able to have yet another wonderful conversation with Jan about two months ago, when I decided to ask him about the menorah.

He told me that neither of them are, but they have many Jewish friends and that Lies, although raised Protestant, has devoted much of her life to studying Judaism. In fact, she had attempted to convert to Judaism but was unable to make it official. So her passion for the Jewish people continues on in her studies and friendships.

My prefabricated idea that they were a "mixed marriage" melted into a prosaic mound of goo. As part of a Judeo-Christian marriage, I've engaged in countless fascinating conversations - both with others and within myself - about challenges overcome and benefits gained from eating heartily from the pot of diversity. But this story remained quite vivid to me for weeks after. What were the roots of her affection for Jewish people?

Now, the pieces start to fit. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts and I start to wonder how it is that Dave and I have the privilege to live in this place.

As the war continued, Mr. Bontekoe came under the suspicion of the Gestapo and was led to questioning. Mild at first, his meetings with the Nazi police eventually became violent as they persisted about his guilt. He endured what most would call torture, having teeth removed for not surrendering information and given threats about being sent to a concentration camp.

In spite of this, the Bontekoes remained committed to protecting the family in hiding. In fact, not only that, but they agreed to hiding weapons belonging to the Resistance Movement in the basement.

(That would be OUR basement. The one that currently houses a wide array of our empty boxes, our artificial Christmas tree, and Number Five's outgrown kennel. The door to which the three of us were only a foot away from. Our basement. Storing weapons for the quiet and stolid heroes who risked their lives to protect innocents.)

At hearing this part of the story, you could've knocked me over with a whisper. I watched Jan's mouth moving, but for the next few minutes, all I could hear was the sound of clanking gun metal coming from the basement and the agitated stomps of boot-wearing Gestapo pounding through our hallway. How people endured this kind of live-in fear is beyond my comprehension.

Dave and I caught each other's glance and shared mutual overwhelm for a moment before Jan continued.

It is a wonder that the Bontekoes and the family in the attic survived. Apparently, Mr. Bontekoe's interrogations became more frequent and increasingly threatening, and eventually the Getapo did indeed pay an uninvited visit to our home, conducting a full search of the premises. As the story goes, the family in the attic had been warned enough in advance to have crawled over the roof (of the right side of the 'H') with some belongings to pass over to the room that is currently my studio. From there, they crawled out the window to get into the factory building next door. In order to cross over, however, they dropped their bags of silverware in the small gap beteween the buildings.

In the years to follow, the Bontekoe's daughter Lies came to meet Jan Eurelings, whose family was also part of the Resistance, housing families on their farm in the north as they were headed out of Holland toward permanent safety. The Bontekoes passed away and now Jan, Lies and their daughter live in that significant space over ours.

Please understand that this entry has been written over the course of many days, and that I couldn't even begin to recount these stories until I myself digested them enough to tread articulate water in a pool of astonishment. But I have been longing to get this entry out to you. As I am typing, my emotional attention fluctuates, thinking of all that has been absorbed by these walls...everything from graveness and terror to heroism and compassion of the greatest variety.

I am doing my best to tell you all something important, something so profoundly meaningful to both Dave and me. I hope you were able to travel well with me through these words.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amazing... I want to get my copy of The Hiding Place and reread it today! -Along with Night by Eli Weisel... To be living in such a historical home... I can't wait to visit you, Dave AND Helen! ~Sara

Arthur said...

Wow. Thats some history lesson. May you continue to find stories everywhere. Best wishes to y'all.
....arthur