A Young Girl in a Strange Land
Amsterdam was not my native city. I had been born in Vienna, Austria, in 1909. When I was five years old, the First World War began. We children had no way of knowing that the war had begun, except that one day we heard soldiers marching in the streets. I remember feeling great excitement, and I ran out alone to take a look. I was aware of uniforms, equipment, and many emotional displays between people. .. I was not the strongest child, and because of the serious food shortages during the war, I had become undernourished and sick. I was a small child to begin with, and seemed to be wasting away, rather than growing normally. My legs were sticks dominated by bony kneecaps. My teeth were soft. When I was ten years old, my parents had another child; another daughter. Now there was even less food for us all. My condition was worsening, and my parents were told that something had to be done or I would die.
Because of a program that had been set up by foreign working people for hungry Austrian children, a plan was devised that might rescue me from my fate. I was to be sent with other Austrian workers children to the faraway country called the Netherlands to be fed and revitalized.
It was winteralways bitter in ViennaDecember of 1920, and I was bundled up in whatever my parents could find and taken to the cavernous Vienna railway station. There we waited long, tiring hours, during which we were joined by many other sickly children. Doctors looked me over, probing and examining my thin, weak body. Although I was eleven, I looked much younger. My long, fine dark blond hair was held back with a large bow. A card was hung around my neck . On it was printed a strange name, the name of people I had never met.
The train was filled with many children like me, all with cards around their necks. Suddenly, the faces of my parents were no longer in sight anywhere and the train had begun to move. All the children were scared and apprehensive about what was to become of us. Some were crying. Most of us had never even been outside our streets, certainly never outside Vienna. I felt too weak to observe much, found the chugging motion of the train made me sleepy. I slept and woke. The trip went on and on and on.
It was pitch-black, the middle of the night, when the train stopped and we were shaken awake and led off the train. The sign beside the still-steaming train said Leiden.
Speaking to us in a totally foreign language, people took us into a large, high-ceilinged room and sat us on hard-backed wooden chairs. All the children were in long rows, side by side. My feet didnt reach the floor. I felt very, very sleepy.
Opposite the exhausted, sick children crowded a group of adults. Suddenly, those adults came at us in a swarm and began to fumble with our cards, reading off the names. We were helpless to resist the looming forms and fumbling hands.
A man, not very big but very strong-looking, read my tag. Ja, he said firmly, and took my hand in his, helping me down from the chair. He led me away I was not afraid and went with him willingly.
We walked through a town, past buildings that had very different shapes from those of Viennese buildings I had seen. The moon was shining down, creamy luminous. It was clear weather. The shining moonlight made it possible to see. I was intently looking for where we were going.
I saw that we were walking away from the town. There were no more houses; there were trees. The man had begun to whistle. I became angry. He must be a farmer, I thought. He must be whistling for his dog to come. I was desperately frightened of big dogs. My heart sank.
However, we kept on walking and no dog came, and suddenly more houses appeared. We came to a door. It opened and we went upstairs. A woman with an angular face and soft eyes stood there. I looked into the house, past a stairway landing, and saw heads of many children staring down at me. The woman took me by the hand into another room and gave me a glass of frothy milk. Then she guided me up the stairs.
All the children were gone. The woman took me into a small room. It contained two beds. In one bed was a girl my age. The woman took off all my layers of clothes, removed the bow from my hair, and put me between the covers in the center of the other bed. Warmth enfolded me. My eyelids dropped shut. Immediately, I was asleep.
I will never forget that journey.
The next morning the same woman came to the room, dressed me in clean clothes, and took me downstairs. There at the big table sat the strong man, the girl my age from the bedroom, and four boys of all different ages; all the faces that had stared at me the night before now looked curiously at me from around the table. I understood nothing of what they said and they understood nothing of what I said, until the oldest boy, who was studying to be a teacher, began to use the bits of German he had learned in school to translate simple things for me. He became my interpreter.
Despite the language problem, all the children were kind to me. Kindness, in my depleted condition, was very important to me. It was medicine as much as the bread, the marmalade, the good Dutch milk and butter and cheese, the toasty temperature of the warm rooms. And, ahhh, the little chocolate flakes known as hailstones and other chocolate bits called little mice they taught me to put on thickly buttered bread-treats Id never imagined before.
After several weeks, some of my strength began to return. All the children were in school, including the eldest, my interpreter. Everyone believed that the quickest way for a child to learn the Dutch language was to go to a Dutch school. So the man took me again by the hand to the local school and had a long talk with the schools director. The director said, Have her come to our school.
In Vienna, I had been in the Fifth Class, but here in Leiden, I was put back into the Third Class. When the director brought me into the strange class, explaining in Dutch to the children who I was, they all wanted to help me; so many hands reached out to guide me that I didnt know which one to grab first. The children all adopted me. There is a childrens story in which a little child in a wooden cradle is washed away by a flood and is floating on the raging waters, in danger of sinking, when a cat leaps onto the cradle and jumps from side to side of it, keeping the cradle afloat until it touches solid ground again and the child is safe. I was the child, and all these Dutch people in my life were the cats.
By the end of January, I could understand and speak a few words of Dutch.
By spring I was the best in the class.
All black and white photographs of Anne Frank, her family, & Miep Gies courtesy of Anne Frank Center, AFF/AFS © The Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and The Anne Frank-Fonds, Basel, Switzerland.
Life During the War
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