Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
As she stepped down from the Winnebago, she said, “Peter tells me that we have urgent business.”
“Yes, we do. Definitely,” Amedeo replied.
“Is William interested as well?”
Amedeo said, “William is primary.”
“If that is so, Deo, dear, we'll need the gray lockbox. Would you please bring it? It's under my bed.”
The French captain prying the Rosetta stone from the wall of the ancient desert fort was hardly as careful as Amedeo Kaplan sliding the gray metal box out from under Mrs. Vanderwaal's bed.
After eating a snack and having Amedeo explain why William was a principal in the matter, Mrs. Vanderwaal unlocked the box and took out all the papers that were on top. From under the loosely fitted metal panel on the bottom, she took a pad of yellow lined paper.
“I would like you and William to read this.”
The paper was oldâalmost damp with ageâand the edges were fuzzy and worn. The first page said:
THE STORY OF A LIFE, MINE
Written from Memory
by John Vanderwaal
They read the pages and came to:
The next bad year was 1942. Here comes now the story of how came I to America, and I became from
Johannes to John and from the three words
van der Waal,
I became one word
van der Bilt
But never so rich or famous.
The writing stopped in the middle of the page.
As Peter had done before him, Amedeo flipped through the rest of the pages and found nothing. No mention of
The Moon Lady.
No mention of Modigliani.
Mrs. Vanderwaal said, “There is more, dear.” She reached back into the gray box. “The rest of young Johann's story is written on the back sheets of medical forms. I'm sure you realized that the young Johann who wrote all this was my husband, John. For the last ten years of his life, John had to have dialysis three times a week, so some days he would write on the backs of the medical forms he had to sign.” She waved a sheaf of thin pink sheets, which were clipped together. “I tried to put them in order by using the dates on the medical forms, but dear John did not write chronologically. There are repetitions and cross outs, but I think you boys will work it out. Read it, Deo.”
“Yes, dear. I want you to meet my hero.”
It is in April of this bad year that Jews were made to wear the Yellow Star. Jews were not allowed to enter museums or movie theaters. They were not allowed to work, and so many Jews were selling off their beautiful things to get money to live. The Germans had a lot of money, and they were greedy. They wanted for themselves art and antiques and rugs, all the things to show that they were “cultured” persons.
Business at Pieter's shop was good.
Late on one afternoon in September of 1942 a Nazi officer came into Pieter's shop. Klaus and I were the only ones in the gallery that day. The officer walked around the shop. He walked slowly, but his eyes danced around the room, lighting every now and then on a particular piece, but never lingering on any one thing long enough to betray a curiosity. He said little, but I could tell by his accent that he was Austrian. He touched nothing. Before heading toward the door, the officer asked Klaus if he was the owner of the shop. Klaus said that he was not. The officer pointed to me.
And this young man?
He is the brother of the owner. He helps with the dusting and polishing.
The officer took a few more steps around the gallery.
I'm finding some of your pieces very interesting. I'm
finding that I should like to investigate some of these pieces further.
We should be most grateful, said Klaus.
Very well, then. Tomorrow. I shall return tomorrow.
He walked toward the door with his hands behind his back in that strange posture that I have come to know from Nazi officers and the duke of Edinburgh. He paused and said:
Tomorrow I will speak with the owner of the shop.
His gloved hand came from behind his back, and he started to reach for the door, but Klaus hurried over to open it for him. So the Nazi stopped and instead raised his hand to his face and brought his forefinger to his lips. He tucked under his chin his thumb, and with his forefinger, which was still in the glove, he rubbed his lips up and down. Up, down.
I advise you not to sell any interesting items between now and then.
He tapped his finger to his lips twice and then asked me:
The officer's smile was ice. He repeated, “Tomorrow,” and then he stepped outside from our shop.
Klaus collapsed in a chair.
âAt least he didn't say “Heil Hitler,” said I, Johannes.
âYes, he did. Oh, yes, he did, said Klaus.
The following day, when I returned from school, I had a habit to look through the shop window, which I did. I saw then that the officer had returned. Two others were with him. They were of a lesser rank. Before I had a chance to reach the door to our shop, I caught the eye of my brother. With a small nod of his head, my brother, Pieter, motioned that I should look to the sign in the shop window: Closed.
So very quietly, I went around and entered to our shop from the back. I pressed my ear against the wall that was common to the back room and to the gallery.
I heard them walking around, but the only voices I could hear were my brother and the Nazi officer, the Austrian. The voices were muffled, but I have had by then years of learning how to listen.
I heard the Nazi say
I heard him say it at least once more. I heard more footsteps. All three of them were walking around. Then I heard
“Alles Entartete.”Â .Â .Â .
More walking, and then
Then more footsteps and then
in the morning .
Then three voices said,” Heil Hitler.”
This was loud and clear.
I waited now until I heard the door close before coming out from the back room. My brother, Pieter, was closing the shutters on the windows of the shop.
Closed. Our gallery is closed, Johannes.
He grinned, but was not grinning.
The Germans are taking over our shop.
Are we Jewish?
I heard the Nazi say
He said that word. Have you done some business with a Jew?
Of course I have. Everybody has. The beautiful merchandise came from somewhere, you know.
I heard also that word, Pieter.
Enough questions for now, Johannes. The shop is closed, and I am having a retirement party. Go now to our rooms and clean up. Then come back down to the gallery. Some of your questions will be answered.
I went upstairs. I splashed some water onto my face, and I smiled to myself, because when now I used the towel to dry my face, the towel caught in the stubble of my chin. I was thinking: I did not shave this morning. I was thinking: Soon I will need to shave every morning. I dropped the towel and looked again in the mirror.
What was I thinking?
Something terrible is happening, and I am thinking now about my chin hairs. I closed my eyes
and rubbed them until they hurt. I began now to tremble, and I braced myself on the bowl of the sink. I caught my face in the mirror, and I said to the face, “It has come. It has come.” Louder, I said, “It has come.” As I was leaving then the bathroom, I caught again my face in the mirror, and I whispered to the face, “Now it has come.”
I went downstairs. Gerard, Jacob, and Klaus were lined up in the narrow hallway that led from the back room to the gallery. Each had his hands behind his back in imitation of the Nazi officer. I smiled when first I saw them. I started to walk down the narrow hallway. “A receiving line?” I asked. They did not answer but clicked their heels in unison. And now I noticed: Jacob, who was standing in the middle, was wearing on his lapel a yellow six-pointed Star of David. I asked:
Are you a Jew?
Jacob tilted his head to the right where Klaus was standing. My eyes now fell on Klaus's lapel. Klaus had pinned on his lapel a bright Pink Triangle, the
I knew already what the Pink Triangle meant, but I could not stop myself from asking.
Are you a homosexual?
I heard then Jacob laugh.
I, too, am a homosexual. The Nazis couldn't decide on yellow or pink for me, but they decided that being a Jew is worse.
Klaus and Gerard then laughed, too, but I could not join in.
They now nudged me down the hall in the direction of the gallery. My brother, Pieter, had quietly opened the door and was standing there within its frame.
Pieter, too, was wearing the
The pages that followed were blank, and Amedeo, who sensed he was on the verge of tears, was grateful that he had to stop. William was enveloped in one of his silences; only his clenched jaw and reddened nostrils betrayed him.
Mrs. Vanderwaal said, “There's more to the story, dear. I have it here. Do you want me to read it?”
Both Amedeo and William nodded, and Mrs. Vanderwaal read.
The evening of the “retirement” party, we had many hugs and kisses, and then each of the friends brought out something that they had scrounged or saved. There was
bread and herring, and Gerard brought out some chocolates.
Pieter asked Gerard to take a picture of him and me. We stood on either side of a table that Pieter had moved to the calendar wall. Pieter made a circle around the date on the calendar: September 4, 1942. We two brothers lifted our glasses in a toast to each other.
Amedeo interrupted. “That's the picture I asked for, isn't it, Mrs. Vanderwaal?”
“Yes, dear, it is.”
“Did you bring it?”
“Yes, I told you I did.”
“May I see it now?”
“Not yet. I recommend that we read some more.”
The following day Pieter insisted that I go to school as usual. He said that it was important to act normal.
I don't want you here when that Nazi officer returns.
But he knows I exist. He asked Klaus who I was.
Yes, but he does not know that you live here, with Klaus and me. You understand what I'm telling you, Johannes? The Nazi thinks you live with a mother and a father.
When I returned from school the following day, I found Gerard waiting. He was outside our building. He told me that Pieter was taken.
I knew what
meant. After a
Taken away to concentration camps. But l could not translate. Pieter had said already that we were not Jews.
Neuengamme. Klaus, too.
I knew Neuengamme. Neuengamme was a labor camp in Germany where prisoners were worked to death, making bricks from mud they had to dig up with their bare hands. And they were made to carry bricks, still hot from the ovens with their bare hands.
And you, Gerard? Are you a
Yes, but I don't have yet the Pink Triangle. I am useful still. I am photographing the works of art in the Rijksmuseum. The Nazis love having records more than they hate homosexuals, and the Nazis don't make
of homosexuals as they do the Jews and the Gypsies. Homosexuals are less of a problem because we do not reproduce.
Why then did they take Pieter and Klaus?
Because Pieter made a bargain. The officer came back this morning. Alone. And Pieter sold him a few items.
A few porcelains and a couple of pieces of art.
The Degenerate. The Nazi told Pieter that for a price he would relieve him of certain forbidden works of art he had in his shop.
For an answer Gerard handed to me two sheets of paper.
One paper was a shop receipt. The other piece of paper was an official document, an
what the Nazis called a
statement of harmlessness,
which in Nazi language was an exit visa.
Gerard now put his forefinger under my chin for the purpose of lifting my eyes to see him. Gerard smiled sadly.
If Pieter had been a Jew, there could not have been such a payment.
Mrs. Vanderwaal stopped reading. In a voice near to breaking, Mrs. Vanderwaal said, “My son, Peter, is named for his dear dead uncle.”
Amedeo saw that Mrs. Vanderwaal's hands were trembling. He reached across the table and took the pages from her, and then he took her hands in his. His voice barely
above a whisper, he said, “I think we're ready to see the picture, Mrs. Vanderwaal.”