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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Birthday in #Neuengamme (Part 1) by John von Daler


                My old friend, J, storyteller, copper-caster, plumber, traveler, told his stories with forethought and discretion. The story you got to hear at his table with its Bordeaux and goat cheese had a connection to the conversation of the moment. As his listener you also had to have gained his confidence; not everyone was allowed to hear each and every tale.

                I have been blogging since May. Unfortunately the blog form has not allowed me to sit on the other side of the table from my readers with a glass of wine and a piece of bread and cheese. Still, I feel comfortable enough in the form now to venture to tell you a story my friend only told to the initiated few. I myself heard it first a half a year after I met the old man. It was a story that meant a lot to him and it was not to be told or listened to in a superficial way.
                You might ask how I dare choose to tell it in this forum of hidden and faceless listeners. My answer would have to be, to honor his memory, to perpetuate an important and beautiful story even after its teller and protagonist have long since left our company. Here is the story of a birthday party in Neuengamme:
                J had been caught in the act of sabotaging a Danish newspaper under the German occupation of World War Two. The Danish police had arrested him and sent him to Neuengamme outside of Hamburg. Here he had convinced the authorities that he could make toys and thus had found a life of sorts working at a bench all day, fashioning simple, wooden playthings. A little Russian boy, of which the camp had a large number, had been assigned to him as his assistant.
                The little boy (let us call him Oleg) kept J in contact with the other people in the camp. A kind of underground network and black market kept the half-starved and sickly prisoners in a state of hope, albeit slight and often dwindling. But the arrival of a Red Cross package from Denmark could suddenly initiate activity in the hidden marketplace that led to, say, an orange for a person with scurvy, a sweater for someone suffering from pneumonia, or something as prosaic as a bath or a bowl of hot, nourishing soup for J. Oleg could get what he needed from the Gestapo, who were not above a trading with their prisoners.
                One day while J was working, Oleg came with a clandestine message: the old Russian who looked after all of the orphans was turning seventy. There would be a party that evening. One person from every nationality had been invited to this otherwise exclusively Russian party in one of the long barracks. J was to represent the Danes. He should look his best; he would be picked up that evening by an escort who would help him get from barracks to barracks without being discovered by the guards.
                At seven that evening a child slipped through the door to the room where J stayed in a long row of bunk beds with the other Danes. The little boy took J's hand and guided him quietly out of the door and through the spaces between the barracks. Crouching, they ran quickly from one dark hiding place to another until they reached the door to the orphans' barracks. After knocking quietly they were swiftly ushered into the room.  (to be continued...)

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