War Story

Fredric M. Menger

Writer Fred Menger at his desk in his writing studio

Writer Fred Menger

Kay Hinton

In a way, Peter Van Etten was a lucky man. He had such a bad limp from a childhood accident, and his eyes required such thick glasses, that the Germans, desperate though they were for practically anyone, decided not to ship him to Germany to work in one of their factories. A half-million men from occupied Holland had been less fortunate; many of them died in Germany from maltreatment or as a result of the intense Allied bombing raids toward the end of World War II.

Not that Peter felt particularly lucky as he was limping slowly toward home along one of the many canals in Amsterdam. His 35 years of life had never been easy. At the moment, however, he preferred to reflect not on the past but on the main problem at hand, namely the German occupation. The Germans were becoming increasingly brutal in order to suppress a growing resistance movement. People caught with anti-Nazi tracts, for example, were shot on sight. Destruction of an army vehicle could mean the death of a dozen innocent persons in reprisal. The war was going on and on, and food was getting scarce. Ultimate victory by the Allies was by no means a certainty. Peter wanted badly to do his share for the Resistance, but he could not figure out how to help. He could barely walk, or see.

Peter considered the possibilities. Thousands of Dutch citizens were working for the cause by hiding Jews, downed Allied pilots, and political enemies of the Nazis, but this was out of the question for Peter. He lived by himself in a one-room flat and, on his lowly civil service salary, could hardly feed himself let alone a person in hiding.

Actually, it is not quite true that Peter lived by himself. He lived with a small spotted cat named Hans. How Peter loved that cat! And, it really seemed, the cat loved him back with equal fervor. Perhaps the mutual love stemmed from the lonely lives they both led. Hans, confined to the flat except for daily walks on a leash with Peter, had no more intimate contact with his own kind than Peter had with his. Their love for each other was borne out of a deep need to touch something animate, something warm and soft.

As a precaution, Peter had arranged with a neighbor to take care of Hans in case the cat should be orphaned. In turn, Peter would take care of the neighbor’s canary. Deals like that were struck throughout war-torn Holland.

Other possibilities for helping the cause crossed Peter’s mind as he trudged along the canal with four blocks still to go. His thoughts wandered to the underground press that had been performing a vital function for the Resistance: its newspaper informed the populace of encouraging war developments that otherwise were made unavailable. Everybody’s morale was bolstered as a consequence. But Peter could hardly imagine his own participation in this important, and highly risky, enterprise. With his poor eye-sight, how could he hope to set type? And with his limp, how could he cover enough ground to distribute newspapers? Peter cursed, for the millionth time, his physical disabilities.

Peter really wanted, if the truth be known, to play a role in the more heroic undertakings of the resistance. At night, for example, the resistance would raid German offices and steal files with the names of people about to be arrested and sent to concentration camps. On occasion, the resistance workers would be confronted by soldiers, and folks would get killed on the spot, or else be arrested, tortured for information, and then killed. Peter would, more as a mental game than anything, imagine himself with his resistance comrades breaking into an office building, subduing a German guard, loading up files in a bag, and rushing—under the cover of dark—to a home where the files would be burned while resistance women, full of admiration, would serve what little precious coffee they had on hand. One of the women would give Peter a hug and thank him for his bravery.

Peter had to smile to himself as the imagery of his heroism took hold more realistically: “Peter, we know it’s dark, but please look where you are going and don’t make so much noise bumping into files.” Or “Peter, could you walk a little faster, we need to get out of here in a hurry.” He could not help but recognize the incongruity perpetrated by his imagination. Peter, the fearless. Peter, the saboteur. Peter, the invalid.

Peter had two long blocks remaining to reach his flat. He longed to be there, out of the cold and with Hans greeting him at the door. He would fix, for both Hans himself, the usual dinner of potatoes and cheese and perhaps a tulip bulb or two. The potatoes were small and had brown centers because the better ones had all been confiscated by the occupying troops. Yet Peter was planning a dinner that would be special because, he decided, today he would finish the dinner off with a fresh tea-bag. Generally, a single tea-bag was used for a week or more, and by the end of the week the tea became tasteless. After dinner, with Hans curled up in his lap, Peter would play the flute. He played skillfully many of the common classics as well as Irish tunes which, he felt, sounded particularly good on the flute. More often than not, however, Peter would play long, mournful songs of his own composition. The songs mirrored his loneliness, his pain, his seemingly hopeless, empty life. Sometimes the melodies were too much for Peter, and he had to stop playing and wipe his eyes.

After flute-time came the favorite part of the day for Hans the cat. Peter would place a leash on him and take him for a walk. Neighbors smiled at the sight of Peter and Hans, connected by a rope, slowly making their way along the drab city streets.

With only one block to go, Peter stopped and gazed at a notice that the Germans had just posted on a telephone pole. It read, “All men between the ages of 18 and 45 must register with the German authorities”. Had Peter been able to reach the notice, he would have gladly ripped it down. As he was about to move on, his attention was drawn to a group of people just on the other side of the canal. A family of four was being ushered into an automobile by two German soldiers. The father looked forlorn and helpless; the mother was weeping; and the children were too young to understand what was happening. No words were ever spoken that Peter could hear. The family simply disappeared, in all likelihood never to be seen again. Peter was enraged. What had this family ever done to anyone? What possible threat could this family be to the Third Reich? How dare they do this?

Peter stood there staring blankly at the now empty street. He could hardly breathe. Since childhood he had felt inadequate, unable to do anything to combat the injustices against himself and others that he witnessed on a regular basis. And now this, the ultimate injustice displayed before him. But all he did was stand by and watch. His feelings of impotency were intolerable.

Upon reaching his flat, Peter cooked the potato and cheese dinner. Hans ate with his usual appetite, but Peter could not finish his meal. He simply sat there, mulling over and over in his mind what he had just seen. Hans, sensing something wrong, rubbed his body against Peter’s leg. “I could have yelled ‘Nazi swine!’ at the soldiers,” Peter said to himself (he often talked to himself), “but that would not have saved the family.” Suddenly, Peter got up, put on his jacket, grabbed a kitchen chair, and carried it outdoors to the telephone pole on which he had seen, posted eight feet up, the German notice. Peter placed the chair against the pole, climbed up on the chair, and ripped off the notice. After tossing the crumpled notice into the gutter, Peter decided to investigate whether other notices had been posted one block further down the street. Dragging his chair to the next block was difficult for Peter, and he sweated profusely despite the cold. On-lookers must have wondered what that strange-looking spectacled man was doing limping down a street carrying a chair. Upon finding no further notices, Peter made his way home where he fell on his bed exhausted. He knew full well that the Germans, expecting such vandalism, had on hand at least two notices to replace each that was torn down. Nonetheless, Peter felt he had done something to alleviate the frustration in his soul with himself and with the world.

That night, unable to sleep, Peter began thinking of his childhood. He was the only child of poor but kindly parents who did what they could for their son. At great sacrifice, they bought him a flute. What he really needed, however, was something they could not afford: proper medical attention for his leg. Since he was unable to play football or to ice-skate with the other boys, and since he had to content himself with more sedentary and individual activities, he became sort of an outcast. Other children were cruel to him, knowing that he was a weak specimen and unlikely to give a bully a good thrashing.

Many instances of childhood injustices were permanently fixed in Peter’s memory. Once a schoolmate made off with Peter’s lunch; complaints to the teacher did no good. Another time Peter was not allowed on a school trip to the polders because the teachers thought he would slow down the group too much. Peter was always picked last on the spelling teams even though he was one of the best spellers in the class. Peter admitted, even as a child, that this was all relatively minor stuff. That wasn’t the point, however. The point was that he was unable to think of any action that might have helped alleviate his situation except to withdraw further from his peers. He felt helpless even back then.

Peter’s parents did do one thoughtless thing: they died almost simultaneously when he was only 20. Peter was left alone to fend for himself.

By the time morning arrived, Peter had sifted through in his mind not only various childhood experiences but all sorts of plans of action against the Germans. Although most of plans he had concocted were unrealistically heroic, one in particular seemed feasible. If he could not help the resistance directly, he might instead fake an interest in joining the Dutch citizens who collaborated with the Germans. As a sort of double-agent, he would then be able to report to the Resistance the names of collaborators. The Resistance had a special way of dealing with collaborators.

It should be mentioned that only a small portion of the population, less than 5%, collaborated with the Germans. Apparently, in any country there will always be a small group willing to do the worst for a perceived personal gain. In the case of Holland, collaborators caused the death of a large number of their countrymen. Aware of this problem, and anxious not to draw attention to themselves from neighbors, households that hid families were careful not to hang out too much laundry or buy too much bread from a single baker… acts that might draw suspicion.

But how, Peter wondered, would he gain the confidence of the Germans? Obviously, he could not disclose and sacrifice any of the families that he suspected were in hiding just to win favor with the Germans. And then it occurred to him that he could report the family that he saw arrested the previous day. It would make no difference to the family, and the Germans, not realizing that he knew of the arrest, might consider this a bona fide attempt to help them.

Peter went the same day to the German administrative offices to report, in his semi-fluent German, a family in hiding. Upon telling a receptionist what he wanted to do, Peter was admitted to a small room in which two German officers were seated at desks. Standing before them, Peter told about the family and gave their address. The Germans checked a record book and replied, “You’re too late, we already have them. If you find out about any others, tell us immediately.” Peter, prepared for this response, then played his hand: “Are there others who don’t like Jews whom I might contact to compare information?” The Germans replied, “There are many, of course, but you do not need to know who they are. Now return to your Dutch infantry unit where you belong.” Peter exited the room as the German officers were howling with laughter.

Peter’s plan, he realized, had been pathetically weak, and his failure came as no surprise to him. Nonetheless, he felt better about himself because, for the first time in 35 years, he had at least attempted to strike back.

Peter’s feeling of impotency returned as the weeks rolled by. Each day he would come home from his boring civil service job and spend the evening concocting wild plans for making the life of the Germans a bit more miserable. In the absence of any friends, his current day-dreams usually found him acting by himself. Peter Van Etten, the lone saboteur, the German nemesis, arch-enemy of the Third Reich. It became almost an obsession. He once considered fire-bombing the German administrative offices with a bottle of gasoline. But this plan was abandoned when he realized that, were he successful, the Germans would no doubt shoot a group of citizens in retribution, and he could not live with this on his conscious. No, he would have to somehow undermine the Germans without their realizing they had been undermined.

Finally, after weeks of deliberation with himself, Peter arrived at another plan. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was a start. He would sneak behind the German administrative offices, where Kübelwagens (the German version of the American jeep) were parked, and pour sugar into the gas tank of one of the vehicles. Simple, feasible, effective, and unlikely to bring on reprisals. The Germans would not know, after all, why one of their Kübelwagens was inoperative.

Peter estimated his project would require a half kilo of sugar, and therein lay a major problem. He did not have the food stamps to legally buy half a kilo of sugar. The sugar would have to be purchased on the black market, but he lacked the money for such an expensive item. Peter possessed only two items that he could pawn for the purpose: a crystal bowl that he had inherited from his mother, and his flute. Although the crystal bowl had great sentimental value for Peter, and he hated to part with it, pawning the flute was out of the question. He could not live without with his flute. So Peter pawned his crystal bowl for one-fifth of its real value, giving him enough money for the sugar plus a small piece of bacon for Hans and himself.

On a moonless night, Peter slowly made his way along the unlit streets of Amsterdam to the German offices and the vehicles parked behind them. He was both terrified and exhilarated at what he was doing. He only wished that he could tell someone else about his project, that he could share its excitement with just one other human being. All he had done in this regard was relate his plans to Hans as Hans was sitting and purring in his lap. With the bag of sugar in hand, Peter was about two blocks from the office building, when three youth, no older than 18, approached him in the gloom.

“What have you got there, my friend?” asked one of the teenagers.

“Nothing. Leave me alone,” Peter replied.

“Well, let’s just see,” said a second teenager, tearing the bag of sugar from Peter’s hand.

“Hmmm, sugar. How sweet of you to bring us this.”

“Give it back,” Peter cried, “I need it.”

“Don’t we all,” one of the teenagers said.

“Thieves!” Peter shouted.

“No, we are not thieves. We’re just borrowing this sugar. Come back here tomorrow, and we’ll return it. Bring some more while you’re at it.” So the three youth disappeared with the sugar and with Peter’s dream of ever bringing a little significance to his dreary life.

The following weeks were terrible for Peter. No longer could he realistically hope to contribute anything to the cause. No longer could he even achieve any vicarious satisfaction through day-dreaming. Whenever he conjured up admiration from his countrymen for a particularly heroic deed of his, something inside him said, “Who are you kidding, Peter?”

One evening Peter was walking Hans on a rope near his flat. Two German officers, who happened by, stopped to gaze at the comical pair. Hans let out a snarl, whereupon one of the officers kicked Hans so hard he went flying through the air. Peter lost all control. Hurt me, ridicule me, kill me—but don’t you ever touch my cat! Peter lunged at the officer and grabbed the revolver from the startled soldier’s holster. In the ensuing confusion, Peter managed to shoot the officer in the leg. The other officer, without hesitation, pulled out his own revolver and shot Peter in the chest. “Dutch pig,” the German muttered. Peter lay on the ground with only a short time to live, while the wounded German, clutching his leg, was screaming beside him. Peter had a few moments left to reflect about how he had knocked a German soldier out of commission. If every Dutchman, every Frenchman, every Norwegian had done the same, the war would be over. Content in the fact that he finally he had done his part, Peter Van Etten died on the pavement, but not before gasping out a command to his cat: “Run Hans, run!”

Hans the cat did indeed make a dash for the flat, his leash dragging behind him. When Peter’s neighbor heard Han’s meowing in the hallway, he opened his door to find Hans all alone. A pet on a leash without its owner could mean only one thing in those days, so the neighbor brought Hans into the flat and fed him a big meal. Afterwards, the neighbor took Hans outside, removed the leash, and released the cat to fend for himself thereafter in the alleys of Amsterdam. His descendants are probably roaming the same alleys to this very day.

One should not think too badly of the neighbor for failing to keep his promise to Peter. After all, the neighbor had a family and could not afford to feed another mouth, not even that of a small animal.

Email the editor