Herr Bauer’s Holiday is about two people who, by force of circumstance, were obliged to be far apart and to keep silent over decades in ignorance of each other’s continued existence.
However, good fortune brings them together in a way the relationship might be reborn.
It is a work of fiction sprinkled with some events in my life mentioned in the prologue below.
There is a town called Oisterwijk in Noord Brabant, a region of the Netherlands. It was occupied along with the rest of Holland in 1940 after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. The catholic convent, Catharinenberg, is still there in Poirterstraat and during the occupation it was used by the German army as a field dressing station and medical supplies depot. The Leather Factory was commandeered by the Germans from the Jewish owners, Adler and Oppenheimer, for use as the Wehrmacht Food Office, called by its acronym, WVA.
Stationstraat, Dorpstraat and Kerkstraat are streets in the centre of Oisterwijk. I remember Oisterwijk fairly well as I was seconded there for a couple of months during my days in the Royal Air Force in Germany.
The Frauenkirche, Our Lady’s Church, in Munich, is one of the largest catholic cathedrals in Bavaria. There is a legend that when the Frauenkirche was being built in the 14th century the devil made a contract with the master mason. He would not blight the church so long as there were no windows in it. He stood on one leg to watch the building take shape. The mason cheated the devil, hiding the windows by cleverly placing columns along the sight line from where the devil watched. When the devil found out about the deception he disappeared in a plume of flame leaving a burning footmark in the tile where he had stood. This can be seen today and is known as the Devil’s Footprint. I used the name of my Dutch friend, Albert de Groot, for the hotel but all other names of characters are imaginary.
Herr Bauer’s views on religion reflect my own.
Herr Bauer’s Holiday
Lorenz Bauer had always promised himself a holiday if his father should die. A more than modest inheritance in the old boy’s will was now enabling him to take it.
He alighted from the train at Station Oisterwijk in Brabant, Southern Holland and reminded himself that this was to be a holiday in pursuit of nostalgia not penitence. ‘Just history chasing’, he called it. It wasn’t as if he had a lot on his conscience about the war days anyway. He’d just been an ordinary soldier, a Wehrmacht corporal driver in the Transportkorps attached to the Wehrmacht Verpegungs Amt, the Headquarters of the Army Food Office in Oisterwijk.
‘I neither killed nor maimed’, he often told himself though sometimes he felt that he might be guilty of having abetted those who did because of his role in supplying and feeding them. But ‘befehle ist befehle’ was his watchword. ‘Orders is orders’, to use the common military colloquialism.
As he walked down Stationstraat towards Dorpstraat he knew he shouldn’t expect to be familiar with the town after all these years but he was surprised at the extent to which the town centre had changed. This would be the result of post war reconstruction made necessary by the allied air raids. However he found the Hotel Albert de Groote in Dorpstraat had resolutely withstood the bombs though not a change in ownership. There had been just a few superficial changes to the exterior and the place gave him its old feeling of physical and mental comfort living beside the sad knowledge that old Moshe, whose hotel it was, must surely have perished in the holocaust and his daughter Rachel with him.
The hotel lobby had that redolence so typical of hotels in Brabant, an ambient aroma of cigars and gin. The reception desk was unattended when he arrived. He thumped the brass bell for attention and within seconds the manager bustled in. ‘Ah, good morning, Herr Bauer. I’m sorry. You’ve caught us on a change of shift, the afternoon receptionist hasn’t got here yet’, he said. He examined Bauer’s passport very carefully, flicking through every page and thought ‘Here’s another Bosche soldier come to glory in his military misdeeds’.
‘I am Jan Deboik, the manager. Did you have a good journey?’ and without waiting for an answer he went on ‘Your room is number twelve on the first floor and here is your key. I hope you will be comfortable. Please let me know if you have any problems. Dinner is at seven’. Bauer thought Mynheer Deboik had been rather cool with him.
After a shower and a change of clothing Bauer went downstairs to speak to the manager. He noticed that the receptionist was now on duty in the shape of a young man whose appearance struck Lorenz forcibly. Tall, with blonde hair he looked the archetypal Aryan; a member, Bauer thought, a little ashamedly, of the Herrenvolk. But then, everybody knew that the Dutch were a superior racial type to the rest of Europe excepting only the Germans. Even the Reich hadn’t wished to alienate the Dutch too far. Some father must be very proud of such a son.
Brooding on his own childless state he thought of Ulle, unhappy Ulle, he used to call her, his protestant wife of two years. After his disgrace in Oisterwijk and his repatriation to Germany during the war Bauer met Ulle on the rebound after Rachel and contracted a marriage that made them mutually unhappy without there being any throwing of knives at each other. Their union started on the crest of a wave that receded leaving too many incompatibilities on the matrimonial shore.
Bauer, the good catholic even if a lapsed one, wanted children and thought he had a duty to be a father. Ulle said, ‘Times times are too uncertain to bring up a child.’ He didn’t blame her and he never saw her again after she went to live with her sister in Berlin. He didn’t blame himself either and the divorce gave him no problems. He cynically reminded himself that Catholics don’t mind divorce. It’s remarriage that brings the threat of burning and in any case he didn’t want to start any new liaisons.
Failing sight ran in the family; Bauer himself was at that time already beginning to show the early symptoms. His father’s blindness had been increasing. He had known that he would be fully occupied in looking after his old man as time went by. He would have no time to seek a new wife.
As Bauer sat in his hotel room reminiscing about the old days in Oisterwijk, he knew that he must go and see the old leather works, the huge building requisitioned by the Reich where he worked at his post with the army food office and where he had first seen Rachel Pereira, a Jewish woman who was called in when a translator was required. If an urgent translation was necessary he’d be detailed to collect her in his lorry. He had been surprised to note that she was fair and blue eyed and totally unlike the stereotypes of Jews portrayed in the Fatherland. ‘Jewess or not she was she was pretty’, he told himself.
Rachel had, of course, no reason to trust any German though this was before the real crackdown on Jews in Holland began. Bauer found her attractive and gradually wore down her withdrawn behaviour. He thought about her constantly, looked forward to seeing her and realised with a shock that he had become infatuated with her. He would invent trivial ways to call for her language abilities, her native Dutch and almost perfect German.
Lorenz Bauer knew he had to take great care, however. Orders were that troops were not to fraternise even with Dutch women and with Jews it was unthinkable. The trouble was, he thought, they make them so damn beautiful and he was young, single and away from home. His lorry was often seen around the town on official duties and drew no attention when he began to call at the Hotel on errands of a private nature.
She was, she told him, the daughter of the owner of the Hotel Albert de Groot in Dorpstraat. Like all civilians she and her father were finding the times hard because of food and other shortages imposed by the Germans. They felt they were lucky in still retaining the ownership of the hotel especially as they had heard that in Germany Jews were forbidden from any business activities.
In wartime Oisterwijk there had been, from the beginning of the occupation, a flourishing black market operation. Lorenz Bauer’s official job of transporting goods from the railway station to the convent and the Leather Works put him in a perfect position for wheeling and dealing with the civilian population.
Medicines and food were in short supply in Oisterwijk. Bauer was able to do a good deal of unauthorised fetching and carrying in this lucrative triangle. Mainly his role was one of doing favours, a quid pro quo between soldiers who then sold essentials to civilians for whatever they could offer in the form of jewellery and gold not excluding services of a more personal nature.
Even the CO was not averse to a sweetener from time to time. Lorenz found it easy to get a few essential supplies for Rachel and her father. After all it would do no harm for him to ingratiate himself with a woman he fancied. Rachel never asked for anything and the old man showed no acknowledgement of these gifts. He did something far better as far as Bauer was concerned. He turned a blind eye to a member of the Bosche canoodling with his daughter.
Bauer’s motives in seeking the company of Rachel were not at first laudable but as time went on he found himself falling in love with her. ‘Me’, he thought, ‘falling for a bloody Jewess’. It was shortly after he had fallen into this state of grace that became a truly reciprocal love, that Bauer met with his undoing. His black market activities were discovered by the military police though there was no mention of favours to the Pereiras in the charges made.
Hauled before the commandant Bauer found him very reasonable about it all. Of course he had to be. He’d received too many cases of champagne and other high class sweeteners through Bauer’s good offices to be anything else.
‘Well, Private Bauer!’ barked the commandant. Bauer thought it unwise to tell him that he was a corporal though he had guessed the commandant’s drift. ‘We live in difficult times subject to the stress of being here away from the homeland and family. So, I’m going to forgo the formality of a court martial’. Bauer thought, ‘Well, you would, wouldn’t you? The Commandant went on, ‘However, I have to show that justice seems to be done. I am sending you back to Germany for infantry training. Now get out of here and pack your kitbag.. The troop train leaves in twenty minutes. Make sure you’re on it’.
Bauer thought ‘Oh, God! The bloody infantry!’ Still, it was better than he’d expected. He been thinking he was likely to get an immediate despatch to the Russian front. Who knows, the war might be over before his footslogging course was completed. Well, it could be if he could swing the lead a bit while he was on it. What worried him far, far more was leaving behind his beloved mistress.
Back in war torn Munich Bauer was assailed by that weapon of the Catholic Church: the early implanted but ever glowing ember of guilt. This time it was about Rachel with whom there was no safe method of mutual contact. He went to the Frauenkirche where he made confession to Father Brandt.
‘We live in difficult times’ the father began. ‘Here we go again’ thought Bauer. The father continued, ‘My son, the temptations of the flesh are hard to overcome and concupiscence is the usual result for a young man. Here is your penance. You must put this woman out of your mind and you must block memory of her by saying ten Hail Marys every time you think about her. But remember, my son, she is only a Jew’.
After leaving the confessional Bauer stood in the church, one foot in the devil’s footprint, a foot in both camps so to speak, stunned by the Father’s last words. He just could not reconcile himself to them though he knew they were typical of the German catholic attitude towards Jews in Nazi Germany. Here was the beginning of his apostasy.
At the Hotel Albert de Groot Bauer left his room and made his way downstairs. The appearance of the young man in reception again drew his attention. ‘That’s a smart young fellow you have in reception’, said Bauer to the manager masking his interest as a throw-away remark. He looked at the youth thinking that to have had such a son would have been so good. Tall, strong and fair, such a Teutonic appearance. He was too good for that job.
‘Yes. He’s bright alright; I’ll be sorry to lose him. He won’t be able to do that job much longer though’, the manager told him. ‘Surely not a management problem?’ a surprised Bauer asked. ‘No, nothing like that. He’s losing his sight’ said the manager.
A thought that was not yet a thought, not yet formed into words, an almost unnoticeable oscillation of a memory cell, stirred in Bauer’s mind. He shrugged and pulled himself together, ‘What I wanted to ask you about was the old leather works and the convent in Poirterstraat’; he told the manager, ‘Are they still there?’ The manager replied, ‘Oh, see the lad in reception. He studies these old buildings’. Lorenz Bauer turned away towards the reception office and heard the manager call out ‘Lorenz!’ Bauer spun round in astonishment and faced the man.
In Germany people are very touchy on the use of first names. Only long-standing friends would do so and even then the more senior in status would have to make the proposal to refer to each other in this way. However, he saw immediately that the man was not addressing him but was looking at the reception desk. ‘Lorenz! There’s somebody here wants to ask about the old buildings’.
Bauer met him half way, ‘So, you know about the old places then’ he said. ‘Yes, I do’ said the boy in his stilted German. ‘You see when I am boy during the war Mother tell me how my father in the German army work in the Catharinenberg. Always she tells me she is still loving him very much after all these years and Mutti never married. He was kind man who loved her but I never am meeting him. You see my father is sent back to Germany and it is never possible to hear from him again. The war, you know’.
Bauer felt as if his head would burst, his heart beating fast like a drum. ‘Lorenz, please tell me your family name’, he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘Oh, it is not common now in Nederland. It is Jewish name and is Pereira’. Bauer was hit by realisation that he had come here to chase his past and his past had chased him and won the race.
He grabbed the back of a chair for support before almost falling into it. The last cog in the wheel had slipped into place. ‘Lorenz, I have many questions to ask you, many things to share with you and your mother’, he whispered in anguish. Father faced son and though this was no confessional box, no smell of old incense pervading a musty curtain, Lorenz Bauer prepared himself for his annunciation.