For children, but not only for them
Almost 35 years ago Eugene van der Heijden was asked to read a Christmas story at a Christmas gathering for children. He came up with the idea to write it himself. After all, he had experienced it himself ……
During Christmas night 1942, he, accompanied by his father who later died in Bergen-Belsen, escorted a woman and her three children across the Dutch-Belgian border. Helpful marechaussees who were also active in the pilot help group accompanied them. Together they succeeded in bringing about a happy reunion in Brussels with the father of the children who was already there after having escaped from Westerbork. A Christmas story for children, but definitely not only for them.
The White Christmas Night
By Eugene van der Heijden, The Escape Nieuwsbulletin, No. 71, December 1991
Christmas stories seldom actually happened. And when they really did happen, then people did not believe them. That was already so 2000 years ago and it will remain that way. That is to say: it is always the good people who do not believe it. The bad people are a lot smarter. Just look at Herodes. He believed immediately in the birth of the Child and that the world would change. That’s why he sent his soldiers there. Ordinary people – and that includes the innkeepers in Bethlehem – did not believe in it. And they left Joseph and Maria standing in the cold. Fortunately, there always are a few believing shepherds who help poor wanderers like Joseph and Maria.
That happened almost 2000 years ago. And when we now celebrate Christmas we remember the happy events that then took place. But that is not all. We should also remember all the events during which people of good will rescued hunted wanderers and protected them from the evil of their pursuers. What happened that Christmas night repeats itself constantly all over the world. That is difficult for us to realize when we sit here in warm surroundings, protected from rain and wind, cold and snow.
But not so very long ago – your fathers and mothers know about that very well – there was a cold winter with lots of snow and ice during which people had to huddle closely around the stove because they had so little coal left to burn. And outside wandered hunted people who just like Joseph and Maria were told to go away wherever they knocked on a door. Not that the people in those warm homes were so evil, no not that. Really evil people are very few. They were only afraid. It was in December 1942.
A mother with her three small children was hiding in a small attic room in Amsterdam. The youngest was five and the oldest was nine. Outside the evil soldiers hunted for Jewish people so that they could take them away and kill them, just like 2000 years ago the evil soldiers of King Herodes searched throughout Bethlehem. The father already had managed to escape from the city. He was now in another country where it was safer than here. There he waited hoping that his wife and children would be able to escape.
The people who had helped him in his escape had promised him that they would do everything possible to bring his wife and children to him. In the meantime it was now December and very cold. The mother with the children succeeded in escaping from the city but they had not been able to get any further away than a small village near the border of the country. And they would need to cross that border in order to reach safely. For a man on his own that was not so difficult. It was easy for him to hide in the brush when the evil soldiers came by searching for escapees. He would even be able to run away quickly if they spotted him. Perhaps he could run faster than soldiers wearing heavy boots. And then it was less likely that their bullets would hit him. But for a mother with three children – two girls and a very little boy – that was not so easy. And the good people who wanted to help her did not really know how to do that. Up till now they had only helped big people in crossing the border. And they knew very well that this would be much more difficult, perhaps even impossible.
In addition, the temperature had dropped a lot, the air was clear and at night the full moon shone above the woods and the fields so that you could be seen from a great distance. They were all very sad about that.
Until it was the day before Christmas. The day before it had already become cloudy but now the snow started to fall. It had already started when people awoke that morning and it continued in ever increasing intensity. And when it had become evening and nightfall the fields and roads were hidden under a heavy layer of snow, so thick that you could hardly walk through it anymore. And all the snow flakes in the air hid the light from the moon. Nobody went outside. Everyone huddled close to their warm stove. “Wonderful” said the children “a white Christmas”. And some of the older people who were still children at heart also said “Yes, wonderful”.
And they went outside to throw snowballs and make a snow man. But most of the people said:”Oh, how dirty. And it is so cold. We stay inside”. And that is exactly what the evil soldiers who were searching for poor escapees said. They remained inside their guard houses, stirred up the fire or went to sleep. Because who would be crazy enough to try and cross the border in this weather?
And that is why the mother and her three children started their trip to that safe other country. Two good soldiers wearing overcoats which almost reached the ground and protected them from the cold, showed the way and two other men were there to carry the children when they became tired. And so they walked the difficult kilometers through the woods and the fields, on trails deeply covered in snow on the way to the place where the evil people could not harm them.
Sometimes, one of the children would cry from the cold because they did not have warm coats. Then one of the good soldiers would pick it up and hide it under his great coat. And so it was hiding like a little chicken under the feathers of the mother chicken. Evil soldiers would not be able to hear them crying and it would be nice and warm in there. And after many hours of effort the mother and her children reached the safe country.
Because of the heavy white snow no evil soldier spotted them. One of the men accompanied the mother to the large city where her husband, the father of her children, was waiting for them. The two good soldiers and the other good man made the return trip to their village through all the snow. When they arrived there, people were just going to midnight mass.
“What a pity about the clocks” one person said. “Yes” said the other one “they have made canons from them”. “You really miss them during Christmas mass” said a third person. On their way home the three men did not miss the clocks. Deep in their hearts they could hear them more beautiful than ever. And they knew for certain that this would for ever be the most beautiful Christmas night of their lives. It could never be whiter.
Translated by Dan van Alderwerelt
March 25, 2009.