Amsterdam. October 2018
Gert hobbled the short distance from his large mahogany desk to the door of his workshop, the familiar sound of the bells overhead chiming and clattering as he hefted and pulled it towards him. He displayed the ‘Closed’ sign in the window, sat down behind the desk again and removed the magnifying eye glass from his right eye. He leaned forward slightly, and with a sigh of satisfaction, reached out to flick his old hourglass over, and watch the dark volcanic sand trickle through its pinched, narrow middle.
Gert loved the mechanical beauty of anything with the ability to be turned, wound, twisted or cranked into action, from a static, or lifeless position. Like the butterfly flapping its wings, to create the hurricane, Gert knew that every time a bicycle, church or tram bell was rung, or the handle of a street organ cranked, new life and energy and identity was being breathed into the city, his beloved Amsterdam. His greatest love though, was music, and his gift was the ability to fashion a violin with a sweet vibrato, or a cello with a deeply sonorous thrum.
This day was different in one respect. Gert was retiring. He had decided one year ago that his ninetieth birthday would be the day, and it had finally arrived. For some time, he had been aware that time was running out for him and his ilk. Factories had long since been producing very playable instruments, and in these busy times, few wanted to wait for years while Gert whittled and perfected a customised instrument.
His business had, for some time revolved around the repair and sourcing of antique cellos and violins. The people who lived in the tall narrow canal houses and the houseboats in the old town, his old town, appreciated such things, but Gert’s days of trawling the shops, markets, auctions and antique fairs, were gone. His legs were stiff, and his stock had dwindled. It was time, indeed it was, he thought, with no hint of regret or self pity, as he watched the last drops of sand drain from the upper half of the glass.
As he awaited the arrival of his nephew Luuk, who had insisted that there should be a celebration, Gert’s mind wandered back to a place where it had gone with trepidation every time he had closed his eyes to go to sleep at night, but to where he had never fully entered. Now was the time. Gert would tell Luuk everything, and the unfinished business would be completed. He was sure of it.
War in The Netherlands; 1942
The village of Diemen, located approximately 6 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam, was the birthplace of Gert’s mother, and the place where his father, a time-served instrument maker in his own right, had opened a small business by the waterway after their marriage. After the German invasion in 1940, his father had been forced to abandon his business, and cycle to and from Amsterdam each day to work in a large mill and bakery.
Gert’s mother worried about the frequent bombings. All day long she worried. Allied or German, it was all the same. She worried about a bomb falling on their house, or on the school. or on their heads as they walked or cycled along the canal. The clock was ticking. Nothing was sacred, no-one was safe, and there was much discussion about moving to Amsterdam. Safety in numbers, she had said. Nothing was discussed openly, as it would not do for anyone to know of their comings and goings and allegiances in these treacherous times. And so, when the day arrived in May 1942, the move was executed in a quiet and business-like way, with no time for deliberation about packing or belongings.
Gert was fourteen years old at the time. He loved his Opa and his lofty canal-side house with the ornately scrolled bell gable. Inside, there was the aroma of newly carved wood, the fascinating array of stringed instruments in various sizes, the mechanical monkeys, clocks, pocket watches, and all the other magical items that had held him in thrall since his early childhood visits.
By May 1942 it had become clear that the pogroms had devastated most of the Jewish families, except for those who had gone into hiding, or had managed to escape across the land or sea borders to safety. Many non-Jewish households had been compliant in the hiding, and on Gert’s arrival at his grandfather’s residence in Amsterdam, there stood a child of eight or nine years old, alarmed by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, crying, and hugging a tired old cloth rabbit.
Gert’s father was of course the architect of this move, and he was now disposed to tell his wife and son of the tragedy of the orphaned Jewish boy. It would not be necessary or safe to disclose too many details. The less you knew, the better.
Gert jolted himself out of his reverie, finished his exquisite Appeltaart, placed his dainty fork on the plate and looked out through the café window towards the still canal. He saw a population at peace in 2018, going about their business on upright bikes with tinkling bells, filled baskets and trailers. He turned to look at his nephew and smiled. Luuk placed his arm around the old man’s shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze.
“Let’s be having it then Uncle Gert, what do you want to tell me? If you think I don’t know that the Jewish boy you grew up with is my father, well I have to tell you, I’ve known that for years. You’ll always be a real uncle to me though”
“You don’t know as much as you think, young man. Let’s go, we’ve got a lot of stairs to climb, and I’ve got a new life to begin. Haven’t got all day.”
Gert and Luuk finally reached the 4th and final floor, the attic room. The two narrow single beds were still there, placed side by side, leaving little room for movement for both men. The flat airless dampness of the atmosphere tugged at their lungs. Curiosity made Luuk lift the tiny latch of a small under-eave cupboard behind one of the beds, and peer inside. Only darkness. He reached inside and dragged an armful of limp, cold blankets onto the bed.
There was boys clothing too, and an old cloth rabbit. One of the shirts still bore the faded and mouldy yellow Star of David. Luuk turned away quickly, pulled and rattled at the large sash window until it opened. He took a gasp of air, and closed it again quickly, as if wary of old enemy eyes.
Gert sat slumped but expressionless, and motioned Luuk towards the opposite bed, bidding him to smooth his hand over the wooden panel behind him. A false wall, a sliding panel door. It still clicked and slid with the mechanical precision that Gert loved, and that his Grandfather had mastered in his joinery back in 1942.
Luuk could make out the slope of the eaves, and with some difficulty, he crawled into the dark musty space, as motioned by Gert. It contained a narrow mattress and an old blanket and pillow. Luuk pictured the panic on his father’s face when, as a child, he slid quietly into that dark restricted place every time he heard the tinkling overhead doorbell. The same one that still faithfully announced all the comings and goings downstairs. There was something else further along the narrow space, and as Luuk’s vision adapted to the darkness, his brain slowly made sense of the object.
“Well?” said Gert. I reckon you’ve served your time now. You play very well, and you have the skills to restore this beauty, but we have to help it find its way home.”
Luuk slowly manoeuvred a dusty and cracked cello from the hiding place. He looked at Gert, then back at the instrument, his eyes searching for an explanation.
“You have heard of Benedict Jacobs?”
“Famous cellist, disappeared in 1942”
“Your Grandfather.” Said Gert, “My father fetched the cello from his house, and brought it here on the canal along with your father. He made it. He gave you your unique intuition as instrument maker and musician”
“No! My father was the boy without a name, he was found wandering in the street!”
“It was pre-arranged.” said Gert, head bowed. “It wasn’t safe. My father told me just before he died. It was the times we were living in, and then there was only me. I should have told you…”
“Jacobs! My name is Jacobs,” Luuk said, gently tracing a letter ‘J’ through the dust on the cello and gently placing the other hand on Gert’s shoulder.
Diemen was covered with snow. The massive tree had been draped with strings of twinkling white bulbs, and the Christmas market was in full swing. There was a hint of pink in the wintery sky, and quite a number of people had gathered in the town square, eyes fixed on the lofty church tower. The bells pealed, richly musical and mellow as always. The clock struck four, then, at last the opera house doors opened. It was time. The posters outside read “Cello Concerto by Diemen’s precious son Luuk Jacobs”, and the crowd filed in.