This story, entirely fictional, was inspired by the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who saved 2500 Jewish children from the Nazis.
Grandfather Visser was a dour old Dutchman, but he had an artistic heart. He kept an immaculate English-style garden in a small plot of land. Surrounded by dahlias, evening primrose, foxglove and hollyhock, shorter flowers such as love-in-a-mist, columbine and tea rose, gave way to a groundcover of creeping carnations, hosta and lavender.
A tiny white wrought-iron bench served as theater for the actresses I made out of hollyhocks. I sometimes carried them, singing, as I skipped along the stones leading to the blue door.
I was a curious kid, and felt a bit hurt when I neared the door and was rebuked with a sharp, “stay away from there.” Through dirty windows on each side, I could see hoes and rakes, gardening gloves and baskets Grandfather used when he picked spent blossoms or the occasional impertinent weed. Once I tiptoed around behind the wall and found there was no behind the wall there. The wall backed up to a tall berm that gave way to a concrete wall along the Prinsengracht canal, one of the main canals in Amsterdam.
Yes, I was a curious little girl, but it never occurred to me to ask Grandfather anything more about my parents after he told me they were “Ze zijn met God in de hemel.” (They are with God in Heaven.) Perhaps I was afraid to ask more, as Grandfather choked up when he told me.
Details are hazy, but when I was about 10 years old, I met a lady named Josiena Van Der Weele and was told to go with her. My very few belongs were in a cloth sack like one would take to the market. In the darkest night, we slipped into a light canoe on the North Sea Canal (Noordzeekanal) which took us to the harbor where big ships were boarded. As I said, details are hazy and looking back, I believe Ms. Van Der Weele laced the warm cocoa she gave me with a little something to help me remain quiet.
Once aboard the ship, a sweet couple named Willem and Josephine Bakker took me under their wing and told me I would be living with them from now on. And so I did, living my life in the United States as Sophia Bakker.
When I think back I marvel at my compliance. None of my children or grandchildren ever showed such cooperation.
Everything changed in 1975. I received, by registered courier, a packet from Grandfather Visser’s attorney, notifying me of Grandfather’s death.
In the packet, along with a rusty key, a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam and the deed to Grandfather’s property, I found a cryptic letter from Grandfather. The letter instructed me to open the blue door, carefully lift the gardening gloves off the hook, and proceed.
Grandfather’s attorney met me at the airport and we water-taxied to the place I spent my first ten years. Nothing felt familiar.
I did remember the blue door. The garden was in poor condition, and we had to tear vines away from the door. Fitting the key was one thing, turning it was another. Finally it creaked open.
Wishing I had worn gloves to take hold of the gardening gloves, held together as they were by spider webs, I lifted them from the hook.
Noting clockwise arrows around the hook, I turned it and shrieked when a narrow space opened, just wide enough for me. I almost stepped through, but a string hit me in the face. A light bulb? Yes! A low wattage bulb revealed before me a sharply pitched stairway.
Normally I’m afraid of the dark and scared of narrow spaces, but now my curiosity was in full flare. Blessedly I could hang onto a railing as I descended. Another string pulled and another light came on, revealing…a well-appointed room!
Solid wood beams, a stone floor and walls, and two beds fully made up. They smelled a bit musty of course, but this was crazy.
I sat at a dusty desk and opened the drawer. There I found several journals of people who had been sheltered here from 1938-1945. A heavy vellum envelope, with a red wax seal, addressed in Grandfather’s elegant script read simply, “to Sofia only.”
I slipped a shaky finger under the seal.
As it happens, Grandfather Visser was not my Grandfather after all. He was a shopkeeper whose business was ruined by the Nazis. He witnessed my parents being taken away, and in a moment of reckless bravery, grabbed me and raised me as his own granddaughter.
He lived a quiet life then. The journal wasn’t clear on how he supported himself and me. During that time, and unbeknownst to me, he dug and fitted out this basement cavern and with Ms. Van Der Weele’s help, rescued hundreds of Jewish children, eventually creating an underground passageway to where canoes were secreted for this purpose.
My real name, he told me, is Hannah Deventer, and my parents were Isaac and Sarah. Jews.
I am forever grateful to the man who saved me and whom I will always remember as Grandfather, and to the Bakkers who raised me, and led me to the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, my Messiah.