SOMETIMES human beings are hard to like. We are selfish, cruel, and greedy. We foul the earth. We exterminate other species. (We've got tigers down to about 4,000, meanwhile increasing our own numbers more than that every hour.) We are full of self-pity.
In an anti-heroic age such as the present, any sense of human niceness is especially hard to come by. Our literature is devoted to deriding concepts like courage and self- sacrifice; our biographers specialize in revealing that persons previously thought to be heroes had feet, ankles, and even thighs of clay--and were probably hollow, to boot. Depressing.
Henriette Roosenburg's The Walls Came Tumbling Down is a splendid antidote to all this. Here is a book full of utterly unself-conscious heroism. Here is an author who shows in the most matter-of-fact way just how generous and brave human beings can be. She even shows, without particularly meaning to, that patriotism can be a solemn and lofty thing--it may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but under the right circumstances it is also the first thought of heroes. Best of all, her story is both true and well-told.
Henriette Roosenburg, a middle-class Dutch girl with a fondness for literature, was a graduate student when World War II came along. She became a courier in the Dutch resistance movement, code name Zip. In 1944 she was caught and condemned to death.
But the Nazis didn't immediately execute everyone they sentenced. Some they kept as prisoners, for possible killing later. Such prisoners were in a sense officially dead already, and they were universally known as the Nacht und Nebel or Night and Fog people. NN's formed the lowest class of prisoners to be found in German jails and camps. The top class was German criminals--your ordinary murderer or thief. Then came black marketers and other criminals from the occupied countries. Third were political prisoners, "ranging from the unfortunate innocent who had been denounced for listening to the BBC to the active resistance member who had been caught in the act of sabotage, of distributing an illegal newspaper, of sheltering Jews," or any other forbidden thing. The politicals were harshly treated, but they did have some rights, such as the right to go on sick call.
Finally came the Nacht und Nebels, with no rights at all. Whenever enough cells were available, they were kept in solitary confinement. They got no mail, no medical attention, few amenities (Zip was allowed to bathe three times in eight months), very little food.
But Zip is not writing a book about her sufferings in prison, any more than she is about her heroism in the underground. (Her entire description of her job before she was caught is to mention casually that she transmitted information about German troop movements to London, "and occasionally helped Allied pilots when they happened to get stuck.") This is a book about what happened after the war ended, and it is profoundly moving.
When the war ended, Zip was in prison in the little Saxon town of Waldheim. Like other NNs, she existed on a slice of bread in the morning, a bowl of thin soup at noon, a slice of bread and an ounce of cottage cheese or ersatz jam in the evening. Plus every couple of weeks a few potatoes.
To be a little more cruel, the prison guards in Waldheim gave out both slices of bread in the evening. By bitter experience, the prisoners learned that they had to save one of the two slices overnight, or next morning's hunger pangs were simply unendurable. Not easy to save a slice of bread for 12 hours when you're starving.
It was the Russians who freed her. Their army came into Waldheim on May 6, 1945. At that time there were 32 surviving female NNs in the prison, a small number of male NNs, and many hundreds of politicals and ordinary criminals.
In keeping with their non-status, the female NNs were in the most obscure part of the women's wing. When Russian soldiers came and began unlocking the cells, they did not unlock the NN cells. They did not know about them. Others surged out; the NNs banged vainly on their doors. "The noise in the prison swelled to a mighty roar, wave following wave, around us, near us, and yet not near enough."
This moment is when the human spirit begins to shine. Just as they are in despair, there was "a rush of wooden sandals on the staircase and shrill French voices shouting, 'Les condamn,es Ma mort, les condamn,es Ma mort!' The French politicals had not forgotten us; they were coming to our rescue."
Soon the NNs are out in the corridor--and like every other starved prisoner in Waldheim, they are tottering toward where they think the kitchens must be. At that moment the lights go out, and in the darkness pandemonium begins. There could have been a scene of mass trampling as the prisoners, "mad with the first taste of freedom," and really almost crazed with hunger, fought on toward the kitchens.
But at this moment one of the French politicals began to sing the Marseillaise. Henriette Roosenburg writes, "I have always loved the Marseillaise, and if ever I wanted to sing it, this was the moment. Yet I kept respectfully silent, for at the moment I felt they had an exclusive right to it."
Then jammed there together in the dark, these starving people sang their national songs one by one: the Poles, the Czechs, the Belgians, the handful of Dutch. "It was the most solemn moment in my life, barring none. It was also the best thing that could have happened psychologically. It pulled us together, changed us from hungry animals into human beings with a purpose and a pride. The old spirit of the resistance, dulled and deadened by endless months of starvation and dehumanization, came alive again; the pushing and pulling stopped and we were courteous to one another. In the darkness a hand came across and pushed a slice of bread into my hand. I said, 'No, no, keep it,' and a voice next to me whispered, 'No, it's yours, I stole it from your blanket, I'm sorry.' I took the bread and started eating it."
Once the lights come back, the prisoners make their way in moderate order to the kitchens, which they find the German criminals who did the cooking have fortified. (There is not a guard in sight.) Ignoring a dozen or so Russian soldiers who are lying on the floor copulating with some of the well-fed women from the two upper classes of prisoners, the politicals and the NNs pry loose a good deal of food, and then set about organizing themselves into national groups, making flags, and thinking about how they will get home.
From that point of view, it is very bad luck for the Western Europeans that the Russians got there first. The Russians are going to let no one through their lines. The Czechs and Poles don't have to cross; and over the next week most of them are able to leave for home, as they gradually recover the strength to walk. But the Westerners are stuck. The rumor is that the Russians will herd them into a camp, ship them to Odessa, and then decide what to do. Meanwhile, they continue living in the prison.
The Dutch group is tiny. It consists of four women and one man, a young merchant seaman named Dries. (He was condemned to death for attempting to get to England in a small boat in 1944.)
One of the four women, Fafa, is crippled with arthritis, unable even to stand up. She has had, of course, no treatment of any kind, not even an aspirin to ease the pain. It is because of her that the next piece of heroism arises.
On the sixth day of their freedom, a miracle occurs. An American army convoy of six trucks rumbles into Waldheim. Word has reached the West of the prisoners here, and quite illegally the convoy has come to get them. The Russians occasionally wink at the no-crossing-the-lines rule for fellow soldiers.
There are more Western prisoners than there is room in the trucks--even though you can get a lot of 80- and 90-pound adults into one truck. But Zip and her friends found the trucks early. They could easily have gotten on. There is no possible room for Fafa, however, nor could she have endured the ride over the shattered roads in any case. Right now she is lying in one of the remote NN cells--there is not even any way to carry her out of the prison. They will not abandon her to probable death. All five Dutch stay behind, knowing it may mean months or years in Odessa.
In the rest of the book, Henriette Roosenburg tells how they got Fafa safely placed in a civilian hospital run by an icy but honorable Prussian doctor, and how the other four set out to evade the Russians and get home. Many books are called odysseys; this one truly is. Even in the literal sense that it's a trip by water. Holland is a country of canals and rivers, and it came naturally to these four Dutch people to head for the river Elbe, where they hope to steal a boat. (Their finding two Dutch barges trapped on the Elbe by broken bridges, and their reception by the skippers of those two barges brought tears to my eyes, I suppose for the fourth or fifth time. It's nice to feel proud of human beings.)
But there are more than tearful scenes in this book. There's everything. There are scenes where Zip and the others have their chance at revenge on the prison guards, and do or don't take it. There are scenes with the Russians that make you both love and get furiously exasperated with that mercurial people. There's even humor, such as the scene in a German house where they have pushed their way in to spend the night. One woman in the house, herself a half-crazed refugee from Allied bombing, can't rest until she finds out which of the three young women Dries is sleeping with. (The answer is none, in the sense that she means it. They have been too terribly starved. "None of us girls had menstruated for six months; Dries, after the first two nights of cuddling up close for lack of space, had confided that we didn't have to worry because, much as he loved the atmosphere, he couldn't have an erection.")
But that answer would be unacceptable to the romantic housewife.
"All right, Zip," said Dries resignedly, "let's be married for one night, but let's tuck the girls in first."
When the book ends, Zip is home; and she is giving her mother as a present the one personal possession she had in prison: a six-inch square cut from her own underpants on which she had painstakingly embroidered a miniature history of her whole captivity. (Many of the NNs who survived helped keep their sanity with secret and illegal embroidery--and there were times when a starving man would trade a scrap of his tiny food allowance for six inches of thread of a color he needed.)
Zip's mother collapses in tears. "You couldn't have done this," she sobbed, "you never even knew in which hand to hold a needle."
This is a book that makes you realize human beings can do practically anything. And it makes you glad we exist, glad the universe contains such creatures.
A Note on Availability: The Walls Came Tumbling Down is out of print. Libraries or second-hand book stores might be able to turn up a copy.