WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, a novel by Daniel R. Gould
May, 1940, Amsterdam
Isaac de Vries had heard that his art dealer Jacques Goudstikker had disappeared. It had happened only days after the German Nazi Army had invaded the Netherlands. He was a very good art dealer. Especially, in the sense, that he encouraged people to buy art by saying that anyone living in a modern house should have a least one Dutch master, "It's craziness to believe that a modern human being should live between bicycle tubes and dental instruments" was a quote attributed to him. And why should he feel it necessary to leave? Yes, he was Jewish, but he was very well connected and at all levels of the Dutch society. Hadn't he seen, years ago, a photo of Queen Wilhelmina and Goudstikker standing together at an opening reception at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum? Hadn´t the Queen knighted him?
De Vries could not imagine that he had anything to be concerned about. Sure, he was Jewish. But that was only an ancestorial ethnic designation. Both sides of his family had been in Holland for centuries. They had come as immigrants; Portugese Jews escaping the Inquisition. He, himself, ate shrimp, loved lobster, and was known to eat katenspek, made from pig meat, from time-to-time. Of course, he attended synagogue, but that was more for business and social reasons than anything having to do with the religious.
But, still, perhaps, Goudstikker knew something he didn't. He had left quickly leaving behind both his gallery inventory and his personal collection. Isaac thought it might be wise to take a few precautions. By trade, he was a diamond trader. And a very well respected one. He earned that reputation because he specialized in quality stones. Only the best. The flawless variety each of which refracted the light of the sun like a thousand prisms.
He sat in his large leather easy chair and looked from painting to painting---most he had purchased from Goudstikker---that filled his silk covered walls at his Apollolaan apartment. He stopped at one, but his concentration now centered not on the painting but the frame. He had an idea.
The next day, he wrapped the painting in a blanket and set out for his frame maker on the Beethovenstraat. He considered the man to be a master craftsman that just happened to specialize in making picture frames. At the shop, he explained that he wanted four one centimeter bores made into each section of the frame. He told the framer that when he had finished, with the task, to call him before reassembling the frame and securing the canvas.
That night, he opened his home safe and selected a few trays of diamonds. Diamonds had other attractions aside from their beauty and value, especially for the Jewish diaspora, and, most notably, those who lived or had lived in Russia and eastern Europe where pogroms were a common occurrence. You could carry a small fortune in a leather purse. Any sizable amount of gold was heavy. Even art canvases were cumbersome; Goudstikker attested to that fact.
He took his time in going through the collection lingering over certain examples and recalling their history of ownership as much as their beauty. One, a large stone, of close to seven carats, was said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette who had taken it to the guillotine with her. It had survived. She had not.
He selected the most valuable. After his visit to the framer, he had gone to a medical supply house and purchased four metal cylindrical containers. Each were 40 centimeters long and nearly a centimeter in diameter. He placed the stones into each tube and capped them. He had also purchased a narrow ten centimeter long rubber tube. He put as many smaller diamonds---mostly one to two carat sizes---in the rubber container. On the way home, he had bought a jar of a lubricating jelly. This, he now put into the safe with the diamonds.
A few days later, the framer called announcing that he had completed the job. De Vries collected the metal cylinders---leaving behind the rubber tube---and made his way to the shop. He directed the framer to put one cylinder into each hole. Once it had been done the framer reassembled the frame and resecured the canvas and he had left with it. Once back at his flat, he had rehung the painting and went about his business.
De Vries had awaken with a start. He heard the insistent pounding on his front door. He put on his robe and slippers and scurried to the door. The pounding never let up. The door was vibrating against the hinges. He opened the small window, embedded into the beautifully designed Amsterdam school door, and peered through it. He saw three soldiers in German Nazi' uniforms. "Open up, Meneer De Vries. NOW!" He did so. They told him he was leaving and he could take two suitcases with him. He said he understood and excused himself saying he needed to dress. The suitcases were already packed and had been sitting in the closet for the last three years. He now went to his wall safe and quickly removed the rubber tube and the lubricant. Once in his toilet, he lathered the jelly around the tube and bent over and gently pushed it up his anus. He had contracted his anus muscles in anticipation that there might be pain, but quickly he realized that it felt like an enema; something he had grown accustomed to with the onslaught of old age. The deed finished, he returned to his bedroom and dress quickly.
He collected the bags and returned to the large living room. One soldier lead him to the door and another followed. The third soldier remained behind. No doubt to take inventory thought Isaac.
Once on the street, he was lead to the grassy strip of land between the two roadways of the Apollolaan. There he saw several other people. All men and boys. All with bags. Some were crying which embarrassed him. Soldiers and what appeared to be Dutch police were clubbing some of them and screaming derisive and anti-Semitic remarks. He found it all so humiliating. Presently, they were lead away. It was a long walk to the now unused cinema on the Kalverstraat where the hundred or so men and boys were herded into. The seats were gone. De Vries tried to recall the last time he had seen a film at the theater. It seemed like eons ago. Almost, in a different world.
The next day the framer had heard the talk on the street. There had been a round-up, or as it was called, a razzia, the night before, in the neighborhood. He had locked his shop's door and went over to the Apollolaan. He had no problem with finding Meneer De Vries address; he had delivered many pieces of framed art to the address over the years. He rang the bell. Should De Vries answer he had no idea what he would say. But he didn't expect an answer. Nor did he get one even after applying pressure to the small brass knob several times. He went to the adjoining door and rang the bell there. An elderly woman opened almost immediately. He told her that he was looking for Meneer De Vries. She said she feared that he had been taken away. She had been awakened during the early morning hours by noises from the street; then she heard pounding on a door. It was so loud she, at first, thought someone was at her door. She got as far as her entrance way when she realized the noise was coming from next door. She never did look through the window out of fear.
The framer returned everyday, but there was never a reply to the bell.
Two weeks later he received a notice that he was being "volunteered" to assist in the war effort by working for it. There had been posters, around the city, for the last year or so, reading "Let's Do Agricultural Work in German. Report Immediately." Though there was little work and, thus, less money and the rationing of food had become more intense, few people were responding. But how bad could it be. He had visited an uncle's farm, in the south of Holland, when he had been a boy. He thought it could be a pleasant respite from his daily routine which now amounted to little more than killing time.
He prepared for the journey by taking aside his 14 year old son. He told his son that because of the war he must go way, but that he was not to be a soldier just a common worker, probably at a farm. He would be back when the war was over. However, just to be sure---because during a war anything can happen---he wanted his son to know something very important. He explained, to the boy, about the special frame and what he had done to it. He told him that he was no fool and that since Meneer De Vries was a diamond dealer he had no doubts that the metal cylinders contained valuable stones. The framer went to a small desk and opened a bottom drawer and took out a school notebook. He opened it to the center and extracted a photograph. "I had the portrait photographer, down the street, from the shop, take this about ten years ago. Meneer De Vries had commissioned me to make a special frame for the painting that you see in it. He was very proud of the picture. I don't know why. It was painted by a minor modern art artist. As you can see, it is not very good. There is no definitions to the buildings. The photo is black and white, of course, but there wasn't much color to the painting anyway. I do not know what will become of this. But, one day, it will pass through an Amsterdam auction house. That I am certain of. Should I not return, after the war, it shall be your duty, to me, to visit the auction houses and when you see it, buy it. It should not cost more than 50 to 100 guilders...Oh, I know that that seems like a lot of money to you, but for artists' pictures it is not so much. Some sell for hundreds of thousands of guilders. Oh...and you must not tell your mother. Women talk."
A few weeks later, a truck pulled up the flat on the Apollolaan and four men entered the apartment and spent a good part of that day and the next removing the contents. There was a systematic methodology to the removal process. Certain items like ordinary clothing were put to one side as well as the mops, brooms, wastebaskets and other such items common to any household. Drawers filled with papers, photos, and whatnot were added to the pile. This was the trash. The "movers" had been preceded by the "experts." These where people who went through the contents of a flat and tagged what items would receive special treatment and what would be sent to a building that had been a school but was now empty of children and filled with everything from paintings, drawings, furs, antique furniture, leathered bound Bibles, oil coins and stamp collections, even Persian rugs and Gobelins tapestries. Everything at the school was for sale and it was all priced cheaply. A few of De Vries art works were tagged to be further evaluated by better credentialed experts. These were pieces from the 19th century and before. His collection of "moderns" was not relevant. They did not conform to Hitler's and Goerings view of art. They would go to the school.
When his father did not return from the war. Bas, the son, was able to trace his father's journey after he had left the family house on that summer day during 1943. the Germans had kept excellent records. He had been sent not to a farm, but to Mittelbau-Dora which was a labor camp that serviced and launched V2 rockets destined for London. His father had been killed when a rocket, being fueled on its catapult, blew up.
Nor had Isaac De Vries returned. Newspaper' reports, during 1945 and 1946, would account for 70% of the Netherlands' Jewish' prewar population as having been sent to what were now referred to Nazi Extermination Camps. Only a handful had come back. The boy began to make the rounds of the Amsterdam auction houses. There were several; he took his best mate, Gerard, with him. He quickly realized that there were different levels of auction places and many were concerned with only certain things. Some specialized with selling furniture. Some concentrated on household appliances and whatnots. A good handful sold pictures and objects d'art. Going about the task of visiting the various venues wasn't a burden because each establishment had only three or four auctions a year. Maybe he made 40 or 50 or 60 visits a year. And it was interesting. He had apprenticed to be a locksmith. His mother had had to sell the frame shop after his father had left so he never really considered following in his father's footsteps. But people always needed to protect themselves with good locks on the door as well as their valuables. The neighborhood locksmith had been a friend of his father and had gladly welcomed Bas into his shop. His interest in locks grew as he did the auction house rounds. He discovered a trove of interesting and unusual things. He bought old locks and sometimes a special furniture piece which had a hidden drawer. One day he would spot the frame. Of that he had no doubt. His father had been right about the auction houses...everything passes through them at some point.