The hall was packed with tuxedos and ballroom gowns, with pearl necklaces and silk handkerchiefs. It also had uniforms and polished jackboots and holstered sidearms. And everywhere, there was wine.
The band, brought in from Brussels, had knocked most of their glasses over. Tipsy young men, eager to impress tipsy young women, were gracelessly refilling crystal goblets. And military commanders, in the heat of fervent military conversation, sloshed the wine from their cups uselessly to the floor.
What a mess, she thought. My poor flower.
Originally built as part of the bottling and warehousing facility for the family wine business, the banquet hall had grown from a small reception area into a major destination. While the family label ‘The Flower of Flanders’ was served all over Europe and in the States, in Antwerp, De Bloem referred to the facility that held the province’s most luxurious celebrations.
Tonight, all of the city’s most influential residents had come to the party, eager to impress the Military Administrative Staff — the Militärverwaltungsstab – who had taken control of Belgium. Crates of wine, marked for delivery to Oslo, were being opened by the minute. Every available surface, including the floor, was littered with empty bottles.
She turned to her grandson. So much like his father. Standing so near to Moshe, she had to crane her neck to look into his face. Instead of returning her gaze, Moshe was eyeing the festivities critically.
She saw he had not yet partaken.
“Your father, when he was your age, I had to scold him more than once about drinking to excess. Why is it I have to poke my finger to your chest to get you to have two glasses tonight?”
She remembered how he used to play in her lap as a child, to tell her fantastic stories. Moshe loved his Bubbe, and she adored him. Sadly, Moshe had lost his playful spirit when his father had been deported to Germany, leaving her missing both her son and her beloved grandson at once.
“I do not understand, Grandmother. Why are we hosting a celebration for these people?” Moshe stood over her, hands thrust sullenly in his pockets.
“The wisdom of Solomon says to give wine to those with a bitter soul, no?” She hoped to make him smile.
Moshe pursed his lips instead. He was angry, and pressed his objections. “But, Grandmother, after all that has gone on…?”
He was a good boy, and promised to grow into a strong man. But he still had a teenager’s petulance. Some things are true for every culture, she thought. Would that we saw more of these similarities, instead of our tiny differences.
“Drink, young one. Drink. Honor your Bubbe. You will have my answer in the morning. No more argument tonight!”
Moshe muttered something that might have been acquiescence, or might have been a curse. Either way, he shuffled off towards a table that still had full bottles. She watched Moshe pour himself a glass of wine when Dedrick spoke in her ear.
“You are corrupting our youth.”
She jumped, and then silently berated herself. I must act as though things are as they seem. Resolved, she turned to Dedrick, smiling.
“Ah, and here I thought you had no interest in the welfare of the Jews.”
That also brought a smile to Dedrick: he enjoyed their repartee. If she were to be honest, she did too, though she was still heartbroken he had joined the Flemish National Union.
“I do what I must for the good of the people, my dear.” He bowed slightly. “Apparently, we have that in common.” He gestured at the festivities. “Are you attempting to ingratiate yourself with the Germans, or are you truly joyous at King Leopold’s surrender?”
“The End of the Belgian Resistance,” she corrected him. “De Bloem has served the city for 200 years. Why should it do otherwise tonight?”
“Indeed.” Dedrick pulled a cigarette from his case. As he lit it, he nodded over her shoulder. She turned to see two of her staff opening another crate of tonight’s wine. “A rather extravagant service, I think. By my reckoning, this hospitality makes a substantial dent in your stores.”
She nearly blanched. How closely has he been examining the business? Does he suspect? “The Germans have asked for our cooperation. Shall I not walk an extra mile, then?”
Dedrick laughed so hard, he lost nearly half of his glass of wine. “How very Christian of you. I suppose you have all that bread in the kitchen because you plan on serving Holy Communion tonight?”
Her voice was colder than she intended. “It’s matzah. And why were you in my kitchen?”
“I was hungry.” He shrugged. “About a month late for Passover, isn’t it?”
Their conversation suddenly seemed a lot less like a witty exchange, and more like… what? A threat? A warning? As she was gathering her thoughts, Dedrick laughed again. “For the first time, I have you speechless.” He raised his glass. “I shall retire immediately upon this victory. Besides, it appears to be time for me to make sure our German friends get home safely tonight.”
Dedrick made his way around the room, arranging cab service for the inebriated. She couldn’t puzzle him out. Dedrick had become a member of the Belgian fascist movement, but still treated her like the close friend she’d always been.
She shook her head. No time for worry. Things would proceed as they must; or they would not, and she couldn’t change them anyway.
Saying goodnight to the final guests took longer than she had hoped. It took even longer to say goodnight to her family: there were 18 of them and none were anxious to go. She reminded them there was a lot of work to do, it was already well past midnight, and the truck would be arriving at 4 a.m.
She did take a break from packing to sit next to Moshe. He had followed her instructions and drunk the two glasses of wine, and was groggy. She placed a hand on his cheek. She told him how much like his father he was, and how much she loved him. And she begged him not to be mad at her.
Moshe fell asleep while she was talking to him. That is both good and unfortunate. He would not argue with her, but she would not be able to explain her decision not to go. She hoped he would understand in the morning, but she doubted it.
She had to get two of her sons-in-law to carry him. She cried a little bit, and her daughters tried to comfort her, but she shushed them and gave them the bread and kissed them good night.
By 3:30 a.m., she was alone in the warehouse, the packing completed. She pulled a chair from the office, sat down, and dozed off.
When the electric bell rang, she startled awake and ran to the loading dock door. She was agitated and was about to say, “You’re late!” But when she opened the door instead she said, “You’re not Palle.”
“No,” said the stranger.
“Where is Palle?” She had not drunk any of the wine last night, wanting to keep all her wits about her, but now her hands were shaking. She wished she had poured herself a glass instead of napping.
“He was detained by the Staatspolizei. You still need a driver?”
She thought hard. There might not be another opportunity like this one, but she didn’t trust this man. Was he a fascist party member, a German sympathizer, an informer for the SS, or just an ordinary man? Everything was so precarious now.
I must have faith. “Ja. Eighteen crates for the tramp steamer Lisbet at the Napoleon Dock. You can handle them alone? They are heavy.”
“No problem,” he said. She opened the loading dock door and waited nervously as he backed in. The man opened the back of the truck, removed the hand-truck, and moved towards the first crate.
He stopped. “You have the manifest?”
“Of course, one moment.” She hurried to the office to get the papers, and when she returned, the man was hoisting the first crate onto the hand-truck. He looked concerned.
“What is this?” asked the man, setting the crate back on the ground. “These crates are off-balance and the contents shift.”
She didn’t know what to say. She had prepared for every eventuality – or so she had thought – but not this one. The man found a crowbar and moved toward the crate.
She couldn’t stop him.
“Packing wool is in short supply these days.” Dedrick walked in from the street. “If we use it up keeping the wine in place, how will the Fürher get his ammunition safely to the front lines?”
The delivery man stopped. “Mayor Jansing.”
“Administrator Jansing, now,” Dedrick corrected.
She held her breath as the man looked apprehensively at the crate, then to Dedrick.
“You are sure?” the man asked.
Dedrick smiled and opened his cigarette case. “Oh, yes. Consider, when was the last time we had a shipment of tobacco from the States?” Dedrick pulled a cigarette out, offered it to the man, and then lit it for him.
As the man slowly pulled on the cigarette, clearly enjoying his nicotine after months of withdrawal, Dedrick walked to the crates. He ran his hands across the top, tracing the outline of the stenciled destination: OSLO.
“In fact,” Dedrick continued, “many supplies will be running low as war continues. There will be fewer and fewer deliveries to be made. However, for a young man who knows how to keep his head down…”
Dedrick let the point sink in. The man took another drag on the cigarette, set the crowbar down, and picked up the hand-truck again. “Yes, Mr. Mayor… I mean Administrator.”
After all the crates had been loaded, and the truck pulled out of the loading dock, she sat down heavily in the chair. Dedrick pulled a second chair from the office and sat it next to her. He then went back to the office and returned with a bottle and two glasses.
He pulled the cork and poured. “I suppose this is the last of De Bloem, then. I’m sad, to see it come to an end.”
She emptied her glass unceremoniously. “Bah. It is not the label that matters, but the contents inside.”
After some silence, Dedrick asked, “Why didn’t you go?”
She stared at her empty glass. “Some vines aren’t meant to be transplanted.”
Dedrick filled both glasses from the bottle, and raised his in a toast. “To well-aged vintages.”
She did not return the toast, but asked, “What will you do now?”
“Most likely be executed and sent to Hell, I suppose.”
“More’s the pity,” she said, after a moment. “There are too few interesting people in the city as it is.”
She reached across the divide and placed her hand on top of his, and together they drank and waited for the new day to come for them.
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