Mitchell and Gretchen Herring* were married half a year and this Saturday morning they wanted to pay a visit to grandfather for the occasion.
On other weekdays Mitchell works in a bank, and Gretchen does correction work at home for a company with correspondence courses. They live in the city of Salzburg, in Austria, and Grandpa Herring lives in a small apartment building, where he has had a flat since Grandma died five years ago.
His grandson lives in an old house at the left bank of the river Salzach in lower Salzburg, which he has restored himself, with the help of Gretchen. On the Lord’s Day they always go to a very simple Protestant church. Austria is mainly Roman Catholic, but when it is the tourism season there are often nearly 200 people. Mitchell always makes video copies of the services for Grandpa, because he is rheumatic.
Mitchell has the loan of his neighbor’s car, and this trip is full of joy and happiness for the young people.
It is fine weather, in the midst of the summer, the car is open and they fill their lungs with fresh air. It is quiet at their side of the road, but from the other direction a lot of traffic moves down to the city. The mountains are clearly visible because the sky is clear with only a few small clouds here and there, and lots of birds.
“I had expected you,” says Grandpa Herring at the doorstep. “I have your wedding day marked on my calendar.”
They embrace each other, and he points to the table in the middle of his living room. “Look, I have a cake with cream and cherries already waiting for you, if Gretchen will make the tea.”
Mitchell notices that he looks pale. Bags under his eyes show that he is tired and has probably not slept very well.
“Grandpa, what is the matter? What has happened?”
He strokes his chin and points to another part of the building. “You will see. You will both go with me to a man I want to speak to and whom I have known during the war, when we both lived in Amsterdam. I never told you about him before. I thought I would never see him again. It is quite a shock. The manager has told me that he has come here to die. He says it is only a matter of a fortnight yet. I have to speak to him. I must say something. I feel it is my duty.”
Gretchen puts cups on the table and says, “We have news for you. We are expecting a baby. What do you think about that, grandpa?”
“Ah! My happiness is without flaw, Lord, I have hoped for this.”
Mitchell realizes that he has no brothers or sisters, and his father is also an only child, a widower in London.
They are all very happy. Grandpa has tears in his eyes.
“If it is a boy, the Lord willing, we will name him after you,” says Mitchell laughing unconcerned.
“No, no, not a John again. Your father was enough. And if it is a girl, take your mother’s name, Anna. Well, it is up to you both to decide that of course,” Grandpa chuckles.
They knock at the door of number fourteen, just as a nurse leaves who says that she has given Willy Schaumeister his daily medicines. They go inside and see in the living room an old man as thin as a lath, sitting in a wheel chair with a pair of glasses on his nose, and a Dutch newspaper in front of him.
“Good afternoon,” says Grandpa politely. “Do you recognize me, Willy Schaumeister, or should I use your real name, Daan van de Beuk?”
The man takes his glasses off and stares at him. Suddenly he trembles and he says with a tremor in his voice, “You, John Herring. I have cursed you for half a century. You were sitting next to the judge of the tribunal.”
“Wait a minute, you were standing there in The Hague in a court of justice for traitors and war criminals. By the way, this is my grandson and his wife.”
Daan was obviously not interested. He continued, “You put your signature also under my death sentence.”
“Indeed. And a month later we gave you life instead. That gave you time to think about what you had done. Do you still not feel guilty?” asks Grandpa.
“I did my duty.”
“No, that is a lie. You were a Dutchman who of his own free will became a member of the SS. The Netherlands was sorely oppressed by the Nazis, but you made it worse. You arrested and deported 721 Jews to the death camps where they were killed with gas, you picked up 246 Dutchmen who were shot dead and others who were imprisoned. Now also these young people here will know. You were just as bad as the rulers of the gulags under Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Once we went to the same Church, the same Catechism class, the same school. It was only during the war that I discovered who you really are. Daan, what about your conscience? Do you still believe in God, and in Jesus Christ? It is perhaps yet a matter of days that you can repent. Remember what happened at Golgotha.”
It was obvious that Daan wanted to say something, but he restrained himself.
“Daan, on August 5, 1944 you came opposite the house where I lived, and a large truck with soldiers were under your command. Three Jewish people were arrested, but did you not know that he was a minister of the Reformed Church, that you were sending Christians to the death camps? I knew their daughter very well. She panicked, threw her small suitcase in your face, you took your pistol and killed her. There was nothing I could do at that moment. You threw her body into the waiting car, and the truck with the screaming parents followed you. Why, Daan, why did you do that?”
The two men looked at each other. Then Daan said, “A sordid business, indeed. I did know they were Christians. I hated the girl, because she did not want to become friends with me. But now it is too late…For everything…I’ll go to hell.”
“Daan, I can not help you. But you have learned to pray. You can tell God everything, and much more than I know about you. Jesus Christ is also very God. Ask Him to forgive you.”
These were the last words of Grandpa to Daan van de Beuk. They left the room and closed the door quietly.
But back in Grandpa’s apartment, Gretchen said, “That was terrible, to see a man like that. He has so much blood on his hands and he still does not regret it, well, as far as I can see.”
Mitchell wondered how Daan, or Willy, had come to Austria. “Has someone helped him to leave the prison? Could it have been an act of mercy, because he is dying? And why did he go to Salzburg?” Grandpa shook his head and said, “I think, we will probably never find the answers. Or, could it be…that God wanted him to come here, so that he, at the end of his life, would get yet a warning? I believe it is not an accident that we did see each other just now…What is impossible for us, is possible for Him. How often I forget that…God does everything on purpose. Praise His name. Now, let us have another cup of tea with cake. No objections, Gretchen?” So they spent yet some more hours together. Grandpa showed them the progress in his small flower garden. He made a couple of photos. Before Mitchell and Gretchen left, he played the recorder and they sang together “Praise, praise ye all the Lord of Lords.” ❖
*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.