I gave my granddaughter a ring I think--I hope!--she'll someday treasure. It came from a woman from Canada who grew up in the Netherlands during the German Occupation. It was just a little thing, a tiny little pinkie ring fashioned out of tin, I'm sure, but fashioned with the lion that roars within the shield of what that woman told me was the royal seal of the Netherlands. Like this, only vastly less elaborate.
It's just a little thing, really, someone's handiwork. I'm sure as art it's worthless, as jewelry is trash, as fashion is ridiculous; as an artifact, however, it's a treasure. I'm surprised the woman gave it to me, and I was when it came, too, slipped into an envelope with a letter telling me that she simply wasn't able to attend our conference on the Occupation, something we put on at the college where I taught way back in 1991. She obviously wished she could attend--hundreds of Resistance people were going to--but when it was obvious she couldn't, she told me so and sent me the ring knowing, I'm sure, that the people at the conference would know it was not just a little thing.
She told me people wore those rings in defiance of the Germans. She told me--and I heard the story from others--that simply having those things on your fingers made people feel brave and strong. It kindled their defiance of the jackboots that pounded through their country, that flattened Rotterdam, killing thousands, that grabbed their men off the streets and sent them to Germany, that took their bikes wherever and whenever they pleased, and that led their Jews to Westerbork and then off to who knows where. Just wearing that little ring, a little circle of tin on her pinkie, made them proud, defiant, strong.
Before her arrest, when she still worked at the bank in Den Haag, Diet Eman knit herself a sweater she'd wear--she said it was ugly, purposefully ugly, but it was orange, dang it. It was bright orange, and when other Dutch people saw it on her they'd smile as if it were the loveliest Parisian fashion spun from cashmere. They knew too. They understood. The war created a language of silence, of tin rings and ugly sweaters that were distinctly beautiful.
War made the insignificant significant.
At the camp at Vught, Diet played the fool in a life-and-death theater piece that began the moment she was arrested at a train station and ended she was let free by the Gestapo, who fell totally for the ruse she'd created. They thought she was so stupid that she was insignificant. What on earth could an idiot do to fight them?
Every day there'd be a lineup, she said. Everyday the guards would haul them out of their cubicle and stand them up and count them, as if to see if any had escaped. There they stood in their rags, while some big fat commandant, a woman, would take roll or give a speech or chide them for this or that.
Diet said, without fail, she kept her hands in her pockets, kept them there because her mother had always scolded her for doing that when meeting people. "It's not polite," her mother said. "Now get your hands out of your pockets." It was a different era.
Polite. The word is almost gone. I remember my father returning from huis bezoek, an old Dutch Calvinist ritual assigned to church elders, "house visitation." He said he didn't know where the world was going because one of the kids from the family he'd visited sat there snipping his toenails when the preacher and elder were just across the room. My father thought that not only impolite but unthinkable.
Diet stuffed her hands in her pockets in front of the commandant, stuck 'em there and left 'em there, her mother's admonition squarely in her consciousness. She was telling them, in her own language, what she and her mother thought of them.
Apparently, that big fat German woman never caught on. No matter. Like that tiny little ring and ugly orange sweater, those little things were a language that infused the insignificant with great significance. Sticking her hands in her pockets cheered her at roll call in the concentration camp, spread joy and hope and love in verifiable defiance, even in a camp.
A woman looked gorgeous in an ugly orange sweater. That's the way it was.
I hope my granddaughter understands all of that. I tried to tell her, and she's very sharp. But I hope she never forgets that that odd tin pinkie ring in her jewelry box is just plain priceless.