Escape Artist

“I don’t care what it costs!” Joseph Smit announced, shaking his head emphatically. “The lives of my family are worth the price. We’re in danger.”

He crossed the room of his well-appointed home in the Netherlands, pausing by the window. A warm July sun shown down on the neatly clipped lawn and flower-filled window boxes. “Who knows?” he said quietly. “The next time I’m arrested by the Gestapo, they might not let me go. Many of my friends have already disappeared, leaving their loved ones frantic and alone.”

Joseph slammed his fist down hard on the windowsill. “No! I will not die at the hands of such barbarians. We must escape before it’s too late.”

A visiting friend placed a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder. “I know of someone who can help,” he said softly. “But he’s demanding a high price to take refugees across the border. You’ll lose everything.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Joseph stated flatly. “I will still have my family. They are my most precious possession.”

In less than an hour a stranger appeared at the Smit door. “I’m your passer. I’ll take you to Switzerland for $500 dollars per person, paid in advance, of course.”

“Of course,” Joseph agreed, motioning for the man to come inside. “How will you do it?”

The stranger walked to the window and pulled down the shades. “We leave Rotterdam in three days. We’ll cross into Belgium and then go on to Paris. From there it’s southern France and the Swiss border. I don’t have to tell you how dangerous this will be, but I’m experienced. I’ll get you through safely. You can count on it.”

“My whole family is counting on it,” Joseph said soberly.

* * *

In three days the journey began. Mr. Smit walked from his home, followed by his wife, daughter Selma, and teenage son Max. Gray-haired Grandmother Smit brought up the rear, pushing a carriage loaded down with two tiny babies and a supply of diapers.

They moved along back roads, each step carrying them further and further from the only life they’d known as a family.

That night the passer led them to a farmhouse near the Dutch-Belgian border. “You’ll be safe here,” he announced. “I must visit other contacts in the area in preparation for tomorrow. I’ll return at first light.”

“Wait!” Joseph called, his eyes filling with fear. “Don’t leave us here with strangers.”

“I’ll be back in the morning,” the passer insisted.

The night slipped by slowly for Joseph Smit. Would the man return? An image kept surfacing in his mind over and over again. It was of a friend who’d recently tried to escape in this same area.

He’d died with a bullet in his back.

At sunrise the passer had not returned. Eight o’clock, 9:00, 10:00 came and went. Suddenly, just as worry was about to carry the family into hysteria, a knock sounded at the farmhouse door. “Sorry I’m late,” the passer apologized with a smile. “My contact in Brussels is ready to meet us and take charge of your journey. He’ll accompany you toward the French border, then on to Paris.”

“What?” Joseph protested, “I thought you were taking us to Switzerland. Now we’re stopping in Brussels? Who is this new man? Can he be trusted?”

“Don’t worry.” The passer laughed. “I’ve got to stay close to Holland, or the Gestapo will pick me up. My contact is reliable. It isn’t important who takes you to safety, as long as you get there, right?”

Joseph fought back the urge to shout out his frustration. Not only was he placing the security of his precious family in the hands of a stranger, but now it seemed he was putting their lives in the care of two unknowns.

Finally he spoke, trying to keep fear from straining his words. “We will follow your instructions. Please, let’s continue our journey.”

True to his word, the passer led Smit and his family across the border from Holland into Belgium late that night. The next morning found them at the outskirts of Brussels.

They boarded a small, interurban streetcar, one of many running throughout the tiny European country. Rolling along past towns and villages, Joseph and his band of refugees felt a tiny tinge of hope. Maybe they’d be successful in their escape after all.

Suddenly the streetcar jolted to a halt and two large German guards stepped aboard. “Papers,” they shouted. “We must see everyone’s travel papers.”

Joseph sat stone still, his heart racing. The passer had not provided him and his family with the necessary documents for travel in this war-torn area. He closed his eyes, listening to the heavy footsteps of the soldiers as they came nearer and nearer.

Then they passed by and were gone. The search had been quick and only random. It was a long time before Joseph could breathe normally again.

“We must wait here,” the passer announced, leading the family to a café tucked among the business establishments on the Place de la Bourse. “My contact should arrive soon. He’ll take you across the French border and on to Paris.”

Three agonizing hours went by. “Where is he?” Joseph whispered, leaning across the table.

“Something must have happened to him,” the passer intoned. “I may have to make other arrangements. I’ll be back.”

“Please don’t leave us,” Joseph begged.

“I must find out what happened.”

Once again the Smit family found themselves alone in a strange place, surrounded by danger and uncertainty. Every face they saw seemed menacing. Every call echoing down the street sounded threatening. Was it just their imagination, or were their enemies closing in as they sat alone by the busy street?

“You’ve got to spend the night here,” the passer announced when he returned an hour later. “I’ve made arrangements for your lodging at a hotel not far away. Meet me here early tomorrow morning.”

Joseph led his weary family to the establishment indicated by the passer. Sleepless hours dragged by. The next morning, the guide was waiting at the café with hastily and poorly made identification papers.

“I realize they’re not very good, but they should get you by for now.” The man looked to the right, then to the left. “My original contact has been arrested. Another friend has agreed to take you further. But,” he paused, “he must have more money.”

Joseph gasped. “I gave you everything I had back in Rotterdam. You said that was all I’d have to pay.”

“Circumstances have changed,” the passer insisted calmly. “Besides, I know you have more cash. It’s in your suitcases.”

Joseph sat staring at his guide. He was in a foreign land, totally dependent on this man.

“Either you pay more or stay here for the rest of the war.”

Mr. Smit closed his eyes as an agonizing sigh escaped his lips. “We’ll pay. But when I give you this money, I’ll be a poor man.”

“What’s money worth compared to the lives of your family?” the passer stated without emotion.

The new guide arrived that afternoon. He was able to lead the Smits to Paris as promised. Additional papers were gathered, and soon the hopeful band of refugees was sitting on a train headed for Lyons in central France, the last stop before the French-Swiss border and freedom.

“I’m going to step off the train for a few minutes to get some things I forgot,” the guide announced suddenly. “I have plenty of time before we leave.”

Joseph knew better than to complain. With a heavy fear pressing down on him, he watched the man hop onto the platform and disappear into the crowd.

He never returned.

The train bumped from the station and headed east, carrying the frightened refugee family deeper into danger, this time with no one to act as their guide.

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Escape Artist

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