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By INA FRIEDMAN:
Berlin, Alexanderplatz Prison, March 1943
Cato stood beneath the tiny barred window just below the ceiling of her cell. On tiptoe, she retrieved the flower Mama had put on top of the clean laundry she brought to the prison each week. Cato had placed the precious flower on the ledge so it could live as long as possible in the fresh air and sunlight. Gently, she touched the flower to her cheek.
She had asked for the flower in the note she inserted in the seam of her pajamas. Mama picked up the wash from a special window each week, returning it, neatly wrapped in newspaper. Today, the tulip lay on top.
Shivering, Cato turned toward the unlighted cell. For weeks, her fingers explored the walls, hoping to find a crevice through which she could whisper to another human being.
She knew there were others. At mealtime, she heard the click as the guard opened the cell.
During the day, with the light from the barred window, Cato was filled with hope, reassuring her mother in her letters that the death sentence would not be carried out.
But at night, the blackness entombed her, intensifying every sound–the piercing wail of the air raid sirens, the scratch of the rats as they raced toward her bed, the screams from a racked soul. Every odor–the musty smell of her unwashed clothes–the stink from the slop bucket– while bearable during the day, rose up, clutching at her throat at night. She tried to escape into sleep. But the dampness magnified the cold. Beneath her threadbare blanket, Cato’s frozen fingers reached out to crush the lice attacking her scalp, under her arms. Exhausted, she dozed, only to be awakened by nightmares.
At dawn, she rose and turned once more to the window. As the sky brightened, Cato thought it looked incredibly blue, with huge pillows of white clouds appearing and disappearing above the narrow window. It was the same sky she had loved when she wandered through the fields of Fischerhude.
Was it really six and a half weeks since she had been sentenced to death? It seemed unreal, to wait each day, hoping that the sentence would be reduced to life in prison, and at the same time, trying to reconcile herself to the possibility that at any moment the door would open and the executioner would enter?
How did it happen that she, Cato Bontjes van Beek, only twenty-two years old, who loved Germany–truly loved it–now stood in this cell, condemned to death as a spy, waiting each day to discover if she would live or die?
Cato thought longingly of Fischerhude, the tiny farming village in northern Germany where she had been born. It had always seemed to her to be the most wonderful place in the world. The minute the teacher dismissed them from school, Cato, her younger sister, Mietje, her little brother, Tim, and their cousin Maria Schmidt would take off their wooden shoes and run barefoot across the dirt road, between the tombstones in the churchyard and down the lane, past cows grazing in the fields, to their house overlooking the Wuemme River.
Seven rivers flowed across the flat moorlands. No mild day passed without Cato, Mietje, Tim, and Maria hopping into the water. Ducks and geese squawked and scattered as the children swam back and forth. Sometimes they would hop out and explore the shady forests on the other side of the river. When they returned home, the youngsters sprawled on the foot-high sand dune–their “mountain”–at the rear of the house. Cato, the oldest, would tell them stories.
Who could have known that the very qualities that had made others treasure and admire her–her intelligence, curiosity, courage, and passion for justice–would have brought her here, alone in this cell, facing an end to a life that had held so many dreams?
Once more, as had been her practice since her arrest, her voice rose in song–to give courage to herself and to the other prisoners, “Let the whole creation cry, glory to the Lord on high.”