I once knew a man who was afraid of nothing. No monstrosity man made or fictitious could subdue his spirits, and the mere mention of the word ‘supernatural’ would elicit a most cynical example of laughter. This bravery was both his greatest strength and his most profound weakness, for ignorance and heedlessness can often be disguised as a deep and foolhardy sense of courage. He was to learn the limits of his bravery under the earth, down in those oppressive tunnels, deep below the streets of Amsterdam.
His name was Henke, due mainly to his Finnish ancestry on his father’s side, and although his parents had passed away at an early age, he believed with conviction that his courage came from them. It was a matter of pride, a connection to the family he had lost, and it was this above all else which drove him into places and situations where others would fear to tread.
I had met him four years earlier while travelling with some friends on a common rites of passage: backpacking through Europe during a university break. He and a few of his friends were on a similar adventure and happened to be staying at the same youth hostel in Rome. Both groups got on well, but it was with Henke that I struck up an immediate rapport. He was a keen musician, and I was, at the time, still filled with the self promise, or should I say delusion, of stardom through my own musical pursuits.
Our friendship grew over the subsequent years, mostly via email; swapping musical discoveries, talking about politics, and generally getting to know each other as best two people can through simple correspondence. Travelling was also a must for both of us due to work commitments. On the odd occasion we would find ourselves in the same country and enjoyed meeting up for a few laughs - and of course he always knew which local pubs served the tastiest beer, as well as which restaurants to best avoid.
It was eleven months ago that I visited Henke in Amsterdam. The Dutch city seemed to be a good fit for him as he always liked to live in the liveliest of places. The countless meandering canals, bridges, and walkways swamped by the footsteps of a million tourists each year appealed to his love of vibrancy and history - Amsterdam had seen many a traumatic occurrence since its inception right up to and including the Second World War. At the time he had been recently hired to carry out important maintenance work on the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam’s most impressive buildings.
When I met him in a small darkened corner of a local pub, well away from the burgeoning tourist trade, I was shocked at first by his appearance. Here was a friend I had grown to know as being larger than life, exuding bravado, and yet I was presented with a shell of a man, slight in stature and racked with self doubt. He proceeded to impart on me the circumstances which resulted in his precarious condition, of which I will relay to you now.
Henke had been working as a civil engineer for some time, and so relished the challenge of renovating and maintaining the Rijksmuseum - a building with such a long and compelling history. The museum housed Amsterdam’s finest collection of historical relics, and being given access to some of its more hidden places, which were inaccessible to the general public, piqued his fascination for the obscured and unique.
He had been hired to lead a maintenance crew which had been assigned to assess and repair the building’s foundations. This oldest part of the structure dated back centuries and had a most bizarre and, it must be said, quite horrific history. The Rijksmuseum itself had been constructed in 1885, but what it had been built upon possessed a much older and unusual past. I knew immediately that this would appeal to Henke, as he often spoke of the fond memories he had as a child exploring vacant buildings, passageways, and caves near where he grew up, leading his friends into places they would otherwise have avoided. The dark held no fear for him; nothing but the promise of hidden secrets and the opportunity to show his bravery to those around him.
In the bowels of the museum, under its marble floors and deep red brickwork, lay a labyrinth of abandoned tunnels which at one time served as part of the old city’s sewer network. They had long been disused and fallen into disrepair, but they were nonetheless an essential part of the building’s foundations and had to be assessed and repaired, otherwise the entire structure would be in danger of subsiding. The ground and upper levels of the museum were beautiful and displayed many wonderful historical relics from all over the world. On his first day of work, Henke wandered around the artefacts before starting his shift, especially interested in the war exhibition. Gas masks, uniforms, bullets, dog tags of soldiers bloodied and forgotten, populated the sealed glass display cabinets. A group of children ran after their mother, laughing and pointing at the weapons on show imitating the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Families moved en masse from hall to hall, room to room, some talking about the violent history on display, others involved in more important conversations such as which dinosaur toy to get from the gift shop. So bright, welcoming, and warm was the atmosphere of the building that it was difficult to imagine the darkness which festered below.
After some quick words with the building manager, Henke proceeded to an old, seldom used room at the back of the museum which housed an antiquated, creaking, rusted, and cage-like elevator which was being used to access the lower levels and sewers underneath. Pulling on a pair of dirt-covered yellow overalls, complete with hard hat and headlamp, he entered the elevator for his first descent. On his trip downward towards the abandoned sewers, he thought to himself that those of a nervous disposition might have let such a dank and isolated place prey on their minds. This may have explained why the previous man in charge of the repairs had left so abruptly, citing nervous exhaustion and refusing to ever so much as set foot in those pitch black corridors of cold stone ever again.
The elevator winch and engine stuttered as it lowered Henke down four levels into the basement. With each passing floor he observed a slight dimming of the lights and each subterranean level appeared more sparse, and stone-like than the one before. A rusted plate attached to the elevator betrayed its age. It struck Henke that the year of its construction, 1932, must have been amongst the last periods of maintenance carried out there before the persecution of the Jewish people by the invading German army. He knew much of the shameful history of the region as he was part Jewish and his great Grandfather had died during the holocaust. Many had fled to Amsterdam for sanctuary from the Nazi regime in the early 1930s, but the long blighting arm of Hitler’s horrific ‘final solution’ eventually reached the borders of Holland, sweeping many thousands away to those shameful and barbaric concentration camps.
With a shudder, the elevator ground to a halt, and after forcing the grated sliding door aside, Henke disembarked. The old sewer tunnels spread out before him and were curious in construction, steeped in a history which stretched back much farther into the distant past than that of the museum itself. Having spoken to his employers, he had been specifically told to pay heed to the assessment and repair crew’s knowledge of the tunnel layout, as the place could be disorientating. The lighting system required to illuminate the maintenance work had not been fully installed yet. His bosses, up above in cushy office buildings miles away, seemed unusually concerned that he would find it all too easy to get lost down there.
Most importantly, he was informed that the two-way radios normally used to communicate between team members had been playing up, and that they were unreliable due to interference, probably produced by nearby metallic deposits in the ground. This meant that all communication would have to be carried out verbally, or by using the light from their torches to convey simple messages via Morse code; this was particularly useful in the longer tunnels. In any case, it struck Henke that the catacombs below really were isolated, lonely places. Care would have to be taken, but he did feel a nostalgic sense of excitement for a hidden world begging to be explored, like all those days spent looking for adventure as a child.
After a time, Jones, second in command of the maintenance crew, appeared from around a corner, whistling to himself while his headlight bobbed and weaved to the sound of feet through inches of stagnant water. A substantially stout fellow, rather humorous in nature, he debriefed Henke on the current progress being made, informing him that the initial mapping and assessments of the tunnels had gone well. All in all there were 16 four-man crews, each of which were assigned a section of the sewers to repair. Henke would oversee the entire operation, but he knew that he would need to directly supervise two of the crews working in one of the more isolated tunnels. The walls there were in a precarious condition, and there was even the suggestion that a cave-in could occur. It was his priority to make sure that did not happen.
After walking for 15 minutes he arrived at the area which would be his workplace for the next few months. The sound of occasional drilling could be heard in the distance as the workers continued to install the still non-operational lighting system. As Henke’s men would be working further away from the other crews, it seemed logical - although not desirable - that they would have their lighting installed last.
Each passageway seemed oddly shaped with no two tunnels being quite alike, that entire section of the sewer was in fact so antiquated that it had been built long before the careful planning of such constructions had become commonplace. One tunnel would arch forward for over several hundred metres in a strange semi-circle, while others bisected it at right angles, carrying on in a regimented straight line into the darkness. Henke even found a passageway which seemed to dip and rise only to slither its way along in an unnatural S-shape. Some tunnels seemed to go on forever, others stopped abruptly as if the original builders had been unable to complete their work, leaving in a hurry. Jones tried to keep the conversation light and with his experience of walking through the tunnels for the past two months, Henke was glad to have a guide to show him the way.
Waiting in a large alcove was the four man team assigned to that area. They would work that section of the tunnels during the day, while the other shift would take over later, working through the night. Jones introduced each of them. They seemed nice enough, but Henke was surprised to find the men largely in the grip of silence. In such jobs humour was normally found in abundance, with repair crews using it to slice through the monotony of working in such cramped and repetitive conditions. Here though, he found them uttering not one word, sitting in silence in that imposing alcove, removed from any consideration of camaraderie or fellowship; the only inference that they were not a collection of subterranean statues was the occasional movement of their headlamps altering the shadows around them. They seemed wholly disconnected from, not just each other, but the very environment in which they worked.
Henke brushed this feeling of unease aside and committed himself to cultivating conversation; if these men were in some way angry or uncomfortable with one another then he would soon lay that to rest; a happy workforce is a productive one. The first order of business was to survey that section of tunnels and decide where repairs were most pressing. Preliminary assessments had already been made, but Henke liked to evaluate any repair project he was involved in from the ground up. He walked the catacombs with his team and noticed immediately that they were still on edge, that they seemed frightened in an almost childlike way. No amount of questions casual or otherwise could elicit anything other than one-word broken replies. Slowly they toured the winding grid of tunnels, lighting their way with the small torches attached to their safety helmets while taking notes about failing walls, water damage, and estimations of any possible repair time.
Twice Henke pressed the men on their obvious sense of fear, asking why such an experienced crew who no doubt had worked in many tunnels before, were so apprehensive of mere bricks and mortar. They avoided the questions, looking nervously at one another, changing the topic of conversation with mono-toned lethargy whenever it veered towards their experiences of the old sewers - or of their previous supervisor’s unceremonious departure from the job. It began to dawn on Henke that the men’s verbal and physical awkwardness was not the result of tensions between workers, but rather of a deep seated and worrying apprehension; of what, he did not know. What was clear was that his team seemed to be counting down the minutes until their shift ended, when they could finally clamber out of the darkness into the safety of the world above.
As the beam from his headlamp trickled over the damp and crumbling brickwork, Henke again conceded to himself that some may find such a setting unnerving; but not him. Whatever had caused such trepidation and disquiet amongst the other men was surely a simple case of idle superstition, mischief making, or the quite understandable psychological toll of working in a dark, cramped, and forgotten part of the world. Even Jones, who had through most of the catacombs been jovial and talkative, now adopted the same sullen expression and serious disposition as they made their way deeper into the oldest part of the sewers.
The passages wound and meandered their way through the ground, long steady trajectories intermittently and abruptly interrupted by sharp blind corners, making it difficult for Henke to identify exactly where they were. There were so many winding corridors that he felt slightly disorientated, and was ready to joke with his men that if they didn’t like him as a boss that they could probably leave him there and he would never find his way out. But his men were no longer beside him. He was standing at the mouth of a tunnel, and while he had continued onward, talking, trying to fill in the difficult silences, his men had stopped at the last junction. They stood motionless some twenty feet behind, staring at Henke with blank expressions, occasionally betrayed by the slightest flicker of a very real and gripping emotion beneath; a look of suppressed terror.
When he asked why the men were not following, they whispered in reply that where they stood was where the last of the repair work was needed. Pulling out a map and perusing it intently by the light of his headlamp, Henke surmised that he must have wandered into the remotest part of the sewer network, at the back of the catacombs, and while the tunnels continued into the foreboding distance, that must have marked the boundary of the Rijksmuseum’s foundations. What confused him was that the area had been clearly listed on the map for repair.
He was standing at the entrance to what appeared to be a rather innocuous tunnel, but on the wall next to the opening he could clearly see that someone had placed an identification plaque there, marking it for repair. It read ‘Tunnel 72F: Water damage & failing masonry’. After double checking the map, it was clear to Henke that tunnel 72F was indeed still under the Rijksmuseum foundations and had to be appraised and repaired, but when he told his men this they simply informed him that where they stood was as far as they would go.
Anger began to take over, accompanied by frustration that the team he was supposed to be supervising was being so difficult, but even raising his voice and demanding that they head into the tunnel did not move them. Just as things became increasingly heated and Henke yelled at the men to do as he said, Jones interjected: ‘we’ve worked down here for two months, boss. This is a good, hard working, talented crew you have. They’ll do exactly as you ask, when you ask it, but you’ll have to accept that, for them, and me, our work stops at this junction, and that none of us will go near that tunnel. You might think it’s mad, but whether you want to believe it or not, there is something in there.’
Taking a deep breath and calming himself, Henke explained to his men that he understood the stress induced by working in such a suffocating environment for an extended period of time, but that repairs had to be carried out, in full. He would talk to them later about it, but for now he would carry out the survey himself.
For a moment there was silence, broken only by drips of unseen water which echoed out from a distant, unsure place. As he stepped over the threshold and into the apparently forbidden tunnel, Jones and the other men protested vehemently, shouting on Henke to leave the passageway immediately, but he saw this demonstration as nothing but foolishness. He was not to be swayed by unsubstantiated, superstitious nonsense. There was nothing in that tunnel to fear, and once more he would prove to others that they should not be so scared, by stepping up, being a man, and pushing forward into places others feared to tread. Pride coursed through his veins. His parents were brave and fearless before him, and he had long since sworn to always be bold, always be adventurous - to be just like them. With a smile, he looked back at his men before heading face first into the darkness, the excitement of self-reliance pushing him on.
While the tunnel seemed fairly common in its construction at first glance, as he progressed deeper into its dank innards, it was apparent that this was unlike any sewer he had seen before. The ground was uneven; the floor dipped and rose much like some of the other tunnels, but what was peculiar was how fractured the surface felt under his feet. The ground was obscured by a thick, almost oily water which in places reached up as high as his knees. He trudged through the stagnant liquid slowly, not because he was scared, but simply to ensure sound footing. One thing was apparent, however long ago the water had deposited there, it was long enough to fester and produce an unpleasant, rotting stench.
The walls were of a different, significantly older composition than most of the brickwork he had seen in the sewers elsewhere. Whatever the material was which had been used, it was hundreds of years old and was obviously failing, with long penetrating cracks scarring the surface of the increasingly unstable walls and ceiling. The light from his headlamp was enough to illuminate much of the tunnel, but as Henke ventured further towards what he thought was a dead-end, he realised that the passageway was narrowing and that the tunnel itself did not stop there, but rather tapered slightly before curving abruptly around a blind corner.
He estimated to being over 100 feet into the sewer, and while his curiosity for what could be beyond that corner urged him to move forward, he believed he had made his point, and would now ask his men to abandon their fears and enter the tunnel with him. Unholstering the black handheld radio he had been issued with from his side, he began requesting for Jones and the others to meet him at the corner of the tunnel. No one responded, and nothing but a quiet buzz could be heard from the radio speaker. Of course Henke now remembered that he had been warned about how unreliable the radios could be, but just as he was about to turn and shout back down towards the opening, something caught his eye.
There was nothing in that disgusting place but stagnant water and himself. Yet pulling and pushing relentlessly against his bravado and self-assured disposition, was the creeping realisation that something was standing at the end of the tunnel. Obscured by the turn, he could only see a sliver of it, but it was unmistakable. A ragged piece of cloth poked out from around the corner, and although Henke’s mind was unwilling to accept it, the cloth was obviously part of a sleeve, a sleeve which contained an arm, belonging to whom or what he did not know.
Stubbornness can be an effective tonic for even the most horrifying and unbelievable of situations. Henke’s confidence in himself, and his long history of triumphs over fear and adversity, welled up inside of him. Filling his chest with pride, and with a strong assured stride, he gulped down a breath of the dank air and marched purposefully towards whatever was around that corner.
The slush and slosh of the black water echoed throughout the tunnel as he made his way to the blind turn, almost hesitating as he reached it - an unease which was alien to him. Apprehension now turned to sadness and empathy, for standing there in that cruel dark passageway, shivering and dishevelled, was a girl who could not have seen more than 13 years. Her face and hands were blackened with grime and dirt, hiding her pale and malnourished frame. A ripped shirt was all that she wore, hanging from her loosely, with much of her body exposed to the cold of that damp, isolated place.
Gazing at him between strands of dirty-blond matted hair, Henke was struck by how beautiful the young girl was, and how afraid she must have been. How frightened and helpless. At first he believed that somehow she must have entered the sewers and lost her way, but no matter how softly he spoke, she would not answer, appearing afraid and nervous. He tried his radio again, but was greeted with the same meaningless static. Regardless, he had to get her out of that tunnel, back through the sewers and into the Rijksmuseum and seen by a doctor. He did not want to shout on his men in case the noise startled her or added to the girl’s disquiet - the last thing he wanted to do was chase her through the catacombs - so he decided to lead her out of the passage himself. As he approached, he spoke gently to her in Dutch, explaining that he would take her up above to safety. Stepping forward with his hand outstretched, the girl seemed to quiver in fear; she appeared terrified of him. This made Henke feel uncomfortable as he prided himself on being someone who would do anything to protect the vulnerable, someone to be trusted, not feared.
She made no sound, but as he reached her she raised her left hand slowly, pointing one finger at the light on his head. He suddenly realised that the headlamp must have been frightening her somehow, so he merely took the light off and held it in his hand to allay her fears, the torch now casting shadows upward more starkly. The changed angle of light brought something unsettling to Henke’s attention. Pinned to the girl’s torn shirt was a yellow cloth star. It surprised him as it was entirely familiar, but it took a moment for his mind to grasp the memory; it was exactly like the yellow stars forced upon the Jewish populations during their persecution, to allow non-Jews and members of the Nazi regime to identify them.
Henke’s mind fought against the ramifications of such a discovery. After a momentary pause, he once again was resolute, disregarding the cloth star and asserting to himself that he had to take the poor girl out of such horrible surroundings. A tremendous sense of sadness overcame him as he drew closer. The torch flickered unusually in his hand as he looked down at the girl, her face momentarily illuminated by the shifting light, her arm still outstretched pointing at him. He’d carry her out of the sewers if need be. But this sense of duty, this compulsion to be brave and assertive in even the darkest of places, was now replaced with something which Henke had never felt before. Running up his spine and from the very pit of his stomach fear gripped him, terror took him, and a horror possessed him so potently that it made him unsteady, anxious, and weak. For Henke had not noticed something so subtle, yet essential to his predicament. The girl had not stopped pointing at him as he drew closer. Her arm was ridged and her finger remained outstretched, even the light, which was now in his hand, seemed entirely unimportant to her. Realisation swept over him like a plague of abject dread. The girl was not pointing at the light, she was pointing behind him.
Henke did not remember much more of what happened in that tunnel, but he knew that he had indeed turned to face whatever had been standing behind him. He thanked God (something he was not normally inclined to do) that Jones and those men who feared that dark hollow so acutely, had dispensed with their fear out of empathy and ran into the passageway as soon as they heard his screams.
Henke regained his composure back at the alcove where he had met the men, but he immediately pleaded with them that they take him back out of the tunnels, which is what they did. Once returned to the elevator room of the Rijksmuseum, they sat together and had a frank discussion about what had been happening down there over the past few months. Jones explained that the first survey team which had encountered that specific sewer passageway resigned from their posts after just one night down there. A week later one of their co-workers who decided to stay on, committed suicide after complaining repeatedly to everyone that he could hear whispers coming from inside there while he worked nearby. Not long after that, Jones’s previous supervisor had seen someone, an unidentified figure, standing at the mouth of Tunnel 72F, and had followed them inside. One of the clean-up crews found him crawling out of the sewer on his hands and knees, crying hysterically like a child. He had been hospitalised and heavily medicated ever since, but no one knew exactly what he had seen down there, he would not speak of it, but the men who recovered him claimed he was repeating only one word when he was found; just one word over, and over again, frantically:
Henke was a nervous wreck after his experience and ordered that no one, under any circumstance, be allowed to go into tunnel 72F. He continued to work down in the other sewer passageways, day after day in the dark, but he was consumed by the notion that he had seen something so frightening, so terrifying, that he had forced himself to forget the ordeal. Over the next few weeks he lost weight and had trouble sleeping, often waking up in a disturbed state, drenched in a cold sweat, unable to recall what he had been dreaming about.
The very idea that he above of all people, brave Henke, could be reduced to such fragility, that he could be affected so deeply by something he could not even remember in its entirety, preyed upon his pride and his sense of self worth. In an effort to combat the feelings of helplessness and self-loathing, he attempted to find out all he could about the tunnels under the Rijksmuseum. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and my friend felt that if he knew more about that place in the dark, that he would somehow be less afraid of it. He read about the history of the museum on the nights he could not sleep, and while he found very little of it helpful, one local legend struck a chord within him.
It was rumoured that during the second world war a number of Jewish families took refuge in the tunnels below the Rijksmuseum. When two SS officers were tipped off as to their whereabouts, they entered the tunnels with some local volunteers hoping to arrest the people down there, and then most probably send them off to a concentration camp. The rumours were that the families managed to ambush the SS officers and their Nazi sympathisers, killing them and dumping the bodies somewhere in the sewers.
This was the story Henke related to me when I met him in Amsterdam. It was sad to see him so shaken and vulnerable; a strong powerful individual who had never shown so much as a hint of fear for, or of, anything in his life. A friend who I respected greatly, one with such indelible character, to be reduced to a diminished man living on his nerves.
Unfortunately the story does not end there; some men are haunted both by what they have seen, and by what they cannot understand. Ego can be a terrible burden on anyone. Once it is fractured or damaged, the lasting effects can be devastating. Henke could not let go of his pride, nor his desire to feel strong again, whole. He had never been afraid of anything before and no matter what was in that tunnel, no matter how much I attempted to dissuade him, he was determined to confront it and reclaim his self-belief.
Three days later Henke’s body was found at the mouth of tunnel 72F, stuffed into an old duffel bag. It was a heart attack which had killed him, but whoever broke, twisted, and shoved his body into that morbid sack after he died, was never caught. I should mention that the bag was of particular interest to the police in the event that it could reveal something about Henke’s death. It was traced to Germany, army issue to be precise, and hadn’t been manufactured since 1941.