The route had already been blocked off. Efficient, tall Dutch police of both genders were turning away cars by the time we walked over in the chilly late morning to join the walk from the Stopera (city hall and opera house) to the Auschwitz memorial for Holocaust Remembrance Day. More than 100,000 of 140,000 Dutch Jews were murdered. A saxophone and a few other instruments played haunting pieces as we walked by the park where we’d gather later. As usual in January, cold rain was threatening, but fortunately none actually fell.
From a distance, we spotted one hundred or so people waiting near a door of the huge City Hall/Opera House complex, built atop a former Jewish neighborhood after the Holocaust. Although most people were over forty, others were sprinkled in as well, and only one person was truly old.
In a very few moments, at exactly eleven o’clock, we heard the feet of the marchers coming from the other side of the building, and joined about a thousand people in a quiet walk. On either side of the group, a few tall men in dark clothes walked a few feet from the edge, and their presence created a straight line on both sides.
A Quiet Crowd Although some people spoke quietly to each other, overall the crowd kept silence and moved along swiftly: many men in yarmulkes, parents holding the hands of their children, a scattering of brown people among the white. Most people wore dark coats, a few with bright red scarves, reminiscent of the strong socialist and communist ideals of the Jewish workers around the turn of the last century. When we passed the Portuguese Synagogue (opened in 1675), the most direct way to our destination was along the edge of the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, where the Nazis carried out the first roundup of 425 young Jewish men.
Instead, we diverted to the middle of the Meijerplein to pass by the statue of the Dockworker, the symbolic figure of the February Strike in which 300,000 Amsterdammers turned out to protest that first roundup.
The Essential Words A few more blocks, and we arrived at the Wertheim Park, much of which was covered with plywood flooring to protect the grass, with a small stage erected beside the 1993 memorial by Jan Wokers: broken mirrors on the ground, surmounted by a sign, No More Auschwitz. We didn’t understand most of the Dutch words, but that didn’t matter. We knew the important ones: mother, father, children, Auschwitz, never, concentration camp, Holocaust, remembrance.
A very few elderly people could be spotted in wheelchairs or otherwise, and we calculated that they would have been small children in 1940. They knew people who died at Auschwitz personally. They miss them. However we feel the loss, for us it is abstract; for them it is intimate and real.
Roma/Sinti Music and Flowers The speeches continued, including the Mayor of Amsterdam and a few other dignitaries, punctuated with a song, then moving instrumental music by the Tata Mirando Band, who represented the Roma and Sinti people who were also exterminated. The kaddish was said, and then a moment of silence. Finally, it was time for the flowers, an indispensable part of any Dutch memorial occasion. First children brought the official bouquets forward, and the dignitaries from that country or organization, who then placed the flowers on the memorial and stood in silence for a few moments. Every color was represented, and every flower obtainable in Holland, the world center of the cut flower trade.
When all the spectacular official wreaths and arrangements were in place, we joined the crowd of everyday people who filed by to add to the mounds of gold, white, yellow, orange (the national color), red and blue. Armloads of white carnations were being given out one at a time to anyone who didn’t bring flowers themselves. How wonderful that people still remember this as the flower of the resistance!
Everyone waited patiently until it was their turn to put their flower wherever they wanted to, and to walk around the whole memorial.
DIGNITY is the word that came to us as we walked home, the dignity of the participants as they paid tribute to those who died and were humiliated. The occasion was in no way stuffy. It honored life as well as death, brought children together as well as adults. It gave dignity back to the people from whom everything was taken away, except this: that we remember them year after year, even if we didn’t know them one by one.