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Unpacking Kitaj at the Jewish History Museum


Should I feel abashed that I’d never heard of R.B. Kitaj before today, when I stumbled on an exhibit about him at Amsterdam’s Jewish History Museum?  He was an American who lived mostly in England, making friends with David Hockney, Lucien Freud and other figurative artists whom he dubbed the London School (not original, but it stuck).  This exhibit, titled “Unpacking My Library“, shows his paintings, and prints derived from the covers of books which have inspired him.  What’s he doing in Amsterdam, and at this museum?  Sure, he visited the city a number of times and was influenced by Rembrandt and Van Gogh — but who hasn’t been?  The answer lies in his origins and what he made of them.

R. B. Kitaj was brought up in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio.  His own father disappeared, and his mother remarried an Austrian Jewish refugee who influenced Kitaj deeply.  He went to Vienna to art school, and visited his stepfather’s village.  For the first time, he realized that it didn’t matter whether he felt Jewish or not; he would have been deported and murdered by the Nazis had he been there at the time.  Kitaj then wrestled with Jewish identity, particularly as an artist attempting to express what he called “the condition of Jewishness.”  He read widely and found soulmates among authors, particularly Hannah Arendt, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin.


When Kitaj and artist Sandra Fisher married, they chose an orthodox synagogue ceremony, surely a statement of how far he had moved from his secular roots.  The event is pictured in one of Kitaj’s most striking paintings from the exhibit, although he never considered it fully finished.

As a person, Kitaj faced some of the worst trials a human being could go through.  Despite numerous accolades (the Royal Academy, prestigious exhibits), his life retrospective at the Tate Gallery was reviled viciously and personally by critics.  Soon thereafter his second wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, died of a brain aneurism.  (His first wife had also died young, of suicide.)  Deep in the study of Jewish mysticism, Kitaj found Sandra again by painting the two of them together again and again.  He moved to Los Angeles and lived out his life near his children, reading and working until the end.


Through all this, books were great friends, alongside some of the leading artists and writers of his time.  Kitaj lived with Parkinson’s for a few years, but ultimately took his own life in 2007.  He did write two “Diasporist Manifestos” exploring the question of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, particularly for an artist.  Kitaj said, “Diasporism is my mode.  It is the way I do my pictures.  If they mirror my life, these pictures betray confused patterns.”


The painting to your right, The Jewish Rider, uses a Rembrandt painting of The Polish Rider as a model, and shows a Jewish man who is reading and traveling through the landscape of postwar Europe, with a conductor holding an upraised whip in the background.  This disquieting image comes as close as anything to expressing Kitaj’s ambivalent view of the Jewish artist in our time.


Westerbork Camp Liberation at 70

IMG_2931On April 12, 2015, the Westerbork Transit Camp looked like a sunny, windblown field where spring was coming, not the waystation for more than 100,000 people who were later murdered. The vast majority were Jewish, plus 245 Roma and Sinti people, and about 100 non-Jewish resistance workers. While the camp is near the German border, almost all were from Amsterdam, either because they’d always lived there, or because the Nazis herded there from all over the country.

On April 12, 1945 – exactly seventy years before – a group of Canadian soldiers stumbled on the camp, which they didn’t know existed. The guards had already fled, so the soldiers entered easily, and found almost 900 prisoners ready to welcome them. Westerbork was full of contradictions: a holding tank for the concentration camps which also had one of the best cabarets in Europe. A place where prisoners worked and exercised and were cared for in a hospital if they were ill.  Once people were registered, they lived in filthy conditions, three bunks high and even more across. The wind on the Drenthe prairie is ferocious (even in April), and the conditions in winter with no heat are unthinkable. The main road down the center of the barracks was called the Boulevard des Miseres, muddy in many seasons. At least once a week, a train loaded with people was sent east to the concentration camps.

It’s a long trip from Amsterdam even today (2 hours by fast train, then a bus).  It would have IMG_2917been longer and infinitely harder for people who had been yanked out of their houses, transported to the Schouwberg Theatre and separated from any children they had, then transported again to Centraal or Muiderpoort Stations, and then to the remote province of Drenthe. Most had probably never been there, and to city dwellers it would have looked absolutely desolate, miles and miles of open fields dotted by the occasional thatched farmhouse.


For the 70th anniversary of liberation, hundreds of people gathered facing a stage in front of a newly acquired railway car similar to those used for the deportations.

IMG_2929The track crosses the open fields where the former buildings (all gone now except the Commander’s house) are traced out on the earth. Much more moving are the huge photographs which are mounted throughout the area, making the experience much easier to imagine.  Similarly, a monument with one star for each murdered person makes the numbers real, especially since it is in the shape of the Netherlands.

The program was simple: people gathered, those with flowers at the front, and marched from the entrance to the site to the stage, then sat on the platform. With the help of two large screens, we saw and heard testimonies and music to bring back those days and the reflections of those who were left behind. Although I only caught scattered words, the feelings of every person who spoke or sang reached me – a woman who had been a ten year old in the camp with her proud voice, a boy with dark hair in a suit who spoke like a grownup, a rabbi who gave the kaddish and said that his own mother (metaphorically) was the one who started the singing on the train.


A woman began reading the names and ages of the people who were murdered, one by one. Lutie and Max Degen, a handsome older couple, stepped forward to lay the first flowers by the train track with their two teenaged granddaughters, Eva and Mila. Then hundreds of us lined up to follow them.

Afterward, at the reception at the excellent memory center nearby, I started chatting with a woman accompanied by two girls, who proved to be Lutie Degen. (I had only seen her in the distance before so I didn’t recognize her immediately.) “You’re so lucky to have young people to come here with you,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied, “These are my granddaughters. My husband lost everyone at Sobibor. Now we have a family again.”

IMG_2918The memorial at the far end of the field, created by Ralph Prins, is unforgettably simple: train tracks twisted toward the sky like arms raised not just in anguish but in protest.

Young Rembrandt at Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum’s room on the Young Rembrandt and his time which is as uncrowded as the Late Rembrandt show is mobbed.  Crowds understandably paw their way through to see that special exhibit, as well as the Night Watch and the other Rembrandt masterpieces.  But if you have seen what you want of the “Greatest Hits” in the Gallery of Honor — Rembrandt in his prime, Vermeer, other masters of Dutch painting — you may be ready for a break.IMG_2809

The Young Rembrandt room epitomizes the best of what the museum did during ten years of renovation, giving context for the artist’s life and later work through objects and furnishings as well as paintings.  It’s fascinating to see how innovative he was even as a very young man, painting a self portrait lit from behind among other surprising works.  Looking at his contemporaries shows the class Rembrandt was a part of, so it’s easier to see just what was innovative and exciting about his lighting and choosing of the moment when a story was at its most dramatic.


While there is much to comment upon in that room, what charmed me most was a portrait of Johannes Lutma, an Amsterdam silversmith, by Jacob Backer, and the objects which accompany it.  His face has such an open quality, and the painting is smooth and serene, the opposite of Hals’ bold brushstrokes.  Lutma clearly preferred a more polished style, both for him and for his wife, whose portrait hangs nearby.

Since portraits were Rembrandt’s bread and butter for years, it’s interesting to notice that, while the accuracy in Backer’s work is admirable and also characteristic of Rembrandt, the depth of emotion that often radiates from Rembrandt’s work does not seem to be there.


In the adjacent display case, I noticed a silver trowel attributed to Lutma’s.  I was far moreinterested in it than I would have been had I only seen the object on its own, as if a friend of a friend had made it.  Beside it was an engraved gold medal Lutma created for the four children who had important roles in the 1648 laying of the first stone of the Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace thanks to Napoleon, but that’s another story).

To give us a further sense of Rembrandt’s environment as a young man, we see a carved arch from a great canal house, furniture with magnificent inlay of ivory into ebony, a ceremonial silver platter, and a great painting by Van Dyke of the marriage of William and Mary, two children barely touching hands.  On the other side of the room we see her as a widow at age 19, left with only the orange in her hand.  The sense of interconnections in this room is profound.  the more time you spend there, the more you will be spun into the web of the young Rembrandt’s world.

Marionettes and Mozart?!

Marionette Theatre Poster - Version 2I confess that I used to think of puppets as a fun diversion for children — but not at the Amsterdam Marionette Theatre.  I happened to bumble into the wide alley where it’s located, and the poster I saw was so compelling that I decided to investigate further.  Mozart?  Really?  I knew it would be in Dutch, of course, but how complex could the story line be?  The main thing was to hear the music and enjoy the visual spectacle.

After reserving tickets online, we arrived 20 minutes early — but after the aficionados, who had long since occupied their tables and were sipping their wine and tea.  A wise strategy, because the seating area is level, and the first row is quite rightly reserved for children and their parents.  The rest of us were grouped around tables for 4, and positioning ourselves politely but assertively to see the small, somewhat elevated stage.  Next time we’ll come earlier, as should you if you go.

What we stumbled into is an art form that dates back indirectly to the 16th century, when nomadic performers brought this form of theatre throughout central Europe, and directly to the 18th century, when the likes of Haydn composed music specifically to be performed with marionettes.  It turns out that the opera singers of the day weren’t always great actors — but the marionettes were.

As we waited for the performance of an adapted version Mozart’s comedy “The Impresario” to begin, we learned that all the music was recorded only on original instruments, by a specific orchestra assembled for this theatre, and opera singers who work with them.  When they tour around the world, which they do regularly, the musicians and singers accompany them, but for the repeated performances in Amsterdam they understandably use recordings.

They don’t allow photography during the performance, but frankly it wouldn’t tell you much.  It’s the absolute magic of scenery as carefully constructed as the Metropolitan Opera’s, and the movement of figures just as carefully carved, painted, and clothed in exquisite garments.  Technically speaking, the star of the show to me was a frou-frou poodle which could raise its ears separately or together, of course wag its tail and prance or jump or shake its head.  The opening scene in which the impresario, Frank, is confronted with the extent of his bills had us weeping with laughter — not to mention the classic duel of the sopranos.

IMG_2722At the end, as a curtain call, they let us all crowd up to the edge of the stage and see the amazing art of the six people overhead, out of sight, each controlling a marionette or sometimes two, moving around each other with unbelievable deftness.  We could even see the intricate embroidery on our hero’s waistcoat.

Like so many good things in Amsterdam, this wonderfully successful and delightful enterprise is run by eccentrics.  The founder, Hendrik Bonneur, is a retired clinical psychologist who studied with the Aicher family of Salzburg, one of two families in Europe who have practiced this art for generations.  If you can possibly go, do.  It will open your eyes, whether or not you have a child you can drag along.

Saving Hungry Dutch Kids in 1945



 The Resistance Museum’s exhibit “To the Farms!  Child Evacuations in the Hunger Winter” shows how 140,000 hungry and malnourished Dutch kids from the northern cities were evacuated to the countryside — under Nazi occupation, after supply lines had been cut so that neither food nor fuel nor electricity were reaching Amsterdam and their neighbors.  In those almost impossible conditions, an interdenominational coalition and a pro-Germansocial work group organized a relief effort which involved screening children, rating their level of need, matching them to farm families (usually the same religion), and arranging their transportation along the routes shown here.


They travelled by every possible means, including foot, but barges were the commonest method, going only by night because the Allies bombed anything that moved during the day.  Children took only a few precious possessions with them, such as this child’s marbles.


As the Resistance Museum does so well throughout, the story of these hungry Dutch kids is told both through individuals alive today retracing their experiences, and by showing us the larger situation through documents and physical exhibits.IMG_2061

The conditions in Amsterdam, The Hague and other cities which had not yet been liberated (because of the disaster in Arnhem at Market Garden) are almost unimaginable today.  During the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, people here were as desperate as anyone in Sub-Saharan Africa in a famine.  The only food generally available was from the soup kitchen, one ladle of thin gruel per person per day.  People literally dropped in the streets and died from hunger.  When a little soup was spilled, they licked it off the street.  For the fastidious Dutch to do this is almost inconceivable.  The winter was desperately cold, and there was no fuel.  This was the time when tram tracks were pulled up and burned, trees were chopped up, and people broke into their deported neighbors’ houses and burned their furniture.  You can find photographs here if you can bear to look at them, all taken illegally by photographers who risked their lives to do so.  More than 20,000 people died in the western Netherlands, including Amsterdam.

In those conditions, one can imagine that parents whose own survival was in doubt would be willing to place their children in the fresh air of the northern farms, where at least there was food.  IMG_2074

Among many moving stories, here’s one: Tineke Meijer’s account of herself as a 12 year old beside the barge which would take her away.  Her mother was with her for a last farewell.  In the distance, Tineke saw a girl approaching them with a doll in her arms, but soon realized it was a very small woman, and the doll was not a doll.  The woman spoke urgently to Tineke’s mother:  “Can your daughter take the baby?  We can’t stay in hiding any more because she cries and makes a lot of noise.”  Although Tineke said no, she didn’t know how, her mother told her she could.  In fact, she successfully hid the baby from the German authorities who were counting children.  On the other side, someone came and took the baby out of her arms, to her confusion and somewhat to her sorrow.  It’s almost like the Tomb of the Unknown; I wonder how many war children might be that child of unknown parents.


Some of the farm families went to incredible lengths to restore the city children to health.  One woman spooned buttermilk into a boy who was dying every half hour until he improved.  And many took the trouble to write the parents at home to tell them how the children were faring, to give them hope.  The shocking contrasts between their situations come through in the translated correspondence, as when one Amsterdam parent is told by her doctor that she is too weak to walk the few blocks to collect food and must get someone else to do it.

As usual at this outstanding museum, one goes away both inspired by the courage, the willingness, the administrative wherewithal that literally saved the lives and health of thousands of children — and horrified by the suffering that made it necessary.  Nothing is spared.  We learn of the struggles for city kids on the farm, about the less good matches as well as the felicitous ones.  Let me give the last word to one of the farm parents:  “As for payment, if we are fortunate enough to return your sons strong and in good health when the time comes, then we would consider that reward enough for us.”


The Stedelijk Museum and WWII



Even if you just went to look at the art, the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibit on its experiences during World War II would be more than worth it:  a Picasso cubist still life, a Matisse odalisque, several Klees, and German Expressionists including Max Beckmann’s famous double portrait with his wife painting in Amsterdam during the war.  But there is so much more to the exhibit than that:  a soul searching examination of the many dimensions of the Museum during the war, beginning with a chronology complete with photographs that show, among other things, Nazi marches right on the Museum Square with the Concertgebouw in the background:



The Museum supported German immigrant and Jewish artists before and during the war, including commissioning work from them, as well as “degenerate” avant garde artists throughout this period, and immediately after the war.  Curator Willem Sandberg foresaw the need to protect art in wartime when he visited Spain after the German attack on Guernica.  The Stedeljk began construction of a bunker at Castricum in the dunes to stow away treasures even before the Nazi invasion.  Eventually, this bunker held more than 500 collections, both public and private.  Because some of the latter were from Jewish owners, records were deliberately not kept to avoid seizure by Nazi authorities, which led to complex issues of ownership after the war.


Sandberg concocted an exhibit on “City and Country” so that he could travel on a “study trip” to Germany in 1941 and gather information for the Resistance, as well as commission photographs from independent artists (including Jewish Emmy Andriesse, part of the Underground Camera group) including those of power stations and other potential targets.  This was one of only two propaganda-style exhibits at the Stedelijk during the war.  I should mention that the Museum’s one Jewish employee was dismissed, but over protest.

Because he had helped to organize the March 1943 bombing of the Population Registry (which enabled the Nazis to locate Jewish citizens), Sandberg was on the “wanted” list and had to remain in hiding for the rest of the war.  A respected graphic artist himself, he created a series of books titled “Typographical Experiments.”  This one, with apparently random letters, signifies the names of each of his comrades who were caught and executed by the Nazis.


Something I learned in researching this post is that the large tiles in the Waterlooplein Metro Station are done in Sandberg’s typography, especially appropriate/ironic since much of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed to build the Metro.

The room devoted to questions of provenance is fascinating — asking which paintings legitimately belong to the Museum and which are in question, which means the case is submitted to a specially appointed body which adjudicates them.  Some of the dossiers are available for Museum visitors to peruse and draw their own conclusions.

IMG_2443Many stories are told in that room, but let one stand for the others.  Here’s a modest but pleasing little painting, Pears Packed in a Glass Preserving Jar, by Sal Meijer.  What’s most unusual about it is a part of a typed label which remains on its back, “Goudst—.”  What does this mean?  Unlike some other significant Jewish art collectors and dealers in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker was a native of that city.  He was among the most important dealers of Old Master paintings between the wars, if not the most important.  He fled Holland by ship to England along with his family just after the Nazi invasion, leaving behind an immense collection of priceless art in his gallery in the care of his employees.  In a ghastly irony, Goudstikker fell on the ship to Liverpool and died of a broken neck.  However, he did have in his possession the notebook in which all of his acquisitions were noted, which became the basis of the biggest effort to recover art by a Dutch Jewish family after the war.


Within days of the dealer’s death, Hermann Goering and a Nazi banker had managed to pay the gallery employees off.  They acquired virtually the whole collection for a tiny fraction of its value — over the strenuous objections of Goudstikker’s widow.  (The exhibit doesn’t point this out, but restitution of this collection only happened in 2006, after an investigative journalist published a book on the subject and the scandal became ever more public.)  However, research showed that this particular painting was returned to Goudstikker’s widow in a timely way, and she sold it to the Stedelijk Museum, so it was not in the controversial group.


All in all, this is a sobering but also engaging exhibit that illuminates the many aspects of the museum’s relationship to the occupying power and the situation it created in Amsterdam during the war years.  While I’m sure some people will come forward with other versions of the truth, the Museum deserves credit for putting this information before the public just before the 70th anniversary of Liberation.



The Portuguese Synagogue Lit by Candles

Last night, the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue was lit only by candles for a brilliant concert by the Frans Hals Kwartet, four gifted musicians who met recently at the conservatory.  The Synagogue is a huge subject which I’ll address one day, but for now let’s just stick to the magic of last evening.  There is neither electricity nor heat in the Synagogue, so the woman who sold me the tickets warned me to “dress really warmly, and then add something else after that.”  I wrapped up in a down coat, polarfleece and a turtleneck, wore my hat and gloves and was reasonably comfortable.  These photographs are a very pale imitation of the beauty we saw.

IMG_2406Just like 1675  The Synagogue is enclosed in an outer square of one-storey buildings which house its precious library and exhibits, with small paved courtyard separating the Synagogue from the rest.  We crossed this in a fine rain or thick fog (depending on the moment), and pulled open the high wooden door to enter the immense worship space — perhaps three stories tall, with balconies on either side, the central space held up by immense columns.  Almost all the restoration done since builders finished the Synagogue in 1675 has been maintenance, so the place looks and feels as it did more than 300 years ago.

Brass chandeliers beyond any others   First, I smelled the candles burning, then saw the whole space radiant with a soft light that I’d only sipped at in home environments.


This was candlelight so pervasive, so bright, that you could read by it, see every nuance of the architecture around you.  And raising your eyes to see the candles themselves was another revelation.  The Synagogue’s glory to the Gentile viewer is the 17th century brass chandeliers, the model for others around the world.  They are endlessly elaborate, immense in size (at least 10 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet in diameter at the bottom) and hold 30 candles each.  Because the brass has been polished within an inch of its life, there are hundreds of brilliant surfaces which can reflect the candles when they are lit.  Four of these chandeliers hang in the central part of the Synagogue, plus countless smaller ones everywhere else.  There are even holders for single candles on the columns, standing candelabras here and there, small sets in windows, plus smaller versions of the huge chandeliers under the balconies.

There literally was not a single dark corner in any part of that huge space.  For the hour that the musicians played Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor and then Ravel’s in F Major, we were transfixed — not only by the music itself and its wending path through the range of human feeling, but also by being saturated, probably the first time in our lives, by candlelight.  We all know what a difference a single candle makes.  I can say that when there are hundreds (we stopped calculating at 500), the difference is multiplied by thousands.

If you go    You won’t find these concerts listed in the usual places.  Look here and hope for the best; they only happen about once a month.  Come early to see the candles lit.  We were 15 minutes ahead and it wasn’t enough.  Don’t bother getting tickets in advance; the place is huge.


Free Opera at the Stopera

Every Tuesday from 12:30 to 1:00, you can hear a free concert at the Stopera right on the Amstel River.  It’s a wonderful venue, easily reached by tram or subway, or best of all on foot or by bicycle.


Because folding chairs are set up on the stairs leading down to the main lobby, there’s lots of room — and at worst you can always stand at the back or lean over the open balconies above. So the need to come early and stand outside is less pressing than at the free concerts at the Concertgebouw. The people at the door greet you warmly and provide a printed program, which is much appreciated.

This week was a particular treat: a superb young Dutch soprano, Maartje Rammeloo, accompanied by Nathalie Doucet on piano, doing classic arias from Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti.

The singer appeared in a really stunning gown — strapless midnight blue with a full skirt which set off her substantial height. But it was her voice that really gripped us from the start, effortlessly hitting a wide range of notes at both soft and full volume.  Her ability to go through different feeling states and convey them intensely was remarkable, especially in a recital which involves snippets rather than the buildup to a full aria.  We had the delightful surprise of hearing her husband, Jan-Willem Schaafsma, a fine tenor, assist her in several scenes.  Their canoodling had the feel of true love!

Because the whole curved side of the building is glass, the natural light was excellent, and of course there’s no problem for an operatic soprano to be heard right to the top of the house.  In half an hour, we were transported back through centuries, but also into our own hearts.


US Video Art in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk

The last place I would have expected to find the advanced video art of San Francisco’s Tony Oursler would be the oldest building in Amsterdam, the Oude Kerk, built in the 13th century.  But maybe that’s the point, and it’s a juxtaposition Amsterdam is famous for, the antique and the utterly contemporary.   I’d gone over to hear the magnificent weekly carillon concert (Tuesdays at 4:00) and noticed the sign.


Soon, I was in the midst of commissioned work in that spectacular setting, projected right onto the walls.  This piece involved two characters talking, a very straightforward man who was blunt and clear, and this ghostlike figure who clearly wanted to hide.  According to the supporting materials (in Dutch and English), the point of all this is questioning the way technology and especially internet connectivity pervades many people’s lives.  I’m not sure I would have looked at the works as intelligently without that hint, but no matter.  




Older pieces from elsewhere were shown in two side rooms, which were beautiful in themselves, and which I don’t remember being open to the public before.  The contrast with the ultra-modern imagery (not shown here because it didn’t photograph well) was delicious:  two dolls talking glumly to each other, with faces projected onto their stuffed faces.



My personal favorite of the whole show was a talking worm whose discourse was uproarious, while what I interpreted as wounds appeared and disappeared on its body.  It reminded me of the dreaded internet worm.


Nearby, two large faces were projected on the stained glass of another time.  For me this was the most enigmatic of the works, but the history of the glass made sense to me.  It was removed during the Nazi Occupation and hidden in Zandvoort in the dunes (how or where the label did not say).  Unfortunately, some pieces were broken anyway, and the shards were all placed in this window, which Oursler uses as a screen.  That part I understand:  the present and its complexities and discourse are always projected onto the shattered remnants of the past, even and especially whatever we have tried to protect.



By the way:  Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, is buried here, her grave in the floor of the Oude Kerk marked only with her name.  Her husband died a pauper and is interred in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk.

Be prepared:  The women of the world’s oldest profession are on display in windows right by the church.  However you feel about it, don’t be surprised.  And don’t take a photograph.

The February Strike against the Nazis

The Dockworker

The Dockworker

On February 25, we joined hundreds of other people in Amsterdam to remember the huge outpouring for the general strike called on this day in 1941 — the only such protest throughout Europe to object to the first roundup of Jewish men right there, where we gathered, in the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein.  Instead of a regular blog post, I’ve written a letter to The Dockworker, the symbolic figure of the strike whose statue stands there today.




The Dockworker statue, with a woman wearing red, remembering the communist organizers

The Dockworker statue, with a woman wearing red, remembering the communist organizers

To the Dockworker, February 25, 2015

So, my friend, here we are again.  You look so hefty in bronze, as you must have been in life.  I wonder how many such tons of goods you shifted off the ships of Amsterdam, just a few blocks away.  You were the first to go out on strike, you and the tramworkers.  “Strike! Strike! Strike!” the leaflet had said, after they rounded up 425 Jewish men right here in the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, and you did.  The comrades had gotten together right afterwards, at the Noorderkerk, and agreed that they couldn’t let the Nazis get away with this.  Yes, the Germans had been well behaved overall ,since they invaded the spring before the strike, but their Dutch buddies did the dirty work of harassing the Jewish community.  Some broken windows, the occasional beating – you had tolerated that.  But not rounding up your fellow citizens in your own country.  That wouldn’t do.

Once the docks and the trams stopped working, everything in Amsterdam stopped.  It was a bitterly cold day, but it didn’t stop you and 300,000 others from turning out.  People sang in the streets, defying the Nazi authorities.  Even the offices and the sewing shops came to a halt.  Other cities heard about what was happening, and some of them went on strike too.  It was a general strike, and not for wages or benefits, but to protest the Nazi invasion and what they had done to fellow workers.  A great day, according to all the accounts we have, until the astonished German authorities cracked down, jailed the organizers in what’s now the swanky Lloyd Hotel, and sent them off to prison where most of them died.  So did the 425 men they rounded up in this very square where your statue stands.  The city was fined and new restrictions were put in place.

People wait in front of the Portuguese Synagogue with their flowers

People wait in front of the Portuguese Synagogue with their flowers

When I first came to this event 14 years ago, it was a huge, solemn occasion marking the 60th anniversary.  That day, we were in the presence of people who had been through the war, who had resisted, or hidden others, or been hidden.  After the few speeches, it was a quiet occasion, with people coming forward one or two at a time to lay small bouquets of flowers in addition to the official wreaths.  Some had personal notes attached to them.  Like 1941, it was a frigid day, and for me a life changing one as I began to be gripped by the stories of the Holocaust and resistance, and lack of resistance, in the Netherlands.  That day, I felt the reality of what had happened, both the sorrow about the losses and the inspiration of the Strike.  The absences.

Each of the several times I’ve been back, the day has felt a little different.  I always feel honored to be here.  Each time, I’ve known a little more about what happened in those terrible years of Nazi occupation, from May 10, 1940 until May 5, 1945 in Amsterdam.  I’ve thought often about you and the ones who marched with you, when I’ve faced the issues of my own time and wondered when and how to act against oppression and persecution.

People line up to lay flowers and pay their respects

The head of the long line where people prepare to lay flowers and pay their respects

The few speeches this year were as tasteful and appropriate as ever.  According to Het Parool, a leading daily newspaper that began as an underground sheet, Mayor Geke Faber Zaanstad said that “We can not look away as Jews again have to fear for their lives and their synagogues should be protected. . .We can not look away as cartoonists and opinion makers no longer dare use their freedom of speech. We can not look away as ordinary Muslims insulted and attacked, as their mosques destroyed, because of the actions of extremists.”  She was followed by actress Rosa da Silva, who plays Anne Frank in a current theatrical production, reciting poems accompanied by a poignant violin solo.  I caught the gist.

Someone old enough to remember?

Someone old enough to remember?

Perhaps it was just me, or the mood I was in yesterday.  But when the speeches were over, some people began chatting with each other as if they were at any other gathering, as they waited to lay their flowers.  Many faces were still, of course.  And who am I to say that people shouldn’t enjoy life and each other’s company?  Yet the tone of it troubled me.  The crowd of some hundreds of people was smaller, the flowers fewer, especially the small bouquets from ordinary people, as opposed to the big official wreaths. It’s not a big year this year, the 74th, so maybe that accounts for it.  But it did seem different to me that the elderly people who came in wheelchairs or with walkers were little children at the time of the strike, not active participants who lost friends and fellow workers.

The big question for me now   As much as we owe you honor for all you did – and that blast of courage and fortitude blows through us like the wind off the North Sea, worthy of remembrance and action – we see you through the smoke of more than 100,000 murdered Dutch citizens.  That must temper the thrill we feel when we think of your courage, your immediate outrage, your standing up against the Nazis as no other city ever did.  Maybe that’s why your face, to me, has always held questions, not simple heroism, why your hands are open and empty.  After most of a lifetime, can I look you in the face as I lay my flowers at your feet?  IMG_2399