Category Archives: 1940-1945

A Long Labor: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

Rhodea Shandler’s A Long Labor:  A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir is a treasure.

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

When I first began to learn about the Holocaust and resistance in the Netherlands, I expected the stories to be grisly and the heroes to be larger than life.  Very few stories have a happy ending in that time, and even those that do involve loss, terror and many shades of grey.  And yet.  There’s inspiration to be gleaned by seeing that ordinary people acted with courage, and that they were human, too, sometimes failing to do what they knew they should.

Rhodea Shandler faced many of the same dilemmas as the fictional characters in my historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the Resistance.  Rhodea gets pregnant while in hiding on a farm, and the formerly welcoming hosts freeze her out emotionally and practically (less food under worse conditions).  Only because another Jewish woman in hiding with the same family is a nurse does she successfully deliver her baby in breech position, of course with no anesthetic or proper sanitation.  Similarly, when my novel opens, my heroine Rachel is making a delivery to a wardrobe full of hidden Jewish people in a basement.  They all crush in together as the police raid the house.  Rachel feels another woman’s rounded tummy mashed against hers, and wordlessly learns that she’s pregnant, and of course it must be a secret.  The hazards of the noise of childbirth, much less a baby itself, were more than most hosts could take on – especially given that they were already risking deportation, execution, imprisonment and/or torture.

Like many Jewish people who survived the Holocaust, Rhodea did not feel compelled to record her story until very late in life, and in fact died in 2006 just before this book was published.  She takes us through the warning phase before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, when the small NSB (Dutch Nazi Party) was still being seen as innocuous:

“Since Holland was a democracy, the NSB had the right to try to influence the people by means of rallies, hate mail, newspaper articles and so on.  Initially, most Dutch people just made jokes about them.  It was such a small party that it did not seem strong enough to make trouble.  We knew they were there, but we thought they were ineffectual. . . What could we possibly have to fear?”     Page 52

In fact, it was the NSB and their followers who beat up on the Jewish community after the Nazis invaded, far more than the German soldiers.  They were under strict orders to behave properly toward their Aryan brothers – a situation which changed radically after many Dutch made it clear that they regarded the Germans as oppressors.

Although Rhodea was never in the resistance, her perspective fascinates me as that of a young Jewish woman, and one who survived the war in hiding.  Her story is different from the Amsterdam situation with which I am more familiar, because she lived in the small northern city of Leeuwarden, where the Jewish population was virtually exterminated.  Although she moved several times from one hiding place to another, Rhodea was not betrayed by her hosts, only treated badly when she was pregnant.  She herself understands why her situation terrified them.  Again and again, she shows what a big heart and compassionate perspective she has.

However, a moment arrives when she does something that haunts her forever.  She was working with mental patients at the Jewish asylum at Apeldoorn, where the staff had advance warning to get out.  Her husband spoke to her by telephone and insisted that she leave immediately.  After helping some of the patients prepare to evacuate, Rhodea decides that it is time to save herself, even though other staff are remaining.  She takes off her Jewish star, dresses in street clothes, and leaves her identification behind.  Her colleagues are angry:

 “They looked at me as a traitor; they were so dedicated to their work. . . I probably would have stayed too if my husband hadn’t been so adamant on the phone that I come home.  I knew I had to look after myself first.  It had really come to that point.”  page 80

Her agony is compounded when she encounters some of the patients already wandering around the town as she heads for the train station.  They of course recognize her as she shoos them away, an action which haunts her for years.  “Was I a deserter?” she asks herself, even knowing that staff and patients were all seized and deported a few hours after she left.  There were no survivors.

I’d read about the horrors of persecuting and exterminating the residents of this asylum and their caregivers, although this is the first time I’ve read a first person account.  The situation appears in my novel because my heroine’s father is a physician who had recently admitted a patient there.  When he hears of the Nazi raid,

His conscience was wracked by the thought of all those unstable people being subjected to even more terror. “Just before we came here, I had a man who attempted suicide admitted there. He was a peddler who couldn’t support his family anymore because of the Nazis.” He shook his head, looking like an old man who doesn’t understand the world anymore. 

Like Rhodea, An Address’s heroine, Rachel Klein, comes to the point where she must save herself and her family – but by then she has done months of work for the underground.  She is tired and terrified, and something happens which is a last straw for her.  Even knowing that she had to do what she did, both the real Rhodea and the fictional Rachel are haunted by saving themselves, a particular kind of survivor guilt.  They also respond to their persecution and predicament as Anne Frank did, by becoming more broad-minded and humanitarian.  Rhodea puts it beautifully:

“Even now, the knowledge that all our loved ones, friends, family and everyone who suffered in concentration camps and jails did not survive their ordeal makes me jump out of bed in the middle of the night with tears running down my cheeks.  although it was 60 years ago that all this happened, even now it is unclear to me why the Jews were so hated and even nowadays continue to be persecuted in certain groups.

“It causes me to try to be benevolent and understanding, and to avoid confrontation or judgment of others who are different from me.  This is the only light that I see now.” 

For more information about the book, click here.

Former Nazi Prison by the Leidesplein

IMG_3597Just a few steps from the tourist heart of Amsterdam, the buzzing Leideseplein, stands a building that once was a notorious Nazi prison.  Not that there was any other kind, but this one was for political prisoners, including Anne Frank and her family who were here for several days in August 1945.  There are reports of Jewish prisoners being forced to walk endlessly in the courtyard while saying they are Jews and deserve whatever they get.  Unlike the Franks, most prisoners were sent on to prison camps elsewhere in the Netherlands, or were taken directly to the dunes at Overveen and executed.

Inside is a plaque with two huge tears, and a paragraph describing in the barest factual IMG_3585
terms that what the building was during the war, and two of the Resistance attempts to free prisoners.  
The saddest in my view involved Gerrit van der Veen, a noted sculptor and father of two little girls who had become a leader in forging,  the underground press and the bombing of Amsterdam’s population registry (a key factor in the roundups).  He was shot twice and half paralyzed during the attempt to break into the prison.  His comrades dragged him to his hiding place, but he was betrayed, arrested and shot, on June 10,1944.

In the 1990s, the building façade was redesigned to evoke a different image.

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Right in front, just off the Leidesplein, are some more emotional words carved in stone::

Crime punished

Freedom crippled

Vision won an open city.

 

To get there, walk on the Weteringschans with your back to the Stadschouwberg with the Apple Store on your right, keep going, and you’ll find the big pillars on the right.

The February Strike against the Nazis at 75

Only 75 years ago, on February 25, 1941,  the city of Amsterdam went on strike against the Nazis – en masse – to protest the first roundup of their Jewish comrades. More than 300,000 people took to the streets.  It never happened anywhere else, and it never happened in Amsterdam again.

Once the word of the roundup of 425 men spread, communist street sweepers instigated the strike almost immediately.  They brought people together at the Noorderkerk, and overnight produced a mimeographed leaflet saying “Strike! Strike! Strike!” against the persecution of Jews.
Calls for the February Strike on the NoordermarktOn the morning of February 25, 1941, the dockworkers stopped.  Then the trams shut down.  Many others followed, and soon the city was at a standstill except for the people in the streets singing and marching. (For a little more information and a nice photo of the memorial statue of the Dockworker, look here).

The Germans were taken completely by surprise.  They had viewed the Dutch as brother Aryans who would come around eventually, and of course they did not regard the Dutch Jewish citizens whose history went back to the 17th century as Dutch.  As the strike spread from Amsterdam to the provinces, the Nazis acted fast.  By the third day, they had imprisoned most of the organizers, shot some of the protesters dead, and threatened the direst consequences to anyone who didn’t get right back to work.  They made sure that no one would ever try anything on that scale again.

No one did.  The resistance from that point forward was much more in bits and pieces, sometimes effective and often not.  In the end, the Netherlands lost almost three-quarters of its Jewish population, a devastating loss for Amsterdam in particular, once called “The Jerusalem of the West.”

Only 75 years, less than many human lifetimes, separates us from the moment the street sweepers and other workers organized the February Strike.  The essence of the Nazi philosophy they were protesting is to divide people up by the false and ever more elusive idea of “race,” and to consider some less than human.  As soon as we begin to think of any group only as a mass, not as individuals, we are treading dangerously close to the Nazi path.  If we take the next step and feel that some people are less human than we are, we are on the path Hitler laid out for us.

Naturally, we consider that “nice” people we know or know of are just as human as we are.  But what about batterers, thugs and vandals, sex offenders, or parents who abandon their children or sell them into slavery?  What about Hitler himself?  This is where several great religions tell us we must stretch – but not to condone their egregious behavior.  An effort at accountability is a must, even if it’s almost impossible to conceive of what might be adequate.  Yet we need to recognize that we belong to the same species as these “others.”  Each of us still has human rights, and human needs.

Although the US is a nation of immigrants and the native people who survived our invasion, we hear calls to build walls along our border – only the one between us and the brown people to the south, not between us and Canada.  We are doing the barest minimum to assist Syrian refugees:  welcoming 10,000 in our country of 319 million, versus Germany’s one million in a population of 80 million – in other words, we are doing one percent of what the world’s most generous country has done, even though our population is almost four times bigger.  A Presidential candidate says we should keep Muslims from entering our country – be they college professors, grandparents who want to visit their kids, bankers or merchants or ne’er do wells – solely on the basis of their religion.

Does this sound familiar to anybody else?

Can we be as brave as the streetsweepers of Amsterdam and stand against it?

February Strike Poster

The US KKK and the WA in Amsterdam

The tattooed woman lifted her wineglass across from me and said something I would never have expected to hear from someone her age.  “My family spent a couple of years in the mountains of Virginia when I was little,” she said.  Her black dress was cut so the incised roses showed on her ample upper arm.  “We used to go to the village restaurant until, one night, there was a KKK meeting in the back room.  The guys were back there with their white hoods and everything.  When I pointed them out to my mom, she took us right out of there and we never went back.  This was in the eighties.”

If that date seems far away, consider this.  Just a few weeks ago, at the end of October, two women of color in my community of Burlington, Vermont found threatening KKK flyers in their mailboxes.  I won’t give whoever targeted them the satisfaction of reproducing the graphics here. Nor was the KKK unknown in Vermont in the past, as this photograph of a 1927 rally shows:

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At least in 2015 more than 100 people took to the streets to show how unwelcome the KKK is in our community.  I wish I’d been there; I didn’t get the notice until too late.  How many Amsterdammers might have said the same if they didn’t participate in the February strike?

Reminders of how even the most extreme racism is alive and well makes me think of the early days of the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam.  Long-time Nazi sympathizers came out of the woodwork, targeting individuals and spreading fear just like the KKK.  The NSB (the Dutch Nazi party) had about 36,000 members in May 1940 at the time of the Nazi invasion, which grew to about 100,000 members at its peak.

NSB FlagIn a country of almost nine million, this represents approximately 11%.  Given the pressures to collaborate, it is a modest figure. Ironically, the NSB was founded in 1931 on the Hitler platform minus the anti-Semitic portions because it was expected that most Dutch would find them too extreme.  Jews were still members of the party until fall 1940.  The founder and leader, Anton Mussert, was not considered radical enough by the Germans, who never gave him a position of power.

Jews not wanted photoWhile most Dutch were anti-German in general and often anti-Nazi in particular, a vicious minority dedicated themselves to making the lives of Jewish people hell, one at a time.  Before the Germans legalized persecution and ultimately extermination, the WA (the NSB’s paramilitary branch) began individual harassment and attacks on homes and businesses.  They forced restaurants and hotels to display “Jews not wanted” signs.  As we all know now, it was one of the first steps.

When I consider those men in hoods in the back of a restaurant, and a flyer slipping through the mail slot of a Vermont woman, I can’t help thinking the NSB isn’t so long ago and far away.  And that’s before I examine my own conscience about how I’m contributing to the environment where the person who made that flyer thought he could get away with it.  Next time, I hope I’ll be spreading the word about the protest, instead of being someone who didn’t find out about it in time to participate.

The Shadow Wall: Who’s Missing

A sidewalk borders the Nieuwe Keizersgracht canal just beside the east side of the Hermitage Amsterdam, one of the few places where nothing divides you from the edge of the water.  All along it, you’ll see “The Shadow Wall,” which consists of engraved metal plaques sunk into the stone opposite the houses on the other side.  Each corresponds to an address.

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On the nearby bridge, a sign explains that the current residents decided to commemorate the 200 people from their canal “who were murdered because they were Jewish.”  Each sign shows the names and ages of the people who lived in the house.  If every street in Amsterdam were labeled this way, 60,000 people’s names would be memorialized.  Only 10,000 survived the war, mostly by hiding.

As you walk along and read them, relationships begin to appear:  a young married couple living with the wife’s mother, two children close in age but the next not following for some years, perhaps two brothers or sisters living next door to each other.  The two-year-olds, those in their seventies or eighties.IMG_3662

Looking across the street, you begin to imagine the people inside the houses where they lived and ate potatoes and mended their clothes, just as you do.

 

 

 

Here’s the house where this family lived.  You don’t have to try very hard to see them looking back at you.IMG_3663

An Art Ritual to Remember Jewish Neighbors

On May 4, the Day of Remembrance of the war dead in the Netherlands, the fourteen huge chestnut trees on the Kastagneplein witnessed a moving secular ritual on a sunny, coolish spring day.

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After attending a related program at the local  library, I stumbled upon what turned out to be a remarkable experience in memory of the 5500 Jewish people who were deported from the six streets leading to the open square of the Kastanjeplein.  From a distance, I saw people sitting at long tables doing some kind of art project in one direction, and piles of suitcases and files in another.  The day was ideal for an outdoor project:  sunny and bright, the chestnut leaves limp with spring, the air cool but not cold.  I approached one of the many volunteers hanging out by the art area and asked her to explain what was happening.

It turns out that the Kastanjeplein is at the heart of what was once the densest population of Jewish people in Amsterdam before the Holocaust.  “We are helping our Jewish neighbors who were murdered come back here, where they belong, to their own streets,” a woman in her twenties explained to me.  “In the center of the square we have made a map on the ground of the six streets where they lived.  Everyone who wants to is making a nameplate for one person, and then they lay it on the map where the person lived.  If you go over to the Archives, they’ll help you find someone.”

IMG_3514So I approached an artistically arranged mountain of antique suitcases and old fashioned file boxes.  Another young volunteer with the demeanor of someone in charge of important information greeted me.  Had I lived in the neighborhood, she would have found someone on my street, and very possibly at my address.  Instead, she assigned me a street that few had chosen earlier, the one which runs along the Oosterpark.  I sat down and read all the names of people who died on that street. It is only a few blocks long, but there were so many:  whole families with several generations, single people, old and young.  An X marked anyone whose nameplate had already been made.  In the end, I chose Flora Nerde-de Levie because her first name was the same as my Great Granny Munroe’s.


Returning to the long tables of art materials, I was struck by the diligence with which people approached their task.  Apart from a little quiet conversation asking for materials or advice, it was a meditative group, perhaps a dozen people at once, and of all ages.  I was moved to see a fully dressed Muslim woman come with her children.  When I chose a fabric with flowers for the background of my sign, a volunteer helped me staple it on.  Now for the name.  I’d assumed that I’d find a straight edge and do it freehand, but this is the Netherlands.  Piles of stencils were available to ensure that the letters were properly shaped, as well as rulers and other tools.

IMG_3512As I, not an artistic person, sketched and measured on paper before transferring the design to cloth, I thought about Flora Nerde-de Levie.  I wondered if the street were as busy then as it is now, how long she survived after the Nazi invasion, what she believed or didn’t believe about her fate.  What did she look like? Did she fit the Nazi stereotype so she was harassed in the streets? How did she feel as she sewed the stars onto her own clothes and perhaps those of her family?  When I had written her name as nicely as I could with the stencils, I colored in some of the flowers, and added some yellow stars around them, trying to represent both the joy in her life and the calamity which ultimately befell her.

The next station was near the archives, a woman standing alone with a kind of drum.  She asked me to close my eyes and think of the person’s name, and to think of her returning home.  She played music that sounded like a rain stick, which helped with the other worldly feeling.  For the first time, I shed tears.  After a few minutes, she directed my attention to the curb around the square.  Every inch at the most, the volunteers had chalked in train tracks, all the way around.  She invited me to follow them to the next stage, retracing the journey the Jewish neighbors had made.  The tracks were marked with each step and the distance:  Muiderpoort (the local station), Westerbork Transit Camp, Sobibor, Auschwitz.  It was chilling.

At the next stage, more suitcases were piled up with papers inside.  A friendly older woman asked if I would like to go ahead and put my nameplate in place, or if I would like to hear a story.  That was an easy choice.  She read me, first in Dutch and then translating into English, a poem by  Mrs. C. van der Hulst, who learns that she is living in a house where Jewish people once lived, and is now doing the same chores, cooking for her children, washing the dishes, and thinking of them.  She lays flowers for them on Remembrance Day.  How completely she expressed my experience, when I began to feel the presence of the people who hid where I lived in 2002, and ultimately gave 12 years of my life to researching and writing a novel about people like them.

IMG_3516Finally, I went to the area where the map was laid out on the stones of the Kastanjeplein, an area at least 10 meters long and three wide.  Among the brightly colored bells, I chose sky blue to ring for Flora, and with help laid her nameplate down on the map, exactly where she lived.  I looked at the others, so many too many of them, beautifully marked by nameplates decorated in every possible way:  elaborate lettering, vines and flowers, geometric patterns, all in the full array of colors, so that what we saw was a collage of LIFE not just of murder and death.  A tall woman with brilliant red hair saw how moved I was.  “There are so many,” I said.  Her answer:  “5500 from just these six streets.  We have to bring them back here, where they belong.”  It still makes me cry.  Surely that is what my work is all about, through every poem I have written on this theme, and through all these years of the work on my novel.  To bring them back, where other people can see and feel them the way I do – even though I never knew them, and this is not my country.  But it is, somehow, my story to tell.  But for an accident of time and space, I would have been their neighbor here in Amsterdam, the city I love..

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The last stage was being presented with a divine cup of herbal tea, in a real teacup, and sitting down for a chat with whoever happened to be there.  In my lucky case, it was Nicoline Snaas, the choir director who planned to have six choirs converging on the square that evening, singing in preparation of the two minutes of silence which happens everywhere in the Netherlands at 8:00 p.m.  Even the trains stop.

 

Nicoline asked me, “What’s your connection to all this?” and I tried to tell her about my great love for this city and how that led to my connected to the people whose descendants should be here, but are not.  Then I walked to the street where Flora Nerden-de Levie once lived.  Along the way, I saw a sign someone had put in their window with the names and birthdays of the Jewish people who lived in their house, and the date they were murdered at Auschwitz.

Oosterpark 13, Flora’s house, had been torn down.

 

Unpacking Kitaj at the Jewish History Museum

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Saving Hungry Dutch Kids in 1945

 

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 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.

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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.

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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

 

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.