Category Archives: 1940-1945

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.

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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.  

 

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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.

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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.

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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

Amsterdam Remembers the Holocaust

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.

Marchers of All Generations

Marchers of All Generations

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.

Marchers by Portuguese Synagogue

Marchers by Portuguese Synagogue

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.

Marchers by Dockworker

Marchers by Dockworker

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.

Flowers with Note

Flowers with Note

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.

Flowers from Everywhere

Flowers from Everywhere

 

 

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.

A woman places flowers for an older man, perhaps her father

A woman places flowers for an older man, perhaps her father