Tag Archives: Amsterdam

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.

Vincent van Gogh’s 400 Days in Amsterdam

If you want a glimpse of Vincent van Gogh while he was still a theology student, and of Amsterdam in the 1870s, this exhibit at the City Archives will enlighten you. The delight of exploring the Eastern Docks where van Gogh lived with his uncle in the Navy is portrayed in some of Vincent’s letters to his faithful brother Theo.  Vincent is a vivid writer who gives a real sense of the bustle on the docks, especially when the floods of workers left the yards for the day, and of the smells and sights of great vessels being built and repaired.

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Photograph of Docks from Amsterdam City Archive

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Admiral de Ruyter from Amsterdam City Archive

Indoors, van Gogh was exposed mostly to naval heroes and religious art, some of which he loved and writes movingly about.  He bought many prints cheaply from his favorite Jewish bookseller, and spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter, as well as visiting the nearby Rijksmuseum, then located in the Trippenhuis.  These artistic interests were in addition to his making the tour of the major churches in Amsterdam, and contrasting the styles of various Protestant preachers.

To pursue his studies, Van Gogh was tutored in Latin and Greek by Dr. M.B. Mendes da Costa, a Portuguese Jewish scholar who lived next to the great synagogue. He wrote about seeing the future painter crossing the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, sometimes with a little bouquet of snowdrops he had picked at a graveyard where he often walked. “These are for you,” van Gogh said, “because you do so much for me.”  After van Gogh’s death, Dr. da Costa wrote a moving reminiscence here.  For me as a student of Jewish Amsterdam, it was especially fascinating to see stereoscopic views of the fishmonger, the Waterlooplein market, and the old market as they were, and to be shown again how integral the Jewish community was to the city.

Back to Amsterdam After Heartbreak   

After a misbegotten love affair with a woman who refused to marry him, van Gogh left Amsterdam for good — except for a return to view the newly built Rijksmuseum.  He went with a friend who left him in front of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride for several hours, then returned to find the painter in exactly the same position, reporting that he’d give ten years of his life to stay right there for a fortnight with a crust of bread.

 

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

A Tale of Two Photographers

It’s hard to believe that photographers Jacques Henri Lartigue and Francesca Woodman belong to the same human species. You can see their work at an often overlooked Amsterdam museum, FOAM, less than a mile from the Rijksmuseum at Keizersgracht 609.

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It’s in two canal houses which were refashioned completely into galleries with a glass wall at the back looking into the formal garden, worth seeing in itself (though perhaps not in February).

Lartigue’s Colored World   Lartigue, born in 1894, lived a good long life and recorded as close to every delicious moment of it that he could. Beginning at age eight, he took thousands of photographs of his own life. His gaze is always outward, on a luminous world, often of the women he loved most in glowing settings, often with flowers. This show focuses on his less known color work, and presents examples of the journal he kept for 70 years.  Lartigue always noted the weather and the highlights of the day, sometimes including a photograph or two. He didn’t receive recognition for his work until he was in his late sixties, and he was in high demand in his last years as a fashion photographer.

Bibi au Restaurant, from FOAM website                                                Bibi au Restaurant, from FOAM website

 

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976 © Betty and George Woodman from FOAM website

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976
© Betty and George Woodman
from FOAM website

Woodman’s Black and White Self Portraits      Woodman also began making photographs early, at age thirteen. Her enigmatic first self portrait conceals her face under her long hair. She is half turned away from us, but reaching toward us to detonate the camera’s shutter. For all her nude work later, this desire to conceal and reveal, to repel and engage, seems like an undercurrent in her work. When she photographs herself with a nude model rather than alone, his portly jolliness is an almost ridiculous contrast to her intensity. I’m not a sophisticated enough viewer to appreciate all of Woodman’s subtleties, but it’s not hard to see how much she positions herself in decaying environments, and the ramping up of images which include self abuse. Her work was recognized relatively early, including a McDowell residency. Just after it, Woodman ended her life.

These two artists both took their own lives as an important subject, but they were oriented differently in fundamental ways. On the surface, Lartigue worked within his own life, but he looked outward at his lovers and the world; Woodman’s only subject was herself in many iterations. The story has to be much more complicated than that, and one would have to know more to see through the mystery. Perhaps Lartigue was simply born into a happy, privileged Parisian home with good genes, and Woodman suffered disruption every year or two of her early life, perhaps with bad genes. Whatever the reasons may be, one person drank every day to the full, taking his last photo in his eighties, and another jumped off a building at age 22, having hardly tasted life.  It’s worth pondering why, and looking at their work perhaps gives some responses.

 

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.

Hortus Botanicus: More than a Break

 

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If you have had enough museums, canal houses and crowds, slip away to the Hortus Botanicus.  For the last 375 years, it has been a beacon for botanists, but also for ordinary people seeking peace and quiet.  Although the area is small (a little less than a standard city block), the Hortus is packed with treasures, and if you want to learn something about plants, it is also the most engaging possible textbook. Originally a garden for herbal medicines, the garden took on a new role with the Dutch explorations around the world, cultivating many plants which were brought back as a few seedlings.  Some were the backbone of important commercial ventures, coffee being the most notable example.

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You can simply wander around the garden and look at the huge mature trees from around the world, or enjoy the flowers.  Except in the dead of winter, there’s always something in bloom, and even then you can probably find a hellebore peeking out. If it’s pouring, take refuge in the huge contemporary greenhouse with its many climates, or keep company with one of the oldest potted plants in the world in the convservatory from the early 20th century.  It’s a male Eastern Cape Giant Cycad, its female companion a mere 200 years old, whom the gardeners pollinate to produce seed which is distributed around the world.

 

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If you want to do more than wander, two trails will guide you around:  one which gives information on some of the garden’s magnificent trees (everything from the ancient gingko to the contemporary London plane), and another which will do no less than teach you how plant life developed on earth!  Having only the vaguest idea about this, I was fascinated to discover the huge advance that seeds represented over “blowing in the wind” as Bob Dylan put it.  The information about each era is signposted in Dutch and English right in the middle of the plants which were typical of that time.

If you’re a gardener, you’ll love the huge variety of plants, representing seven different climates (indoors and out).  Look closely at the half moon of boxwood-lined beds right in front of the main building.  They are newly arranged to represent the latest classification of plants using their molecular (DNA) characteristics rather than external appearances. Even just looking at them aesthetically is a pleasure.

Finally, when you want a break from your break, the Orangery will gladly (if expensively) serve you some chewy and well-spiced carrot and walnut cake along with a cup of tea.  If you have really lucked out, you can sit outdoors and gaze into hundreds of shades of green while white clouds float overhead, just as I am now.

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Beating the Crowds at the Rijksmuseum

The crowds at the Rijksmuseum are thick enough to discourage all but the most intrepid lover of art. Fortunately, many rooms await you which most visitors never see.  Just as you can escape the crowds when you go to the beach and walk a mile, you can slip into the hidden corridors of the Rijksmuseum and find wonders.  In the ten year long renovation, the curators had plenty of time to re-think every aspect of presenting and integrating architecture, sculpture, painting, and household objects.  The results are extraordinary.

Rijksmuseum photo

First, be honest with yourself.

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How badly do you want to see the Vermeers and 

Rembrandt’s Night Watch?  If the answer is really badly, then buy your tickets on the internet and go before the 9:00 opening.  At 8:00 last week, I was the first person in line. Don’t carry any big bags, don’t check your coat, don’t pee.  If you scroll down on this page, you can download a map so you can plan your route before you get there.  Basically, come through the door, down the stairs and go left through the modern arches where the guards are.  Turn right, go past the multimedia tour (unless you want one), right again, and up more stairs to the actual entrance.  Then follow your map up to the second floor and sprint for the Gallery of Honor.


IMG_3574Apart from that, given that there are more than one hundred rooms packed with treasures, you’ll have to do some picking and choosing.
 You can opt out of making your own choices through the guided tours.  Even so, I encourage you to stroll through every room on the second floor.  This is the heart and soul of the collection, the Golden Age of the 1600s.  Do it in order, which means beginning in the room with the big ship right by the Night Watch.  The crowds will diminish as you keep moving.  Be sure not to miss the view into the Library in the corner, where the smell of old books and sunshine (if any) will flood you with nostalgia if you are over 40 (near room 2.16).  I’ve already rhapsodized about the Young Rembrandt room (2.8).  Avercamp’s famous winter scenes are worth seeing close up, even if you’ve known them in reproductions for years (2.6).  The dolls’ houses made famous by Jessie Burton’s best selling novel The Miniaturist are a fascinating glimpse into 17th century life (2.20).  I could probably recommend something about every single room.  This is where the collection is greatest and fullest.

In general, the farther you are from The Night Watch, the less crowded the museum will be.  On the first floor, devoted to the 18th century, you’ll find two chunks of canal houses which anyone who loves architecture should see.  I haven’t attempted to photograph them because it doesn’t do them justice, but do go to see 1.7, a neoclassical room from Haarlem, and 1.5, an earlier one from Amsterdam.  Both will take your breath away in different ways.  If you like Rococo, there’s tons of it.  Lovers of flower paintings shouldn’t miss 1.8, the earliest works commissioned to sell bulbs which were being developed in the 1700s.  A subject North Americans rarely see treated is the Ottoman Court in the 18th century, with all the different ethnic groups who lived there painted by Vanmour (1.4).  Your education would be incomplete without learning more about the Netherlands Overseas, including seeing the gold-encrusted royal weaponry the Dutch seized and stole in Sri Lanka (1.5), and evidence of the trade in slaves to the Surinamese plantations.

Right where you come in, you’ll find the spectacular Special Collections in the basement. The IMG_3694
ship’s models are to die for, and give you a sense of how the Dutch accumulated all this amazing stuff.  For the ingenious person, there are locks and keys of indescribable intricacy.  There are rooms of china that even a non-china lover would be fascinated by.  You can see the designer clothes left by a woman who had everything in Paris for much of the 20th century, including her lingerie.  For a child with an observant eye, the charms of silver miniatures could provide hours of entertainment.  Not to mention the armor and magic lantern slides!

 

On the other side of the basement is the medieval and Renaissance art, amazing oak carvings, brilliant reliquaries of various kinds, bejeweled church paraphernalia, ceramics, and paintings you will love if this is one of your favorite periods.  Don’t miss the Fra Angelico even if you don’t like religious painting.   Enjoy the double arches which make you feel that you’re back in that time yourself.  The exquisite new Asiatic Pavilion will give you respite.  

IMG_3689While its collection is not extensive, what is there is presented tranquilly and accessibly, with labels that actually tell you something even if you’re not a specialist.  The first floor is devoted to India, with the “Far East” downstairs.  Like the rest of the museum, seating is sparse, but you won’t be sorry you went.  Once you get deeper into the museum proper, you’ll find the 19th century work which will probably look familiar to you:  the Van Goghs and the depictions of the Amsterdam and countryside that you’ve had a glimpse of.  If you love Mondrian, climb up to the attic to see some fine examples of his usual style, and a superb representational work of a windmill in the moonlight.  If you don’t love Mondrian, skip the 20th century.

If you have a true interest in historic buildings, as a followup (or before you come) you may want to watch a lengthy but fascinating documentary about the ten-year-long renovation completed in 2013.

When you are so dazzled that you have to stop, go outside if it’s a nice day.  The garden to the left as you emerge on the Museumplein side has a delightful fountain that tricks people into going inside, then gushes all around them.  A kiosk provides champagne, juices and snacks, near lots of chairs near and under an enormous tree.  The spectacle of deep dark red tulips is just ending, but plenty more flowers are on the way.  Best of all, you can sit down.  If it’s not a nice day, go to the other side of the garden and eat in the interior Rijks Cafe, or go a little farther on the left and try to glassed in Cobra Cafe.  (There’s usually a line for the cafe inside the museum, and you’re probably ready to be outside.)

By the end of your hours at the Rijksmuseum, be they long or short, you’ll have images of paintings you’ll never forget.  More than that, you will have had an education, thanks to the pithy labeling in a down-to-earth but erudite Dutch voice.  And you will have had the experience the architect Cuypers meant you to have more than one hundred years ago, thanks to the brilliant renovation of the building, and the re-conceptualizing of the exhibits.  Bravo!
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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.

 

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.

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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.