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.
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.”
So 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.
As 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.
Finally, 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..
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.