Tag Archives: Jonas Daniel Meijerplein

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

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