Tag Archives: Memory

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.

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.

 

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