Tag Archives: Nazi occupation

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.

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 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.

The Shadow Wall: Who’s Missing

A sidewalk borders the Nieuwe Keizersgracht canal just beside the east side of the Hermitage Amsterdam, one of the few places where nothing divides you from the edge of the water.  All along it, you’ll see “The Shadow Wall,” which consists of engraved metal plaques sunk into the stone opposite the houses on the other side.  Each corresponds to an address.

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On the nearby bridge, a sign explains that the current residents decided to commemorate the 200 people from their canal “who were murdered because they were Jewish.”  Each sign shows the names and ages of the people who lived in the house.  If every street in Amsterdam were labeled this way, 60,000 people’s names would be memorialized.  Only 10,000 survived the war, mostly by hiding.

As you walk along and read them, relationships begin to appear:  a young married couple living with the wife’s mother, two children close in age but the next not following for some years, perhaps two brothers or sisters living next door to each other.  The two-year-olds, those in their seventies or eighties.IMG_3662

Looking across the street, you begin to imagine the people inside the houses where they lived and ate potatoes and mended their clothes, just as you do.

 

 

 

Here’s the house where this family lived.  You don’t have to try very hard to see them looking back at you.IMG_3663

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.

 

Saving Hungry Dutch Kids in 1945

 

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 The Resistance Museum’s exhibit “To the Farms!  Child Evacuations in the Hunger Winter” shows how 140,000 hungry and malnourished Dutch kids from the northern cities were evacuated to the countryside — under Nazi occupation, after supply lines had been cut so that neither food nor fuel nor electricity were reaching Amsterdam and their neighbors.  In those almost impossible conditions, an interdenominational coalition and a pro-Germansocial work group organized a relief effort which involved screening children, rating their level of need, matching them to farm families (usually the same religion), and arranging their transportation along the routes shown here.

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They travelled by every possible means, including foot, but barges were the commonest method, going only by night because the Allies bombed anything that moved during the day.  Children took only a few precious possessions with them, such as this child’s marbles.

 

As the Resistance Museum does so well throughout, the story of these hungry Dutch kids is told both through individuals alive today retracing their experiences, and by showing us the larger situation through documents and physical exhibits.IMG_2061

The conditions in Amsterdam, The Hague and other cities which had not yet been liberated (because of the disaster in Arnhem at Market Garden) are almost unimaginable today.  During the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, people here were as desperate as anyone in Sub-Saharan Africa in a famine.  The only food generally available was from the soup kitchen, one ladle of thin gruel per person per day.  People literally dropped in the streets and died from hunger.  When a little soup was spilled, they licked it off the street.  For the fastidious Dutch to do this is almost inconceivable.  The winter was desperately cold, and there was no fuel.  This was the time when tram tracks were pulled up and burned, trees were chopped up, and people broke into their deported neighbors’ houses and burned their furniture.  You can find photographs here if you can bear to look at them, all taken illegally by photographers who risked their lives to do so.  More than 20,000 people died in the western Netherlands, including Amsterdam.

In those conditions, one can imagine that parents whose own survival was in doubt would be willing to place their children in the fresh air of the northern farms, where at least there was food.  IMG_2074

Among many moving stories, here’s one: Tineke Meijer’s account of herself as a 12 year old beside the barge which would take her away.  Her mother was with her for a last farewell.  In the distance, Tineke saw a girl approaching them with a doll in her arms, but soon realized it was a very small woman, and the doll was not a doll.  The woman spoke urgently to Tineke’s mother:  “Can your daughter take the baby?  We can’t stay in hiding any more because she cries and makes a lot of noise.”  Although Tineke said no, she didn’t know how, her mother told her she could.  In fact, she successfully hid the baby from the German authorities who were counting children.  On the other side, someone came and took the baby out of her arms, to her confusion and somewhat to her sorrow.  It’s almost like the Tomb of the Unknown; I wonder how many war children might be that child of unknown parents.

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Some of the farm families went to incredible lengths to restore the city children to health.  One woman spooned buttermilk into a boy who was dying every half hour until he improved.  And many took the trouble to write the parents at home to tell them how the children were faring, to give them hope.  The shocking contrasts between their situations come through in the translated correspondence, as when one Amsterdam parent is told by her doctor that she is too weak to walk the few blocks to collect food and must get someone else to do it.

As usual at this outstanding museum, one goes away both inspired by the courage, the willingness, the administrative wherewithal that literally saved the lives and health of thousands of children — and horrified by the suffering that made it necessary.  Nothing is spared.  We learn of the struggles for city kids on the farm, about the less good matches as well as the felicitous ones.  Let me give the last word to one of the farm parents:  “As for payment, if we are fortunate enough to return your sons strong and in good health when the time comes, then we would consider that reward enough for us.”

 

The Stedelijk Museum and WWII

 

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Even if you just went to look at the art, the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibit on its experiences during World War II would be more than worth it:  a Picasso cubist still life, a Matisse odalisque, several Klees, and German Expressionists including Max Beckmann’s famous double portrait with his wife painting in Amsterdam during the war.  But there is so much more to the exhibit than that:  a soul searching examination of the many dimensions of the Museum during the war, beginning with a chronology complete with photographs that show, among other things, Nazi marches right on the Museum Square with the Concertgebouw in the background:

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The Museum supported German immigrant and Jewish artists before and during the war, including commissioning work from them, as well as “degenerate” avant garde artists throughout this period, and immediately after the war.  Curator Willem Sandberg foresaw the need to protect art in wartime when he visited Spain after the German attack on Guernica.  The Stedeljk began construction of a bunker at Castricum in the dunes to stow away treasures even before the Nazi invasion.  Eventually, this bunker held more than 500 collections, both public and private.  Because some of the latter were from Jewish owners, records were deliberately not kept to avoid seizure by Nazi authorities, which led to complex issues of ownership after the war.

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Sandberg concocted an exhibit on “City and Country” so that he could travel on a “study trip” to Germany in 1941 and gather information for the Resistance, as well as commission photographs from independent artists (including Jewish Emmy Andriesse, part of the Underground Camera group) including those of power stations and other potential targets.  This was one of only two propaganda-style exhibits at the Stedelijk during the war.  I should mention that the Museum’s one Jewish employee was dismissed, but over protest.

Because he had helped to organize the March 1943 bombing of the Population Registry (which enabled the Nazis to locate Jewish citizens), Sandberg was on the “wanted” list and had to remain in hiding for the rest of the war.  A respected graphic artist himself, he created a series of books titled “Typographical Experiments.”  This one, with apparently random letters, signifies the names of each of his comrades who were caught and executed by the Nazis.

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Something I learned in researching this post is that the large tiles in the Waterlooplein Metro Station are done in Sandberg’s typography, especially appropriate/ironic since much of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed to build the Metro.

The room devoted to questions of provenance is fascinating — asking which paintings legitimately belong to the Museum and which are in question, which means the case is submitted to a specially appointed body which adjudicates them.  Some of the dossiers are available for Museum visitors to peruse and draw their own conclusions.

IMG_2443Many stories are told in that room, but let one stand for the others.  Here’s a modest but pleasing little painting, Pears Packed in a Glass Preserving Jar, by Sal Meijer.  What’s most unusual about it is a part of a typed label which remains on its back, “Goudst—.”  What does this mean?  Unlike some other significant Jewish art collectors and dealers in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker was a native of that city.  He was among the most important dealers of Old Master paintings between the wars, if not the most important.  He fled Holland by ship to England along with his family just after the Nazi invasion, leaving behind an immense collection of priceless art in his gallery in the care of his employees.  In a ghastly irony, Goudstikker fell on the ship to Liverpool and died of a broken neck.  However, he did have in his possession the notebook in which all of his acquisitions were noted, which became the basis of the biggest effort to recover art by a Dutch Jewish family after the war.

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Within days of the dealer’s death, Hermann Goering and a Nazi banker had managed to pay the gallery employees off.  They acquired virtually the whole collection for a tiny fraction of its value — over the strenuous objections of Goudstikker’s widow.  (The exhibit doesn’t point this out, but restitution of this collection only happened in 2006, after an investigative journalist published a book on the subject and the scandal became ever more public.)  However, research showed that this particular painting was returned to Goudstikker’s widow in a timely way, and she sold it to the Stedelijk Museum, so it was not in the controversial group.

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All in all, this is a sobering but also engaging exhibit that illuminates the many aspects of the museum’s relationship to the occupying power and the situation it created in Amsterdam during the war years.  While I’m sure some people will come forward with other versions of the truth, the Museum deserves credit for putting this information before the public just before the 70th anniversary of Liberation.

 

 

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

The Concertgebouw Orchestra — Free!

After standing in “the cold line” outside the Concertgebouw for an hour, we were rewarded by a half-hour concert by one of the world’s great orchestras in a hall with acoustics which are close to perfect.  (Read about the logistics of the Concertgebouw’s Wednesday free concerts here.)

Musicians of All Ages  What felt so different that day was seeing the members of the Orchestra come in wearing ordinary clothes, as if each of them hadn’t been picked out of thousands of musicians after years of giving their lives to their instruments. A pregnant woman wearing a plain black sweater, her golden hair clipped behind her ears. A sporty young man in jeans and a crew sweater, as if on his way to the café for a beer with his friends. The more predictable people in their forties and fifties – but there were plenty of thirties, reflecting the fact that studying classical music is still cool for lots of young people.

The pianist (a man, not Maria Jao Pires whom we expected) arrived, wearing a brown sweater with elbow patches, and played scales. At 12:30 precisely by the clock on the back wall, the first violin raised his bow, and tuning was accomplished swiftly. Even conductor Herbert Blomstedt wore a sweater without a tie. Everything was in place to remind us that these were ordinary mortals. An announcer told us that the pianist was Martin Helmchen, whom we later learned was playing there for the first time, a remarkable chance for a younger person to break in.

Flawless and Complete Performance, Not a Rehearsal  Then, with the lift of the conductor’s baton, everything changed, and those singular individuals with their barrettes and trousers and boots became one. Mozart lived again, and whatever disappointment the audience may have felt at not hearing Pires lifted immediately. Unlike some other free concerts, which have been recitals for the evening’s performance, this one proceeded through the whole piece one perfect note at a time with no hesitation or interruption for correction. Helmchen, who also received strong reviews that evening, seemed utterly at home, not a note of music before him, utterly absorbed in the music and yet also attending to the conductor and the orchestra. At the end, we applauded and applauded, and the orchestra dissolved away as if it had been a dream.

Pictures aren’t allowed during the performances, but I did manage to catch one cellist before he left.

A cellist who couldn't stop playing

A cellist who couldn’t stop playing

As you enjoy the beauty, don’t forget that the Concertgebouw was forced to fire its Jewish musicians and play music by non-Jewish composers, and it was the site of an early Nazi speech that warned non-Jews to abandon their fellow citizens.  Read about it here.

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