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.
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.
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.
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.
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?