The places below will give you a specific, in-depth understanding of 1940-45 in Amsterdam. But remember that everywhere you go in Amsterdam, apart from the new islands, is connected in some way to that time: someone hid in that canal house, someone looked the other way, someone forged false papers, someone sold out for nylon stockings, someone was rounded up or shot dead. Every major site you see has a hidden side — even the Organic Market, the Concertgebouw, and going to the movies. I will be adding more of these entries.
Top 1940-45 Sites
If you are in Amsterdam for a day or more, go to the Verzetsmuseum, the Museum of Dutch Resistance. It is a brilliantly presented, award winning account of the Nazi Occupation and the dilemmas Dutch people faced at that time, to accept the situation, collaborate, or resist. It is inspiring in ways you can only imagine before you go. Note that it has an excellent children’s section.
If you plan to go to the Anne Frank House, go to the Verzetsmuseum first. It will put her story in context for you, and help you appreciate just how unusual her situation was, except in that she died like more than 100,000 of her compatriots. The exhibits there are at least as valuable as seeing the rooms themselves. Buy your tickets online or you will spend hours waiting to get in.
The Jewish History Museum gives a sense of what was lost in the Holocaust, the extent and vibrancy of the community and its wide variety of politics and cultures. It has an appropriately small but moving exhibit on 1940-45, and the temporary exhibits are always of high quality. The café is sunny on a bright day and serves good food. The children’s section is worthwhile.
The Dockworker statue is the symbolic figure of the February 1941 general strike to protest the first roundup of Jewish people, discussed here. The strike began at the docks and spread throughout the city, even to a few others, before the Germans crushed it. You’ll find the statue on Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, between the Portuguese Synagoge and the Jewish History Museum. Even though it’s just one statue, do visit it.
The Portuguese Synagoge is a magnificent structure dating back to the late 1600s, lit by hundreds of candles for services and monthly concerts to this day. The Nazis intended to make it a museum showing what Jewish culture was, after they exterminated all the living representatives of it. The story goes that they didn’t take it over for an office or deportation center because it had no electricity.
The Schouwberg Theatre was the assembly point for Jewish people (and resistance workers or others who helped) who had been rounded up, before they were deported to the Westerbork Transit Camp en route to the concentration camps. In addition to informative exhibits, there is an extensive memorial and a good place to sit and meditate on what was lost.
If you become obsessed with this subject, as I have, and want to seek out the many smaller sites and memorials, the best resource by far is Jewish Amsterdam by Jan Stoutenbeek and Paul Vigeveno, usually available at the Jewish History Museum bookshop. There’s a much more modest but still valuable self guided walking tour from the Anne Frank House to the Resistance Museum, available at either end.
Dates to Remember
Holocaust Remembrance Day In late January (date variable), the community marches from the Stopera to the Auschwitz Memorial in Wertheim Park (just opposite the Hortus). The speeches are longer than at the events below, but it’s still an emotional occasion, complete with music from the Roma/Sinti (gypsy) people who were also Nazi targets. My account of the 2015 event is here.
February 25 The commemoration of the February Strike on February 25 by The Dockworker is a moving experience even if you don’t speak Dutch. Just come for the brief words at the beginning, and the experience of laying flowers with hundreds of other people. You’ll often see flowers by The Dockworker at other times, too, often red ones in memory of the communists who began the strike that 300,000 of 800,000 Amsterdam residents took up.
May 4 This dignified Day of Remembrance involves both a big state occasion on Dam Square, where the King lays a wreath on the monument, and many small neighborhood observations, as well as at key sites such as the Schouwberg Theatre. The losses in the Netherlands were huge: more than 100,000 of 140,000 Jewish people, as well as thousands of resistance workers and those who dared to help their compatriots. This is the day set aside for grief and for remembering.
May 5 Liberation Day is a big celebration throughout the Netherlands. It’s impossible for those of us who weren’t there to imagine the joy in the streets after the interminable oppression was finally over. In the last “Hunger Winter,” thousands of corpses were stacked frozen in the Zuiderkerk due to starvation. Even after the capitulation, some German soldiers fired into the crowd on Dam Square when they gathered to celebrate. No wonder it’s still a joyous day.