Tag Archives: Holocaust

Amsterdam’s Silent March

A few words preceded the Silent March, following exquisite music by the Mirando Orchestra, the descendants of a Roma group which began playing before the war.  (Today, I learned from a friend that they survived because they were given jobs in the circus, and the Germans liked to attend it).  Several personal testimonies followed, but they were brief in the cold wind off the Amstel River.

Everyone needed to get moving.  The trams had been stopped all along the route, which was scheduled to last an hour and required brisk walking to ensure that the March reached Dam Square in time for the ceremony there.

 

A woman and man on horseback led the crowd, followed by drums who kept up a somber, repetitive beat.  A mass of school children of all colors followed, each carrying a white tulip.  At the very beginning, there was a little chatter among the adults (not the kids!) but it soon fell away.  The drum, the shuffling feet, the occasional nearby vehicle were the only sounds.  First we marched to the Jewish Historical Museum, once four lively synagogues which have now been combined.  Turning right onto what is now a big thoroughfare, we saw the remains of the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein where the hefty Dockworker statue stands.  He is the symbolic figure of the February Strike, the only such event in western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people – a roundup that took place right there.  Beyond him stands the immense Portuguese Synagogue, thankfully still in use, and not an electric light in the whole establishment, only candles.
We crossed the bridge and turned right.  Eerily, the warning sounds that the bridge was about to be lifted bleeted loudly.  This is the same bridge the Nazis raised to isolate the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein for the first roundup.  Walking along the Nieuwe Keizersgracht, a small residential canal, we saw the markers at our feet which show the name and age of each person who used to live in the house opposite us.  All had been rounded up and murdered.  Every few feet, someone quietly read the names.

The March turned to cross the bridge which lay between us and the broad Amstel River.  The clomping of the horses’ feet and the drums sounded louder, and those still reading the plaques could see the crowd advance over the bridge.  We passed near the Carré Theater where numberless Jewish people performed, and crossed The Skinny Bridge, looking back up the River to the plaza where we had begun.  It was once a medieval Jewish neighborhood, torn down over great protest to build the City Hall/Opera House.

Through the narrow streets we kept marching.  People stood on their balconies for a few minutes to acknowledge us, but few stayed out.  It was too cold.  The flags were all at half mast.

At Utrechtestraat, I left the March so that I could participate in our old neighborhood’s commemoration, a much smaller and more modest affair than the one at the Dam.  It was hard to leave, but I knew that, wherever I am, in whatever country, I will always be walking in their footsteps.

 

Remembering Jewish Neighbors in Amsterdam

In one small area in east Amsterdam, less than 20 square blocks, more than 2800 Jewish people were rounded up and murdered.  For the last five years, their present-day neighbors and others have gathered all day long for a ritual to remember them.  The central square, the Kastanjeplein, is full of tall chestnut trees with towering blossoms, each in the form of a tree.  From each flutter long strips of crushed paper representing the untold stories of the dead.

Kastanjeplein Amsterdam

 

Volunteers guide people through the ritual’s steps, beginning with the gift of time which encompasses present, past and future, and divesting of everyday time.  One’s intention is assessed and written down:  I chose “paying attention,” rather than remembering or restoring or other options.  Next, from a pile of wooden drawers full of notebooks and photographs, I found a specific Jewish individual to memorialize:  Josua Samuel de Vries, who lived in the Beukenweg 22.  (Later, I looked him up in the Digital Monument to the Jews of the Netherlands and discovered that the family owned a cigar shop there, according to the police records from 1940.)

Even in late afternoon, dozens of people were participating.  They were of every age – the youngest perhaps 5 years old, the oldest in her eighties – and of every race.  A woman in a bright pink hijab stood out.  An Afro-Caribbean man pushing a stroller stopped to ask what was going on, and soon he too was drawn into the process.

I was directed to pick up a wooden slat to make a marker for Mr. de Vries, and chose fabric to cover it from a trunk.  Having done this before in 2015 (you can read my more complete account here), I selected a striped fabric so I could follow the lines to make a more regular design  After it was stapled on by a helper, I used stencils to mark out his name, seated at a picnic table. 

Soon we were chatting with the woman sitting opposite, who wanted to know why two Americans were doing this, and before long the story of An Address in Amsterdam came tumbling out.  Everyone around us was working diligently, some with real artistic talent, others more utilitarian in their approach as I was.  Because I knew nothing about Mr. de Vries then, I simply added a flower beside his name.

When we had made our markers, we followed the railroad track which was chalked on the curb surrounding the square.  Significant places were marked along the way, showing the number of kilometers distant from the spot where we were standing.  Reaching Muiderpoort Station only 700 meters away was chilling, not to mention Auschwitz.  Along the way were laminated copies of letters Jewish people threw from the deportation trains.  “Don’t worry.”  “Send lower underwear.”  “The wholefamily is here together.”  At the end, I spent a few moments meditating about Mr. de Vries.

With the help of a volunteer, I found his address on the map of the neighborhood which was laid out in the center of the square.  His whole family was already there.

While laying the marker in place, you choose your own words to say something like “I am bringing you home to be with your family.”  You ring a bell which you’ve chosen either by color or by note.  Around you are the sounds of the other bells, the sight of others bending over, standing back and looking at the appalling patchwork of the dead.  They have the dignity of being marked and remembered, but the fact that they were all from these few streets and all were deliberately slaughtered is inescapable.  The long chains of crushed paper, their stories, swayed in the cold wind.

Each year’s markers are added to the prior years.  Even though this ritual has been done for five years, less than half the people who died have markers.

We were offered a hot cup of tea in porcelain cups, and documented our experience.  An old fashioned accordion file held more photos and documents to read.  Every detail, even that file folder, was from the time when these people were all alive, when the cigar store was thriving, when the streets were crowded with them and all their kin.

We were brought back to ordinary time by returning the cards which we’d received at the beginning, handing them through an empty clock face.  But the hand which took them gave something, too:  a card for “time for poetry,” and another with “time for beauty.”

This is what was taken from them forever.  In their memory, we mustn’t waste it.

Remembrance Day is May 4 every year in the Netherlands.  Words will never be enough to honor the suffering of those who died in the war – particularly the Jewish and other people who were rounded up and murdered.  This year, I followed four different pathways which go beyond words on a single day, and I’ll write about each of them.

From Dachau to Durham, North Carolina

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

In my home town of Durham, North Carolina, I was led to a Holocaust memorial unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  It’s the only place in the U.S. to memorialize ashes from Dachau which are proven human remains.  The ashes came into the right hands:  Sharon Halperin’s, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who became the “guiding angel” of this memorial project.  The ashes were donated by the family of Mr. Joseph Corsbie, a GI in Germany in May 1945.

Sent on an errand to Dachau, he encountered a liberated Jewish prisoner who handed him the ashes from a crematorium, enjoining him never to forget what he had seen.  Although Mr. Corsbie did not speak of the incident for decades, he began to discuss it with his family as he neared death.  They felt that the ashes should be returned to the Jewish community to be treated with the respect the victims were denied in life.

Once the ashes were analyzed and proved to be those of human beings, Sharon and her family commissioned a sculpture and signage to mark the site. Yesterday, the generous Jane Gabin of the Beth El Synagogue took me to see the resulting memorial, where we met Sharon.  Rather than use the expected barbed wire or smokestacks or other conventional imagery of the Holocaust, sculptor Mike Roig chose to depict a moving flame of polished steel.  It stands on a low bridge which says in Hebrew and English:  “Remember.  Do not stand idly by.”

Approaching the memorial, one feels a sense of uplift, as of flames rising to the sky, still surging from the ashes below – but also a sense of something growing, emerging, and transcending.  The sculpture is taller than a person, but not so monumental that we can’t feel part of it.  The geometric shape twirls in even a slight breeze, and suddenly I began to recognize my reflection in it – first blurry and indistinct, then sharper as I moved closer.  I was literally in the picture:  both in the flames, and in the resurgence of life.  Stones at the base waited to be placed in memory.  Much like the Tomb of the Unknowns, this place is an honored grave for so many who never had one except in our memories.

Dedicating the Memorial

At the dedication in 2015, sculptor Mike Roig’s eloquent words speak of his intentions:

“The “eternal flame” in this sculpture will surely never extinguish. It moves according to the currents of air like those interred here were moved and shaped by the flow of history, and like we are by the ever-evolving now.

“In its surface you will see a reflection of us all as we stand before it. It is necessarily indistinct and impressionistic, and our reflected forms waver and distort as it moves, and that reflects a truth that in trying to see ourselves in that history most of us cannot know with clarity how that history would have drawn us in, or how we would have responded. There are those [survivors] here who can because they were there, but the rest of us we can only to strive to conceive of a vision of ourselves where we would have responded with courage and dignity, empathy and compassion, resistance and defiance.”

May it be so.  Deep thanks to Sharon and her family for creating this sacred space, to Jane for taking me there, and to the Beth El Synagogue for welcoming me.Sculpture with stones below it

 

The February Strike, Resisting Then & Now

Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, but far fewer are aware of the February Strike, the only general strike in Western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people.  Seventy-six years ago this week, an incredible 300,000 Dutch citizens poured into the streets of Amsterdam.  Many remained there even after the Germans deployed the SS and the police. The Strike is commemorated every year with a few eloquent words and thousands of flowers at the foot of the Dockworker, the symbolic statue of the Strike.  He stands right where the first roundup of 425 Jewish men took place.  Because of my long stays in Amsterdam researching the Holocaust and resistance, I always write my friends on this date to remind them of the Strike anniversary.

This year, my gesture of remembrance feels different.  The inspiring aspects of the story are still there:  masses of largely non-Jewish people responded with outrage to the roundup of their fellow citizens.  Organized by the communists, the Strike began at the docks and spread to the trams.  Soon, all kinds of people were marching and singing.  The Germans were astonished:  they never expected their Aryan brothers to stand up for the Jews.  Even when the Nazis threatened municipal workers with firing, many stayed on the streets.  In Dutch fashion, the strikers did obey a newly imposed curfew, but were back the next day.

Here’s the catch:  the February Strike was only a great moment.  Just 20% of Amsterdam’s Jewish people survived the war – even though many had been there for centuries, and were fully assimilated into Dutch society, or so they thought.  Some survivors look back at the Strike as the one time they felt fully supported.  But the German reaction was so severe with the police and the SS that it warned the general population never to try anything like the Strike again.  A handful of people began underground activities to resist the Nazis anyway, like the woman pictured in the Resistance Museum below, or the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam.  However, with hindsight we see how tiny that group was compared to those who minded their own business, or who actively collaborated.

Despite the differences between our times and Amsterdam in 1941, the parallels are disheartening.  Refugees and minorities (religious and otherwise) are being targeted for both state-sponsored persecution and for individual bullying and worse. Permission is in the air, justified because “they” are a threat to “us.”  The press is under attack as an enemy of the people.  Obvious lies spurt daily from the White House.  The most obvious parallel between 1941 and now is the quandary of people who disagree with the government:  do we keep our heads down and thus collude?  Do we collaborate and profit as we can?  Or do we resist – and what exactly does that mean?

Like the February strikers, many gathered strength from Women’s Marches around the country – from the sheer numbers, the witty pink hats, the creative signs and the cheerful determination.  Now, fortunately, we are in a very different position than the 1941 strikers.  No one has invaded our country.  The Marches were peaceful, and no one is in jail or deported as a result.  Only 22% of eligible voters elected our current President.  A plurality went for Clinton.  Mid-term elections are coming up in only two years.  If the people who let Trump be elected the first time work to get out the vote, we can get the balance of power between Congress and the President working again.  

In the meantime, we can organize locally for causes we believe in. Those who are able can donate to organizations fighting the Administration in the courts and elsewhere.  We can take to the streets at the right moments, to bolster our spirits and remind ourselves how numerous and persistent we are.  Perhaps most importantly, we can meet hatred with peace, beginning with our own speech and actions.  As tempting as it is to demonize people with whom we disagree profoundly, it is the path of Hitler, of Stalin, of slave owners and tyrants since time immemorial.

We can gum up the works, calling and writing and making outrageous art and being visible.  We can spread factual facts through social and other media.  We can align ourselves with vulnerable people, asking how we can walk beside them.  Most of all, we have to keep our spirits up.  Some of us have given decades of our lives to certain causes, and it’s depressing to see them undermined or worse.  The erosion of the most fundamental American values and political practices is disheartening at best.  But our years of struggle taught us how to fight, and we haven’t forgotten.

This year, the February Strike reminds us that it’s always possible to be just as brave as the strikers were.  We can resist for more than a moment.  To return to the story everyone knows, Anne Frank has the last word:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Now it’s our turn.

Collaboration, Even on a Protest March

Hundreds of people showed up Tuesday night in our small “city” of Burlington, Vermont to support the rights of refugees and immigrants.  Because of our open-mindedness, Burlington has been a refugee resettlement area for years, so we have a lot at stake as a community – not just the refugees themselves, but the businesses they buy from and where they are employed, and the citizens of a city made so much more culturally diverse than it would be otherwise.
March on Church St.

The crowd was mostly young and red hot, with some headscarves and brilliant African fabrics scattered through the crowd.  After listening to the speakers as we shivered in the chill, we finally got to march toward the top of our historic Church Street, then back to City Hall.  The pace was brisk and the chants surged from one end of the blocks-long march to the other.

A tall, harsh-voiced teenager shrieked “S—w Donald Trump!” and the crowd joined right in.  I recoiled – not because I am less angry than they are, but because I’ve studied the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam too long.  Hatred gets us nowhere – or, rather, it sets us on a dangerous path that we have seen before.  As soon as we begin to denigrate other people and see them as less than human, there’s no limit to the evil we feel entitled to do to them.

I knew the chant was wrong, but I did what too many people did during the Holocaust:  I kept silent.  I made excuses:  I’m too old, they’d never listen to me.  In other words, I collaborated with what I knew was wrong.

On the edge of the crowd, a lanky man in his forties spoke up, not shouting but speaking loudly enough to be heard.  “We shouldn’t chant that,” he said.  “It’s an awful thing to say.”

The teenager asked, “What do you want us to say instead?”

A moment later, we were all shouting “Love trumps hate.”  The man who spoke up made a difference.  Next time, I want it to be me.

Sign showing Anne Frank "We could have saved her"

“We could have saved her.”

Russell Shorto Revisits Amsterdam

I wouldn’t think of plagiarizing the photo that sets the tone for Russell Shorto’s mouthwatering New York Times article, “Amsterdam Revisited.”  But I wish I could:  it’s taken at my favorite time of day, twilight, just as the lamps are lit, with the last glow of northern light gracing the venerable canalhouses and a boxy modern houseboat, just like our 2009 Amsterdam home.  Shorto’s history with Amsterdam is much deeper and longer than mine, and I always relish reading anything he writes.  Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is among my “must reads” for anyone who is about to visit.

As Shorto points out, it’s always the Golden Age in the central canals, where dreaming one’s way back to other centuries is just a matter of squinting a little, and focusing on the endless architectural details that distinguish the 1600s from other times.  The edges of the stone outside staircases are just as rounded as the shape of the canals themselves.  The ratio of window to brick seems inconceivable without the benefit of steel.  It’s hard to believe that those miles of relatively untouched canal houses are all supported on wooden stakes sunk into the ground by manpower alone.

Amsterdam Canal Houses

Amsterdam Canal Houses

Shorto moves beyond nostalgia skillfully, as he so often does, and touches on the paradox that the city is both the beneficiary and the victim of visitors from around the world, many of whom are not there to admire the architecture.  I’ve been in Amsterdam from January to June on five occasions since 2001.  The winter is best in every way.  I even love the darkness, the long nights and the chilly, often rainy days.  The city has a stillness at that time disturbed only on the weekend.  As one wanders the canals, candles are often lit even in the middle of the day in the cafés and restaurants, and early in the evening in private homes.  The gentle streetlights give an almost ethereal glow to the sidewalks and houses.

Spring Means Mobs

As tulip season approaches, it is as if human beings are poured out of some huge funnel and inserted in many streets in the center of the city.  Spring also means weddings, and in the last few years, the displays of British stag and hen parties have bloated like tumors.  Whole crowds of buddies invade, most with the goal of cramming as much debauchery and drinking as possible into a brief time.  Once universities are out, the sidewalks are mobbed, and the lines at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh require the patience of a tortoise.  I’ve always gone home right about then.

Like Venice, Amsterdam could sink under the weight of all this.

Apart from all the visitors, there’s population pressure both from those born Dutch, and those who are entitled to immigrate from the former Dutch colonies which provided so much of the wealth of the Golden Age.  Sheer numbers will change the character of a city that was only 734,000 when I first fell for it as if I were a teenager gawking at a movie idol.  Then I began learning so much more about the city, and discovered one of its shadow sides: the Holocaust of almost three-quarters of the Dutch Jewish people, and how that could possibly happen in “the world’s most liberal city.”  But that’s another story.

Kudos to Shorto for his tribute both to Amsterdam’s past, and a glimpse of the changes that already are and those which may be ahead.