Tag Archives: Jewish Amsterdam

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.

 

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.

A Hidden Jewish Child’s Story Meets Mine

In the 13 years it took to research and write my historical novel An Address in Amsterdam, I could not have imagined the meeting which took place in Philadelphia on Sunday evening, with a man who had been a hidden Jewish child.  The setting was a reader’s paradise:  the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, a community institution which has shelves to the rafters and loads of activities for everyone in the neighborhood.  Just before my event, a group had been making Valentines on the large mezzanine which overlooks the main floor of the store.

Mr. Vega hidden with his "brother" 1944

Mr. Vega hidden with his “brother” 1944

I’m standing at the top of the steep staircase to greet people as they arrive.  An older man comes up first, followed by a woman about his age and a younger couple.  When I apologize for the sharp incline, the younger man chuckles and says, “These steps are nothing to the Dutch.”  He cocks his head toward the older man, who turns out to be his father-in-law, Lex Vega.

I take Mr. Vega’s warm hand.  His eyes are vibrant and liquid, his gaze almost affectionate, his smile glowing and contagious.  Because of an illness, he has difficulty speaking, but we are in immediate and real communication even so.  The son-in-law continues, “He comes from Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam.”

“Of course!” I say.  “The beautiful Sephardic Jewish cemetery is there.”  It’s a place I love, and an important scene in my novel took place there.

Mr. Vega’s eyebrows shoot up, and he speaks.  His wife and daughter help me understand.  “I was born in the house right beside the cemetery, and lived there until I had to go into hiding.”

“But I know the house!  I know exactly where you mean.”  I could see it, just on the edge of the cemetery grounds.  Nearby, the large blue stone gravestones incised with Hebrew letters have stood for centuries.

The son-in-law added, “The family lived openly as Jews well into the war, because his father was the guardian and buried the bodies.  But eventually they had to hide.”

Mr. Vega interjected, and this time I thought I understood.  “Someone warned you?”

He nodded.  Soon Mrs. Vega was by our side, saying she’d read the book.  I asked her what she thought of it, and she said, “Of course we know the story.”  She paused.  “The book was real.”

Even though I had to focus on the reading, I was remembering a spring day, probably in 2002, when I, like my heroine Rachel Klein, needed a break.  Day after day, I had been studying how the Nazis carried out their diabolical work in the Netherlands.  The horror of it was in my body and mind like a fever, and I had to get away from it.  Because I love walking by rivers, I decided to follow the Amstel in the direction of Ouderkerk.  Maybe I’d get there, maybe not.

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

My mood lightened as I slipped out of the city, and buildings gave way to freshly mown pastures.  Dots of yellow flowers poked up here and there.  The river glittered in the surprisingly consistent sun.  I stopped for an old cheese sandwich in an ancient café, and paid homage to a gigantic statue of Rembrandt.  By late afternoon, I arrived in Ouderkerk, a picturesque village built right up to the water.  Wandering along its lanes, I spotted a cemetery with an iron fence around it.  The large flat stones seemed to call me in.  A sign told me where I was:  the Sephardic Jewish cemetery.  It took my breath away.  No matter where I went, the stories of the Jewish people of Amsterdam would find me.  Whatever was guiding me into those stories was gently sending me back to my job.  What was that force?  Something within me, some long buried truths that needed to emerge?  The spirits of the dead, or what the indigenous people call Great Heart?  I don’t know how to name that force, but some people call it G-d.

All this came into my mind as I spoke with Mr. Vega.  The next day, he sent me his story, able to communicate much more fully by e-mail.  It turns out that his parents made no proactive effort to evade deportation.  Instead, a woman who worked with the Resistance, Mrs. Catherina Klumper, pushed them to let her hide first Mr. Vega’s grandmother, then himself at age five and his younger sister, and ultimately the rest of the family.  Mr. Vega was placed with a loving Catholic couple, first in Arnhem and then in Friesland after the battle of the “bridge too far.”

I could still see the kindness of Theo and Bets van Heukelom in Mr. Vega’s open face.  He called them Aunt and Uncle, and enjoyed the company of an older “brother” Theo as well.  Unusually, Mr. Vega stayed with the same family throughout the war – and even more unusually, his entire nuclear family survived, and they were reunited.  The whole town welcomed them back, and returned all the goods which were in safekeeping.  The Vegas were literally the only Jewish family in Ouderkerk, and were liked and respected.

After a few visits following the war and Uncle’s death in 1946, the families lost touch.  It always bothered Mr. Vega, and in 2013 his wife persuaded him to make a real effort to find whatever remained of his war family.  More than sixty years had passed.  Here’s what he writes:

I began to call everybody in the Dutch phonebook with Uncle’s name, “van Heukelom” or Aunt’s family name “Bindels.”  Every time, after I had introduced myself, they told me that they did not know what I was talking about.   But after fifteen calls, I got Theo on the line.  How did I know that it was him?  He reacted spontaneously with an immediate answer:  “Oh, my little brother in the war!”  This was one of the most heart-warming experiences I ever had.  Not only had I now rediscovered the family of Uncle and Aunt, but he called me his brother!  So it was really true that I belonged to their family!

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his "brother" Theo in 2015

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his “brother” Theo in 2015

 

Not only did they reestablish contact, but Mr. Vega went through all the necessary processes to give his Aunt and Uncle the Yad Vashem honor for Righteous Gentiles.  The ceremony was held in Ouderkerk last year, and he was able to acknowledge them publicly and say, “I was very well taken care of with affection and with respect for my Jewish identity.”  If only it had been that way for every hidden child.

So here’s where Mr. Vega’s story and mine intersected, as we stood at the head of the stairs together.  For reasons I’ll never fully understand, it became my task and honor to remember and write about the Jewish people of Amsterdam.  His duty was to loop back after decades and to acknowledge the kindness of his war family.  And perhaps to let me know that, even though I was born after the war, even though I’m neither Jewish nor Dutch, my book somehow holds some of the stories.  Especially of those who will never rest in the beautiful cemetery in Ouderkerk, or any other.

 

An Address in Amsterdam Tops Lists

I’m grateful for all the terrific coverage for An Address in Amsterdam, which you’ll find below.  BookSparks has done a fine job on the publicity.  But what touched me most deeply was from Books j’adore, a blog that no true book lover should miss:

art-nouveau-book-cover

An Address in Amsterdam is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. . . Rachel Klein is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. . .This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face.  Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.” Books J’adore, “An Address in Amsterdam”

“This deeply spectacular literary fireworks show of hope, strength and renewal will captivate every reader at the first word.” —Bookstr, “10 Historical Fiction Reads to Devour this Fall” 

An Address in Amsterdam is the biggest literary event for the historical fiction genre this year…”—Redbook, “20 Books By Women You Must Read This Fall”

“Hey historical fiction aficionados…add this profound book to your Amazon cart immediately.”—PopSugar, “21 Fiction Reads to Check Out This Fall”

This novel demonstrates that bravery and love can help to conquer even the most hopeless situations.” —Buzzfeed, “5 Historical Fiction Reads to Curl Up with this Fall”

“Debut author Mary Fillmore serves up a complex, engrossing and gorgeous historical fiction tale.” —Brit + Co, “11 Fall Reads to Keep You As Warm As Your PSL”

“Fillmore paints a chilling portrait of how venomous ideology, backed by brute force, gradually infiltrates a seemingly enlightened society. Ample research informs her tale of Rachel’s coming of age — a severely embattled one, but not without its moments of hope and joy.”—Seven Days Vermont, “Page 32”

Historical fiction lovers will devour this novel in one sitting.”—Akron Today Magazine, “Fall Reading List”

The Magic of a Book Launch to Die for

 

large audience with speaker at front

Launch at Phoenix Books Burlington

Words I never thought I’d hear:  a call from Phoenix Books to say “Your book launch is sold out.  We can do standing room, but the 100 seats are sold.”  Not to mention “Your makeup person stopped by to wish you luck.”  I never had a makeup person before.  But I’d been working toward this night for 13 years, and I didn’t want the video to look amateurish.  As I slipped on my carefully chosen ivory silk shirt (over the most expensive bra I’d ever bought) and the mauve velvet jacket, I wondered if I could get through the evening without losing my voice to tears.  It had been a long haul.

As the friend who introduced me said, An Address in Amsterdam wasn’t a book that wrote itself.  Apart from facing the pain of the Holocaust and resistance in the Netherlands, an enormous amount of research was needed, first to understand the backdrop of the story, then to ensure that the plot and characters were realistic to the time, then to refine the details.  For example, what people ate was determined by supply, and by their access to ration coupons and the black market.  Even something as simple as a walk in the park was complicated for Jewish characters, who were banned from public spaces after a certain point.

When people started to arrive for the launch, my longtime partner and greatest supporter, Joanna, greeted them with an orange rose for the women (the Dutch color) and a white carnation for the men (the flower of resistance).  They descended the long open staircase to find me at the bottom, grinning so hard that my face ached.  Hug after hug followed.  All kinds of people came:  my old friend from Washington in the seventies, my faithful writing group, the mother of our fairy goddaughter, the indispensable editor from Our Bodies Ourselves, my hairdresser and her daughter, my full moon circle, colleagues, clients and former clients, neighbors, and most of all our friends from every walk of life.

Everything was in place and ready to be recorded by the first-class videographer Kenric Kite, who had worked with me before on “Anne Frank’s Neighbors:  What Did They Do?” and the brilliant photographer Karen Pike, who had done the author photograph I love.  Two stunning bouquets were on either side of the podium and book display:  bells of Ireland, snapdragons, lilies, delphinium, all in resplendent corals and golds and azure and green.  The room was abuzz, almost like a flock of birds on the lake during migration, everyone in communication.  Looking out over the crowd, I couldn’t believe what I saw:  chairs all the way to the edges of the room, with every visible seat filled except a few places in the front row, and all the way to the back.  People were standing and sitting on the stairs.  As the last details were ironed out, I chatted with the crowd a bit about the significance of the flowers.  When the bookstore manager signaled that we could start, I asked “Could someone please go and get Joanna?” and everyone laughed.  Hostess to the end, she was standing by her post.

Launch audience with Joanna photo

Photo by Karen Pike

Tod Gross, Phoenix Books’ manager, welcomed everyone, followed by Cheryl Herrick, who introduced me and mentioned a crucial moment in my early life.  I was standing in the schoolyard of Carr Junior High School in Durham, North Carolina on the day when the first African American student was to enter the school.  She was by herself, being jeered and taunted.  Would I collude with the others by minding my own business?  Would I add to their noise or tell them to stop?  Or would I stand beside her?  These are the same questions that An Address in Amsterdam explores, in a different place and time.

Maybe that’s what made me feel at home in Amsterdam, and in the terrible world of 1940-45:  the combination of great beauty and great suffering, and dilemmas where absolutely nothing is black and white, where there are often few good choices, and the examples of courage are rare but utterly remarkable.  As I spent hours in archives and museums and wandering the canals to find significant addresses on five long visits, the world of that time became clearer and clearer to me.  When I saw a photograph of trees whose limbs had all been amputated, for example, I said “Oh, it must have been during the Hunger Winter.”  Sure enough, the date was the terrible winter of 1944-45, when more than two thousand Amsterdammers starved to death, and there was no fuel to heat their homes.

As I read and spoke at the book launch, I tried to give people the feel of both aspects of An Address in Amsterdam:  the suffering of the characters and the city itself, but also their courage and resolve, their refusing to let themselves be completely robbed of love and beauty in their lives.  The heroine, Rachel, begins as a naïve 18 year old who doesn’t understand that she’s falling in love, but a year later she is already working for the underground and grows up very fast.  Although only a handful of people resisted as Rachel did, they deserve our respect for the risks they took, and their persistence even in the worst of circumstances.

Photo by Karen Pike

Photo by Karen Pike

In my research, I learned about more and more individuals who had been murdered:  80% of Jewish people in the city of Amsterdam, plus the resisters and others whom the Nazis hated.  I began to miss them.  I began to imagine them here and there, their fish stalls and doctor’s offices and cabarets and galleries and orchestras.  Part of my work was bringing them back to life, not just at the moment of deportation and death, but before that, when they were still struggling and loving and enjoying life.

The launch audience asked serious questions:  about the woman on the cover of the book, when I realized that it wasn’t enough to portray the suffering and mass murder, how I constructed scenes by getting “into” the characters, what it was like for me as a Gentile to write about a Jewish character, how people in the Netherlands might react to the book.  I answered for a while, then thanked everyone and asked them to please spread the word.  Every book had a flyer in it to suggest how to do that, as well as a stamped post card.  I closed with some thanks, and it was only then that I broke down, remembering my great friend Eliane Vogel Polsky, who was hidden in plain sight as a Belgian teenager, and was the midwife for this book.  She asked about it in our final conversation a year ago.

Mary and Eliane in Amsterdam, photo by Karen Pike

Mary and Eliane in Amsterdam, photo by Karen Pike

Upstairs, the line for book signing snaked along for what seemed like miles.  How I loved composing those inscriptions!  As I saw that I needed to speed up, I said “Someday I’ll just write ‘Best wishes’, but tonight I’m going to do it right.  These are my friends.”  Several people said “This is for my aunt,” “This is for my friend who’s in the hospital,” “This is for my daughter.”  I loved the feeling of the book going out and away in so many directions that I couldn’t even imagine.  Rachel, who represents so many young Jewish women who were killed, is alive and traveling.

The icing on the cake:  Tod, the bookstore manager, asked me how many books I thought we’d sold. “Forty,” I said optimistically.  “Ninety seven,” he said, “almost a book a person.  Some people bought multiple copies, but even so.  We never see that.  25% is what we expect, 50% is really good.”

I come from the maritime people of eastern Canada, so the metaphor of the launch appeals to me.  I’ll never go back to the shore of being a writer rather than an author.  Now I’m afloat, and so is my ship.  It has been built, plank by plank, from pieces gathered in many times and places.  The ship has slipped down the pathway made for it, and has splashed into the water, where it is swaying and eager for the sea.  Where it may go is a mystery.  My best hope is that the book will be taken seriously both as a good, deep story about a brave young Jewish woman, and as a warning about how quickly an open, liberal city can change.  When hatred and violence threaten, An Address in Amsterdam shows that anyone can take courageous action, in our own place and time.

Eating History at the
Jewish Historical Museum

For a respite from the rigors of wandering around the city, the calm of the Jewish Historical Museum café always repays your effort.  You can not only get off your feet, but you can sample to the delights of both standard delicatessen food that you’ll recognize, and some specialties of Jewish Amsterdam which speak of its history.

People sitting in brightly lit café

Jewish Historical Museum Café

My personal favorite is gemberbolus, a sticky bun with lots of ginger syrup (although it does come in other flavors, too). You can find a recipe here as well as the story of how this delicious treat came to be in Amsterdam.  It’s traced, thanks to Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra, back to Spain in two possible ways:  first, it may have been a snack for the occupying Spanish forces when they invaded the Netherlands during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648).  But there seems little question that the bolus came with the Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Although the Netherlands was not a paradise for Jewish people — for example, they couldn’t join guilds or become citizens — it offered far more equality and opportunity than any other country at that time.  The community prospered and became essential to Amsterdam’s economy as well as its character.  By 1675, they had erected the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue.  Why, if many were originally Spaniards, did they call it that?  Partly because some  fled to Portugal first before the Inquisition began there, but also because of the bitter history of the Spanish invasion and not wanting to be associated with Catholic Spain.

Even if you can’t taste all that in the gemberbolus, it’s good to remember how often food brings history alive.  Since I was too busy eating my roll to take a picture of it, I’m indebted to the delightful What’s Cooking blog for the delightful photo below:

Delicious roll oozing with ginger syrup

Thanks to timskitchen.blogspot.com