Amsterdam’s Serious Side

In which I use a photo from Amsterdam to ease you into the long text that follows

You’re probably familiar with Amsterdam’s wild side (or at least rumors thereof). But my sister is a WWII history buff, and so when she and I visited Amsterdam last week, we had marked some of the guidebook’s more somber sites. All in all we enjoyed a great day together that definitely had its sad-painful-uncomfortable moments.

The Netherlands was occupied by the Germans from 1940-1945, and persecution of the Jewish population began immediately. As two years rolled by and the war didn’t end, living conditions for all residents spiraled downward and a significant Dutch resistance network formed. According to data from the Verzetsmuseum, Amsterdam lost 60,000 Jewish residents during WWII, a tenth of its population. During the winter of 1944-45, food and fuel for fires grew so scarce that an estimated 5,000 people starved or froze in Amsterdam alone. And in May 1945, days after the German surrender, remaining Germans opened fire from a balcony on a liberation celebration in Dam Square, Amsterdam, resulting in some 120 people shot and thousands running panicked in the streets. I don’t know a lot about Amsterdam, I realized last Tuesday. But I’m on my way.

After missing two consecutive trains because apparently 1. our kitchen clock is slow and 2. having an irregular work life has made me a little unstructured, my sister and I arrived in Amsterdam and took the tram to the Anne Frank House.

A logistical point: you will notice that the AF House sells tickets for certain time slots online. The website and guidebooks will tell you to go this route to avoid long queues, and in general I agree. However, we looked online the night before and all the time slots were sold out. Panic! This was the one thing my sis had expressed strong interest in doing, and I felt like a fool for not looking it up sooner. The website indicated that we could still go and take our chances with the dreaded queue, so off we went the next morning, fully expecting to stand outside for an hour. As it turned out, yes, the online slots were sold out… but there was no line at all and we walked right in the doors. Granted, it was a Tuesday morning in March, but lesson learned: only some of the tickets are released online. So don’t be discouraged if this happens to you.

The number of people who can enter the exhibit at one time is limited, which makes sense once you’ve been inside: narrow staircases, minimal space. All you need is a couple class trips and this place could be clogged for hours. Because as you tour the space, the rooms are mostly bare (deliberately), with a few objects or photos in glass cases and small-font captions that everyone waits their turn to read. Like most American public-school kids, I read The Diary of Anne Frank sometime in middle school, I think, but my recollections of it to be honest were as follows: (spoiler alert) Jewish family, WWII, goes into hiding in an attic-type space, girl writes diary, they get caught. Visiting the actual building, as you might imagine, brought the story to life in an emotional way that also quickly corrected the vague pictures in my mind from my pre-teen read.

Don't mind the construction... the Anne Frank House is the third building from the right, and I think the museum owns those three right-most buildings.

Despite the name, the Anne Frank House wasn’t a house. It’s a warehouse building where Anne’s father worked. As the war progressed and things looked bleak, a few of his coworkers conspired with him to prepare a space in the building where people could be hidden. When Anne’s older sister (who had been very active in a Jewish youth movement) was ordered to report to a work camp, the Franks and another family vanished into the hiding place.

No photos are allowed inside, so I can’t show you any, but the space was bigger than I imagined it (several of the rooms were quite spacious, and little models show they were furnished like a home). At the same time, eight people stayed in these rooms between 1942 and 1944, never going outside. Only a handful of people knew they were there, so during the workday when the warehouse was operational, they had to be completely silent. No loud voices, no creaking floorboards, no flushing the toilet. They were supplied news from Amsterdam and food by their friends, but as Amsterdam itself experienced hunger and shortages, it became harder and harder to provide for eight additional people. In August 1944, an anonymous tip told the Gestapo that there were people hidden in the warehouse annex, and the whole group was arrested and deported. Only Anne’s father lived to return to Amsterdam after the war. It is by his express wishes that the annex, while now a museum, remains unfurnished and bare; there are video interviews with him and also with several family friends of the Franks. He is astonishingly calm on film, and seems very aware that although his daughter’s story became famous, so many stories and voices were lost during that time.

From the Anne Frank House, we wound our way on a circuitous path through the city taking in its lovely views with the intent of reaching the Plantage district east of the center. Plantage contains the Hortus Botanicus (more on that another day), and a cluster of WWII sites as well:

  • the Auschwitz memorial in Wertheim Park
  • the Verzetsmuseum (Museum of the Dutch Resistance), which looks fascinating and to which we ran out of time to make a paid visit worthwhile
  • and the Hollandsche Schouwberg, a theatre built in 1892 and in 1942 commandeered by the Nazis as a holding and deportation center. An estimated 80,000 people were detained here en route to death camps. There’s not much left of the building today, and you can walk around inside for free. The lobby area contains what’s meant to be an interactive display where you can look up people by name, but it wasn’t functional when we were there. One floor up, there is a small exhibit on the building’s history (captioned only in Dutch). The most interesting point was a video display in the lobby with interviews of people who had passed through the building as detainees, survived the war, and given their recollections. A headset let us listen to the interviews in a number of languages, so this was the only part of the exhibit that we could really understand. After the war, no one really wanted to open a business in a building with such memories, and it eventually decayed. The back half (where the stage would have been) is totally gone (some partial walls on the sides) and a memorial stands there.

Hollandsche Schouwberg Memorial

My English leaflet says that there is a collaboration in process with Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum to turn this building into a Dutch Holocaust Museum in the coming years.

If this topic interests you and you have more time (and a little more cash!) than us, you might want to check out the Amsterdam in WWII Walking Tour. It’s two and half hours, E19/ adult, and as I just this moment learned, it’s the #1 tour of Amsterdam on Trip Advisor. I’d be intrigued to check this out one day. For now, I think I’m in the market for an Amsterdam history book.

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1 Comment

Filed under European Travel, Our Dutch Adventure

One response to “Amsterdam’s Serious Side

  1. This was an awesome and informative post 🙂 Thank you

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