Arts & Culture

Murder in Amsterdam

The Amsterdam apartment where Anne Frank began her diary before going into hiding from the Nazis has been restored to the style of the 1930s to create a refuge for persecuted writers….Using photographs from the family archive and a letter … Read More

By / December 5, 2006

The Amsterdam apartment where Anne Frank began her diary before going into hiding from the Nazis has been restored to the style of the 1930s to create a refuge for persecuted writers….Using photographs from the family archive and a letter from Anne Frank describing the apartment, a team of experts worked for months to remove modern fixtures and decorate and furnish the residence in the same style it was left in by the family. A carpenter reconstructed the writing table at which the 13-year-old probably started her diary in June 1942, weeks before disappearing into the secret annex of a canal-side warehouse to hide during German occupation of the Netherlands….

The first resident of the apartment at Merwedeplein in southern Amsterdam is Algerian novelist and poet el-Mahdi Acherchour, 32, who is working on a new novel.

 —Reuters, October 28, 2005

I was struck by this news item, not because I begrudged a persecuted writer his refuge in Amsterdam. Offering an Algerian, or any other writer, a place to work in freedom and peace is a good and noble undertaking. But the exact recreation of Anne Frank’s old family apartment, so that a writer can dwell in her ghostly presence, is morbid and indeed sentimental—as though the past could be relived by recreating its settings, as though there is anything to be learned, apart from one or two things about interior decoration, by restoring the period fixtures of Anne Frank’s living room. Sometimes it is better to let the past be.

Yet I, too, found it hard to forget the past during the summer months I spent in Amsterdam. Friends had lent me their house in the oldest part of the city. It stands on a narrow street that once ran through a medieval nunnery. The area, now part of the most famous red light district in Europe, is nothing if not cosmopolitan. On one corner of the street is a Thai massage parlor, on the other a brothel with three Brazilian transvestites, one of whom advertised his particular assets in a photograph of a large brown penis drooping above a gartered leg.

The virtually naked “window prostitutes,” from all the poor countries in the world, pose in their dimly lit rooms along the canal, in old houses decorated with gracefully carved seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gables and neon signs offering live sex shows.…

A stench of beer, marijuana, rotting garbage, and piss hangs like vapor over the historic canals. A friend of mine once admonished a couple of Moroccan youths for urinating against the wooden door of a fine seventeenth-century townhouse. Why not use the canal, he suggested. For an instant, they were taken by surprise, but then told him in perfect Amsterdam accents “to mind you own business, you fucking Jew!”

Perhaps Western civilization, with the Amsterdam red-light district as its fetid symbol, does have something to answer for. Maybe these streets are typical of a society without modesty, morally unhinged. Such naked display of man’s animal instincts could be seen as a form of barbarism. For people whose faith is predicated on modesty and whose code of honor prohibits any display of female sexuality, every single window along that Amsterdam canal is an intolerable provocation. You might say that nobody asked these people to live in Amsterdam. But they were encouraged to come and work there, and their children were born there. They are there, whether one likes it or not, and the Dutch prime minister is their prime minister too.

The red-light district on one side of my street became wearisome in its relentless exploitation of human lust. Though intrigued by its more colorful denizens, I grew tired of it and spent more time on the other side of the street, which leads to a large square, the Nieuwmarkt, one of the oldest in Amsterdam, where the open-air cafes face a scene that sometimes filled me with a far greater melancholy than the crassest sex emporium. On the far side of the Nieuwmarkt is an old section of the city whose narrow, densely populated streets were once lined with higgledy-piggledy row houses, some dating back to the early seventeenth century. Almost all those houses are gone now, replaced by buildings of the 1980s, whose slick white modernity makes them stand out in the historic heart of Amsterdam. It used to be known as the jodenjoek, Jews’ corner.

This part of the city, with its seventeenth-century Portuguese and German synagogues and its lively street markets, had long been populated by Jews, most of them poor. Rembrandt had lived there too, however, and picked the models for his biblical paintings from the streets around his studio. Before the German occupation more than eighty thousand Jews resided in Amsterdam. By the end of the war about five thousand had survived.…

The few houses that were still there in the 1970s were taken over by young squatters, until, finally, around 1974, the last remnants of the jodenhoek were swept away to build an underground railway station and a new opera house. But first the squatters had to be removed from their improvised homes. What followed was a kind of grotesque reenactment of the historic drama. Not that the Dutch police, using batons and waterhoses to flush out the squatters, had anything in common with the Nazis, or that the squatters were destined to be murdered. It was just that the spectacle of uniformed men dragging people from their homes while we watched the action behind fortified barriers conjured up images I had only seen in blurry photographs taken on that very spot three decades before. <!–[endif]–>

Before remembering the Holocaust, in memorials and textbooks, became an almost universal Western ritual in the late 1960s, only two monuments in the jodenhoek stood as reminders of what happened there. One, a relief in white stone, was erected in 1950. It is called the monument of “Jewish Gratitude”—gratitude to the Dutch people who stood by the Jewish victims. The other, built two years later, is a sculpture of a burly workingman, with his head held high, and his meaty arms and large proletarian fists spread in a gesture of angry defiance. The Dockworkers is a monument to the two-day “February Strike” of 1941, when Amsterdam stopped working in protest against the deportation of 425 Jewish men to a concentration camp. The men had been brutally rounded up in plain sight of many gentiles shopping at the popular Sunday market. Word spread quickly: City cleaners refused to collect garbage, mail was not delivered, trams stopped running, and the port of Amsterdam was silent for forty-eight ours.

This show of solidarity, unique in Europe, and largely responsible for the high reputation of Holland among Jews, is certainly worth remembering, but it is also misleading. Though not exactly mythical—it really happened, after all—the February Strike was a convenient symbol to shield people from more painful memories, of having stood by and watched and done nothing. Others, to be sure, had risked their lives, and those of their families, to hide Jews. But this great story of bravery, for a time, was used to mask a larger history of indifference, cowardice, and in some cases active complicity.

I would occasionally drink coffee on Saturday mornings at a busy café on the Nieuwmarkt with a distinguished Dutch professor named Geert Mak. Mak had annoyed the Friends of Theo and other combatants in the war against radical Islam by taking a more relativistic view of the problem. A stocky man with a wooly thatch of silvery curls, Mak projects the voice of a friendly, liberal-minded small-town history teacher. He often spoke to me about the old Left, whose politics he himself largely shared; about the affronted turn of some progressives against Muslim immigrants; and about their nostalgia for a “classical Holland of the 1950s”—the Holland of Johan Huizinga, satisfait, enlightened, middle-of-the-road, bourgeois. Mak, in a way, personifies these solid virtues. His books on Dutch history are all bestsellers. They provide a comforting historical narrative for a people that feels deprived of a historical identity. Like the sentimentality at celebrity funerals, this is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon either. National histories have become popular everywhere in the world beset by corporate uniformity.

Despite the wild reputation of Amsterdam, Mak says, Holland never had a truly metropolitan culture. Learning to live with large numbers of immigrants is “going to be a difficult and painful process,” and people will just “have to get used to it.” After all, hadn’t the Jews in nineteenth-century Amsterdam been integrated quite successfully by enlightened policies? Hadn’t it been a good thing to subsidize schools for the Jewish poor, on condition that they be taught Dutch and not Yiddish? The same kind of thing could work again. But this process would not be helped by anti-Muslim hysteria. Mak disapproves of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Jeanne d’Arc-like antics.” [Theo] Van Gogh, in his view, was a “tragic Dutchman” who had been “tricked into making the film that cost him his life. The problem, he maintains, is not Islam, or religion as such. It is more sociological. What we are witnessing is nothing new. Just the usual tensions that occur when uprooted rural people start new lives in the metropolis.

Soon after Van Gogh’s violent death, Mak published two pamphlets attacking what he saw as the dangerous and hysterical intolerance of Muslims in the Dutch media and among politicians. As Holland’s most popular historian, he saw it as his role to bring common sense to the national debate. By and large, he succeeded, but even Mak, the paragon of Huizinga’s virtues, could not escape entirely from the ghost of Anne Frank, from the Dutch habit of filtering the present through guilty memories of what happened in the jodenhoek. In one of his pamphlets he compared the narrative technique of Hirsi Ali’s film Submission to the viciously anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew.

In a very narrow technical sense—the selective use of damning quotations, for instance—he may have had a point, but the comparison struck a false note. Hirsi Ali spoke out against oppression, not for it. The exclusion of Muslims, or any other group, is not part of her program. And yet to reach for examples from the Holocaust, or the Jewish diaspora, has become a natural reflex when the question of ethnic or religious minorities comes up. It is a moral yardstick, yet at the same time an evasion. To be reminded of past crimes, of negligence or complicity, is never a bad thing. But it can confuse the issues at hand, or worse, bring all discussion to a halt by tarring opponents with the brush of mass murder. This issue is not the Holocaust, but the question of how to stop future Mohammed Bouyeris from becoming violent enemies of the country in which they grew up—how to make those boys pissing on the seventeenth-century door feel that this is their home too.


Excerpt from MURDER IN AMSTERDAM by Ian Buruma. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Ian Buruma, 2006.

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