A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.
My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,
with travel hubs in Edinburgh,
before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,
Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.
This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.
Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.
It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.
It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.
A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda. In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted; this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos.
The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews. The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands. They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation. In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.
First greeted with a timeline of events,
we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:
Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…
for the Jewish Council,
to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?
Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.
Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.
At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.
An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.
As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…
I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.
A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.
Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,
with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.
Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,
where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.
Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,
it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.
There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;
an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,
where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;
a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…
and lost their lives;
the remnants of a barrack;
and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.
I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.
Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;
and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,
where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.
From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,
once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…
and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.
For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.
Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.
The journey continues with Part 2…