Searching for Closure, Part 1

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,

travel route

with travel hubs in Edinburgh,

Sir Walter Scott Monument1 (2)

Amsterdam,

bikes2

and Essen,

Alte shul plaza (2)

before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,

Mont des Arts1

and Paris.

Luxemburg Gardens

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.

Centraal1

It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.

Jude and the Tree of Life

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.

Exhibit cover

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,

timeline

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:

exhibit intro

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…

sewing room

for the Jewish Council,

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.

Life 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.

Trains to Westerbork (2)

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…

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,

suitcase-symbolism.jpg

with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.

mural

Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,

Westerbork collage

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,

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;

Westerbork under Glass

an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,

Train car

where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;

boarding the train.jpg

a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…

The 102,000 Rocks

and lost their lives;

Bricks.jpg

the remnants of a barrack;

barrack-then and now.jpg

broken barracks

and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.

guard tower.jpg

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;

Portuguese Synagogue

and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,

Monument of 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,

Amsterdam Museum

once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…

De-Burgerweeshuiskinderen-voor-mei-1940.-Foto-NIOD (2)
Bertie stands in the back row in front of the tree; Eva sits in the second row, third from the right

and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.

Burgerwiishaus

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…

Skullpture Park

Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.

Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…

spiral (2)

…and following a long and winding stoney path…

stoney foot path

…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,

arches

and sobering humility,

cavern turn

one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!

Empire of Death (2).jpg

Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.

heart of skulls

With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.

Charnier_at_Saints_Innocents_Cemetery

However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.

Skullpture (2)

Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,

skull wave

and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–

skull de sac

a practice that continued until 1859.

St. Nicholas Des Champs

Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.

skeletal tower

Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,

skull cross

while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.

embedded skulls

But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–

painted skulls (2)

bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.

terminator heads.jpg

Touring the Tower

Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.

the approach

I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.

But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!

piercing the sky

There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.

Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.

looking up

Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,

Y (2)

when studying the symmetry of shapes,

through the center

or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.

twisted

But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…

tower and garden

of those who long for the familiar,

traditional

or those who are easily pleased.

Paris Vegas 1