When I was a teenager I had a Saturday job in a fruit and vegetable shop. The manager was a bit of a character with his gentle teasing of the old ladies and quirky way of running the store. But asking him about the past could throw the whole place into chaos as he sat down with a huge pot of tea and regaled me with stories of his wartime career as a paratrooper for hours at a time. He always had a far away look in his eyes when he mentioned a town called Arnhem.
I didn’t really understand then, and even today had not appreciated the full story behind the Battle of Arnhem and the aftermath on the people of the Netherlands. And so I found myself in Amsterdam on the eve of the remembrance day traditions. In the Netherlands the 5th May is Liberation Day when people celebrate freedom. The evening before is the Remembrance Day commemoration.
It is worth thinking about those dates if travelling to Amsterdam and the Netherlands. As I walked out of the Central Station in the afternoon of 4th May the buses had already stopped for the day and roadblocks were in place. This is because the formal Remembrance ceremony is held in Dam Square during the evening and where the King and Queen lay a wreath on behalf of the nation. During the late afternoon and evening of 4th May, hundreds of people begin to silently walk through the streets of Amsterdam towards Dam Square. All flags are lowered to half mast. I walked back towards Dam Square to find more road blocks and security for crowd control, so followed the canals back to my hotel. But for those people arriving in Amsterdam ready to celebrate a stag weekend- well they looked seriously out of place.
Around 7.30 I saw a televised broadcast of the ceremony where the king and queen laid flowers on behalf of the nation. This was the nearest I could now get to Dam Square. At 8pm I stood in silence to remember like everyone else. Then, a huge swell of the Dutch national anthem rose above the tall buildings of Amsterdam as the crowds around Dam Square and wider sung, united in purpose. It lingered in the breeze and remembered all those who died during World War Two.
The 5th May is Liberation Day in Amsterdam. The Dutch use this day to celebrate freedom and have communal picnics and barbecues, as well as concerts, and there are also a few historical commemorations. I decided that as part of my last full day in Amsterdam, that I would walk the historic Resistance Trail from the Anne Frank House to the Dutch Resistance Museum. This small walking trail can be purchased from either museum and includes many buildings with a very special history.
The Keizersgracht is close to the Anne Frank House and is a monument to all the gay people who were persecuted in World War Two. It is made of 3 pink triangles, symbolic of the emblem that homosexual people wore. Today it was covered in flowers as a sign of remembrance.
On the Amstel there is a monument to a boys’ orphanage. The director, Saar Hamburger, prevented the Jewish boys from being departed on several occasions, but on 4 March 1943 100 orphans were sent to Sobibor where they were murdered on arrival. The monument can be easily bypassed on walks through the market and bars, but it is there, reminding people about the history that lies within the city. Innocuous looking buildings have secrets- from illegal printing presses to hiding places, and areas of protest.
The Dockworker’s Statue on Jonas Daniel Meijerplein was impressive with the huge man looking over the square. This commemorates the Amsterdam dock workers who went on strike in February 1941. Nine were killed. It was the only mass protest against the persecution of the Jews in Europe during World War Two but did not stop the thousands of Dutch Jews that were deported.
Walking on Plantage Middenlaan and the surrounding area was interesting. There were so many memorials. At Number 31 a plaque marks what was the day centre for children. Day care workers smuggled children out of this centre to save them from deportation and the concentration camps. Workers also smuggled babies by running alongside the tram which blocked them from view of the guards. What a history in one small plaque on the wall.
Further on, in a quiet park was a memorial to the Jewish deaf community who also died in the holocaust.
And then I came across a sign signifying the Open Jew’s House. I had read about this scheme and was so hoping to find one- but everything had been in Dutch. On Liberation Day some houses across the city that once hid Jewish people open their homes to show people inside and tell the story of what happened there. Unfortunately when I was there they had just admitted the final group and were unwilling to accept any more as it is a very emotional thing for the owners to do. I thought this was a wonderful concept and a way of preserving the past for the future so people would remember.
The Dutch Resistance Museum was close by and is a fascinating collection of history and what happened to the people during World War Two. In particular, who helped, who collaborated, and who ignored what was going on. I particularly enjoyed reading the history of ordinary people who resisted against the Nazis. Jacoba Maria Blom-Schuh lived in the Hague and collected money to help people in the winter. She was thrown in jail for 3 months and told to knit socks for the German Army. She sewed many of them shut so they could not be used.
Just across the road is Amsterdam Zoo. In World War Two, many Jewish people hid among the animals. A short distance away in a park is the Auschwitz Memorial. It is full of broken mirrors which signify that the sky has never been undamaged since Auschwitz. Nearby, young people relaxed in the sun, and boats sailed down the canals full of party goers celebrating freedom.
.As the sun lowered on Liberation Day I walked back into the centre of Amsterdam and people enjoying a beautiful sunny day of freedom. My walk had revealed a poignant insight into the city and its history, and parts I would never have seen, but for this wonderful self walking guide.