During my visit to Holland to do research for my book I visited the different places my mother lived in Amsterdam during the war. Each one had a different feel and a different set of circumstances in the 1940’s and also now in 2014. Please come with me for a “walk” from house to house.
1 – De Lairessestraat: My mother lived a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s concert hall in the heart of the museum district. I wasn’t able to see the inside of this house. Rumor has it that a European football player owns it. He apparently bought it a few years ago as a vacation home. According to the neighbors he hasn’t ever moved in. When I looked in the window it was empty. It looked lonely, waiting for someone to love it as my grandparents did before Germany invaded Holland.
2 – Beethovenstraat: This seems to be a shopping district. There are many upscale stores on the street and the traffic was busy. The current residents, an MBA and an MD were more than happy to show me the house and to hear the history of the family that lived there briefly in the winter of 1943/44. They were fascinated with the story of persecution and sympathized with the difficult times.
3 – Diezestraat: A residential neighborhood where several streets look almost identical. My husband and I got a little lost finding our way. I was struck with the maze of the connected buildings. There were no alleys or ways to cut through between buildings as in an US urban neighborhood. How convenient this was for the Nazis when they had a Razzia. All they had to do was block off either end of a street and clear the houses in the middle. My great-grandfather wrote about seeing Jews flee over the rooftops.
The current residents of this particular house were a delightful welcoming couple with a newborn daughter. They also listened with intensity to my retelling the story of the family that was moved here by the Nazis after being kicked out of their home. I wondered if the current residents ever felt unsafe in their own home as my family had when they lived here. Were they ever afraid of a knock on the door? Did I mention that they were both women?
4 – Afrikanerplein: This neighborhood was more diverse than the others. There were storefronts that had signs in different languages and I saw a wider range of skin color. The stairs were steeper. The house was smaller and needed a bit more repair than the others. It seemed the landlord didn’t quite have the same pride in maintaining the building as the other addresses.
The couple that welcomed us in asked many questions and were happy to show us around. As we spoke I realized that I was talking but not listening. The couple was a white woman from the Netherlands and her boyfriend, a black man from South Africa. I didn’t know much about South Africa except my college staged anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1980’s by building shantytowns on the pristine New England green. I didn’t take part in that as I was too busy and didn’t care much about politics at the time. Shame on me.
Here I am in 2014 talking to a black South African about the life of a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor. I’m telling him about my mother watching a Razzia out his living room window. What gives me the right to tell him about prejudice and racism? When I finally stopped talking and listened he told me that everyone in his family had been killed during Apartheid. He was then raised by a white family, and when Apartheid ended he had to deal with the fact that his “family” was the enemy. Or maybe they saw him as the enemy. I’m not sure which way he explained it as I was reeling with my lack of knowledge and lack of awareness as I was telling him about 1943.
I am a white heterosexual privileged woman living in the United States. I have never been the target of dangerous racism, classism, or anti-Semitism. I have been underpaid compared to male colleagues. I have been sexually harassed by a professor. I have experienced the occasional catcall and wolf whistle. I have had to put up with anti-Jewish jokes and I have found myself the target of unkind words. But I have never gone to sleep afraid that my house would be targeted for violence. I have never worried that my children would be murdered because of their color or religion. And I have never been afraid to tell people who I am. Who am I to try to teach people about all these “isms”? I don’t really know what I’m talking about.