A major Dutch memorial - about time

Letter from: Amsterdam

May 19, 2016 11:22

My former boss Tamarah Benima, then editor-in-chief of the Dutch Jewish weekly, once taught me something about grief and the importance of objects. We were discussing a news item about some small pieces of jewellery that had been stolen from Jews during the Second World War. Now they were being returned to their descendants. "It's not about the value of a necklace, or its beauty," she said. "Loved ones were taken away and nothing remained of them… I would be glad, at least, to have their coat. A button. Anything that I could touch."

It has taken too long, but those of us who live in Amsterdam and care about the memory of the Shoah - and that includes non-Jews - feel relieved. Daniel Libeskind's Dutch Holocaust memorial has finally been allocated a place in the city.

It will be a 450m structure consisting of black stone walls etched with the names of Dutch victims of Nazi Germany - about 102,000 Jews and 8,000 others, mainly Sinti and Roma. Their unknown graves never got a headstone, but now their names will be out there, for all to see and touch.

On 13 May, Amsterdam's mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, announced that the 'Memorial of Names' will be built near the Jewish History Museum and the Portuguese Synagogue, on a strip of grass along the heavily trafficked Weesperstraat. It is an appropriate choice. Once this was a bustling Jewish neighbourhood. What remains is a highway through the city and a bridge named after Chief Rabbi L H Sarlouis, murdered in Poland in 1942.

The monument itself has been generally welcomed by Dutch society. The Shoah changed the fabric of the country and is still a national trauma. Ten per cent of the pre-war population of Amsterdam was Jewish; 80 per cent of Dutch Jewry lost their lives - the highest proportion of any Western European country. Yet Holland is one of the few countries where no national monument has ever been erected.

Despite broad support, it took the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, the initiator of the project, two years to find a suitable public space.

A previous decision to locate the memorial in Wertheim Park was opposed by inhabitants of the adjacent Plantage neighbourhood. They pointed out that their public park - the only one in the centre of Amsterdam - is no bigger than a football field and was therefore unsuitable for half a kilometre of black walls and an expected 200,000 visitors each year.

The location on Weesperstraat was not the first choice because it is already the site of another memorial that will now have to give way. The white stone Monument of Jewish Gratitude, erected in 1950 by a small group of Jewish survivors, is controversial because of its awkward expression of gratitude to Dutch citizens who resisted the Nazi occupation. The general view nowadays is that while the Dutch did not collaborate en masse with the Germans, the great majority did not resist either.

The Monument of Jewish Gratitude is a relic from a period when there was little understanding of life under occupation, of the individual suffering of the persecuted, and of the magnitude of the Shoah. Now is the right time to consign that to a storage room.

And it is time to display publicly the names of each of the 110,000 - and to do so in the old Jewish quarter where so many of them lived and from where they were taken to their deaths.

May 19, 2016 11:22

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