Facing the past: Amsterdam's new Holocaust Museum

Lianne Kolirin gets the first look inside the new National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, 80 years after the liberation of the Netherlands


Holocaust Museum, Amsterdam (Photo: Merel Tuk)

The house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis has long been an unmissable part of a visit to Amsterdam. Yet despite global fascination with the heartbreaking story of the young girl who came to symbolise not only the plight of Dutch Jewry but Hitler’s six million Jewish victims, the city has never had its own Holocaust museum.

Until now, almost 80 years after the Netherlands was liberated from German occupation. The National Holocaust Museum is located in the Jewish cultural quarter in the city’s east, whose residents were overwhelmingly Jewish before the war.

A simple tram ride from Central Station, there is so much more to the tracks that run along Plantage Middenlaan than a means of getting from A to B. During the Second World War, trams which passed along this line provided vital cover for an audacious rescue plan that saw 600 Jewish children saved from the Nazis.

The new museum is housed in a former teacher-training college, opposite the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theatre seized by the Nazis during the occupation. From July 1942, Jews ordered to report for deportation were assembled there before being transported to concentration and extermination camps.

Some 46,000 people passed through, spending hours, days or even weeks in the crowded facility.

Children aged 12 and under were accommodated in a kindergarten across the road, where — thanks to its fearless director, Henriëtte Pimentel — 600 of the youngsters were whisked out through a teaching college next door.

Brave resistance couriers would wait at a side door of the college and wait for arriving trams to provide cover. Then, when the view of the Nazi guards outside the theatre was blocked, they would flee to safe houses in other parts of the country.

“The Nazis assumed the children were not at risk of escape so the guards were not alert to this over here,” explained Annemiek Gringold, the museum’s chief curator.

The museum’s official opening ceremony earlier this month, attended by the Dutch king, was met with protest by hundreds of people demonstrating against the presence of Israeli President Isaac Hertzog.

But while security is understandably a consideration, that does not appear to have deterred people from visiting. Posters about the museum are plastered around the city and people queue patiently outside on the morning I visit.

The museum relays the history of the persecution of Jews of the Netherlands, but what makes its message all the more powerful is that the story it seeks to tell unfolded in this very location.

“This is a site of absolute humanity, of immense courage and great inspiration,” said Gringold. “People stood up and were not indifferent. They took a great risk and saved the lives of Jewish children.”

The ground floor is dedicated to this moving tale of selfless courage. Audio guides follow the children’s escape route, with illuminated footsteps tracing their path along the dark corridor to freedom. It’s a heart-wrenching sight — the first of many in this painstaking exploration of Dutch Jewish persecution.

Eight decades on, the history of the Holocaust is, of course, a familiar one, but there is rich detail here, much of which relates to the specific and unique nature of the Dutch experience.

By the lifts at the start of the main exhibition on the second floor is an enlarged image that pulls no punches. The picture, which featured in Life magazine, shows a young boy — eyes averted — walking along a path strewn with bodies after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

From here the visitor travels back in time, from the day-to-day lives of the country’s well-integrated Jewish community to their insidious elimination from Dutch society, their deportation, their extermination, and finally the return of the tiny minority of survivors.

Also immediately striking are the gallery walls, completely covered with the text of anti-Jewish measures the Nazis imposed upon taking over in May 1940. “The wallpaper of crimes,” as Gringold describes it, comprises ordinances and regulations to create a veneer of legality.

The permanent exhibition also seeks to explore the national culture of remembrance. Across town, Anne Frank’s house may focus on the bravery of ordinary citizens, who risked all to protect Jewish friends and neighbours — but a darker side of the story is also on display here.

“All the measures were implemented by the Dutch authorities,” points out Gringold. “There was no ghetto here and no walls but Jewish rights were annulled to zero.”

Three-quarters of the country’s Jewish population was wiped out by the Nazis. As with any exploration of the Holocaust, such large numbers can be overwhelming and anonymising, which is why curators included 19 “forget-me-nots” — unique showcases highlighting individual lives.

One tells of six-year-old Esther Mendes da Costa whose parents, terrified at what their fate would hold under occupation, agreed a suicide pact; taking cyanide pills and giving one to their daughter. The tragic tale ends with Esther’s death and their agonising survival.

The fate of around 102,000 of the Jewish population of the Netherlands, as well as others including Roma and Sinti, is told sensitively through some 2,500 objects, rediscovered photos and films, audio recordings and more, much of which has never been on display before.

Outside, the original façade of the former theatre still stands across the tracks, leading to an open-air memorial and garden. As well as providing cover for the perilous rescue operation, the tram stop also served another purpose. Once registered, Jews were taken by tram to the trains that would transport them to the Westerbork transit camp.

One can only imagine how those passengers, many of whom had escaped Nazi Germany for what they believed would be a safe haven, must have felt as they rolled through the Dutch flatlands to the country’s eastern corner, just 25 miles from the German border.

Known as the “gateway to hell”, Westerbork was the last stop in the Netherlands before concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. In all, 107,000 people were deported from here — 102,000 of them were Jewish. Aside from a tiny minority of 5,000, they all perished.

The museum of the memorial centre is located in dense and eerie woodland. It is due to undergo a significant overhaul, which management says will include the translation of its Dutch content, but for now an English audio guide is available.

The remains of the former camp two miles away are accessible by internal bus. The starkest sights are located at the entrance; the first, a series of coffin-like monuments listing the numbers of inmates transported to the various concentration camps.

Towering over the site, inside a huge glass structure, is the dilapidated large house where the camp’s Nazi commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker lived. It is a crumbling monument to the cruel indifference of the high-ranking officers who continued with their daily lives despite the horrors unfolding beyond the barbed wire.

The camp itself, which was intersected by the train line to the east, lies largely empty besides an original train carriage, a section of preserved track, watchtowers and a striking art installation. Stays here were fleeting, with many passing through for no more than a few days at a time.

Among those who stayed longer were Anne Frank and her family, who were detained in an even higher security penitentiary section reserved for those discovered in hiding.

Westerbork was often presented as a Nazi propaganda showcase, with its own theatre, sports facilities and a hospital run by top Jewish medics. For many, such employment offered some semblance of protection from deportation.

Among them was Rudolf Breslauer, a Jewish photographer who, under Gemmeker’s instruction, shot hours of footage for what was to be a film about life in the camp. Although never completed, the footage is unique and is included in the Unesco Memory of the World Register.

The camp was eventually liberated by the Canadians in April 1945 but its structures were not demolished until the 1970s, as it continued to serve for more than two decades for resettlement of residents of former Dutch colonies. It was only then that the site was dedicated to the memory of those deported to meet their horrific fates.

A visit to Westerbork is neither logistically or emotionally simple. But whether you do venture to this site of major historical significance or stay in Amsterdam, there is at least some reassurance to be gained from the knowledge that the decimated Dutch Jewish community is finally receiving the recognition it so fully deserves.

Getting There

Direct trains from London to Amsterdam cost from around £78 return with Eurostar.

The National Holocaust Museum and Westerbork camp are both open daily.

For more information, go to

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