The year is 1945; the day, the 5th of May. The Allied forces have arrived and liberated the north of Holland. The war in the Netherlands is over. In the days to come, soldiers, prisoners, resistance fighters, all start heading home or to see what is left of it. Many people have died. The Jewish community of Amsterdam that had once been vibrant and heavily populated is depleted. Of the 80,000 Jews who once lived in this city, only 5,000 have returned. The survivors of the death camps scramble to find any trace of their family left.
It’s 5th of May, 2015—Liberation Day in the Netherlands—and I wake up to the beautiful sweet smell of spring. It’s my third year living here, and I can’t get enough of it. The buildings, the flowers, the endless canals and surrounding parks; amenities that I have truly come to appreciate as a Brooklyn girl. Although Crown Heights will always be a place I adore for all the nostalgia and Jewish comforts that I encountered in my childhood, I am thankful that I have the opportunity to explore and experience a new country and adventure in my adult life.
This is the country where my husband, Elimelech grew up. He was raised in the city of Amersfoort where his father was and currently is the Rabbi of the Jewish community, and an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My husband always dreamed of raising his family in the Netherlands. I joined his dream and three years ago, we made Amsterdam our new home. From getting used to European culture and mentality to learning a new language, these past three years have been a wonderful journey.
On this, my third 5th of May in the Netherlands, I know I should be feeling something. The Holocaust, World War Two, all concepts that seemed very far away from my tenth grade class in Brooklyn are starting to seep in here in a new way.The war is something that many people live with in Europe. I can feel that the trauma and pain is still dormant.
It is a somber day in Amsterdam. I sit on my couch, my little ones playing at my feet, as I try to put together the pieces to understand how I really should feel. What am I Chaya Evers, living in Riviernbuurt, Amsterdam, on the Rooseveltlaan, going to do today? I have three young children. How can I relay to them what this day really means? I need to look around and understand where I really am.
Our neighborhood was once the home to over 17,000 Jews. In fact, Anne Frank lived just a few streets away from where we live. Around the corner is the Montessori school she attended and the Rooseveltlaan, the street we live on, was the same street Anne Frank’s best friend Jacquline Van Marsen lived on. The book store, where she chose her world-famous diary, is the same bookstore that exists today just one block away from our house. The Lekstraat Shul, the butcher, the sandwich shop, are all remnants of a time when these streets were bustling with Jewish families. And now, except for my few Jewish neighbors, this once very vibrant Jewish neighborhood has vanished.
This year, for some reason, I feel like I need to take my children and make this day mean something. And so, our journey begins. I take my children all around the vicinity of our neighborhood to explore and remember the Jewish inhabitants who once populated it. I don’t relay to them the full history that happened 70 years ago, but I do tell them about the many Jewish people who lived in this neighborhood that had to leave or hide. I assure them that we live in a safe country and remind them that we are so lucky that can walk these streets proudly.
We head out to our first destination on my bakfiets (My very Dutch bike that can transport three kids plus a whole lot of other stuff). As I bike around the corner of our block, we stop at The Anne Frank School, formerly known as the Montessori School. My kids hop out of the bakfiets and my oldest advises that we say Torah passages that we know by heart. “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe…”, the sweet voices of my children chanting holy passages in a place where so many Jewish children like them once walked to school, tugs at my heart. I feel in my essence and core that these streets have been crying and waiting so many years, for Jewish children to come along again.
Piling back onto the bakfiets, we head down a few more blocks to a copper cobblestone that we have passed many times on our way to Shul on Shabbos. The cobblestones are a reminder of the residents who once lived in the homes that they are placed before. We read the plaques and my children say another passage. “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu…Hear, O Israel,….”
Ferenc Weisz, just a name printed on a cobblestone, just a memory on a street, a person, a Jew who was a whole world. He lived in the house that stands before us. As the sweet voices of my kids echo in the background I feel his presence. I may not know much about you “Ferenc Weisz, born in 1893, Deported to Westerbork, and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944,” but I do know that one time, you walked these streets. I only pray that this little gesture of commemoration and the sweet voices of my children can give your soul peace.
We once again, strap up and get back into the Bak as I peddle on to our next destination. We chance upon an exhibition on the Churchillaan. Every three feet, stands a billboard portraying another Jewish family that once lived in Riviernbuurt. All the portraits exhibited on the street, are of Jewish families who lived here before the war. We unexpectedly bump into my friend Davinia, who is accompanying her Grandmother, who happens to be portrayed in one of the portraits. Seeing her grandmother, Mrs. Anelies Jacoby standing proudly in front of her family portrait, together with her daughter and grand-daughter, wakes up a fury of emotions that I never knew existed inside of me.
We are still here!
Heading north,we come upon the Waalstraat. Turning Right we enter the Cul-De-Sac of Anne Frank. The street she played tag in, stretches out before us, what is known now as the Anne Frank Park. My kids are on a roll, and as we stop to photograph the statue of her and then the cobblestones in front of her house, they keep chanting those words of Torah to the kid friendly tunes that I’ve taught them. “Bchol Dor v’dor…In every Generation a person must believe that God will take them out of exile.” I feel prouder than ever to be the mother of these children who without understanding much, understand so well. We stop for a short break to rest, relax and run around in Anne’s ‘courtyard’ before the last leg of our tour.
We end our little journey at the Jimmink Bookshop, just a few meters from Anne Frank’s House. Mr Jimmink is kind enough to come outside and give us a short history lesson on the neighborhood around us. I can tell that he is quite passionate and proud of his bookstore that has survived so much and has the past’s stories, etched in its wall’s.
To end our trip on the right note we decide to do a mitzvah to honor the souls of all those who perished in the war. The boys decide that they want to take the tzedakah that was being collected in their charity boxes and give it to a good cause. After giving them a few options they choose to give the money to our neighbor Anya who runs a humanitarian organization called Empower Generation. This is an organization that empowers woman in Nepal to be entrepreneurs by providing solar lamps to impoverished villages that barely have any electricity. What better way to end such a day, by helping and sponsoring light to a place that really needs it!
As the day finishes and the kids are safely tucked in bed, I sit down to reflect I really feel that I understand a piece, be it a small one, of what was. There is a reason we live here. When locals encounter me with my visibly Jewish children, they nod their heads and smile at us. I get comments all the time from people saying, “what beautiful Jewish children you have.” Elderly people especially get very excited when they see us walking and they always chuckle and say a kind remark. I know that just by walking the streets proud, and yes, unafraid, we become the legacy and testament to the many who didn’t get to grow old in this neighborhood. I am moved and inspired and I hope that by continuing to walk these streets proudly we will always remind our surroundings that that we are here to stay.