Do We Learn from History?

Trip Start Nov 29, 2011
Trip End Dec 10, 2011

Flag of Netherlands  , Noord-Holland,
Sunday, December 4, 2011

World War II and Holocaust

My eyes start to open with the freshly brewed coffee offered by Roel and Martign at the breakfast room at Hotel Fita. We start the morning grazing on the tables of freshly baked croissants, rolls  & pastries, Dutch cheeses, fresh fruit, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, granola, yogurt, a variety of preserves, hot scrambled eggs and bacon.   When Roel asks if we would like to try the freshly prepared apple crepes, we all smile and say "yes".  Thicker than a French crepe with an apple flavored syrup within its folds and powdered sugar on top, we savor the flavor.  We are sure we are going to enjoy breakfasts here and food in Amsterdam.  Yummy.

We now have an opportunity to walk off those calories from breakfast.  With the map from the Hotel Fita we are ready for our first full day in AmsterdamWe've read this webpage that has pointers on getting oriented in Amsterdam – there isn’t a simple straight north-south-east-west axis, so it’s easy to get disoriented  (

We had reserved a walking tour with Peter Schaapman  called World War II and the Holocaust (, however a few days before our arrival, Peter emailed that he had to cancel.  So here we are today, doing the tour ourselves. 

We almost walk past our first stop, the Anne Frank House.  We notice a statue of Anne Frank and pause to look at it.  When we look around for her house, we don’t immediately see it because we were expecting an old house and after we find a small sign, the building has a modern façade.  So much for expectations.  Keep an open mind and all things will be revealed in time.  That’s become a motto for Harvey and I and we are reminded once again.  We arrive here a little after 9 AM and there is no line.  There is an advantage to traveling off-season in Amsterdam.

In the cloakroom, we take off many layers of clothing.  There is no charge and it’s welcome so that we can be comfortable inside without carrying all our stuff.   

Barry, Karen, Harvey & I are familiar with Anne’s life experience and we were all looking forward to coming here.  Walking through the rooms and with the exhibits it is easy to let my imagination roam to get some sense of what it must have been like to live in hiding and in fear of being found.  I am brought back to the present day with the questions asked in the very last exhibit.  This was a series of short video vignettes relating to freedom of speech.  The life and story of Anne Frank may have occurred over 60 years ago, but the issues are still very much alive.  The examples that we watch are:  women’s head scarves, the skin head expression relating to homosexuality, and raids of internet cafés in Holland ostensibly to find Nigerians stealing money over the internet but really finding illegal immigrants.  At the end of each video the audience is asked to vote yes/no on the authority’s actions.   Thought provoking.   There are so many contemporary cases – the message is loud and clear - to compel each of us to formulate our own thoughts about the invisible line between bigotry and tolerance and defining the boundaries where we can all live in peace.   Silence can be deadly.

Our next stop is the Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum).  We get the audio tour and also download the app that covers the special & permanent exhibitions.  We start in the special exhibit “My Name is Cohen” (from Nov 24, 2011 – March 11, 2012).  Through a series of photographs and texts about twenty Amsterdam residents who share their last name, Cohen, we learn about their Jewish identities.  I remember one person who said “Amsterdam’s been a melting pot of faiths and peoples for centuries, and that’s how it should stay.  Me, I’m a world citizen born in a Jewish body.”   Reading the texts triggered so many reactions ranging from freedom of religion & tolerance, the future of Judaism and if I had been interviewed what would I have said?  This exhibit could easily be used as a springboard for in depth contemplation and discussion.  I feel stirrings of thoughts, but it’s time to walk through the permanent exhibition.  So, we continue on!

On the ground floor we enter the Great Synagogue and the exhibit focuses on Jewish religion and tradition.  Ceremonial objects are on display.  On the second floor galleries of the Great Synagogue (where the women would traditionally sit), the history of the Jews in the Netherlands from 1600-1900 is presented.  There are stories about the first Jews to come to the Netherlands, about assimilation and integration, cultural interchange with non-Jews and the preservation of their Jewish identity.  Two people stand out for me:  the philosopher Baruch Spinoza who was critical of theology and believed in individual freedom of belief  and Shabbeti Zvi who said he was the Messiah and many congregants believed him and sent money, but he later converted to Islam. 

There was another section on Jewish history in Amsterdam from 1900 to present day, but I will admit that I walked through but I don’t remember any of it!  Harvey asked me to take a particular photo of a man and if it were not for the photograph, I wouldn’t remember seeing it.  I must have been on overload at that point.  It’s early afternoon and we have already gained so much food for thought.  It’s time to feed our tummies.  We take a break at the café in the museum with delicious hot soup and bread.

We bundle up in our coats and take a short brisk walk to the Portuguese Synagogue and learn that we need to pay for admission at the Jewish Historical Museum, so we get some extra walking in the crisp air and that is welcome.  We walk into the Portuguese Synagogue that has been in use since 1675, and I am struck by the beautiful space – the woodwork and chandeliers.  Harvey & Karen take a break and sit on one of the benches and notice that there are locked sections under the seats that they think store prayer books.   There are candlelit concerts here but unfortunately none are being offered during our stay.  It would have been a very special experience.

Our next stop is the Dutch Resistance Museum (Versetsmuseum).   Between 1940 and 1945, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. This museum looks at the Dutch response and centers around three themes:  adjust, collaborate, resist.  Through many personal stories, there is a vivid sense of what it was like to live in those times. It also compelled me to question what choice I would have made at that time and what choices do I make now – the fragility of democracy and my personal responsibility in dealing with discrimination and intolerance.

It has been a “moving” day.  It has been a day of questions, more questions and then more questions.  Challenging.    So much food for thought.

So there we are thinking of food for our tummies again.  It’s natural to want to take a break – but it could also be that after all these exhibits we need food to comfort us?  We are so incredibly fortunate to live in a tolerant democratic country.  I feel so grateful that my life has been free of the experiences that we have learned about today.

Walking back to our hotel, we stop into a few stores looking for some cheese & crackers for our late afternoon happy hour back at the hotel.  We finally walk into an Albert Heijn supermarket that has a wide selection of Dutch cheeses.  The person behind the counter is so helpful pointing out his favorite cheeses, describing each so that they sound scrumptious and offering tasting samples.  We settle on “Old Amsterdam” and another one that has only “3 Jr Ger” in my notes, both hard cheeses with lots of flavor.    The cheese was pretty expensive but the staff person suggests that we use a “bonus” card from someone in line to get some savings.  To our surprise, as we are waiting in line at check-out, the person in front of us actually offers the use of his card, saving us maybe about 50 cents.  These two people made our cheese shopping a fun experience and we received small kindnesses by them both.  It’s funny that when all is said and done about visiting a place, it is often these chance encounters with people that I remember the most.  I wish I had taken their photos & will try to remember this in future encounters.

When we arrive back at Hotel Fita, we discuss dinner options with Roel and choose a French Restaurant, Bouf, at Van Baerlestraat 51 (, in easy walking distance from the hotel.  Roel makes dinner reservations for us and we join Barry & Karen in their room for our happy hour.   We settle in with the Glenlivet scotch whisky and wine that we purchased at the duty free shop in Miami International Airport and the recently purchased cheese & crackers.  We start with a toast of “L’Chaim”, to life, and chat about the day and this & that.  It’s time to just relax together

We top the day off with a delicious dinner at Restaurant Boeff, a cozy French restaurant.  Along with a bottle of wine, we enjoy main dishes of beef, monkfish, scallops and a salad with goat cheese.

                                                                                                 “Yield and overcome;
                                                                                                   bend and be straight;
                                                                                                   empty and be full;
                                                                                                   wear out and be new;
                                                                                                   have little and gain;
                                                                                                   have much and be confused.
                                                                                                                                    –Lao Tzu
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