Eventually I could not take it anymore. I had spent the last hour peering through glass cases containing heart-wrenching artifacts. Here, a postcard to “Auntie” and “Uncle”, from children separated and hidden for their own good, letting their parents know in code that they are safe for now and enjoying life in the country.
There, a pair of gloves worn by a little girl, Mary, to her big sister’s wedding that takes place just before the young couple is sent away for “labour”. In another glass case, a selection of small crayon drawings that any seven year-old might make to their school friend, with a bright yellow sun and the bluest of skies. These all turn out to be last momentoes. The type-written cards beside the glass cases explain how the previous owners of these little samples of real life were eventually taken by the Nazis, and murdered in the network of Greater Germany’s concentration camp system. In fact, I realize later that the young married couple were on the same transport to Auschwitz as my mom’s cousin, Alfred, in September 1942. Mary of the gloves and her parents follow later on another transport to Sobibor in April 1943, which happens to be the same one taken by my great-uncle Maurits and his wife Rachel, Alfred’s mama and papa…
Such was my sad and eerie experience in a couple of Holocaust memorial museums that had opened on the Plantage Middenlaan (central avenue of the Plantage District) since I had been there last. One building, once a teachers’ training college, was used by resistance workers during World War II to smuggle some 600 children out of captivity and get them to relatively safe hiding places but often to no avail, as I was sad to realize.
Across the street was the infamous Hollandse Schouwburg, a theater akin to Paris’ Velo d’Hiver, where Jews slated for deportation were gathered securely, sometimes for days, before being led off in large groups to Amsterdam’s train stations. From Amsterdam Centraal or Muiderport, they went off to oblivion. Now the theater is a memorial center for these lost souls, and I find my great-uncle Maurit’s family-name, Schaap, and his mother’s maiden-name, Calo, on the memorial. Unlike the Portuguese Synagogue that I had just visited, I was sad to realize that it was very likely they came through here to wait for the very same trains with all the others. Those others who left the mementos in the glass cases.
Indeed, both places weighed heavily on my heart. Perhaps it was seeing these artifacts in the glass cases, making the humanity and the loss of so many young children just too real, too close. Whatever it was, I decided it was too much for me on this day, my last in Amsterdam. I needed to do something lighter.
Being lunchtime, I decided to head for a pannekoek (Dutch pancake) restaurant I had researched the evening before. It was just a short twenty- minute walk through winding old streets and a large market area, with pannekoeken waiting for me at the end. This I hoped would lighten my mood, and, I am glad to report, it very much did.
The Upstairs Pannekoekenhuis is well named. Located in one of those typical, narrow, steeply-staired Amsterdam houses, this specimen from 1539 is fronted by a sign at the door, which simply points up. Way up!
I had to pause just as I got to the door, which itself even had a short ladder-like flight of stairs up to it, as I noticed a couple coming down the interior stairs, which being so narrow are essentially one way only. This also meant I was in luck, for as I rose to the top and entered the restaurant, I could see they only had four tiny tables, one having just been vacated! I quickly found out that customers often reserve months in advance to get a table at this little place, which is maybe 200 square feet (including the stairs). This was the subject of discussion of the American family sitting at two tables together at the front window, right where my table was. They were a large group of about eight, so they had booked weeks earlier to be able to partake in this Dutch delicacy at this place they had heard about on travel blogs. I felt lucky that my wife and son had gone off on their own, as the miracle of my just showing up and getting seated became more apparent. One of the benefits of dining alone, is that you can almost always get in!
Indeed the place has been featured on many a blog, and apparently on TV as well. The bald-headed gentleman in the photo above is the owner-proprietor who has run the tiny but thriving business for about 30 years, and he regaled us with tales of the TV shows and famous personalities who had dined there. It was a lighthearted luncheon after my morning of gloom, and it took my mind so completely off matters that I cannot even quite remember what kind of pannekoek I had. I do remember that I liked it!
For the uninitiated: pannekoeken are large diameter (12 inches or so) but relatively thin pancakes, onto which the Dutch will pile just about anything that takes your fancy. Sweet or savory!
Here was a quintessential Dutch experience: walking up a treacherous flight of stairs into a little restaurant based in an antique house to be well-fed, to enjoy the company of strangers, and to gaze especially at all of those teapots and cups hooked onto the ceiling mere inches from your head!
After paying up and nodding a farewell to the Americans, I descended down and into the streets of the old city, into the Rokin neighborhood, and made my way to wander through the summer afternoon of my last full day in The Netherlands, contemplating the shades of history: light and dark.