The Dark and The Light of Amsterdam


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.

Dear uncle and aunti- how are things with you. It is so nice here…

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.

The National Holocaust Museum, once a teachers’ college

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!

The stairs to Upstairs…

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!

From my table at the Upstairs Pannekoek Huis in Amsterdam

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.

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Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue

I know so very little about her, my great-grandmother, Vrouwtje Schaap-Calo. During this trip to The Netherlands, I discover from my cousin that she preferred to go by the name Flora. In fact, my cousin’s mother shared this name, likely inheriting it from her. Another inheritance from Flora, which was hidden from us by well-meaning grandparents and parents and discovered by me and my cousins only recently, is our Jewish heritage.


Vrouwtje “Flora” Calo ca. 1920

I also discover on this trip that Flora and her husband Emanuel had identified as members of the Portuguese Israeli community, perhaps even descending from the Sephardim, the Jews who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 and founded communities elsewhere in Europe, including religiously-tolerant Amsterdam. In the late 1600’s the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam built a new synagogue, a large square building harkening back to the Temple of Solomon. A few years after her husband’s death in 1916 in Nijmegen, Flora eventually came to live nearby in the Plantage district, less than a 10-minute walk away from this historic religious site. Would Flora have been drawn to the synagogue? It was a place I had to see.


Main entrance to the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam- photo by the author

The building is indeed large and imposing on the outside but yields to an interior that feels spacious yet paradoxically close and communal. Natural light pours in through huge windows to illuminate dark wooden fixtures such as the Torah Ark and the rows of benches.


Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue- photo by author

As I explore the hushed building, I ponder if Flora truly ever came here.


Did she walk through the ladies’ entry at the back, climb the stairs as I do now, and take a seat in the upper gallery? Women did not sit with the men folk but viewed the proceedings from above.


Did she watch the men shuffle quietly along the main floor below, which is still spread with a fine coating of sand to muffle footsteps,  finding their place along the hard wooden benches?

Did she watch as they perhaps produce a key and unlock the compartment underneath their portion of bench to take out a prayer shawl or fancy top hat, something special to wear on Yom Kippur? Eighty years later, I stand in front of those same benches and hear on the audio guide how the synagogue had to force open many of those locked compartments after the war and empty the contents. So many of the owners had never returned from Sobibor or Treblinka or Auschwitz.


Did she come here in the winter months, with the days that are short and dark, the interior solely lit by candles, even as it is now on such evenings. Did she silently contemplate her life in the quiet and beauty of the darkness? Did she ponder the meaning of a world in which her children and grandchildren were cut off from her for their own protection? Did she have any idea how it would all end….for her, for her family, for humanity…


Photo of the candlelit interior of the Esnoga by Massimo Catarinella

I walk around the entire complex, for it is not just the synagogue but also includes a bathing chamber, a sukkah, a treasury, council offices and other historical and contemporary offices. Somehow, I do get the sense that she was here. Perhaps it is just an overactive imagination and the proximity of her residence to this place. On the face of it, it seems an obvious connection. But none of our remaining family knows. Perhaps we will never know.

In the gift shop I struggle to decide what I could take away to remind me of this place and the connection to my Jewish heritage. Picture books or postcards do not really do justice to the sense of the place or the connection to my past. I think back to my sense of reverence at the Kwakkenberg Cemetery in Nijmegen just a few days earlier, and the need I felt to follow the tradition of wearing a head covering on the holy ground as I visited the grave of my great-grandfather, Emanuel. I buy a simple sand-colored kippa, for his memory and for Flora’s…and for mine.

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Before I went on my trip to Europe in 2015, I had lunch a couple of times with a good Polish friend of mine. Although my main purpose in Poland would be a daunting visit to Auschwitz, I would be staying in Krakow a couple of days, so I asked Przemek for some basic tourist information along with a few useful phrases of the language. I didn’t want to seem like too much of a tourist, stammering out even the most fundamental phrases in pidgin English. Besides, it is a great way to introduce oneself to a new culture, even if only slightly. If I could pronounce a name like, Przemek, surely I could handle a couple of more key phrases.

But when we came to the phrase for, “Thank you”, which is “Dziękuję Ci”, I seemed to have some sort of tongue-twisting mental block. “Dziękuję Ci” is phonetically pronounced “jen-kooyah chi”, but for me it often tumbled out in error as “jow-jenkies or ju-jinkies”. Przemek and I laughed at how this sounded like Velma from Scooby-Doo. Wasn’t this her catch-phrase that she would exclaim in the midst of a crazy turning point in their fictional adventures?!

velma_20_scooby-doo_Not to let such a simple phrase of courtesy escape me, I decided to practice it until I got it down pat, yet I never seemed to be able to consistently remember it! From time to time before I arrived in Poland, I would mentally practice in my mind: “Come on, Ian! Jen-kooyah! Not jow-jenkies!…Geez. Jen-kooyah…Jen-kooyah…Jen-kooyah…” I gave up even worrying about the “chi” part.



The moment of truth finally rolled around. On a spring afternoon in early May, I left Berlin‘s Südkreuz bus loop on a Deutsche-Bahn bus bound for Krakow via Wrocław and Kattowice.

My seatmate was an attractive young lady; a student I supposed, perhaps traveling home from studies in Berlin. We never actually spoke during the whole journey, but she must have supposed, correctly, that I was a tourist and probably English speaking.



The bus ride was at once familiar yet unfamiliar. Although traveling through a distant land, the freeway between the southeastern Germany city of Cottbus and Poland’s Wrocław, once the German city of Breslau, was in many ways just like the I-5 in central Oregon. Farms with bright-yellow blooms of canola painted the countryside. And yet, the vehicles and the road signs were distinctly European. Alike but not quite.

When the young student got off the bus at Wrocław, she turned to me and smiled, “Have a nice holiday.” Her English was perfect.

“Jow-jenkies!” I answered confidently but immediately recognized my mistake in what should have been my well-rehearsed moment of triumph.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Oh…I mean..’thank you’. How do you say it in Polish again?”

“”Dziękuję Ci,” she smiled politely and was gone.

“Well,” I thought to myself. “That went as well as could be expected; didn’t it, Grommet?” I stared out the window at the ruins of what used to be called Breslau, shaking my head. I gave up on Polish for the rest of the trip.



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