The cobblestone streets glitter bright with silver from last night’s rain. It’s eight a.m., but the city is nearly dead. We cross a narrow walking bridge, and I hear the water from the canals rush by under our feet. Houseboats dot the docks like stars, and bicycles litter the sidewalks. Narrow, Dutch Gothic-style houses rise tall, crowding the sky with their step gables. Cherry-brick buildings alternate between medieval, black wooden ones. Creamy mortar laces through the structures, keeping the tilting buildings from falling into the watery abyss. The scent of seawater wafts from the ocean, filling space with a briny alkalinity. The sun winks down at us, weaving between pockets in the clouds. This air feels heavy and chill, sodden with perspiration and the past. The streets sag under thousands of years gone by.
“Amsterdam lies 15 feet underwater. You see that tall building over there? That would be completely, uh…how do you say? Oh yes. Submerged. Everyone in The Lowlands resents us. You see, they pay very high taxes to maintain the locks that regulate the canal water levels in this city. But luckily, they’re good citizens; otherwise, Amsterdam would be swallowed by the sea.” Michael, our tour guide, recites cheerily in impressive English edged in a Dutch accent. A warm, enthusiastic energy radiates from his six-foot-three-inch frame. My mom and I trail in the wake of his confident steps on this empty bridge. He turns back toward us and smiles, slight wrinkles forming around his eyes. Though in his late 60s, he’s spry as a teenager, and we struggle to keep up with the eight-mile tour through the city’s old quarters.
“I like Americans, but especially New Yorkers. You New Yorkers have a black-and-white viewpoint much like Amsterdammers.” Michael chatters, unzipping his navy coat as the day is heating to a balmy 50 degrees. He turns toward my mom. “Your last name’s Ozsvath. Hungarian origins, I assume?”
“Yes,” she replies as the sound trickles into the narrow alleyway we squeeze through. Purple strands in her dark hair glint, matching amethyst-colored glasses encrusted with rhinestones. An emerald sign with a white banner and a red star smiles down at us while we walk by yet another Heineken bar.
“Jewish origins?” he casually adds.
My head whips up, and I’m glad his back is to me as my face registers shock. Jewish…? How did he know? I understand Europeans can sometimes tell…but I don’t think I look particularly Jewish. Also, our names aren’t Jewish at all. Elizabeth Bernardini. And my mom’s is Kathleen Ozsvath. Kathleen is a Catholic name and her father, Ozsvath, was a Calvinist. Frowning, I pick my necklace up into my fingers. A small pendant with a cursive “E” rests on a fine silver chain. As the sun hits it, it casts a shadow onto the sidewalk. I swear for a second that the shadow coming off of the “E” is a Star of David, stretched out in cool gray pools of darkness. An uneasy pit sinks in my stomach since I’m not keen on flashing my Jewish identity in anti-Semitic-seeped Europe.
“Yes, we are of Jewish origins.” My mom answers slowly after a long pause.
“Jewish. That means you’re either a doctor or lawyer?” Michael queries. Whoa. I’m so glad it’s 2019, and we have dropped all stereotypes whatsoever. Looking over at him, there’s no trace of animosity or superiority, just inquiry. And ironically enough, he’s guessed correctly.
“I am a doctor, a vascular surgeon.”
He lights up. “That makes sense! Surgeons can’t be…‘washing-wash?’”
I let out a nervous giggle. “You mean ‘wishy-washy?’”
“Ah, yes! ‘Wishy-washy.’ I need to write these down.”
“Maybe Europeans have a sort of refined Jew-dar? Like a radar for Jews.” I murmur to my mom. She snorts.
“You’ll want to see this.” Michael calls as we pause in a courtyard, under clusters of ash trees. An H&M storefront is across the street next to a lively café with wicker furniture on a patio out front. I reach a wide, stone pillar in the center of the courtyard, with dust crumbling off in the swift breeze. Embedded in the column are two glass structures at eye level. They are glass tears. A paragraph of writing lies underneath the tears, scrawled in Dutch and in an ice-blue color. I can make out one word of 10 lines—Gestapo. “This was the area where the Gestapo of the Schutzstaffel, or S.S., had their headquarters. You know, the Nazi Party command post in Amsterdam,” he says soberly. “This statue of tears is the memorial built to honor those who were lost. Eighty years ago, this courtyard wasn’t a good place to be as a Jew.”
I glance over at the H&M, the café. Breathing deeply, I inhale the sweet, honeyed scent of stroopwafels, and I can taste the delicious, flaking wafers of the traditional Dutch dessert from a nearby bakery. Returning back to the tears, I notice something I didn’t before. Rainwater from last night still remains on the frosty glass, slowly sliding down. It’s as if the sky was crying, too.
My mom pensively eyes this monument. Can she also hear black boots punching the ground on this sunny street? Can she also taste the acrid bitterness of cigarettes dangling from plump lips? Can she also smell the fear of civilians scuttling by, hands shaking with their identification papers? Can she also touch their stone cold expressions, feel their silky blond buzzcuts and steely eyes? Can she also see that it’s 1940 again and that people are trembling and that the sky is crying and that it won’t ever stop?
I close my eyes. I open them again. I look once again at the bakery, the café, the H&M. It’s 2019, and Michael dives deeper into solemnity. Leaning up against a bench he states, “We Dutch aren’t proud of our history.”
“Well, you don’t have very much to be proud of,” my mom replies quietly, darkly.
“No, we don’t,” he agrees. “You know, the Netherlands had the most volunteers to the S.S. that any other country occupied by Hitler. We had 50,000 Dutchmen willingly sign up to the Nazi Party and work in the party. Ukraine came in second place with 2,500 volunteers.”
The breeze picks up to a stronger wind, and I look toward the sky again. It’s still sunny, but slivers of cumulus loaded with raindrops ominously remain.
Michael zips up his coat again and the fur lining his hood ruffles. “Now the next question is, why? Why did this happen in our country, and how? How did so many men join? Well, I have some theories. You see us Dutch, we are OCD. OCD, that’s correct, yes?” He looks at us expectantly as we nod. “Especially in Amsterdam. Remember the constant threat of being swallowed by the sea? This has ingrained in us an obsessive trait where we need to control things. We control small aspects of life because in reality, our survival is completely out of our hands. For example, in my house, if there’s a decoration, it’s a simple vase of tulips. And it is always in the exact center of a table by the windows. Sometimes, I’ll move the vase an inch, and every time I come back to it, the flowers have been moved back into the exact center by my wife or sons.”
We begin walking again, headed toward the Rijksmuseum, the national museum. “Back then,” Michael continues, “the Germans rolled in, I believe 1940. And they were very attractive. They were tall, blond and blue-eyed—they looked like us. They appreciated neatness, and were also perfectionists—like us. With their nice crisp green uniforms with starched collars. Everything perfect. They would drink beer, smile and laugh in cafés—like us. Oh, and the Nazis talked to all the beautiful girls, too!”
He sighs deeply, and almost grimaces for a second before slowly picking up again. Looking us straight in the eyes, he utters, “My father. My father joined the Nazi Party and became a Gestapo in the S.S. He told me all of this, how easy it was. I was just a kid, hearing everything. My father said to me, “I wanted to be like them! With neat uniforms, and camaraderie. To drink beer with them. And the girls, too! I didn’t think about it. I just signed up.” When ordinary people like my father put on that green frock, they were a part of something bigger than themselves for the first time. They were important, powerful. Visible. Now please don’t take this the wrong way. What I have said is not an excuse at all! There is nothing in the world that could justify what happened. But I’m just trying to shed some light on why things happened the way they did. Anyway, speaking of light.” He grabs a pair of Ray-Bans from his pocket and slips them on. I do the same when I realize how the brightening sun has been pinching at my eyes.
“I am a historian,” Michael declares. “It’s what I went to school for, what I do for a living, what I love. It would be a disservice if I ignored parts of history, left them out. Even the ugliest and dirtiest of times. The ones we most want to forget. We must expose them, bring them to light, yes?” He gestures up toward the sunlight and increasingly cloudless day. We reach the Rijksmuseum.
“To light,” he repeats with a small smile.
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