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Talking Location with Hendrika de Vries – Amsterdam (WW2)

9th September 2019

#TalkingLocationWith… Hendrika de Vries, author of When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew

My Amsterdam

The author walking with her fatherThe city of Amsterdam, for most people today, conjures up images of a bustling city bursting at the seams with bicyclists and backpacking young tourists in search of coffee shops that serve pot, tours of a seamy Red Light district, and sunny outdoor cafes where every language spoken on the planet can be heard.  A city of tolerance, freedom and individual expression where the girl in the headscarf can walk arm in arm with the girl in short shorts and tattooed bare midriff. But the Amsterdam where I was born and spent my childhood years, the city I write about in my memoir When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew presented a darker image.

It was a city dominated by hatred and oppression. Rolled barbed wire barriers blocked the neighborhood near the Portuguese Synagogue where I had walked with my dad before he was taken away and my mother joined the Resistance.

Armed soldiers stopped people at random to demand identity papers as they hunted for those they deemed inferior. Freedoms we took for granted had been extinguished, and those who resisted had to go underground or were killed.

But it’s precisely that dual history –– the long historic mix of freedom and oppression countered by a fierce resistance, that makes Amsterdam so unique. It may be popular for its tolerance and sexual freedom, but it’s a resistance to oppression that pumps its heart and soul.

Dam Square then and now…

I was a little girl when Nazi troops occupied my city.  Armed members of the Gestapo, the secret German police forces, raided our homes. They rounded up Jewish people to be sent to death camps, able-bodied Dutch men to work in labor camps, and executed those who dared to disobey or disagree.  It was World War II, a war that lasted five long years and turned beautiful Amsterdam into a city of death and starvation.  In the final months, its trees, wooden park benches and even wooden stairways from homes and apartment buildings were torn down by desperate men and women looking for warmth in what came to be called the Hunger Winter, when 20,000 people died of cold and starvation.

Years later, after I had moved to the United States and was writing about my memories, I revisited my old home, situated just a few blocks from the famous Anne Frank house. I walked the familiar cobblestoned streets where neighbors had betrayed neighbors and strangers risked their lives for strangers.  Once a working class neighborhood, it had now morphed into an upscale artsy area with boutiques and trendy small museums.

Amsterdam has always held the polarities that plague our human condition, the old and the new, the dark and the light of history. Perhaps that is what draws the hordes of tourists (yes, even the mayor of Amsterdam says that there are too many of them) to this city where 17thcentury homes lean precariously over the canals where houseboats now sport trendy names and spring flowers.

Oppression and resistance, embodied in the title of my memoir, came straight out of my experience of being an Amsterdam native. Even my website reflects that odd duality – it is meant to link to my memoir and photos of a girl’s childhood in World War II, but it occasionally yields more titillating websites that bring a smile to the faces of my tolerant friends and colleagues. Amsterdam, no matter how friendly or playful, hides a natural wolf–like fierceness that resists passive obedience.   Like the waxing and waning moon the light and dark are part of a whole in this beautiful city’s complicated history.

In the midst of the darkest period of our 20thcentury history, the voice of a young girl named Anne Frank survived the darkness, and Amsterdam erected a statue to the voice of courage and tolerance that survived her murder.  The home where she hid, the place where goodness and evil collided, is visited by millions of people each year.

On another canal, an unremarkable stately home hides a secret church in the attic where Catholics worshipped in defiance of 17thcentury Protestant intolerance. Now a museum, “Our Lord in the Attic” also celebrates the power of resistance and resilience that courses through the history of this city.

Hidden church

In writing my memoir I had to revisit my own experience of the nearness of tyranny to freedom.  On the day Amsterdam was liberated in May 1945, my mother and I joined the jubilant crowd on the Dam Square in front of the palace.  Waving the red, white and blue flags of The Netherlands and orange banners of the Monarchy, folks joined hands and danced to celebrate freedom.  Suddenly gunshots interrupted our joyful abandon.  My mother and I ran for our lives when German soldiers who were not ready to give up their weapons killed more than thirty people in a mass shooting.

Many years later, I stroll through my city and sit down at a café on Rembrandt square. I sip a glass of wine near the bronze sculptures that represent a 3D tableau of Rembrandt’s controversial painting the Night Watch.  And I am reminded of the watchfulness needed to guard the freedoms we so enjoy.  I raise my glass and whisper a prayer of gratitude for the untold acts of resistance and courage that have molded this remarkable city.

Rembrandt 3D Night Watch


Thank you to Hendrika de Vries, author of When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew – a memoir of the author’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Follow her on Facebook and you can of course buy her book through TripFiction.

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