curiosity about the ways of the world

What are we stumbling into? Messages of hope and fear from Amsterdam

Children play football in the sharp spring sunshine, bright voices bouncing round the walls of close-packed tenement housing.  We have reached the right place.

An ordinary neighbourhood for people living ordinary family lives: going to school, catching trams to work, buying bread in the corner shop.  You have to look carefully to find evidence of deadly disruption, the brutal destruction of ordinary human decency. We found it on our last day in Amsterdam. 

Here it is.  The Frank family home. Not the famous hiding place attracting thousands of visitors in the city centre.  This is where Otto, Edith and their two daughters Margot and Anne lived. Peacefully among their neighbours until Hitler found a final solution to neighbourliness.  Fear the ‘other’.

We might well have walked past it but for the modest memorial set into the pavement at our feet. Stumbled upon. Four cobbles burnished with brass plaques.  Otto Frank and Edith Frank, Margot and Anne Frank: 

Four cobbles with burnished plaques, one for each of the Frank family: Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne

Ondergedoken (in hiding) 1942-1944.  Edith, vermoord (murdered) in Auschwitz 1945. Margot and Anne, vermoord 1945, in Belsen aged 19 and 15.

I kneel down, fumbling in my pocket, to take a picture on my phone. Still kneeling, as if in homage perhaps, I look up to see a grey-haired man looking down from the window of this otherwise anonymous home.  A look exchanged between strangers. He nods in recognition. And we walk on.

Eyes open

Stumbling stones, Stolpersteine, a quietly inspired idea by German artist Gunter Denmig. Since 1992, these discreet monuments to the 11 million victims of National Socialism across Europe have played a part in turning nameless numbers into real people, names and dates of birth and death recorded outside the doors of ‘their last address of choice’.

We had been introduced to the stones a few days earlier by Jonathan (Joe) Rouah, a guide on the Anne Frank Tour.  Once you get your eye in, you see stolpersteine in many streets and squares. Our Amsterdam week (booked before the Brexit breather) is in many ways an eye-opener, an odd mix of interwoven choice and chance, hope and fear.

By choice we had opted for an apartment in the residential south side, knowing nothing of local history but noting with curiosity the Anne Frank Montessori school as we trundled our wheely bags through the streets, next day finding an Anne Frank statue in a small park near the local bakery.

“Yes, of course, that’s where the Frank family lived,” says Joe when we mention it to him on the guided tour.  Rivierenbuurt was an area where many Jewish families settled when they arrived in Amsterdam, fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s.

By choice we had opted for the walking tour rather than the Anne Frank House, on the advice of a friend.  “The house is really a museum, very busy, you probably get a better sense of Jewish life in Amsterdam on the tour”.

Tolerance is a nuanced word

It’s a good choice.  Joe is the best kind of guide – himself a newcomer, in love with the city but not blinded by it, a whimsical observer of social and political history.  As a young graphic artist from Marseilles, he chose to move here and acknowledges the reputation for friendly welcome and tolerance.  “But tolerance is a word with nuanced meaning,” he says by way of introduction, our small group surrounded by synagogues which once served a Jewish population of around 80,000. By 1945 eighty per cent of them had been killed.

Nuance rings a bell. By chance, I’m travelling with The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es, the story of a young Jewish girl in Holland, hidden and raised by foster parents during the Nazi occupation.  “This is a country of tolerance,” he writes, “letting others get on with things…this makes the Netherlands progressive. But could it also explain why the Germans were so often allowed to act as they did?”

The Anne Frank walk ends by the museum on Prinsengracht.  “It’s become a bit of a shrine, and that’s a good thing, I think,” says Joe, “I am afraid we need it, we need to keep remembering”. 

By chance, a day earlier exploring the reinvention of Amsterdam Noord shipyard, we met Anne Frank smiling from a monumental mural ‘Let me be myself’ by Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra. Her diary, it seems, is the most-read book among young people in Brazil.

Let me be myself, monumental image of Anne Frank on an old welding shed door in Amsterdam Noord. The work of Brazilian graffiti artists Eduardo Kobra

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. Anne Frank

Echoes of another time

What are we stumbling into?  How can we have been so careless? By choice or chance? For the rest of the week we walk, sometimes a little dazed, with Brexit breaking news. It seems to carry echoes of another time when populist opportunists arose from recession to destroy human decency.

The far right has made inroads in the Netherlands too, with no pretence of tolerance. It’s difficult to fit that electoral reality with the friendly, welcoming and prosperous city we see around us. Cyclists easy-riding through clean streets, public transport running on time, families at leisure in green spaces, not a beggar to be seen.  And indeed the Green party made midterm advances here: ‘Amsterdam is truly a leftist bubble’ tweeted DutchReview (a magazine for expats).

On a sunny Sunday morning we take a last walk round the neighbourhood, reluctant to be returning to our unhappy homeland (Scotland voted comfortably to Remain in Europe but that only adds to the frustration we feel in our divided, divisive politics).  

Hope and fear

Rivierenbuurt ( ‘Rivers Neighbourhood’) feels a well-settled place. It was built in the 1920s for the middle classes, to a design by Hendrik Petrus Berlage – he stands, a Lenin-like statue, overlooking his work.

Master builder: Hendrik Petrus Berlage.

The neighbourhood appealed to many Jewish families escaping Nazi Germany. Including Otto Frank, who moved here with Edith, Margot and Anne, to establish a business selling spices and pectin for jam making in a traditional canal-side building in Prinsengracht. Behind the shop, which Otto had shrewdly made over to ‘Aryan staff’, was where they hid for two years until discovery in August 1944.

Otto Frank survived Auschwitz . He died in 1980 at the age of 91. When he returned to Amsterdam in 1945 he found all his family and friends had perished. But his colleague Miep Gies had saved Anne’s diary.

We turn a corner and find the bookshop where Otto bought the diary for his daughter. The shop is closed on Sunday but there are photographs and letters in the window. It is an extraordinary story, inspiring horror and hope.

In the green park around Anne’s statue young boys play football. Their laughter echoes around Merwedeplein square. And that feels right. Today I find another painful, poignant echo in the words of Anne Frank.

As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad? Anne Frank

Anne Frank statue, a small figure casts a long shadow

Correction: in earlier versions, I gave Anne’s age as 16 – a miscalculation. She is thought to have perished from an outbreak of typhus at the Belsen concentration camp. The stolperstein gives the date of her death as March 1945. Her 16th birthday would have been 12 June.


  1. fay

    Adding a postscript after attending tonight’s deeply moving talk by Bart van Es in the Edinburgh Book Festival.

    His book is The Cut Out Girl (about the life of a young Jewish girl taken into hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands).

    The book is timely, he agreed with his host Jane Fowler. Our democratic system is vulnerable in times of rapid change and economic stress. “Democracy is not just about voting.” He sees chilling similarities in populist rhetoric and public attitudes between 2019 and 1940.

  2. fay

    Thank you Tim, I really appreciate your comment.

  3. Tim Robertson

    A moving and insightful piece – thank you so much.

    Tim Robertson
    Chief Exec
    Anne Frank Trust UK

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