When I arrived in Amsterdam, I was looking forward to its “live and let live reputation.” But what impressed me the most about Amsterdam is the sheer number of bicycles. For the most part, they are utilitarian and unesthetic: Sturdy bicycles, barely distinguishable from one another except for the rider. Most bicycles are used for commuting; most are “basic black” with thick wheels, old-fashioned handlebars, and no hand gears. They may have baskets or headlights, but most do not. In a city inhabited by about 750,000 residents, it’s estimated that there are 1,000,000 bicycles – more if you count the bicycles resting in watery graves on the floor of the city’s extensive canals.
“Sunday bicycles” – the bicycles residents maintain separately from the bicycles that are used for commuting– are likely to be more expensive, individualistic, and better maintained than the basic black ones used to commute. One brightly colored, Sunday bicycle that I observed was being lovingly adorned with flowers and other expressions of personality.
At least in the center of the city, bicycles seem to be the pulse that propels people from one destination to another. Children riding on handlebars, women riding on back fenders, men in business suits, and women in heels adorn the understated bicycles of Amsterdam – not the other way around. Elderly residents appear either to ride them or gaze at them as one would look at a photograph of an earlier time. Helmets are rare despite the fact that bicyclists weave among electric trams, cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians at high speeds and in uncomfortably close proximity. Many bicyclists seem oblivious to traffic signs or the designs of pedestrians, weaving in and out of traffic and bicycle lanes at their convenience. It is bicycles that pose the biggest hazard to unwary pedestrians in city central Amsterdam, not the cars or trams as I had expected.
Still for all their dependency on bicycles, the people of Amsterdam do not seem particularly attached to commuting bicycles and often unceremoniously abandon them when their usefulness is finished — or toss them into a nearby canal when no one is watching. It’s joked that the canals are filled one-third with silt, one-third with water, and one-third with abandoned bicycles. The city dredges the canals for bicycles routinely and it is not uncommon to see an occasional barge unceremoniously hauling the wet, rusted, and skeletal remains of Amsterdam’s bicycles to final resting places outside the city’s consciousness.
As for its people, Amsterdam’s city center residents are unpretentiously friendly, attractive, and many are effortlessly fluent in English. The city is relaxed, clean, and electric. In its city central, the residents tend to be younger – a twenty-something or thirty-something crowd that works hard, parties harder, and is always on the move. I rarely observed senior residents in the central neighborhoods we frequented, except for tourists. The absence of older residents in the neighborhoods we frequented haunted me in a way I do not fully understand.
If the city center is the heart of Amsterdam, then the people who live here reflect Amsterdam’s public conscience – a conflicted collage of collectively acceptable behavior. Lean, fit, and active, healthy young adults unhesitantly light up cigarettes in Amsterdam’s neighborhood bars and cafes without apparent regard for smoking’s long-term effect. Others reverently burn candles in those areas of Christian churches that haven’t been turned into museums; churches that are located within walking distance of Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District isn’t known for its red lights. It’s that part of the city where certain drugs and prostitution are legal. Prostitutes lounge in windows resembling near-naked mannequins – wearing their timeless, calculated expressions like old opera masks. Young prostitutes masquerade as older ones, while older prostitutes masquerade as younger ones. Coffee houses sell more than coffee and are not to be confused with cafes. Nothing is as it seems in the Red Light District of Amsterdam and as daylight fades, a subtle shift occurs from curious to committed — from somewhat safe to somewhat dangerous. Like any urban center, Amsterdam is not free of crime and predators own the night in many areas.
Although it’s late August, the weather here has hovered around 60 degrees Fahrenheit since we arrived and people are curiously dressed, as you would expect them to dress in the upper United States during November. Black leather jackets, scarves, low-cut boots, and sweaters are a staple of young adults here, along with large umbrellas. It clouds over and rains several times each day and occasionally there is the rumble of thunder and an intense downpour. Then, as if to tease, the skies will clear, the sun will shine, and puddles of glistening rainwater will warm. Umbrellas will be shaken, closed, and put away but they are always kept within close reach; the weather can change without warning and it does so often.
Since arriving in Amsterdam we’ve walked many miles each day, supplementing our walks with an occasional tram assist or canal boat ride. The lines to enter Anne Frank’s “house” are stretched for city blocks in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of the city. This is the site where Anne Frank’s family unsuccessfully hid to avoid deportation to concentration camps during Germany’s Nazi-occupation of Amsterdam. It is difficult to imagine these prosperous and welcoming neighborhoods in the iron grip of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but the Nazi experience remains raw here and it continues to shape Amsterdam’s public policies today.
Germany’s SS and Nazi Party had a strong presence in Amsterdam during the 1940s. Their efforts to register and hunt Jews in Amsterdam were tenacious. By 1941, the general registration of men, women and children with at lease one Jewish grandparent had been voluntarily accomplished. Nazi authorities determined from these lists that there were about 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam at the beginning of 1941– representing about 10% of the city’s total population. Despite the fact that Amsterdam’s general population possessed relatively little anti-Jewish sentiment, beginning in 1942 eighty percent of Amsterdam’s registered Jews were deported first to the Buchenwald concentration camp and then to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Some were deported to Auschwitz. Few survived to return home.
It is said that the arrests and brutal treatment of its Jewish population shocked most residents of Amsterdam and that strikes were organized in protest early on; those resistance efforts were brutally suppressed by the Germans. By 1943 more than half of the Jews remaining in Amsterdam that were ordered to report to camp transports refused and went into hiding, but hiding was difficult and dangerous for those who helped. By the time resistance organizations in the Netherlands gained a foothold in Amsterdam in 1943, most of the Jews from Amsterdam who would be murdered by the Nazis had already been killed. Canadian forces liberated Amsterdam in 1945, but by then few Jews survived.
Today, there are apparently about 17,000 Jews residing in Amsterdam. I read in a travel brochure that there is a vibrant and prominent Jewish community in Amsterdam today. I am not Jewish and I did not seek it out, but I did not observe anything reminiscent of vibrant Jewish communities such as those I’ve observed in the United States. Most of the pre-World War II Jewish temples, neighborhoods, or buildings that I visited have either been turned into museums or monuments or have a haunting, museum-like or monument-like quality to them — over-shadowed perhaps by the history that permeates them. During my stay, I asked an elderly Jewish woman whether it is hard for Jews to live in Amsterdam today? She answered something to the effect, “For me, it is like living in a cemetery of memories. Everything is a memory. For young people, I don’t know.”
A short distance away on the banks of Keizersgracht Canal, towards the 17th century Westerkerk (Amsterdam’s largest Protestant church), rests a memorial to women and men persecuted and killed because of their homosexuality, particularly at the hands of Nazi Germany. There always seemed to be fresh flowers on this marker while we were there, and it serves as a living reminder that not all victims of Amsterdam’s occupation by Nazi Germany were Jewish.
One afternoon while we were quietly having tea and reading a newspaper in our hotel lobby, a large group of passionate demonstrators suddenly appeared in front of our hotel – marching towards the museum district. As they passed our hotel, their chants and shouting drowned out all other sounds. The group filled the crowded street with a river of banners, flags, scarves, and huge signs that I couldn’t translate. I rose and went outside to get closer, but our hotel’s doorman suggested I remain close to the hotel’s entrance. Most of the signs were in Dutch or Arabic, as were the deafening chants by the crowd. Our hotel concierge later explained that the demonstrators had been chanting pro-Palestine slogans and protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. A Dutch guest later told me that there is a significant Muslim community in Amsterdam (about 1 out of every 13 residents), and that similar to the United States demonstrations in Amsterdam by any group are permitted as long as they remain peaceful and don’t incite violence. However, he continued, Dutch police had been alerted to this demonstration because of the growing animosity between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine segments inside the city.
The demonstration we observed was preceded, flanked, and followed by a strong show of force by Amsterdam’s authorities. According to the media, this was for the purpose of insuring the demonstrators did not “incite to commit violence against Jews.” It was later reported that two people were arrested relative to the demonstration on suspicion they intended to commit violence against Jews. Dutch policemen – some on horseback, some walking, and some riding in the back of vans in what appeared to be full riot gear – were conspicuously visible alongside the demonstrators during their march. Perhaps I imagined it, but there seemed to be an expectant tension among the crowd and by-standers that was related to the apparent readiness of police to intervene forcibly at the first sign of disorder. According to news reports, Dutch authorities had warned that Pro-Palestine protests would not be tolerated in Amsterdam if the protests incited violence against Dutch Jews; authorities had warned not to bring foreign hatreds to Amsterdam. Elsewhere across Europe that same week, news broadcasts aired similar Pro-Palestine protests that had become ugly against Jews, particularly pro-Palestine protests in France.
Whether it was the government’s resolve to prevent anti-Semitism from re-emerging in the Netherlands on this summer day or whether the people of Amsterdam are committed to pursuing their political objectives without stigmatizing and inciting violence against a segment of their society is uncertain. Perhaps lessons from its history have been learned. Regardless, the demonstration we observed remained peaceful to the best of my knowledge; people went on with their business and media coverage of the event did not become a news event itself. It had been my impression that perhaps the police were unnecessarily concerned about potential violence against Jews in this “live and let live society” that I admire, but I have only superficial insights into present day Amsterdam and I am not in a position to judge it.
Finally, less than one week later while in Russia I read in a newspaper that a Dutch woman had since been assaulted in Amsterdam for displaying an Israeli flag from her balcony, in the second such incident in one week. The woman suffered a concussion, fractured ribs and contusion to her face in an attack on an Amsterdam street by men who called her a “bloody Jew.” They also threw a burning stick at her and hit her in the stomach. Later that same week, it was also reported that unidentified individuals hurled a firebomb at the balcony of another Dutch Jew who displayed an Israeli flag from her balcony.
Perhaps the police were rightly concerned about the possibility of violence against Jews in present day Amsterdam after all. In such a “live and let live” environment as is Amsterdam, it is unexpected and not as it would seem.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jean Schweitzer (123rf License)