Re:member – Talking to women about war

I am not Jewish, which is why I – and people around me – often wonder why I have such a strong interest in the Holocaust, a part of history that has nothing to do with me directly. But I have always been interested in history; I used to think that I’d grow up to become an archaeologist or paleontologist. My drive to excavate, to chip away at the hardened material that has formed nearly impenetrable layers on an object over the years until I get down to the bones of something, has never really left me, and this is what I apply to my interest in war culture today. Also, when I was young, my mother made an effort to teach me about the similarities and differences between us Christians and the Jews, which sparked my early interest in other cultures and religions. To this, I can add my fairly recent interest in what traumatic events to do a person or a country: how they shape our individual and collective identities.

In this blog, I want to talk about the Holocaust and the resistance. Or rather, I want to talk about talking about the Holocaust and the resistance. Last week was Remembrance and Liberation Day in the Netherlands: all over the country, we celebrated being liberated from Nazi Germany’s occupation 73 years ago. In this blog, I want to reflect on the conversations I had this year while attending commemorative events. And while writing up this blog, I often found myself struggling to find the right words – this, too, is an effect of the changing ways in which we talk about the war. We have been taught about history overwhelmingly through the eyes of cis white men, and to deconstruct this perspective is an ongoing struggle that requires new tools to express how we feel. Most importantly, I feel that we have a duty to teach ourselves to be critical towards what we think we know and to pass this on to others. In doing so, we should be mindful of how we treat other minor voices and be aware of any blind spots we have, lest we repeat strategies of erasure that have been applied to us before (speaking as a cis white woman). In talking about the war, more than anything, I welcome the opportunity for discussion. I hope that others can teach me what the war and the way we talk about it means to them, and which hard-to-shake prejudices and ideas I still exhibit without realizing it.

I

It’s funny that on the one day where we in the Netherlands place a lot of value on silence, I’m sitting on the train home with a hoarse throat from talking so much. I have spent Remembrance Day running around Utrecht and Rotterdam, visiting various commemorative events that I found interesting. I started out by attending a few talks organized throughout the city by Open Joodse Huizen/Huizen van Verzet (‘Open Jewish houses/houses of resistance’), a project that handpicks buildings and historical sites that have an interesting war story attached to them and hires actors, directors and volunteers to tell these stories on the location itself. In one location, for example, I found myself talking to the daughter of one of Utrecht’s most famous resistance fighters, Rut Matthijsen, in the house where he ran an illegal printing press throughout the war. I ended my tour at what is now a secondhand bookshop in the city centre but used to be a kosher butcher’s shop, where I had my most touching experience of the day. The shop was crammed with people who had come to listen to a Jewish man talk about the little brother he never knew, who had lived there during the war years, had been in hiding in an orphanage and ended up being deported to Auschwitz. The story was told with so much compassion and tenderness that I think all of us acutely felt angry at the wastefulness of the war, exemplified by this little boy’s life being cut short, without which event the man standing in front of us probably wouldn’t even have been born. The presentation ended with a song that the boy used to love (he was fond of music), which brought tears to my eyes.

Stepping out of the bookshop after hearing the story about the young Jewish boy, I had to collect myself for a moment. I soon found myself engaged in conversation with two other women who’d sat at the front of the room, like me, one of whom I’d seen wiping away tears when they played the song. We discussed the event, all of us visibly moved, and shared our personal reasons for being there. The woman who had cried told us she had a hereditary muscle disease and she’d come out today specifically for this event, because she thought nothing was more important than showing her respect on this day. We discussed what had been said inside the shop, the treatment of Jewish people during the war, and lamenting the recent rise of anti-Semitism and the parallels with society today. She told me that as a child she had been a fan of Anne Frank, collecting pictures and reading her Diary of a Young Girl over and over, and that she’d written a BA thesis on literature by Jewish women.

As a young girl she’d been to the United States to work as a nanny, where the people there viewed her with suspicion, unafraid as she was to state her opinions on the treatment of Jewish people and people of colour in a place where they were most unwelcome. Organised religion, especially the conservative kind, she said, gave her a fight-or-flight reaction. “You know about black men?” her host had asked her, passing her a piece of watermelon on a hot day. “They love this stuff.” She had an uncle from Surinam who was an engineer and when she showed her hosts his picture, she said, not without a prick of venom, “You know about black men? In my country, they’re engineers.” I was impressed – she had felt that keeping silent was simply not an option, and disagreed openly with her hosts on these sensitive issues to retain her integrity.

The other woman I spoke to was a member of the humanist community and was writing a book on the ethics of care – on attentiveness, affect and living in a democracy that cares. We stood there for about two hours just talking away about politics, history and culture, and I knew it was a special moment – blending their perspectives on injustice and ethics with my interest in identity and memory, each of us struggling to figure out our own responsibility in carrying forward the experiences of others, not to take them away from them, but to help alleviate their burden.

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To the right, the bookshop, formerly a Jewish butcher shop. © Jantine Broek

II

I moved on, deeply in thought about this conversation, to Rotterdam, where I was to see Kamp, a play I had heard about but hadn’t seen until now, which has the controversial and difficult theme of showing what a regular day at Auschwitz looked like. When it comes to the Holocaust, I continue to be fascinated by the attempts made all over the world to capture in art form something we have no way of really remembering: a black hole in history, sublime and incomprehensible in its scope. Before I saw the play, I met for dinner with a friend who lives in Rotterdam and who I hadn’t seen in a while. She was curious why I had come all the way to Rotterdam for a play about Auschwitz and I explained how I had become increasingly interested in the war. We discussed the recent controversy around Geen 4 Mei voor Mei, the ‘noise protest’ which ended up being squashed by the authorities, and about the duty of respect and remembrance. I mentioned that though I think it’s good that there is discussion about who we remember and how, I could see this debate about Remembrance Day devolve into the creation of a hierarchy of suffering, which many of us perhaps do unconsciously: whose lives are more ‘grievable’, more worthy of being remembered?

When it was nearly eight o’clock, time for the traditional two minutes of silence, we left the restaurant and went looking for a place where we could experience the moment in peace. My friend spotted a Dutch flag not too far away, on a busy crossing, next to a statue with lots of flowers around it. When we moved closer to it I noticed it was a statue of a resistance fighter looking up at the sky. The official commemoration ceremony in Rotterdam, around the statue of the man with his heart torn out (symbolizing the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940) was too far to walk, so we decided to stay here and see what would happen. As the minutes passed, I observed that more and more people drifted towards us, the statue being the nearest thing to a commemorative site. I saw old people and young, couples and singles, white people and people of colour. As eight o’clock rolled around, the trams slowed to a halt, people stopped chatting, bowing their heads or looking at the statue, and everything went quiet. Well, nearly everything. Cars blaring loud music raced by just behind us, blissfully ignorant tourists continued their chatter as they walked into the bustle of nearby Chinatown.

I had never before taken my two minutes of silence at a random place; as a child, I spent it at home, watching the ceremony in Amsterdam on tv, and in Utrecht, I usually go to the ceremony at the foot of the Dom tower, surrounded by others who come there especially to pay tribute to those Dutch people who died in the war. In both cases, the heavy tolling of church bells signals that the two minutes of silence are about to begin, lending a solemn air to the event. But here, people were simply in transit, and while on their way to somewhere else took the time to find a place where they could spend this moment. There was no starting sign, and only when the trams began moving again did we realise the moment had passed. Whether people did think of those who committed colonial violence*, or whether they thought of victims of the Holocaust, or a nephew or an uncle who had died in Afghanistan, or refugees from the Middle East, did not matter. What mattered was that they reserved their silence and their thoughts for somebody, anybody caught up in the terrible tide of war, and it showed me, more than the other places, that commemoration takes place in the minds of people, no matter what the government instructs us to remember. It meant a lot to me to share this moment with my friend, as it has become so important to me.

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“Unbroken resistance”: the monument in Rotterdam. Found on Pinterest.

*Traditionally, Remembrance Day was created to remember the members of the resistance who fell while defending our country during the war. More recently, the scope of commemoration has been increased to include every Dutch person who has perished in a conflict since WWII. The protest I mentioned above is about including on that list the Dutch oppressors in the Dutch East Indies who quelled plenty Indonesian rebellions just after 1945, killing thousands.

III

On 5 May, Liberation Day, I went to Amsterdam to go on a special ‘occupation-themed’ tram ride through the city, which, as Amsterdam was the nearest thing to a ghetto here in the Netherlands, was largely about the events of the Holocaust. Sitting in a real tram car from the 1930s, I looked out at the fresh greenery of the parks and the trees lining the streets as a woman speaking into a microphone pointed out houses and buildings that had played a significant role during World War II. Crisscrossing the city, we saw the former locations of the Judenrat and the Sicherheitsdienst headquarters; the place where the city’s archives used to be kept, which several resistance fighters had attempted to set fire to in order to destroy Jewish records; places where Jewish people had been hidden (such as the zoo); the location of the famous Jewish library that was looted by the Nazis; and the neighbourhoods that had been overwhelmingly Jewish before the war. The female tour guide, Bianca Stigter, explained that Amsterdam was too full of canals, back alleys and other ways to escape to be home to a real ghetto; not that it stopped the Germans from proclaiming several Judenviertels where they gathered the bulk of the country’s Jewish population. Stigter has just published a book called Atlas van een bezette stad (‘Atlas of an occupied city’) about Amsterdam during the war.

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The real 1930s trams we drove around in. © Jantine Broek

As I sat there, listening to her and staring out of the window idly at the passersby reaching for their smartphones to take pictures of the quaint old tram, I wondered if she too struggled with doubts about whether she had a right to speak about the war. She probably wouldn’t call herself an authority specifically on the topic of the Holocaust – and neither would I. I think that though it is always important to keep in mind who has the authority to speak about a certain type of suffering – especially in the case of minorities – we are in danger of censoring ourselves if we stay silent thinking that we’re not allowed to speak out. Given that most historical narratives are so male-dominated, there are plenty of women and nb’s who may feel that it’s not their place to speak out about the pain of others.

But it is. Consider Bianca Stigter. She is a renowned historian and journalist, as well as an editor at NRC Handelsblad (one of the biggest Dutch newspapers), and she’s published multiple books on art and history. She is also the partner of British film director Steve McQueen, with whom she has lived in Amsterdam since 1997, and she helped him do research for a film about slavery in the United States. She came across a then little-known, 150 year-old book called 12 Years a Slave, read it with astonishment, then urged her husband to adapt it into a film. The rest, as we know, is history: 12 Years a Slave swept the Oscars in 2014. Brad Pitt said that it took an Englishman to put America’s history of slavery on the map. Bianca’s story got me thinking about how important it is to take an interest in the life stories of minorities, and to use our respective privilege to tell these stories that normally wouldn’t be heard. And with eyewitnesses of the second world war disappearing fast, and an increased reliance on narratives about that war that shift our perceptions of what is fact and what is fiction, it’s more important than ever to look critically at what is being said and passed on to new generations.

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The tram ride with Bianca Stigter sitting in front. © Jantine Broek

The conversations I had were not just about the war, but also very much about my personal interest in it. It was amazing to share my own story with others, and I felt nothing but love and kinship when talking about these issues that are so close to my heart. Since starting this project, I have already received an overwhelming amount of love and positive responses. When I mentioned to a friend the other day that I felt a bit nervous starting this and going public with it – because I still tend to look at myself through society’s lens and think, “Why are you so interested in this? It’s weird” – she said, “I don’t understand why people always feel obligated to justify why they’re interested in something.” I firmly believe that we as non-cis males are judged far more quickly for what we like and don’t like. In addition, there is often so much pressure on how we spend our free time: if a hobby doesn’t make you money, or help you move towards a quickly achievable goal, we’re often inclined to think it’s not worth our time. But an interest in war often equals an interest in human nature and the machinations of history, a sense of compassion for the fate of others, or even simply a passion for politics or the mechanics of battle. These are all things that contribute to mental progress, but their usefulness can be hard to prove. Not all of us will become bestselling authors who publish on the subject, thereby justifying our interest because it’s historically important research and ends up making us money.

It doesn’t matter if you have a casual interest or a PhD on the subject – Re:war wants to hear what you think matters. Knowledge matters. New perspectives matter. Let’s use our respective privilege to generate new discussions about the events we think we know all about by now, and create new ways of understanding why we think about them the way we do. We, too, can be resistance fighters.

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