The Dutch Resistance Museum: an hour of powerful sentiments unrolls across days

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Luckily, a sign at the beginning of the museum explained something I would have had to deduce from the entire display: In 1941, the Dutch were divided about the German occupation, most complacent as the Germans made a great show of befriending the Dutch, “fellow Aryans.” Nazi moves against the Jews were small and incremental. First registration, then a fence around the neighborhood, finally the yellow star and segregation, but all of it gradual, regrettable but not alarming. But when several hundred Jews were rounded up for deportation, the Dutch seemed to wake up, went out onto the street and mounted a general strike. Then, when the Germans brought violence against Dutch resistors, the population moved toward resistance very quickly. Actions accelerated. The Franks, Ann’s family, went into hiding in 1942 for instance, where they remained for two years until they were betrayed.

In comparing the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC to the Dutch Resistance Museum, I have to say that the two museums are equally powerful in presenting the horror of the Holocaust, each using completely different methods.

The architecture of the Holocaust Museum reinforces the feeling of dehumanization, with railcars and barracks in the concentration camps reproduced effectively. A vast pile of shoes, men’s, women’s and children’s in a jumble, made–as Peter Brook’s theater troupe discovered as well–for a powerful nonverbal punch in the gut.

By contrast, the Resistance Museum, leads one through a broken-up kaleidescope of spaces, each refracting and opening into each other, leading one deeper into the story.

Scrolls of personal stories mounted outside the glass cases and projecting into the aisle, with large photo of each young person, told of individual acts of resistance by both Jew and Gentile. These men and women and their stories personified the kind of courage we must each doubt we possess unless we are tried. Many of these individuals paid for their heroism with their lives.

An illegal bank, an illegal forger of papers, an illegal printing press, illegal crystal radios, doors concealed behind bookshelves, men dressed as women with scarves wrapped around their adam’s apple: these elaborate systems were put into place within a year, escalating in sophistication. These Dutch individuals, contemporaries of my parents, put together a system of resistance that took my breath away. Code numbers in letters as small as an ant printed painstakingly on a cigarette paper…so much at stake.

The main road where I walked from Waterloo Pelin to the museum, Plantage, holds a theater that was used as a detention and deportation center for Jews. On the other side of the street, we noticed a colorful day care center. The museum explained that this very day care center smuggled Jewish children out of Amsterdam. When a tram would pull up to the stop in front of the daycare center, the brave women would rush toward the tram with babies under each arm, or two children by the hand and leap on. Everyone on the tram would smile, while the Nazis on the other side of the
street were none the wiser. Six hundred children were saved this way.

The hardest part came at the end, not only the totting up of the sheer volume of Jews exterminated (photos remind you: men, women and flossy haired children, all clueless, faces all vaguely familiar, mishpookah) but also the terrible winter after France and Belgium were liberated, when the Dutch had no food at all. Twenty thousand people died of starvation. The houses in the Jewish quarter, later demolished for being unsalvageable after being empty for so long, were stripped for fuel. People boiled garbage for soup, gleaned every edible scrap, to survive that terrible winter, a despair much like the concentration camp survivors Elie Weisel described, forced by their captors to march through the winter snow, starving and inadequately clothed, as their liberators approached from the other direction.

Unlike the darkness of the Holocaust Museum (I was alive when this happened, a baby; my father, a medic with Patton’s Army, never spoke of his experiences liberating concentration camps,) the Dutch Resistance Museum, released me with a glimmer. These people DID resist, like the Dane, like Jews in Warsaw. Photos showed not only survivors of the camps returning to sit on their streets, to begin the search for their loved ones, as well as the Dutch citizens greeting allied forces, the end of the nightmare.

A postscript surprised me. Apparently it wasn’t until a neo nazi group arose in the 1960’s, that members of the Dutch resistance began to tell their stories. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the museum was organized to tell the story. Copies of two graphic novels illustrated by Heuve, the Tintin artist, tell the story both from the pov of a Jewish family and their good friends and neighbors, ordinary people drawn into becoming Dutch resistors.

This reminded me of the fact that survivors of the Irish Potato Famine didn’t tell their children the story of what had happened, out of shame perhaps that such a terrible thing had visited them. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that the Irish came to own their history of abuse by the British which deepened the deadly outcome of the potato famine.

Three million dead and one million and a half forcibly shipped off on death ships to other continents, if I remember my numbers correctly.