HomeWorld‘You cannot look away’: Amsterdam Holocaust museum opens amid protests

‘You cannot look away’: Amsterdam Holocaust museum opens amid protests


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Three-quarters of the Dutch Jewish population – 102,000 people – were killed by the Nazis during the second world war, the highest proportion in western Europe. But, unlike some other countries, the Netherlands has never had a national museum devoted to those horrors.

That changed on Sunday when, eight decades after the second world war and in the presence of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, the Dutch king opened the country’s first Holocaust museum on the site of an Amsterdam creche and former teaching college where 600 children were smuggled to safety.

Wearing a kippah, the monarch, Willem-Alexander, said: “There is no excuse for not knowing, no room for perspective. Ifs and buts are not appropriate here. Knowing about the Holocaust is not optional. This museum shows us what happened. And not so very long ago.”

Herzog, whose attendance sparked protests amid Israel’s continuing offensive in Gaza, said the museum sent “a clear and powerful statement: remember, remember the horrors born of hatred, antisemitism and racism and never again allow them to flourish.”

“Unfortunately never again is now, right now. Because right now, hatred and antisemitism are flourishing worldwide and we must fight it together,” added the president.

Waving Palestinian flags and banners, protesters in a square close to the museum voiced their anger at his visit, chanting “ceasefire now”. The human rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, put up detour signs around the museum to direct Herzog to the international court of justice in The Hague.

Emile Schrijver, the general director of the new National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, said in an interview before the opening that the venue would – at last – give the Holocaust “a place in the collective [Dutch] memory”.

The new National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

“It reflects a very long history of processing and the invisibility of this subject in Dutch public space. For a long time much of the community felt that there was no room for the specifics of the Jewish experience in the war,” he said.

“But now we are here, and the question is why now? Because we can show the people who are the natural owners of this history, the survivors, that we mark their history here, and in 10 or 15 years, when they are no longer here, we will still be here to tell it. And it is to show a new generation the importance of Dutch history and an awareness of what can happen if you set people apart, treat people as ‘other’ and in the end take away their humanity.”

Projections on the walls of the National Holocaust Museum. Photograph: Nick Gammon/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

Salo Muller, who was smuggled as a three-year-old child through the creche, said the museum’s opening was an important moment.

“I am happy that the Holocaust museum is really coming,” said Muller, now 88. “It is essential that people have an insight into what happened to the Jewish people. It’s not for me – because I know it all – but for people who are not Jewish, who don’t know.”

Salo Muller: ‘It’s essential for people who are not Jewish, who don’t know.’ Photograph: Pro Shots/Alamy

Some, including Johannes Houwink ten Cate, emeritus professor and former researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, point out it has been a long journey. “We have seen ourselves as a nation of tolerance and resistance,” he said.

“We did not want to see ourselves as a nation involved in collaboration with the Nazis. We saw ourselves as the nation of Anne Frank. Thus, it hurts when we are forced to see ourselves as the nation of the tram driver transporting the Frank family to the station and from there to a transit camp, and to a death camp from there. Holocaust awareness came late.”

On the other side of the street from the museum, the former Hollandsche Schouwburg theatre, where 46,000 Jewish people were held on their way to the camps, is now a memorial.

The National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam. Photograph: Bart Maat/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

This week, evidence emerged of 23 bills that GVB Amsterdam trams sent to be paid by the Nazis for transporting Jewish people, a period documented in the acclaimed film and book Occupied City by Bianca Stigter and her husband, the British film-maker Steve McQueen. The Amsterdam mayor, Femke Halsema, called GVB’s collaboration “shameful”.

So while the Holocaust Museum is “a decisive moment in Dutch memory culture”, focusing on more than resistance, military rescue and victims in general, there’s more to uncover, according to Bart Wallet, the professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Amsterdam. “Society is not yet finished with the Holocaust,” he said. “It is still more or less an open wound and there are parts of society that are still in the process of facing their war histories.”

But the museum was a start, said Muller. “In the Hollandsche Schouwburg, there are ‘drops’ on the wall, in each is a photo and you can hear people’s stories,” he said. “I am one of the drops. Like the museum, it is a place full of meaning. It makes you still. You cannot look away.”

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