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The wounds of previous war and conflict may never disappear, but due to one pioneering European project, they may eventually heal.
This is a story about war. Sort of. Because mostly it is about connections. Between old people and young children, the past and the present, a city and its citizens. It is also about a great idea and how the best of those sound so obvious you wonder why you haven’t thought of them yourself.
One of them is playing itself out in a classroom in Amsterdam, on a very wet summer’s day. On a shelf against a wall, a fishbowl with sedate looking inhabitants watches over proceedings. There are plants, of course, a corner with computers and a big silver plate with sweet goodies presented by a birthday girl this morning. The children are eleven, twelve. Already adult looking girls and much smaller boys who normally shove each other and have trouble sitting still. But not today. You can hear a pin drop when miss Gigi puts up a map of their city on the big screen at the front of the class. She zooms in to their neighbourhood, the streets surrounding their school. A picture comes up of what it looks like now, and during WWII. Then another map, with blue dots representing Jewish inhabitants in those same streets. Lots of them before the war, almost none after. Sixty thousand Jewish “Amsterdammers” were killed between 1940 and 1945. “Maybe they lived in your street,” Gigi says, “maybe in your house.”
Today, the senior students of the Donge Primary School are being introduced to a project that will occupy their minds for the next six weeks. It is called “War in my Neighbourhood” and has been running in Amsterdam since 2012. In fact, its founder, Minka Bos, is nominated for the 2017 TEDxAmsterdam ED Award. Her motto is “meeting is the new form of learning” and Gigi’s class will do both, starting today. Bos’ idea was that more and more people who lived through the war are dying of old age, and with them, their experiences, their story and therefore the stories of the city are dying too. At the same time, current generations, especially children, know very little about the war. Of course, they learn about the big picture, but almost nothing about the daily life of normal people like themselves. What was it like to be a child of Jewish parents, or live in a family that supported Hitler, or one that hid people who were wanted by the Germans? In 2012 Minka Bos approached one of the primary schools in Amsterdam to ask if their children would like to interview the old people in their neighbourhood about the war. They would be trained in interview techniques, as well as in photography and writing, so afterwards they could turn the oral story into a written one. The school was keen, and five years later, hundreds of children have interviewed hundreds of elderly people. Their stories have been brought together in books, but especially on the “War in my Neighbourhood” website, that shows them street by street, house by house. Every year the new children are also invited to City Hall, where the Amsterdam mayor officially inaugurates them as “heritage bearers” of the town. They get a medal and the job to tell the story as often as they can. To friends and family, to the media, at remembrance days. This way, the stories will never die.
Myriam remembers fights between her parents, with her mother both proud of her husband and angry that he put his family in danger. The children can understand that. But then it gets worse.
Every new crop of children works at the project for six weeks. During that time they do research, interview, write and organise a big presentation at the end. But it all starts with an introduction: an elderly person who will tell them about their life during the war. And that is what is going to happen today. So, noisily the class makes its way to the assembly hall, which also doubles as the gym. There they are accompanied by the other year 6 class, until there are about 50 children seated on benches between the climbing frames. Excitement reigns: something different, out of the normal structured day. When the guest of honour turns out to be a few minutes late, especially the boys need to do something with their excess energy. Good thing there are padded boxing cushions stuck to the wall. One after the other they run into them, watched by the girls who shake their heads and continue gossiping. Then an elderly lady walks in, immaculately dressed in grey slacks, a black shirt and white cardigan. Her name is Myriam Mater, 86, and after the introduction, she tells the now very quiet children that she was nine years old when the war broke out, and 14 when it ended. That brings it home straight away: their age, their siblings’ ages, and when she starts telling them about her home, that looks like theirs too. But then the story starts to diverge and getting scary and strange.
Myriam explains that after the first five days of shooting and fighting and the subsequent surrender of the Dutch military, peace and normalcy appeared to have returned to her neighbourhood in May 1940. There were Germans in uniform on the streets, but that seemed to be all. Then one day one of her two sisters was allowed to bring a pet to school and chose her turtle. Once in class, one of her friends, whose parents were pro-Hitler, compared it to the Jews, who were also, her mum and dad had taught her, very ugly and very wicked. When her sister told this story at dinner that night, her father informed them of something they didn’t know: that they were, in fact, all Jewish, through their mother’s line. What that meant became more and more clear in the next months and years. On the benches in the park were signs that told Jews not to sit there, they weren’t allowed on the bus anymore, and shopping in non-Jewish shops was off limits too. Then the people started to arrive at home, called “onderduikers”; Jews and others who had to stay out of German claws on pain of death. Myriam’s father made them hiding places: in a small crawl space at the back of a non-working bathroom sink, above a ceiling rose, lying flat in the gap between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor. Myriam says she remembers fights between her parents, with her mother both proud of her husband and angry that he put his family in danger. The children nod. They can understand that. But then it gets worse.
Her father and two of his friends from the resistance were informed on. One of them was picked up, tortured and shot.
“On my tenth birthday”, Myriam says, “my grandfather gave me a watch. I was so proud I even wore it in bed. Then one day we were in the tram and one of the Germans saw it. He took it from me and there was nothing I could do about it. Not long afterwards, my grandparents were transported to the death camps and I never saw them again.” There is a sharp intake of breath around the elderly woman. The children already view her story as theirs, and this is too horrible to even consider. So Myriam decides to lighten the mood a little. She tells them that in the latter years of the war there was no water, heating or electricity anymore, but that her father still wanted her to do her homework. In order for her to see, he rigged up a contraption with a light powered by a bicycle dynamo. While she was doing her maths, her sisters had to take turns to ride the stationary bike that made everything work. There is laughter, and that grows when Myriam tells a story about a time when she had to steal smoked sausages from a bordello that was used by German soldiers. Nobody would suspect a sweet young girl, her father argued, and the “onderduikers” needed to eat. The kids think this is the coolest tale ever. Under the noses of the enemy! Steal because your father tells you to!
But Myriam does not want them to view the war as an adventure story, so next, she tells them about betrayal. How her father and two of his friends from the resistance were informed on and how one of them was picked up, tortured and shot. Then, in order to find her father who had fled, they came to their house. There were “onderduikers” and Myriam and her sisters. By this time her mother was in hospital, sick with kidney disease, but unable to get the medication she needed because she was Jewish. The girls were on their own. After a few terrifying hours, it was clear that the Germans and their Dutch helpers had found nothing. Furious, they brought the turtles, who were in the midst of hibernation in a box in the cellar, up to the kitchen. While they forced the girls to watch, they boiled them. Again, a sharp intake of breath, and this time there are also cries of “mean bastards”. “That is what some people come to when they are brainwashed,” Myriam says. “They start to believe all the propaganda and for some that is enough to kill. People and animals.”
Of her mother, she only has one letter, written just before her death. In it, she tells her daughter to remember that the German heritage apart from violence and hatred also includes great music. “My mother was a violinist,” Myriam says.
Myriam’s story is almost over, but there is one very sad coda. During the last few months of the war, while her father and all the girls were in separate hiding places, Myriam’s mother died. Through his contacts, her father managed to get all of them together in the hospital morgue, so they could say goodbye to their mother and help put her in a cardboard box and on the back of a cart that was linked to a bicycle. Then, in the middle of the night, with temperatures very much below freezing, without proper clothing and on shoes that had barely any soles left, the family walked over 15 kilometers to the cemetery. There they dug a hole and buried their mother and wife. Throughout they were accompanied by a mysterious woman carrying a canvas bag. Later, after the war, her father told Myriam that he had asked the woman to shoot and kill him if they were caught by Germans. He was certain he would be tortured and didn’t want to run the risk of naming names. Her father lived to tell the tale, Myriam says, but only barely. After the war, he was so traumatised that he was unable to be a proper father ever again. He also had spent all of his money, and their inheritance. Of her mother, she only has one letter, written just before her death. In it, she tells her daughter to remember that not all Germans are bad people, and that the German heritage apart from violence and hatred also includes great music. “My mother was a violinist,” Myriam says.
For a few moments, it is very quiet in the hall. But then there are questions for the elderly guest, many of them. Where adults would focus on the big picture, the children are far more interested in the small stuff. Are your sisters still alive, they want to know. Did you ever get your watch back, how did the “onderduikers” know your father would help them, have you ever been to Germany, did you have a job and children, do you still like turtles? Myriam answers all of them, clearly happy to talk to people who are happy to listen. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter much that the age difference is about 75 years. They think she is cool. She gets to bring her family back to life. It is a win-win. Back in the classroom, after thanking their guest with flowers and chocolates, the kids need to vent a little. Miss Gigi, the consummate professional, lets them. She even manages to take the pressure off by showing them some funny movies of skydivers with wingsuits over New York. The children are happy for the diversion. But ten minutes later they are downstairs in the playground, where their parents are waiting to pick them up. “How was your day, sweetheart?” I hear a father ask. “Did you know the Germans boiled children’s turtles?” his son answers, still clearly angry. His dad looks at him. “Let’s have a cup of tea and talk about it,” he says. “War in my Neighbourhood” has done it again.
The story is spreading.