The idea is to put a face to the reality of the horror by putting a physical presence to it.
Associated Press reported that a Dutch project called “Jewish Houses,” part of commemorations of World War II victims, asked Amsterdam residents to display posters marking houses where Jews are known to have lived before their community was systematically rounded up and sent to Nazi concentration camps to be murdered.
There are 21,662 such houses in Amsterdam, according to the story.
The story, written by a correspondent who discovered that he himself was living in such a house, notes that the Anne Frank house draws millions of tourists seeking to get a sense of that time, a fact which likely inspired the project.
Amsterdam’s residents, who are being asked to remember in this way the Jews who once inhabited that city, are therefore learning they have a personal connection to the Holocaust’s ghosts.
Must be very powerful.
Associated Press correspondent Toby Sterling writes of discovering “the tragic history” of his own building, through this project. He learned that during the Holocaust, the building he owns and in which he lives housed two Jews who were seized from there, dragged away and murdered in Auschwitz.
A special committee worked with Jewish organizations, city archives and an art think-tank to create an Internet database that is searchable by name or address, Sterling writes.
By entering his name, Sterling found that his house once belonged to Elsje Wagenhuijzen, who died in Auschwitz on Oct. 1, 1942 at the age of 53, and that Arnold Kater, 54, who also lived there, died in the camp on Dec. 7, 1942.
A self-described “non-Jew,” Sterling said the discovery “sent a chill” through him, realizing that his Jewish grandparents would have made him Jewish under Germany’s Nuremburg laws.
Sterling did some digging and found that Wagenhuijzen was a seamstress and the eldest daughter of a large family. She lived alone with her father at the apartment until his death in 1934, and then apparently stayed on, he writes. Kater, who was evidently a traveling salesman, had no known surviving family, he found.
Sterling found that during the war the house was owned by a Dutchman, who rented it to a Dutch family as soon as the Jews were gone.
I guess you can’t blame him, and I’m sure it happened all over Europe, but it leaves a little bit of a bad taste, doesn’t it?
Sterling was unable to piece together any more of the pair’s story, and there is no one to tell it, because they and millions like them were exterminated like rats.
Sterling also found that the Nazi, and evidently the Dutch penchant for meticulous record-keeping made it easy to create the database for the “Jewish Houses” project.
“Amsterdam was notoriously efficient at registering and deporting its Jews during the occupation,” the story says. “Bureaucrats even created a map for the Germans, marking each house with a Jew with a black dot – and showing which neighborhoods should be targeted.”
Jews made up 10 percent of the city’s prewar population in 1939. An estimated 61,700 died in the Holocaust, more than 70 percent. Afterward, Jews comprised less than 3 percent of Amsterdam’s population, as many survivors emigrated, the story notes.
A project spokeswoman acknowledged the period is “a black chapter in our history, but we don’t want to forget it. On the contrary: the idea is to make the victims visible, to make people know that this happened even in their own neighborhoods.”
The posters mark each house as “1 of the 21,662 houses where Jews lived who were murdered in World War II,” the story notes.
The spokeswoman said the project has drawn strong reactions.
“Some find it creepy, others, depressing,” the story said.
Others, like Sterling, “were surprised to learn their neighborhoods were once strongly Jewish,” he said.
One man, Kenneth Kuhn, tracked down relatives in Canada of the Jews who had lived in his house, and got pictures of them which he hung in his window, Sterling said.
”I’m very happy to be able to give them a name and a face,” he said. “It helps you to comprehend the importance of what happened here, so we don’t forget and make the same mistakes.”
It’s a very interesting way of ensuring the victims and the episode in which they found themselves caught up, are not forgotten. It’s along the lines of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. where visitors are assigned the “identity” of someone who lived in Europe at the start of World War II, and they don’t learn whether they survived until the end of the tour.
But this is even more powerful, in a way, or it’s equally as powerful but in a different way, since it hammers home that these mass murder victims were real people living in these actual dwellings in this very place.
It’s important to put a human face on Holocaust victims because, for one thing, fewer of that generation remain living every month, and because 6 million is such a big number. The mind tends to dissociate individual lives, dreams, personalities, with number that high, and people need to get that these victims were people just like them.
Projects like this should be done all over Europe – wherever the Nazis reigned – or maybe just everywhere. It’s a lesson humanity needs to learn.
Can this approach be used in other ways, I wonder…
Imagine a similar project focusing on former Native American villages in North America, or in the Middle East to mark all the places that were once Jewish before being forcibly overtaken by the Muslims. Or places that were once any type of other thing before being forcibly overtaken by the Muslims.
The visual acknowledgement might scare some people into putting together the puzzle of what’s under way right now.
Something had better, and soon.
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