Sunday, 29 September 2013
Our hotel is in the red light district. This is the view from our window.
A sex worker stands in wait for a customer beneath our hotel room window.
Jean devised a walking tour which we followed today. We started on the Herengracht. First, we went looking for West India House, the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, but we couldn't find it. Along Brouwersgracht, we saw old warehouses that have been turned into expensive apartments.
Soon, we passed under the Noorderkerk, or North Church, where we found a lively market. We kept walking, all the while the scenery staying very much the same. In fact, you could easily get lost in Amsterdam. Everywhere you go, Elm trees line the canals, crude old bikes by the million are chained to railings along the canals and on the bridges, boats and barges sail along the canals contentedly, and it doesn't change wherever you go.
All the while you really have to have your wits about you. When crossing the street, it's easy enough to watch out for cars, and motor bikes' engines always herald their approach. But push bikes blend into the periphery. You don't hear them coming, and you could easily collide with one. Along the Keizersgracht, a slow-moving horse and cart annoyed drivers behind, and then push bikes behind the drivers decided to use the footpath. I nearly became a casualty.
At one point, we found ourselves again on the Prinsengracht, the site of the Anne Frank House. I realised that Ann's hiding place was and is in the shadow of a tall church that offers views far and wide. I could see what Ann missed out on, being cooped up at the end of summer. Going for walks along the canals like we were doing, the sun glistening in the water. She would have liked that.
Along the Herengracht, we saw wealthy people's houses, saw the Museum Willet-Holthuysen, decorated in the style of Louis XIV. We finished up on the Amstel River. Around here are plenty of barges and houseboats.
Friday, 27 September 2013
We've spent an excellent couple of days with our friends, Ann and Barry from Wales here in Amsterdam. A short time ago, we saw them off at the airport. But, meanwhile, Jean and I are here for another couple of days.
Yesterday morning, we visited the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht. Then we paid 22 € each to hop on and hop off the canal boats for 24 hours. We sailed down the canals, getting off at one point to have lunch. After an amount of walking round, during which Ann nearly got killed a few times by roaring-past bicycles, we found a sex museum, and went in for a look. In Amsterdam, if it's not drugs, it's sex. The sex museum contains many sordid images throughout, as well as ribald displays, sexy statues, a myriad of gadgets and souvenirs. The images and displays etc depict not only the present but particularly centuries gone by.
After dark, we strolled through the red light district. It was an eye opener. Beneath the soft red glow of horizontal fluorescent light tubes, a red curtain covers a rectangular space the size of a doorway. This usually means a sex worker is inside with a client. Otherwise, a near naked young lady stands in the space for all passers by to see, standing in wait for patronage. One near naked lady after the other. The four of us continued through the red light district for some time. Ann noticed that some of the young women were pretty. Indeed, one stereotype of sex workers is that they are older, that sex is their only job, and they are somewhat worn. To me, from the neck up, some of these young women looked strangely normal, as if by day they could be an office clerk, or a receptionist in a hotel.
This morning, the four of us met in Ann and Barry's hotel, the Tulip Inn, for breakfast. Afterwards, we hit the canals again, sailing to the Tulip Markets where Ann bought some tulip bulbs to take home. Soon, we walked to an area known as The Nine Streets, where there is a famous chocolaterie. We each had a cake and coffee, and boarded the boats again. Amsterdam is a bit like Venice only far less water. We heard the canals are three metres deep: one metre of water, one metre of mud, and one metre of bicycles. Fifty thousand bicycles are stolen in Amsterdam each year. Throughout the Netherlands, the figure is three quarters of a million.
We had some lunch at the Cafe Heffer, retrieved Ann and Barry's luggage from their hotel, and accompanied them to the airport.
Bikes are everywhere.
For several kilometres, an Amsterdam canal runs parallel with a street known as Prinsengracht. At one point, an unassuming looking building peers down onto the canal as do all the other buildings. Inside this very ordinary-looking building, a Jewish family hid from the Nazis for more than two years during the Second World War. They were the Frank family, originally from Germany, but settled for some years in Holland to evade Nazi persecution. Otto Frank, the father, had his business here. He and his wife, Edith, had two daughters, the youngest being Anne, a girl who was given a diary as a 13th birthday present. She began to write in it straight away. Shortly afterwards, the family began their period of hiding in a part of the building not easily detectable from the outside. The entrance to their hiding place was concealed by a movable cupboard.
I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' many years ago. I found it moving, as, no doubt, many millions of others have done. Every day, hundreds queue outside to visit the 'secret annexe', in which a total of eight people lived (the four others were Jewish acquaintances), and where, on 4 August 1944, they were finally betrayed. Anne and her sister perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp around April 1945. Their mother died in Auschwitz. Only Anne's father survived the war. Otto Frank took a long time to read his dead daughter's diary. Finally, he got it published, and 263 Prinsengracht became a museum in honour of Anne, her family, and all victims of the Holocaust. Otto Frank insisted the rooms remain empty to represent the eternal void left behind by the millions of people who were deported and never returned.
When I read Anne's diary, I felt she conveyed so brilliantly the agony of her circumstances. The words on her pages spirited me back to that time and into her hiding place. I felt that the secret annexe was a stifling central core, where eight cooped up individuals got on each other's nerves, surrounded by a frightening and sinister world that threatened to invade and drag them away. I could appreciate the day-to-day grind of the ongoing occupation. I gained an inescapable sense of Anne's family's daily realities, the heavy burdens they carried, and the enormous pressures of a war that seemed never to end.
Anne's dream was to become not only a journalist, but a famous writer. She was inspired by a Dutch Government Minister-in exile in London who called on the Dutch people to preserve any diaries or other documents that demonstrated conditions under German occupation, and which could go on record after the war. Tragically, Anne would not live. But in death her dream would come true.
Part of the queue that waits to see the Secret Annexe.
Anne Frank House stands as a reminder to the horrors of war, prejudice, and xenophobia.
Anne Frank captured the hearts of people the world over, who flock to visit her 'secret annexe'.
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
We arrived in the Netherlands yesterday, the land of the windmill, clogs, tulips, and the push-bike, reaching Amsterdam at 5. We're staying in the red light district at the Christopher Inn, next door to Nelly's Irish pub, which is one down from the strip club.
Amsterdam is a big joint. Meant in the drug sense. The place is humming with that smell...you know the one I mean. On the way to our hostel, we realised the place is teaming with the worship of drugs and sex. There are sex shops here, with a range of items to choose from. There are coffee shops, where you don't necessarily get coffee. And there are massage parlours, which apparently finish off with a happy ending. Our hostel looks like a dive, although comfortable. It, too, has that smell...you know the one I mean. In our room, a spaced out-looking bare-breasted woman peers down on us from the wall. In our bathroom, a light is fitted to the ceiling, but no light switch can be found. It's as if they're saying 'hey man, so long as you've got weed to smoke, who cares about light switches?'
We caught up with our friends, Ann and Barry who flew over from Wales. We had a few beers and then dinner. While we were eating in the restaurant, Barry spotted a mouse running along the skirting board.
An Amsterdam condomerie
This is a blog post of an irregular kind. I want to know if anyone out there has any information about an ancestor of mine called Alwine Hedwig Kortum.
She was born in Saxony, Germany, in 1831, and died in Serbia in 1898. She was married to Eduard Justus Thode and gave birth to, in total, eight children, one of which was my great-grandfather, Felix. Alwine was one of five children. She went to live in Serbia around 1877, and it is understood she died there in a place called Semlin. Whilst in Serbia, we believe she lived at least initially with her sister and military officer brother-in-law. She may have lived later with strangers.
Last year, like this year, I travelled to Europe, pursuing family history research, and wrote a blog. Last year, by good fortune, a distant relative in Finland with a significant body of family history information, who was previously unknown to me, found my blog and contacted me. It would be great to have similar good luck this year. So, if someone out there, anywhere in the world, has information about my ancestor (whether names, dates, addresses, photographs, documents, her final resting place, or whatever), especially information that relates to her time in Serbia, please leave a comment on my blog, and give me your contact details.
On Sunday night, Renate, Jean and I arrived in Köln (Cologne). The following morning, we had enough time to visit the Kölnerdom (Cologne Cathedral). The Cathedral is among the most impressive cathedrals in Europe. You can believe us...we've seen a few! The intricate detail of the exterior is worth seeing. I'm glad the Allies never bombed it during the war.
We boarded a train, and travelled to Detmold, where we were met at the station by Renate's mum, Elfriede, and sister, Christine. Christine is my co-conspirator in family history research. Afterwards, we met their dad, Ernst. It was great to see them all again. They took us home, and, after we'd settled in, we took a look around the garden, where the family has a walnut tree. Soon, we had a walk in the village, and returned home for dinner.
Yesterday morning, we all went to the Hermannsdenkmal, a tall statue near Detmold roughly 100 metres tall of a man called Hermann. Hermann lived around 2,000 years ago, and he and a band of others won a famous battle against the invading Romans. The monument was erected in the 19th century. Ernst related the story of how, during the Third Reich, Hitler's deputy Hermann Göring came here and joked about how nice it was that the locals should erect a monument to him (Göring). On a more serious level, at that time, the Nazis exploited the existence of this memorial, holding it up as an example of Germany's perennial greatness. To this day, no one is sure where that ancient battle really took place. Some claim it was in Osnabrück. But Ernst insists it was in Detmold. I'll bet he's right.
Later, we visited the Freilichtmuseum. This is an outdoor museum covering many hectares, featuring the actual villages that rural people and poor people lived in in previous centuries. You can enter their houses, chapels, stables, schools and shops, and see how they lived, worked, learned, and worshipped. They grew vegetables, worked the land, kept horses and other animals. And life was hard. We were there for some hours, had a ride in a horse and carriage, and had a good look around.
This morning, Christine, Renate, Elfriede, Jean and I went into the town of Detmold itself. We walked all round, saw the castle briefly, the main street, the old city walls, and stopped for a coffee in a cafe. Soon, they took us to Detmold station, and waved us goodbye. We promised to return in a few years.
We are now bound for Amsterdam.
We arrived at Detmold...
..and then saw a bit of the village..
The view from the Hermannsdenkmal to the path we came on. There was too much fog to see anything else.
We visited the Freilichtmuseum, where rural and poor people lived in previous centuries. We had a short ride in a horse-drawn carriage.