Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Touching home: the old house, the old school

        In Holland, I could see and feel my family's roots. At times, it was emotional.
        As our plane for the return trip to the United States sat in line on the tarmac at Schiphol last Wednesday, waiting for clearance to take off, I teared up.
        The two-week return to the land of my first 8 1/2 years had been everything we had hoped, and the thought of leaving again struck me because I don't know when -- or if -- I'll  return. 
        "I know the way I feel is just sentimental, not practical," I said to Bea.
        "It's all sentimental," she corrected.

In front of the location where my Dad and
his family lived in the 1920s and '30s
(38 Presidentbrandtstraat)
         I felt sad, proud, deeply grateful for the chance to see it all again.
        There were so many highlights on the trip, but among the special ones for me were visits to the streets -- and neighborhood -- where my parents grew up, to some of the Jewish landmarks in Amsterdam and, finally, a return to our old street and house, and to my first school.
          But there was so much to see and do.

          In the first week, we saw the two places that were the genesis for our trip: (1) the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the national museum reopened last month after a 10-year renovation and (2) the Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse, about 50 kilometers from Amsterdam, and the surrounding fields of flowers (featuring the tulips) in bloom.
        Both were as spectacular as advertised.
        But so was the Royal Concertgebouw (concert hall) in Amsterdam, and so was the orchestra housed there. We saw the orchestra perform -- with some talented guests -- in the Great Hall in a late-night concert on the eve of Queen's Day. And our seats were just to the right of the percussion section, facing the conductor. Again: spectacular.
       And so was the EYE, the new uniquely designed film institute located a ferry ride across from the always-busy train/bus terminal, Centraal Station, with which we became quite familiar.
       We saw windmills everywhere -- the old kind for which Holland is known and the new turbine-powered ... thousands of those. From our host Kitty's apartment in Zaandam, you can see 21 of those windmills from one spot; if you move around the living room, you can see 46 windmills in the area.
       We saw the eight historic windmills that make up the Zaanse Schans, not far from Kitty's place. This was a major area at the start of the Industrial Revolution (1760s to 1820s).
       We saw the Czar Peter House -- a 2-minute walk from Kitty's place. It's a museum around the house where Czar Peter I of Russia lived when he was in Zaandam to study shipbuilding. That was in ... 1697.
        We saw beautiful canals all over -- not only in Amsterdam -- and farmland with polders (for drainage) and picturesque harbors in every city, town and village. We saw yachts, sailboats (including the tall-ship kind), houseboats and just the simple motorboats (like you'd use on Lake Bistineau in North Louisiana).
         And water, water everywhere, especially on our five-day river cruise with stops in Haarlem, Zaandam, Amsterdam (again), Volendam, Hoorn, Medemblik, Enkhuizen and finally back to the huge Amsterdam harbor. So much to see and do.
        Just as on my first two trips back to Holland, the excitement built up during the long wait for the journey to begin, and that peaked as the plane made its descent toward Schiphol -- the world-class airport.
        We arrived some four hours after we expected to (airlines trouble, long story) and then strong winds around Schiphol made it a difficult landing (we had to circle the city twice before the final approach). In fact, we hit a turbulent spot -- the plane jolted, and people reacted -- just as we flew over Amsterdam ArenA (we could see the field; the roof was open that day).
       One of my goals on the trip was to see the Transvaalbuurt -- in the old-east section of Amsterdam -- and on our fourth day there, my cousin Heleen (with her husband Jacky) drove us there. It took some effort for Heleen, who grew up in the city and can maneuver the car in all sorts of situations), to find what we were looking for. 
       Then we found the street my Dad and his family lived, the location (38 Presidentbrandtstraat) and I stood in front of the new building on that spot. We saw where my Mom and her family lived (26 Maritzstraat).
       A week later, Bea and I toured the Jewish Historical Museum -- which in pictures, words and videos tells the story of Jewish life in Amsterdam and Holland -- and the magnificent Portuguese synagouge, built in the 1670s, home of the Sephardic Jews (my mother's tribe), known as the "Esnoga" and still in use. No heating/air conditioning, no lights (only candles).
               And we went to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the former theater which the Nazis used in the early 1940s as an assembly center for Jews being transported to concentration camps. It is now a memorial to those people, and here I could find -- now in digital form -- family members' names and histories.
        Finally, we walked to nearby Wertheim Park to see the Auschwitz memorial, which my Tante Eef (aunt) helped establish. Its broken-glass base is a vivid reminder.
      We then took the "17" tram from Centraal Station to the Kinkerbuurt -- our old neighborhood in old-west Amsterdam. It was a familiar route. 
       We exited the tram at Tenkadestraat (however, I had to ask a tram official for the exact stop), walked through the old market there, four blocks to Janhanzenstraat and then left, two blocks to No. 127. Our old house.
In front of my old school
      I saw it in 1991, and again in 2004, and ... it's still there; it's still the smallest house on the street. It was old when we lived there in the late 1940s/early 1950s; I hope it's been renovated.
        Down the street, the Kostverlorenkade and the big canal I consider the most beautiful in Amsterdam (maybe it isn't, but I think it is). Here, I went ice skating with my Dad when it froze over, and here my soccer ball ended up in the water ... more than a few times.
        We walked three blocks down and there was my old school. It's still there, it's still a Montessori school -- the oldest one in Amsterdam -- and the gate looks the same as it did when I went to school in grades 1-3.
       Think it wasn't a special feeling to see all these places again?
        Holland isn't home anymore; I was just a visitor, an American visitor, with a Dutch name and a Dutch heritage. But a piece of me, a piece of my family, will always be in this beautiful country.

The canal on the Kostverlorenkade ... my favorite
canal in Amsterdam, just down the street from our house.

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