Friday, August 22, 2014

Taking a job, and a tram ride, in Amsterdam

(31st in a series)
      I remember the uniform, especially the hat, and the whistle, and the coin dispenser. My Dad's tram conductor/driver uniform in Amsterdam.
      Dad (Louis Van Thyn) would remind me that when I was a pre-schooler in the late 1940s/early 1950s, I would play with that hat and the whistle and the coin dispenser, and I'd want to go with him when it was time to go to work.
Family portrait, late 1947, Amsterdam -- my father in his
 streetcar conductor's uniform.
      For a little more than nine years, late 1946  to late 1955, Dad's job was to guide people on the tram (streetcar) or to drive them. And he always felt blessed to have had the job. Just as he was  later in the United States, where he worked for one company for 29 years, he was content.
      Because when he and my mother returned from living in Antwerp, Belgium, before they married in October 1946, he needed to find a job. It hadn't worked out in Belgium; Mom had never lived anywhere outside of Amsterdam -- you don't call three years of being a Nazi work camp/concentration camp prisoner living -- and Dad had no idea of what to do, how to start their lives again.
      He knew he couldn't work inside; learning diamond cutting was no longer for him. He had to be outside; he had to be among people. He loved to talk; anyone who knew him fairly well in Shreveport-Bossier and the United States (and even those who didn't know him well) could sense that.
      One possibility, I suppose, would have been a job with the company in his old neighborhood, the one his mother and several family members had worked for in the late 1920s and 1930s -- De Vries van Buuren. According to the IAmsterdam web site: The 100-year-old firm, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, was a major textile wholesaler; it produced ready-made garments, such as the ones sewn by Dad's mother. By 1927, it was located in a complex of buildings near the Rembrandt House.
      It had a mainly Jewish staff in the pre-war days, and it was closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. But the war years wiped out much of the staff. By 1954, the company moved and it closed in 1983.
      And probably the company brought bad memories for Dad on his return to Amsterdam.
      So being a conductor on a tram route turned out just right. But it took a little good fortune. As a Holocaust survivor, maybe he was due that.
       "I was glad to get a job in Amsterdam," he said in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview. "There was an ad in the paper in Amsterdam [looking] for some [tram] conductors, and you had to be 1 meter 70, and I was 1 meter 69. I know that.
      "And I come to that [company] office from [in] the city, and I stand on my toes, with my heels a little bit up. It worked. They put down 1 meter 70. [Then] I had to take a second examination somewhere else and I did the same thing (stood on his toes), and they saw that.
      "And [the man] says I cannot take you, you are 1 centimeter too short. I say, 'I need a job. I was so many years in the camps, I need to work, I got to make a living [his voice raising]. There's nothing else that I know.' And he let me go [through]."
      The job -- and the uniform -- was his. It was the start he needed, and soon enough, he and my mother received a big surprise. Late in 1946 or early 1947, unexpectedly they found out they would be parents. I was due in mid-August; I arrived in mid-June, a tiny baby bound for an incubator and not ready to come home until nearly two months later.
      In my first 8 1/2 years, in Amsterdam, we rode the tram often. We did not have a car; few people in The Netherlands did. My parents each had bikes, and I remember some long trips on the back of those bikes -- me riding behind Dad, my younger sister Elsa riding behind Mom. Other long trips we took by train.
      I remember going into downtown Amsterdam one evening near Christmas time; I remember all the lights -- red, green, yellow -- and how festive it looked. I remember going there another day for the arrival of St. Nicholas, riding his white horse in the parade, surrounded by his Zwarte Piet helpers.
      I remember another day -- this stuck in my mind -- that we were supposed to meet Dad and ride the tram he was driving (think he would've charged us?). But instead of stopping, the tram flew past us and Dad never even looked at us. The story was he had a medical emergency on board; he was rushing toward the nearest hospital.
      For a young boy, it felt like Dad had abandoned us. I don't know if Elsa remembers it, maybe she was too young. 
      I've gone back to The Netherlands three times since we came to the U.S.; the first two times with Dad. One of the great pleasures of those trips was to ride the trams again, and to watch Dad's great delight in doing so. I remember that a couple of times he would sit right behind the driver and talk to him about the days -- 35, 50 years before -- when he was the driver.
Jan and Lena DeVries -- my mother's
aunt and her second husband; they
lived two houses to our right.
      He still could remember the routes for each of the lines that he drove. And I can tell that line No. 17 from Centraal Station on the edge of downtown runs to our old neighborhood and a five-block walk to our old house at 131 Jan Hanzenstraat in the Old West part of Amsterdam.
      "We lived in Amsterdam in a house what still is there," Dad said in 1996. (It was still true when Bea and I took the tram to the neighborhood and the walk to the house a year ago.)
      "But it was a two-story house; you don't have too many two-story houses there," Dad added. "An uncle from Rose had a house and he married her aunt, and that house came empty, and you could not find a house [in that post-World War II era). That was a big, big shortage of houses in Holland. But he let us use that house. We moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and we got that house."
      The uncle was Philip Kopuit -- my grandmother's brother. He had died while in hiding with his wife and son (my mother's cousin) in South Holland during the war. His widow was my mother's aunt, Helena -- Tante Lena, as we called her. She remarried after the war, a tall, bald man with a wooden leg -- Jan DeVries (Oome Jan for us). They lived two houses to our right.
      "A two-story house," Dad repeated in the interview. "There was no bathroom; no bath -- you had to go to a bathhouse. Two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. ... We find out when we left that the house had not a wall on the side. Next to the wall, it was just bricks. It was cold all the time in that house and the wallpaper was on the back side of the man's house next door. So old; that house was about 200 years old.
      "But we lived happy over there."
       I take his word for that. I do remember the house; it was tiny; it was crowded. It had a backyard, no bigger than the room I'm sitting in as I type this. And, yes, the house was cold. I can see the coal stacked up, ready to put into the furnace.
      (And on each of my trips back, I have gone to that old street, to that old house, to the beautiful big canal just down the way, to my first school three blocks away. I know the way there.)
      My mother hated that cold -- and in Holland, it was often cold. I don't know if she lived happy there. I know that by 1955, she was ready to leave -- not only that house; she was ready to leave the country.
      "I start as a conductor in Amsterdam and then later on I become a streetcar driver," Dad said of his job. "And a month before I left Holland, I decided I would try for bus driver. That was all one company, and that would've been a promotion. But I quit [to go to the United States]."
       What he did not know until more than a decade later was that he could have had a better position.
       "One of my superiors was a sea captain before he took a job as an inspector with the city," Dad said. "I was real close with that man; he was [a member] in the same union. When I in 1968 was back in Holland, he said, 'Louis, I go tell you a secret now. When you was ready to quit the streetcar company, you was ready for promotion to be an inspector.
       'But I was in America before the war,' " the man added. " 'I know what America was. I was not ready to stop you. I could've [tried] to keep you over here and told you you were ready for a promotion, but I not want to stop you.' "
       I'm sure that my Dad thanked him for that. I'm also sure that I'm grateful to that man. Because on Dec. 28, 1955, we took the boat to America. The streetcar uniform became only a memory.
       (Next: Dad, his first cousin and the estate)

1 comment:

  1. From John W. Marshall III: This series on your Dad is really fascinating and compelling. And a priceless treasure of a history. You’ve done an amazing job on it. I love the way your Dad talked on that audio narration. Awesome picture of your mother holding you, and Louis in his uniform. Must’ve been really neat driving and conducting that trolley in Amsterdam back then.