18 May 2011

Vanished Amsterdam

Jodenbreestraat in the 1940s, with the Rembrandt's house at the right corner

You can stroll through the old center of Amsterdam this very evening, and realise somewhere along the way that you might just as well be strolling through 17th or 18th century Amsterdam. Unless you are strolling through the area of the old Jewish district, that is: on Waterlooplein, in the Jodenbreestraat or on Nieuwmarkt.
Let's say you are.
The year is 1930. The old Jewish district has over centuries past developed a special and distinct atmosphere. The inhabitants are extremely poor here, but the street life is all the more colourful for that. Jews are everywhere. They represent about 13 per cent of the Amsterdam population, and many of them live in this very area. By now, Jews have been living in Amsterdam for over 400 years and as much as 90 per cent of the population in this area are Jewish. The wealthy Jews live along the nearby canals and in the Plantage neighbourhood, but they are really all over the city. After all, half of the stalls on the Albert Cuypmarkt are Jewish. As are all the big department stores: the Bijenkorf, Metz & Co, Maison De Bonneterie..., and the atmospheric Tuschinski movie theatre.
You are therefore strolling through the heart of Mokum: for the year is 1930 and the city is still Jewish. This is the Jerusalem of the West. It is here that the main European synagogues were built. And above all, this is where there has always been a large open-air market with stalls. That's why you are here, and you are here every weekend. You know that in the old days the fish market was held along the Houtgracht canal, the vegetable market beside the Mozes and Aaron Church, and the hay market along the Leprozengracht: the canal of the lepers.

Leprozengracht canal with view of the Mozes and Aaron Church, prior to the creation of the Waterlooplein square

In 1882, however, both canals were filled up and turned into a huge windy Waterlooplein square. At the time of your stroll, there is no opera house on the square yet. It's just a large, open square full of stalls. You were also strolling here two days ago, on Friday morning, when the stalls were only being prepared. It really looked exactly like Sani van Bossum vividly described:
“Friday morning in the wee small hours, people are putting up stalls… there’s so much to be done. The boards must be laid out across the packing cases, and the baskets must be lined with clean newspaper, the fruit must be arranged attractively, so that the oranges whose scent wafting towards you makes your heart lift, stand out among the luxuriant bunches of grapes and the soft blushing peaches. Glory be, what a display! It’s a work of art! The passers-by have to stop and gaze and their shopping baskets open of their own accord and their mouths begin to water and out comes their money. Then they buy this and that and the stallholders have a blessed Friday with enough money earned by the end of the day to make a good Shabbat!”

2011 Exhibition on Waterlooplein of the former Jewish market at Waterlooplein

Now let's go back to 2011. Where in 1930 there was a huge Jewish bazaar, there is now no bazaar and there are no Jews. Even the large market square is gone.
“I see my shadow dancing on the stalls,” Ed Hoornik, a Dutch poet, prophetically wrote in 1938. “The train to Berlin only takes ten hours.”
Only four years later, the train with number 11537 began regularly transporting Jews to Westerbork, from where they were taken on to the extermination camps. Abram Icek Tuschinski was one of them.

The demarcation of the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam in the 1940s, at Nieuwmarkt

This regular train line was cancelled in September 1943. It was no longer needed.
For nearly a year, the old Jewish district lay dormant and silent, a ghostly city within a city. Finally, in the hungry and cold winter of 1944/45, Amsterdammers looted the district in droves and destroyed even what little there was left of it.
So the 5,000 surviving Jewish Amsterdammers (out of 80,000), in 1945, had no home whatsoever to return to.
In the absence of Jews who co-created this city over the centuries, their shadows are everywhere. Many streets still bear Jewish names. The particular slang of Amsterdammers still uses Yiddish words. Amsterdammers still refer to Amsterdam as Mokum. Mokum... the Yiddish name that was lovingly given to the city by the Jewish Amsterdammers: 'the place'.

17 May 2011


Gallows, eerily sung by CocoRosie. CocoRosie is an indie 'freak folk' act by sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady. The name of the band, apparently, is an amalgam of their mother's nickname for each of them. Bianca is Coco. Sierra is Rosie.
Coco and Rosie like to play with the sound: they are known to have borrowed sounds from a snake charmer's flute, squeaky forgotten wind-up toys and kittens (mewling).
The song 'Gallows' is taken from the CocoRosie's forth album ('Grey Oceans', 2010). The video, all gothic, was directed by one Emma Freeman. Freeman also directed CocoRosie's video for 'Lemonade'.

16 May 2011


Russian and German soldiers celebrating the truce on the eastern front (1918).
Photographer unknown.

15 May 2011

Admiral Benbow Inn

In ‘t Aepjen is a remnant of the time when Zeedijk was a sea wall, protecting Amsterdam from the Zuiderzee. The sea is now long gone, but the old sailors’ tavern survived where even sea couldn’t.

Upon entering, one cannot help but scan the inn for Long John Silver and his parrot…
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Everywhere, there are references to monkeys (aepjen is an old Dutch word for 'a monkey'). In its sea-faring days, the tavern was swarming with monkeys that the sailors brought from their voyages. Monkeys were the seamen's currency: this is how seamen, when down on their luck, paid the inn-keeper for the lodgings.

And seamen certainly were down on their luck. To enlist on the ship headed for the East Indies was tentamount to suicide. “The recruiting of hands for the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) ships,” writes Geert Mak, “was usually carried out by so-called zielverkopers or ‘soul merchants’. These plucked men off the streets and provided them with food and shelter until such time as the VOC made it known, amid much drumming and trumpeting, that it needed men. The soul merchants then put down the names of their ‘guests’ as crew and pocketed most of the premium as payment for their lodging.” Between 1700 and 1800, a total of 671,000 men set sail for East Indies. Of these, only 266,000 returned.

In ‘t Aepjen is one of precious few reminders left to us of that old, sea-faring Amsterdam. At Zeedijk number 1, this is the first inn that the seamen would stumble against, on their way from the harbour. Every single one of them, ever since 1560, must have walked in for a drink at least once.

On the odd Saturday, old sea chanties are still being sung here. An adventurous soul can still take up lodgings in the rooms above (via the Barbizon). If traveling with monkeys, please contact the inn-keeper for the exchange rate.

11 May 2011


Amstelredamum, Nobile Inferioris Germaniae Oppidum
Map Maker: Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg (1572, Cologne)

A view of Amsterdam from IJ, drawn by Pieter van der Keere (1618)

Crane booms, drawn by J.C. Greive Jr. (1850-1860)

EVEN AS LATE AS 1880, a traveler would enter Amsterdam through a harbour. The harbour stretched out over some three kilometres exactly where the Centraal Station now stands. Alongside this slowly curving bay, in the words of Geert Mak, a complete waterscape with a forest of masts, flags, towers and big wooden wharfs (for constructing ships) had come into being, subdivided by pontoons.

“This waterscape,” explains Mak, “had a structure of its own, and there were even a number of buildings on stilts seemingly lost amid the ships: shipping offices, a platform on which there were two wooden cranes, guardhouses, dredging mills, the “tree bell” which was sounded each evening when the booms were lowered to close the city’s access to the sea […] and finally a special inn, a substantial wooden building catering to those foreigners who were not permitted to enter the city.”

If the traveler was permitted to enter the city, he would continue to sail or row himself into Damrak. The cargo was rowed ashore from the larger vessels, while smaller ships took their cargo and passengers on to the Dam. Damrak canal that ran through the spot where the National Monument stands was, too, full of ships.

River Amstel flowing through Damrak (cca 1690)

This is how you should start exploring Amsterdam. Draw in your mind the contours of the city walls and erase the Centraal Station. Imagine you are sailing into the city from the IJ. As you walk along the streets, fill them up in your mind with water and let your imagination sail you along the narrow streets that were once much wider canals. Start at Zeedijk number 1, where In 't Aepjen - an old sailors’ tavern, one of only two remaining timber houses - still stands at your service with a bottle of whisky and a lodging room. Then sail on and pass those windows with red lights… only imagine the ladies dressed, and holding a red lantern... luring you on, into a narrower, darker canal… Their teeth sizzling white in the glow of the red lantern, against the absolute pitch darkness of the nights in the Amsterdam of old.

10 May 2011

Secret Cinema

An old secret by now, 'Secret Cinema' (launched by Future Shorts) is a series of secret monthly film screenings. Where and when is only disclosed to the subscribers, and even then only on the very morning of the screening.
Subscribers receive elaborate instructions that include more or less clear clues for appropriate attire (read: costume). You will likely be led from the meeting point to a further undisclosed venue.
As for the film shown: you need to wait until you are brought to the screening location. In the concrete event posted about above, the subscribers were met by the Utopia Skyways staff who would fly them to a new colony.
The 'cinema' location will probably already give the secret film away, as you will be met there by a hundred or so actors in tell-tale costumes reenacting scenes from the still undisclosed film along your way.
"Screens pulsed, neon sizzled, strange men approached me carrying snakes (real) and eyeballs (probably fake)," reported the spectators. "There were bars, live music, strippers, huge video screens, food stalls, robots and replicants."
To get a feel of the impressive visuals and the elaborated interactive programme surrounding the screening, read this review.
Oh, may the next one be the '73 'Wicker Man'!

02 May 2011

North sea

'Ine and the children at the beach', a photograph by Kors van Bennekom (1959, from the 'De familie Van Bennekom' series).