Amsterdam ‘Jewish Houses’ Project Hits Home

Associated Press correspondent Toby Sterling discovers the tragic history of the Amsterdam building he lives in.

AMSTERDAM Millions of tourists have visited the cramped quarters where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis while writing the diary that so powerfully conveyed the horror of the Holocaust.

This week I discovered a link shockingly close to home: It turns out I live in a building and have lived in the very apartment where two Jews were deported and later murdered in Auschwitz.

AP

A project called Jewish Houses, part of yesterday’s commemorations of World War II victims, asked Amsterdam residents like me to put up posters marking the 21,662 houses where Jews are known to have lived before the community was systematically killed in Nazi concentration camps.

The May 4-5 Committee, named for the dates the Netherlands mourns the war dead and celebrates its liberation from German occupation in 1945, worked with Jewish organizations, city archives, and an art think-tank to create an Internet database searchable by name or address.

I typed my street name in, and it came up instantly. Hemonystraat 46, third floor: Elsje Wagenhuizen, died at Auschwitz October 1, 1942, and Arnold Kater, died at Auschwitz December 7, 1942.

It sent a chill through me. I’m not Jewish, but that wouldn’t have made any difference to Hitler: Under Germany’s 1935 Nuremburg laws, I am half-Jewish, which would have been enough to condemn me. My Jewish grandparents emigrated to the United States before Hitler’s rise.

I own half the building, together with another American and our Dutch wives. I resolved to find out what I could about the former inhabitants.

The city archives provided sketchy details. Birth dates made Wagenhuizen and Kater 53 and 54 years old, respectively, when they died. Wagenhuizen, a seamstress, was the eldest daughter of a large family. She lived alone with her father in the apartment until his death in 1934, and then apparently stayed on.

Less is known about Kater, who is listed in the archives as a traveling salesman and had no known surviving family.

A helpful archivist cross-checked their files with the city’s marriage database to confirm they were not married. Were they lovers? There’s no way to know. Like many people in hard times, they may have just roomed together to save on rent.

Jewish Houses spokeswoman Olivia Somsen said it proved relatively easy to create the database: Amsterdam was notoriously efficient at registering and deporting its Jews.

Bureaucrats even created a map for the Germans, marking each house with a Jew with a black dot.

Jews made up 10 percent of the city’s 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.

Somsen said the project has drawn strong reactions. Some find it creepy, others, depressing. Many, like me, were surprised to learn their neighborhoods were once strongly Jewish.

One man, Kenneth Kuhn, uncovered living relatives in Canada of the Jews who had lived in his house and obtained photographs of them which he printed and hung in his window.

“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.”