On May 4th, the Netherlands holds memorial services across the country to reflect on a great historical wound, a time in the early 1940s which saw Jewish people deported from their tranquil lives en masse.
In Oosterparkbuurt, a vibrant, now affluent neighbourhood in the East of Amsterdam, locals and foreign visitors alike gathered in Kastanjeplein (Chestnut Square), a serene court which, after a few weeks of rain and warm weather, is now coated in a leafy green canopy. On May 4th, Kastanjeplein was transformed into a time memorial to commemorate the Jewish citizens whom had once upon a time called the neighbourhood home. Between 1942 and 1944, the Dutch Jewish community was systematically deported to camps in the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, where they were murdered.
The Kastanjeplein memorial event was entitled ”Namen & Nummers, tijdelijk monument voor een oneindig verlies” which translates to “Names and Numbers, temporary monument for an infinite loss”. It functioned like a ritual, during which people from all walks of life were invited to take part. The aim of the ritual was to symbolically return all of the Jewish people to their homes in the Oosterpark neighbourhood through a series of actions.
The first action was to receive a small name card with the handless face of a clock printed on the front page, which would serve as a map for the ritual. Next, participants spun a dial that had a number of Dutch words written on it, such as “herinneren” (to remember) and “verbinden” (to connect), which could be written down on the name card as a thought to keep in mind. Then, people gathered around an antique oak cabinet which had been placed on a large patterned rug, inside which clipboards of different streets in the neighbourhood could be found listing all the names of Jewish families and their addresses.
The purpose here was to choose a name in these archives, and write it on the tijdelijk name card – this person became the citizen which each individual would ritualistically return to their rightful home. I myself, being a resident of Oosterparkbuurt, leafed through the pages of Jewish people from my street (in their hundreds) to find a family that had lived at at my current address. I picked a name – a 17 year old boy named Benedictus Roeg whom had been living where my apartment now stands with his brothers, sisters and parents. The name of my street, incidentally, translates to “happy street”.
The selected names were then to be printed decoratively on wooden placards. Participants sat at tables together dusting down their placards, and attaching materials and brightly colored messages for the Jewish citizens. With the placards complete, the penultimate action was to follow a chalked train line around the perimeter of the square, which pointed to the directions of the camps which the Jewish were forcefully loaded off to, such as Camp Westerbork, a transit camp in Drenthe province, northeastern Netherlands. This train line ran in reverse however, away from the camps and back toward Amsterdam and the quaint community in which Kastanjeplein lies.
Having arrived ”home” with Benedictus Roeg, the final step was to place the wooden name card in the spot which marked where the person had lived. The organisers of the event helped participants to find the correct street number which had been mapped out on the ground, and invited us to say a final word before laying the person to rest. It was quite astounding to see how many hundreds of names lay across the square – just for one neighbourhood. A bell was then rung to symbolize the closing of the ritual.
The Kastanjeplein time monument was an inclusive, local remembrance event which had the affect of creating a space for people to spend time reflecting on the German occupation of the Netherlands and the subsequent brutality inflicted on Dutch and Jewish citizens alike in a personable and unique way. It is memorials like these which truly provide a form of immortality for the victims.
Later in the evening I observed Kastanjeplein from my balcony, from which an angelic sounding chorus began to emanate – crowds upon crowds of people had gathered to sing under the boughs of the chestnut trees, from which the pages of time fluttered gently in the breeze…