A very fine, if not exactly intentional, purpose for historic preservation is to keep dead people alive. Having spent the past several years living in Amsterdam and researching a book about its history, I now find that virtually anywhere I walk in this city, whose center has been so tenderly and smartly maintained, I am jostled by ghosts.
Some ghosts are not attached to a particular street or neighborhood but are coaxed into being by a mood that settles over the city. In the 1870s a mercurial 24-year-old Dutchman from the southern part of the country spent a year here.
He came intending to train for the ministry, but discovered that he wasn’t suited for it. Instead, he roamed Amsterdam’s quays and harborfront, seething, fuming, confused, occasionally erupting with joy at things he observed: “these old, narrow, rather somber streets,” “a canal lined with elm trees,” “a stormy sky with big clouds reflecting in puddles on the ground.”
He didn’t realize it, but Vincent van Gogh, although not yet an artist, was already painting, with words.
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Of all the ghosts of Amsterdam, though, two stand far above the rest — Rembrandt and Anne Frank.
A painter’s legacy
In the heart of Amsterdam a little iron drawbridge crosses the Kloveniersburgwal canal. Standing in the middle of it gives a panorama of views: up and down the canal, through a tiny cafe-cluttered street, down yet another street, through an ancient gateway into a courtyard, and to a place where the waters that flow through and around the city execute a complicated branching maneuver.
As Gary Schwartz, a U.S.-born Rembrandt scholar, once pointed out to me, from this spot you take in the Amsterdam that the greatest-ever Dutch master experienced.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden, 30 miles away, but came to Amsterdam in his 20s. And once he arrived, he seems not only never to have left, but by and large to have restricted himself to this little zone.
Rembrandt figures so thoroughly in Amsterdam, I think, because he is intimately associated with the city’s greatest achievement. Amsterdam in his era pioneered many of the concepts embedded in the term “liberal,” which I mean not in the sex-and-drugs permissive sense (although that would come too) but as a philosophy based on the individual and individual freedom.
Amsterdam led the rest of Europe away from the dogma that all authority came from monarch and church; rather, this new philosophy held, truth was based on reason — in the words of the Frenchman René Descartes, who also lived in Amsterdam — on “the mind and its good sense.” Central to this was a new awareness of oneself as an individual distinct from the group. And an outgrowth of this awareness was a sudden fascination with the human face — with portraits.
Rembrandt fed the portrait craze. We remember him for his dizzying output and his dexterity with so many styles of painting.
But his fame among his contemporaries came from his way with faces: his ability not just to paint what people looked like on the outside, but also to give a sense, which was shockingly and exhilaratingly new at the time, of the person within.
In one two-year period, he churned out 42 portraits, many of people who lived in the houses in this neighborhood.
The ghosts of Rembrandt’s friends populate this neighborhood as well, and they too have associations with the city’s liberal heritage. The focus on the individual and the secular put Amsterdam at the cutting edge of science.
The square called the Nieuwmarkt, a short distance away from the bridge, is dominated by a squat medieval building called de Waag, or Weigh House.
Today its ground floor accommodates a restaurant; in the 17th century its upper chamber was the city’s anatomical theater. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the city’s chief physician, performed public dissections here, and in the winter of 1631-2 (dissections took place in winter because the cold kept the stench down), the young Rembrandt tramped up here to make studies for what would be his first great painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”
A young girl’s legacy
Two years ago, my daughter and I took a walk together across Amsterdam, following in the footsteps of the historical figure who has become, so to speak, the city’s most famous export.
Eva was 14 at the time, the same age as Anne Frank when she set out on her much more somber walk, as she, her father and her mother left their apartment for good and walked to her father’s company, where a secret space had been built to house them.
Probably every visitor to the city knows the Anne Frank House (now a museum), where the girl and her family, along with a few other people, hid from the Nazis, and where Anne wrote her diary.
The city the Franks walked through had been surprisingly calm for a time after the Nazi invasion. But then came the military vehicles of the occupiers. The razzias, roundups of Jews, began.
The Franks were on foot that morning because Jews had been barred from public transportation (and from parks, libraries and restaurants). The great gift of the age of Rembrandt — the ennobling of the individual human — was about to be ruthlessly stripped away.
Worse still, Amsterdammers themselves assisted in this violent betrayal of their liberal tradition. The city’s efficient administrators made it easier for Nazis to identify and remove Jews. As a result, a much greater percentage of Jews were murdered during the war than those of any other country. Amsterdam before the Holocaust had 80,000 Jews; Today there are about 15,000.
Anne and her parents made it safely to the placid district of the central canals, the main tourist zone today, which had been built in the city’s Golden Age heyday. They slipped into the building where Otto Frank, Anne’s father, worked, and remained there until, two years later, they were caught and shipped off to concentration camps.
This girl who would soon have the life crushed out of her represents not just the others who died without leaving words behind, but all of us. She showed us what human individuality is.
And she did it, surprisingly enough, in the same way Rembrandt did: by creating a portrait.