AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Seven decades after an artist proposed a monument inscribed with 100,000 individual names for each Dutch Jew murdered in the Holocaust, the vision was fulfilled by a “hidden child” survivor who lost at least 50 relatives in the German-led genocide.
On January 27, 80-year-old Jacque Grishaver will address the United Nations in New York for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The veteran activist will share details about his quest to build a “National Holocaust Namenmonument” (Names Monument) close to where he was born and grew up.
“I did this to bring back all the names,” Grishaver told The Times of Israel in an interview at the memorial, which was inaugurated by Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Grishaver in September 2021.
Chief among the obstacles faced by Grishaver and his Dutch Auschwitz Committee, he said, was finding a location for the memorial, with lawsuits filed by neighbors at two sites proposed for the Daniel Libeskind-designed complex.
“It has been a long struggle, but we were straight on, always,” said Grishaver, whose efforts earned him the Gold Medal of the City of Amsterdam and promotion to Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau (he was named a Knight in 2006).
The Namenmonument was built of 102,000 bricks that were each laser-inscribed with the name, date of birth, and age at death of a victim, including hundreds of non-Jews. The bricks form walls that appear maze-like when going through the memorial, but from above they form the Hebrew word for remember.
Looking up while walking through the memorial, the massive letters are capped by jagged, steel outlines that provide the Namenmonument’s characteristic mirror effect. In recent months, Libeskind received several awards and nominations for the Namenmonument, which is visible from the storied Portuguese Synagogue.
“Every day this week, there have been classes from school coming here,” said Grishaver, who spent 15 years on the project. “That is who we made it for.”
As chair of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee since 1998, Grishaver was determined to erect a monument similar to that envisioned by Dutch-Jewish artist Jaap Kaas after the war. In that proposal rejected by Jewish leaders, the name of each Dutch Jewish victim would have been restored in public.
Claiming the Kaas proposal felt like an “indictment” against Dutch society, the embattled post-war Jewish leaders opted instead to build a “Monument of Jewish Gratitude” centered on this text: “To the protectors of the Dutch Jews in years of occupation.”
Tucked away behind trees on busy Weesperstraat, the altar-like Monument of Jewish Gratitude (designed by Jobs Wertheim) stood for almost 70 years. Grishaver regularly biked past the edifice on the way to ballroom dancing lessons, he said, and the ground was often flooded.
“It is the most horrible monument that exists about the persecution of the Jews,” Grishaver said of the Monument of Jewish Gratitude.
During the Holocaust, the Netherlands saw close to 80% of its Jewish citizens deported and murdered, a higher proportion than any country in Western Europe.
‘Houses that were stolen from Jews’
On a drizzly December afternoon, Grishaver threads his way through the Namenmonument, sometimes striking up conversations with visitors.
At the start of his quest in 2006, the memorial seemed fated for Wertheim Park, next to the Hortus Botanical Gardens and rows of expensive houses. A group of neighbors, however, raised objections to the memorial’s construction in their suburban-like, shared backyard, and Grishaver’s committee was forced to look elsewhere.
“The people who took us to court, a lot of them live in houses stolen from Jews,” said Grishaver, who is known for his tenacity.
In 2016, a far busier site not far from Wertheim Park — adjacent to the Hermitage Museum and close to the Amstel River — was selected by the city’s mayor and Grishaver’s committee. Fittingly, the National Holocaust Namenmonument would replace the obscure Monument of Jewish Gratitude, to be relocated down the street.
But soon after the proposed site was announced, a new set of neighbors gathered to oppose construction, said Grishaver.
The main objection residents had to the Namenmonument, said Grishaver, was that 24 trees would have to be removed prior to construction.
“The trees were far more important than 100,000 people,” said Grishaver, whose committee was forced to pay hefty fees to litigate the matter, he said.
After the highest court in the Netherlands — the Council of State — rejected the neighborhood group’s argument, construction of the Namenmonument moved forward. At the end of 2019, ground was broken on soggy land where a row of buildings — demolished in the 1960s — once housed 240 Dutch Jews across 80 apartments.
From an arrangement in the middle of the complex, visitors sometimes take small white stones to place underneath the bricks. Others arrive to the Namenmonument with rocks already painted in memory of a relative or friend.
Every month, said Grishaver, city workers “fix up” the grounds “like in a cemetery.” The complex is sealed with large gates at night, while sophisticated security systems deter potential vandals.
In November, said Grishaver, 150 names were added to a small wall with 1,000 uninscribed bricks. Sent to Namenmonument officials by researchers and members of the public, the names were confirmed to be Holocaust victims by Dutch historians.
Strolling around the Namenmonument he brought to life, Grishaver said, he draws hope for the future. According to estimates, up to 1,500 people walk through the complex on a daily basis, including the school groups Grishaver kept in mind during 15 years of relentless advocacy.
“I hear sometimes young people looking at the age of the victims and they ask why there is a kid who was [murdered at the age of] six months old,” said Grishaver.
“Younger people are more open to learn about this [history], but older people say that was a long time ago,” said the survivor.
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