AMSTERDAM — It’s the Dutch Holocaust memorial everyone says they want to see built — just not in their neighborhood.
Early last year, Amsterdam’s mayor endorsed the creation of the Netherlands’ first Holocaust memorial to include the names of more than 102,000 Jewish victims deported and murdered from that country. It was relatively clear sailing until memorial planners zoomed in on secluded Wertheim Park — close to what the city declared a Jewish Cultural Quarter in 2012 — as their preferred site.
Claiming they were presented with “a done deal” last March, a group of residents living close to the park has consistently opposed constructing the $6.8 million Holocaust memorial in their neighborhood. “Not in our garden” has been a common refrain, with opponents demanding the city have the Shoah edifice built anywhere but in the heart of their leafy Plantage district.
Named for a prominent nineteenth century Jewish philanthropist, Wertheim Park is close to Amsterdam’s surviving historic synagogues, as well as buildings connected to the deportation of Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust. Just around the corner is the legendary Artis Zoo, where dozens of Jews hid among the animals to avoid capture by the Nazis and Dutch “bounty hunters.”
Designed by Polish-born Daniel Libeskind, the proposed Memorial of Names will be a maze-like path of ascending and descending walls, on which will appear the names of more than 102,000 victims, including 220 Sinti and Roma. At night, the path between the walls will be lit from below — “because names are also lights,” said Libeskind, designer of Berlin’s Jewish Museum and New York City’s World Trade Center master plan.
Seeking to keep their relatively secluded streets off the tourist track, plan opponents have hung “Trees, Not Buses” banners from Wertheim Park’s fences, a reference to the 200,000 tourists projected to visit the memorial each year. That would be about one-fifth the visitors received annually by the Anne Frank House across town, which “adopted” the names of the seven murdered “Secret Annex” inhabitants for 50 Euros each in a Memorial of Names fundraiser.
“This is an important monument and it shouldn’t be built in hostile surroundings,” said Amsterdam city council head Boudewijn Oranje last year, responding to opponents’ claim the memorial would look “ridiculous” in their small dog park, which — at 7,500-square meters — is larger than a football field.
As the memorial’s stewards, members of the Amsterdam-based Dutch Auschwitz Committee have said the opposing neighbors’ concerns are not tied to reality.
“The opponents are mostly uninformed and their arguments are based on nothing,” said Naomi Koster, the committee’s secretary.
“It’s a small group of highly educated people — lawyers, journalists, etc. — who are not against the memorial itself, but would rather not see it in their own backyard,” Koster told The Times of Israel in an interview last week.
Among what Koster called the neighbors’ “misunderstandings,” the claim that an 11,000 square-foot Holocaust memorial will kill the park’s open space is particularly off the mark, she said. The completed memorial will fill just 9% of the existing park, which itself will be expanded onto an adjacent field to accommodate the memorial.
“We are quite sure that if we would want to erect the memorial in any other park in Amsterdam, there would be an equal amount of neighbors’ resistance,” said Koster. “Most of the people would say they are not against the memorial, but that it is not appropriate for their neighborhood,” she said.
In addition to concerns about aesthetics and tourist infrastructure, something more is at play along the Plantage neighborhood’s picturesque canals, said Koster.
‘We are quite sure that if we would want to erect the memorial in any other park in Amsterdam, there would be an equal amount of neighbors’ resistance’
“The park is now mainly used as a spot to walk dogs, and the opponents of the memorial have said it’s not pleasant to be confronted with names of Holocaust victims,” she told The Times. “It’s not a reminder that anyone wants in their backyard,” she said.
According to Koster, the project remains “held up until further notice,” with city officials mulling over neighbors’ objections and holding meetings. Having originally envisioned a spring 2015 completion date for their monument, the committee was told last week to expect a final decision from the city council by 2016, said Koster.
Unbeknownst to even some of its visitors, the shady Wertheim Park is already home to an obscure, almost invisible Auschwitz memorial.
Installed in 1993, “Broken Mirrors” is composed of six cracked mirror panels, under which an urn with the ashes of victims from Auschwitz was buried. Surrounded by bushes and trees, the ground-level monument is hard to spot from within the park itself, much less the street, though it is the site of an annual memorial gathering.
Viewing their proposed Memorial of Names structure as a companion to the humble, often-defaced Auschwitz monument, the Dutch Auschwitz Committee worked with Libeskind to thematically integrate the structures in his master plan.
“It is important to have the memorial erected in this particular park, because the ashes of Holocaust victims are already buried beneath the Auschwitz monument,” said Koster. “The Memorial of Names will function as the tombstone on the grave of all these victims,” she said.
‘It is important to have the memorial erected in this particular park, because the ashes of Holocaust victims are already buried beneath the Auschwitz monument’
In Libeskind’s words, reinterpreting Broken Mirrors as the entrance to his winding “path of light” will ensure the project “is not a competition of memory, but an enhancement of memory.”
Though some neighbors are vehemently opposed to ground being broken on the memorial, major civic groups — including the Society of Friends of Amsterdam City Centre — have voiced support for Wertheim Park as an ideal site.
“The physical damage to the park is not such that it justifies an objection,” said the group in a statement last year. “The position of the memorial along the side of the old park means that it has little or no negative effect on the values of the park at stake, such as its plan and composition,” noted the society, which also pointed to several “positive” plan elements like an extended waterfront footpath, and the importance of the memorial itself.
Several memorials featuring the names of Holocaust victims have been constructed across Europe in recent years, from Paris to Budapest and Auschwitz itself. In part because the Netherlands lost a larger share of its Jewish population than other countries, Holocaust memory has long been divisive in Dutch society.
When Amsterdam’s remnant Jewish community constructed its first post-Holocaust edifice in 1950, it was named — perhaps somewhat astoundingly — the Monument of Jewish Gratitude
When Amsterdam’s remnant Jewish community constructed its first post-Holocaust edifice in 1950, it was named — perhaps somewhat astoundingly — the Monument of Jewish Gratitude. Not far from Wertheim Park but on a major thoroughfare, it is an imposing, white limestone altar in honor of Dutch citizens who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
This Monument of Jewish Gratitude was built on the literal ruins of the extinct Jewish Quarter, and half a decade before the country’s official war monument went up in Dam Square. Along with Anne Frank’s diary, the Monument of Gratitude enhanced the image of Dutch citizens as “helpers” of Jews and brave resisters, as opposed to Nazi collaborators who greased the wheels of genocide.
In recent years, Amsterdam has followed the lead of Berlin and Vienna by installing “Stumbling Stones” outside some of the former homes of murdered Jews. The Dutch Auschwitz Committee hopes its Memorial of Names will take Holocaust memory to the next level, supplementing projects like the stones and symbolic Jewish Cultural Quarter with something on a grander scale.
“My personal connection as a child of Holocaust survivors made it increasingly important to be a part of this significant project,” Daniel Libeskind told The Times of Israel in a statement. “My goal is it will become a place for contemplation, reflection, and hope for the people of the Netherlands and beyond,” he said.
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