Granddad and the February Strike

Threatening grey clouds streaked overhead, chased by a cold, blustery February afternoon wind. It seemed to chill me to the bone, exposed as I was sitting on my granddad’s shoulders. But I did not care, I could see al around the square that seemed huge to me,  filled as it was with a dense mass of grimly silent people in dark clothes, gathered around a statue. The statue was of a chunky, muscled dock-worker. It was the type of man I had always seen around me while a grew up. Going to and from his job at  the docks and the shipyards; tough and honest, loyal friend and indomitable foe, quick to laugh and fast with his fists of steel.

Dokwerker“Who is that statue for?” I asked my granddad
“For the Amsterdam dockyard men, who started the first strike against the Germans during the occupation of Holland.”
“What –?” I started to ask, but my granddad whispered “Sshh” and he took of his black beret. An old, crippled man mounted a small platform and when he started to speak, an awesome silence fell. He spoke for a while in a fervent voice, filled with emotion but his words were much to grand and too involved for me. However,  I caught the words “Jewish citizens” and “Germans” and “resistance”. Then it was all over and everyone assembled in the square formed a line as long as the eye could see and started walking slowly past the statue. Many of them had been carrying flowers and as they placed them at its foot, it seemed to me that the solitary figure of that stocky man was riding a wave in a sea of a commemorative flowers.

Dokwerker_kranslegging_3_beste_0

“Granddad,  why did the Germans come to Holland?” I asked timidly as we started our walk back home.
“Because they were greedy; they wanted to possess all of Europe. They came across the border as thieves in the night and when the Dutch soldiers kept on fighting, they bombed Rotterdam, killing I don’t know how many people. And then they occupied our country.”
“What does ‘occupying’ mean”, I asked, not sure if I would like the answer.
“It means that foreigners, who have no goddam business to be here at all, grab your country and start telling you what to do. And if you protest they lock you up and shoot you later.”
“You mean they would  kill me if I protested?”
“Yes; and that was the reason for that big strike in February 1941”, granddad said somberly. “There had been a fight between German police and Amsterdam protesters and the next day the Germans picked up hundreds of people who had nothing to do with that fight and threw them in jail .”
“But that’s not fair!” I exclaimed.
“No; but they didn’t care. They wanted to show who is boss. And the Amsterdam people were furious and started a strike.”
“What is a ‘strike’?” I asked, out of my depth again.
“When people strike, they refuse to work. It started in the docks here in Amsterdam, then the tram-people stopped working and before you knew it, the whole city had come to a standstill.”
“And then?” I asked; it sounded like an adventure novel.
“The strike lasted a couple of days and the Germans were furious. They picked up hundreds of people and killed a number of them. The others were sent away to camps in Germany. Most of them never came back.”

Dokwerker_Razzia

I looked back over my shoulder at the square we just had left. Seen from this distance, the large crowd still marching past the statue was dominated by a high building.
Granddad saw what I was looking at. “Yes, that is the Synagogue, the Jewish church. We commemorate the strike in this place because soon afterwards, the Germans started to pick up our Jewish neighbors and friends and took them away. Most of them never came back – they were murdered.”
For a while we walked on in silence, my granddad lost in his thoughts and I trying to understand what I had just learned. Then he looked at me and said, “That is why we go that place every year on the 25th of February; to show that we will not forget the people that died then.”
I looked over my shoulder again and had the impression I could see the shadowy forms of a multitude of people hovering around the square and the synagogue and the crowd still marching past the statue. I shivered; for the first time I had an inkling of the horrible things that had happened in this area of my hometown.

 

— to be continued —

The Weekend

Part five of “The Golden Years”

Weekends were the high-spot of the week for me.
On Saturday morning, I would cross the street to my grandmother’s apartment. Together we would walk up to the docks and sit in the echoing office hall, together with some other women and children. After a bit of a wait, my granddad would came through the door, in the midst of a noisy crowd of dockyard mates. They would line up in front of the cashiers window to get their wages paid out one by one.

My grandmother would go up to the window when it was my granddads turn and she would watch critically as the bills and coins were counted out. She would slowly recount the little bundle of money and put it in her bag. Then, she would resolutely hook her arm through his and the three of us would walk out, in the wake of the other married women and their husbands and children.
We would walk all the way back into town, past bars that seemed to be very busy and past nice looking ladies that stood in doorways and smiled at me. I loved that part of town; its narrow streets and ancient houses, little shops that sold everything you could think of. But on Saturday afternoon, grandma never went into those. We kept on walking until we reached the market and there she had her preferred butcher and stalls for fish and poultry and vegetables.

Streetmarket_2_Lindengracht
“Always watch their hands”, she told me as we waited for oranges to be packed in a paper bag. “And always point out what you want; otherwise they’ll give you the crap they keep at the back.”
When the shopping was done, she would march us home, to a glorious dinner of fresh white bread and smoked fish. And I would get my weekly treat: a bottle of fizzy fruit juice.

After dinner, Granddad and I would go for a walk and we always stopped at a little bar close to the marshalling yards. I would get lemonade and granddad always had a beer. I liked the place; it was dark and brown, with sand on the floor. The tables were a bit sticky from spilled drinks and it had that peculiar smell of and old, old bar.
“Make sure you will have time for yourself when you grow up. You work all week but you need one afternoon for yourself”, my granddad would say while he visibly relaxed in one of the hard chairs near a window that looked out over the Navy yard.

Cafe_1
On Sunday morning granddad and I would get up early. Sometimes it was barely light when he fetched his fishing rods. The two of us would cycle to the edge of the big canal and find nice spot and cast out, whispering to each other because the world was still quiet. There were no barges coming down from the docks or steamers going up to the locks. Even the factories were silent and I could hear the birds and the gentle slap of the waves against the pilings and the cry of a lonely seagull floating effortlessly high above us. Every now and then one of us would catch something but we always threw them back; the war was over said my granddad and there was better food now.
The rest of the Sunday would pass quietly; Granddad would sit in his easy chair, with a crossword puzzle and a small glass of genever. Grandma would sit with her knitting on the other side of the single window that illuminated the living room, looking occasionally out into the narrow street lined with somber houses and commenting on what see saw.
Supper came all too soon and afterwards I always tried to postpone the inevitable – going back to my ‘own’ home, right across the street. In the end, I had to, crossing the street while I already looked forward to next weekend…

— To Be Continued —

Friday

Part Four of ‘The Golden Years’

There was something special about Friday.

Coal_Merchant
People lining up at an Amsterdam coal-merchant in the early 1950’s

Somehow people seemed to be brisker, more energetic; as if the idea of the coming weekend brightened them up. The coal-seller who plied his trade in the basement under our apartment would be whistling merrily while he was filling paper bags with coal and firewood.
Boys_StreetfootballThe teachers  would be smiling at each other and tolerate a little more than usual. If somebody had brought a ball along we would all troop onto a postage-stamp sized piece of grass during the break and play soccer. Well, we called it soccer but I doubt if anyone would have recognized it as such. The only definite resemblance with the original game were the ‘goals’, marked by heaps of sweaters and jackets. Of course there was no referee and there was no limit to the team size,  I even doubt if there were teams at all. The game was just a mad melee of boys scrambling after a ball, in summer in a gradually thickening cloud of dust and in winter sliding on the mud. One day, when there were more ‘players’ than usual, there was a kind of mass pile-up and I found myself sitting at the edge of the ‘field’, looking at the crowd that was frantically kicking and scrambling for a ball that was lodged between my legs…

Friday was the day for the ‘getting cleaned up’ ritual. After a whole week of dabbing my face in the morning with ice-cold water from the kitchen tap, it was time to get rinsed more properly. A couple of big pans full of water were put on the gas ring and while they heated up, the wash-tub was brought in. It was put on the floor in front of the pot-bellied stove, the sole means of heating our small apartment. The boiling water was poured into the tub and cold water added until the temperature was right.

Woning_3Then I stepped in, under the critical eye of my mother who admonished me not to splash too much. Once I was sitting down, she would take a bar of “Lux” soap, dip it in the water and lather me. I loved the smell of that soap, so totally different from the course soap we had in the kitchen. But it apparently was a luxury, because my mother always put it away immediately. The bath lasted maybe ten minutes, (fifteen if I had to wash my hair too) and then I had to get out of the tub and dry myself  in front of that trusty stove.

Friday was also the last full working day of the week. Tomorrow would be payday and the cupboard in our house would be nearly bare. My mother would always be struggling for money at the end of the week. She would react very irritatedly if I had the temerity to ask if there was something else for supper, apart from a sandwich covered with a questionable kind of powdered Swiss cheese that came from a yellow and blue cardboard can and had the locker-room odor of old sweaty socks. Not daring to protest any further, I ate the sandwich – coated with margarine of course. I remember the harsh, rather sour taste of that powdered cheese all too well. It did nothing to appease my hunger; on the contrary, it set my stomach rumbling in anticipation of more solid food. But that was not in the cards; the best I could expect was a cup of warm milk in which some kind of cocoa had been mixed. It tasted rather nice and it was one of the things that came out of those mysterious packages from Canada.

By half past eight it was time for bed and I would try to ignore my still rumbling stomach and think of tomorrow. Because tomorrow the weekend would start…

— To Be Continued —

The Golden Years – Memories of the Fifties

Part One: Waking up in November…

StNicolaaskerk_WinterWhen one gets older, one tends to reflect upon things that happened long ago. And dream of a city and a lifestyle that has vanished forever. Gently pressured by my kids, I started to write a series of short sketches and wanted to title them “Requiem for a vanished city”, to reflect my feelings of what has become of my beloved Amsterdam, a wonderful city that is now daily raped and vandalized by dirty throngs of back-packing tourists and beer-guzzling potheads.
Fortunately, common sense interfered and I now titled my cameos “The Golden Years”, Amsterdam and its native life as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy.

I wrote the first of these short-short stories when challenged to write for 25 minutes during a meeting of the International Writers Collective. The result, when read aloud, was a stunned silence after which people said “I was there”.
So here is the first installment – and there will be more, all illustrated with contemporary photographs.

——-

The banshee wail of a distant factory siren tore me from my sleep when the world was still dark. I knew it was eight o’clock but I kept my eyes closed, pretending that I was not awake. Then the hoarse steam whistle of the nearby marine engineering works opened up and I knew I had lost again.
“Get out of bed; you’ll be late for school” shouted my mother.

The cold hit me when I slipped from under my blanket and I was shivering even before my feet touched the icy linoleum covering the floor. The single-pane window in my little room faced north-west, so it got no sun in summer and was near freezing in winter. Each night my mother would put a hot water bottle in my bed. Well, not really a hot water bottle, those were for the rich folks. Mine was one of those stone Genever jars covered with an old sock.

I grabbed my cold clothes and hurried through my parent’s bedroom into the small, dark living room. By now it was nice and warm and I lingered a bit in front of the pot-bellied stove; my stepdad always made up its fire before he left for work in the docks.
“Hurry up; go and get washed”, ordered my mother and she shoved me into the kitchen, a very grand word for what was a six by four foot space that also held the toilet.
I opened up the tap and held my hands under the stream of ice cold water, lathered them with a bit of ‘Sunlight’ soap and rubbed them against my face. It was the same soap my mother used for doing the laundry and I hated that smell; coarse and cheap and somehow unpleasant. Summoning all my courage, I cupped my hands under the tap again, splashed water in my face and hurriedly rinsed the soap off. Gasping and with my sleep all gone, I grabbed the rough towel and as I dried myself, I silently cursed the cold and the school for which I had to get out of my warm bed.

I found a cup of tea waiting for me next to a piece of bread. A thin skim of strawberry jam failed to hide the thick layer of margarine underneath. I loathed that taste. Even then I understood why she did it; it was a leftover from the war. For five horrible years, the Germans had plundered Holland bare, stolen all foodstuffs they could lay their hands on. So there had been no milk and no butter, or even margarine. By now, it was available again and everything was smothered in it and I was screamed at if I dared to say I did not like it.
I ate those parts least covered with that sticky greasy stuff but, whenever my mother was not looking, I folded pieces together and slipped them furtively into my trouser pockets. I would dump them on my way to school, hoping that the rats in the derelict building would enjoy them.
I tasted my tea and made a face; she always put a spoonful of sugar in it because ‘it was good for me’. I wondered what good it did, as it only gave me a raging thirst. Fortunately, it had cooled down and I swallowed it in one long gulp, gagging at the nasty aftertaste of refined sugar.
“Let me have a look at you”, my mother said as I stood up.
I was wearing my school-going outfit: a pair of denim trousers, a thin checkered shirt and a knitted sweater over it. I liked the sweater; it was dark blue, with light-blue reindeer running around the lower hem. Nobody at school had a sweater like mine; theirs had all been knitted by their mothers and grandma’s and some were simply awful. But children’s clothes were scarce and expensive in post-war Holland so they had to do with them.
My sweater had come out of a box that had arrived by mail from a place far away. ‘Canada’, my granddad had said and my teacher had shown it to me in an atlas but I did not have a clue how far it was from Amsterdam.

Woning_1
Drying the laundry in winter  – Amsterdam early 1950’s

“Don’t get your pants dirty”, my mother warned sternly. “I still have to wash the other pair.”
I knew she loathed doing the laundry in that little apartment at any time, but especially in winter, when the clotheslines outside the window were useless and she had to drape the washed garments around the stove to get them dry.
“Yes mom”, I said meekly, waiting for her standard sermon that was to come. Today was Wednesday and there would be no school this afternoon.
“I won’t be home until four. See if you can spend the afternoon with someone. Don’t go playing someplace where you get dirty or I’ll tell your dad!”
“Can I go to Grandma?” I asked hopefully.
Grandma was keeping house for somebody. I thought he must be rich, because he was living in a big house with a garden all around. I loved to be with my Grandma while she was cooking there and telling a maid which rooms to clean and where to vacuum. I loved to roam around that large house, with its many rooms and its mysterious attic but it was on the south-side of town, the ’Gold Coast’ as we called it.
“No; that’s much too far; you stay around here, understood?”
“Yes mom”, I said as I put on my short duffel coat.
After topping off the stove with sufficient coals to keep it burning until she returned, she doused the few lights and we stepped out onto the dark first floor landing. She locked the door and we carefully went down the steep, narrow stairs with their tricky short steps, holding on to the rickety bannister and the greasy rope that ran all the way from the top floor to open the street door.
We stepped outside, into the cold and dark morning, the air heavy with the tang of coal-stoves and the smoke of the locomotives in the nearby marshalling yards.
“Have a nice day at school”, my mother said. She stooped to give me a quick kiss; then she hurriedly walked off and I watched her go, walking upright with quick deliberate steps, eager to catch the bus that stopped two blocks away. A slender young woman with rich dark brown hair, her brightly colored overcoat contrasting oddly with the dirty brown stone of the houses lining our narrow street.

— to be continued —