Sunday, March 13, 2016
The greatest benefit of spending years in the airline business was free flights. It allowed me to see the world. I love history, so I’ve seen history face-to-face. I’ve seen a lot. However, seeing a place and fathoming what occurred are two different things.
Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum. Toyko, Sydney, Madrid, Munich. One of my last overseas freebies was Amsterdam. Not my first trip there, but it was as good a place as any for a dart match. My buddy Mark and I have been playing against each other for decades. Since we both had flight benefits, we threw in the occasional international match. Yeah, we flew to Amsterdam to play darts.
Granted, we were still tourists. We hit museums, the North Sea, and a day trip to Arnhem, famous for the World War II, Operation Market Garden (the movie, A Bridge Too Far). Drank lots of beer, a bit of Jenever, their juniper-flavored, national drink. Bought tulip bulbs and went to a very interesting outdoor market. We skipped the Anne Frank house, Red Light District, and the herbal products. We’d both been there a few times. Not that we’d ever partaken in the last two, but we’d been in those parts of town.
Our last day, we stumbled on a nameless outdoor market. Not something designed to attract tourists, but the kind of thing you go to for that very reason. It’s where the locals go.
We walked around a bit, doing our own thing. Not looking for anything in particular, I saw a sign for sale. It was out of my reach, but it looked very interesting. Bronze, the size of a salad plate, with Dutch phrase on it. Of course, I had no clue what it said, but it looked cool.
I reached across the table to see how much it cost. To my disappointment it was very light, not the heavy bronze that I thought, but tin disguised with a bronze color with a weathered, cardboard back. So now I looked it over more out of curiosity, than as a potential purchase. Whatever it was, it only cost a couple of dollars. A man behind me said something in Dutch.
The German language is derived from an ancient people who had very bad sinus infections. It’s a tongue reminiscent of that guy who sits by you at work who is constantly snorting phlegm from nasal passages.
Dutch is the German language after the superficial relief of a lozenge.
My knowledge of the language is limited to a phrase that I was learned so I could yell it in a crowded Amsterdam bar, “Wanneer is het mijn beurt om te zingen ?” When is it my turn to sing?
I turned around and now knew he was speaking to me. “Do you speak English?” I asked. He was of senior-citizen age, smartly dressed in his leather winter jacket, nice hat, and warm boots. He was 80 but seemed much younger. The kind of person who’d be driving, accident-free when he was 100. In Amsterdam, he’d be riding his bicycle.
George spoke perfect English, which surprised me. English has been taught in the Netherlands for decades, but I’m sure he was long out of school before it was part of the curriculum. “I was asking if you knew the meaning of that sign.” he said, pointing to the chintzy disappointment in my hand.
“It’s a traditional sign we hung on our door as a way of welcoming guests. It means, ‘If you are a friend, come on in. If you are not, then you must go, go, go!’ That was the version put out during the war. The Germans came into our homes and took any metal that could be melted into weapons. People made cheap versions like this to replace what was hidden.” Of course, they came for people, too.
“You had to be there.” An expression we’ve all used. Mostly after telling a story and not getting the reaction you expected. I also see it as literal. Things happen in this world that cannot be comprehended unless you bore witness.
I love history. I’m more drawn to where things happened than where someone lived. The battlefield over the headquarters, the scene of the crime rather than the arrest location, and yes, where lives were lost over salvation found.
“The area we’re in used to be the Jewish part of town. It was destroyed during the war, and rather than rebuild it, a market and theater area was created,“ he said. By reading his face, you knew this was were he grew up and his mind’s eye returned him to those days whenever he visited. Everything he knew had been gone for over 50 years, but he still saw every brick of it. As a Jew in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, he’d lost more than buildings.
Mother, Father, brothers and sisters. Aunts, Uncles, and the like. George’s entire family was gone. “I spent the war living in people’s basements,” he said. “I ate nothing but tulip bulbs.” He was the non-conformist of his family and chose hiding over obeying. George hid for five years. Thousands of others did the same. Thankfully, one girl wrote in her diary about it.
At war’s end, George emerged from under ground to find everyone and every thing gone. Before the war, he was a teenager, had a loving family and many friends. His neighborhood, a comfortable place that he knew inside and out. No number of history books, documentaries, or guided tours gets me there mentally.
I’ve walked the concentration camp in Dachua, Germany and could not fathom that men, women, and children were murdered here en masse. I stood on Omaha Beach with no concept of the carnage of a D-Day invasion. I’ve walked the streets of London, rebuilt from the blitz.
You had to be there.
I cannot grasp the inhumanity of our past by simply being in the place where it occurred. It’s just a place. In truth, I feel very little. Witnesses feel everything, forever.
Now a sign hangs on my door, the same as it would have over 70 years ago. A great possession that reminds me of a brave man who survived with the help of support people worthy of entering anyone’s house.