It's Monday and most museums are closed. I opt for the one that is open, the Holocaust Museum. I'm interested because I know the history of the Holocaust in Germany and France. But The Netherlands - and Amsterdam - which had (and still have) a long tradition of liberalism and inclusiveness - how could that happen here? I am hoping this museum will be able to answer some of my questions.
The mood is somber, the photos heartbreaking. Here for instance. These young faces, all with so much promise:
Their names are listed below in the exhibit, next to the concentration camp each one was sent to: Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Sobibor. It is unfathomable. There is one survivor: the girl in the center in the white dress. She went into hiding.
As I travel through the exhibit, I come across many tragic stories, as well as one of a couple who were photoghraphed on their wedding day. They survived, but separately. He was taken. She went into hiding; he escaped. They found each other after the war.
What the Nazis did in the Netherlands was the template for what they did everywhere else: forced the Jews to bargain with them through dealing with a "Jewish Council" of leaders in that community. It was a fiendish plot designed to co-opt and defang resistence, based on the trust people had for their leaders. And the leaders themselves, hoping they could make some deal for their people to fend off the the Nazi threat, tried to bargain but were helpless as family by famly, their people were taken until at at last, they themselves received their "Deportation" papers. The next thing they knew, it was over. Of the 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam, 75% died in the Holocaust. The highest statistic in Europe. And most of those who survived went into hiding.
Two days later, I find myself with Peter and Sylvie, friends who live in the southern district of Amsterdam, and are taking me on a tour of their neighborhood. We're on a beautiful, wide lane with long rows of 4-story buildings - Churchill-Laan, not far from 37 Merwedeplein where Anne Frank and her family lived for 7 years before going into hiding.
And where she went to school.
The Franks lived in "Social Housing," a housing project with all the modern conveniences. In classic Dutch fashion, Amsterdam's government had set this area aside for its citizens and, to secure it from real estate speculators, did not allow the land to be bought, only leased. So all of that housing is there today.
This is the park they looked out at from their 2nd floor apartment:
Anne and her family lived a modern life. She and her family were just like us.
A statue of her in a nearby park shows her looking back at her home...
Europe was civilized - Amsterdam was civilized - no one could have imagined what the Nazis had in store for them. We of the post-war generations still can't conceive of it - one reason we have The Shoah Foundation, and Holocaust museums.
There was very brave resistance of course, and just outside Amsterdam in a village called Enschede, three men (including a Chaplain) went to the Jewish Council with an alternate idea to dealing with the Nazis: they suggested putting all their Jewish citizens into hiding.
"'Hiding' is not in our vocabulary," they were told.
That was the last time they visited the Jewish Council.
Instead, they set about raising funds to sponsor the people in their village with friends and willing families. Money came from every source imaginable - companies and manufacturers, individual donors; the fund raising was non-denominational. Of the 1500 Jews in their village, 500 were saved.
Every single story I read about survivors included making an escape, bucking the system, going into hiding. No one knows who betrayed the Franks but what is certain, is that if they had not gone into hiding, they would have perished far sooner - they almost made it.
I have been to Holocaust museums in the US, but it's not the same. I'm not walking the very streets where Nazis stormed in, where people fled or were seized; I'm not listening to the native language of people who lost their lives in a cold planned execution.
The Amsterdam Jews were easy to find. The government didn't force assimilation but freely allowed communities to stay together. And they kept records. The Nazi's work was done for them.
Why am I telling you this? Because more than ever now as in Amsterdam, I sense anything can happen in the US. This could happen.
There is no security if we don't fight for it. And what I learned from this exhibit was this: Resist. Stay united. Think for yourself. Organize.
My first day in the city, two Amsterdammers were kind enough to take me to parts of the city which they sensed would address my bike infrastructure obsession: the Centraal Station. The first place they took me was a busy outdoor space along the water, where ferry riders and other pedestrians intersect with bikes turning into a main bike thoroughfare. This place, they specified, was Amsterdam’s “Shared Space" (in what I later realized was one of its calmer moments).
I could see that it was sort of a slow-moving, constant negotiation, that seemed to work for everybody (unnerving as a pedestrian if you’re not used to it). What I didn’t realize then, was that shared space is the underlying basis for all of Amsterdam’s street infrastructure. And it begins with...
For example, these curbs are ubiquitous.
Usually found at intersections to side streets or along canals...
They serve the function of demarcating a shared street, but also slowing everybody down going in and out of it. Sometimes there’s a bike lane on that street.
But just as often bikes ride with the cars, especially if they’re riding in the opposite direction (yes it happens all the time).
There are also these curb treatments on pedestrian islands.
Whereas NY’s pedestrian islands have designated curb cuts by which we must abide, in Amsterdam it’s all cut - and accessible. Bikes can ride right over this curb, and so can electric wheelchairs. The highest most curbs ever get is this:
And sometimes there are no curbs at all...
For a NY cyclist, it feels like the Dutch have legalized cheating! The sidewalks are equally accessible but bikes don’t ride them because pedestrians are using them, and because with so few cars*, there is plenty of space for everybody. It all works fairly seamlessly, on a system of trust. Yet long before Reagan, the Dutch were putting “Trust but verify” into practice. Because just when you think the street system is completely laissez faire, you see these Vision Zero “interventions.”
And realize someone is watching.
All of this makes for a palpable sense of relief for a New Yorker riding in Amsterdam. The system works even when protected lanes disappear and become this:
Cars are on notice: treat all bikes as if where they’re riding is “protected.” By law, it is.
PAVING SURFACES: Another key part of bike infrastructure is paving surface.
A little story. Many years ago, my 4-yr-old cousin was running away from home. “Watcha doin’?” his Mom asked, as she peeked into his room and saw him packing up a knapsack, ready to stalk out of the house forever. When he told her of his intent with furrowed brow, rather than try to talk him out of it, she got right on board with suggestions. “Oh well, you’re gonna need some cans of soup and a can opener. You’lldefinitely need a kettle to heat up water - and how about this cast iron skillet for the campfire?” Long story short, he got to the end of the driveway lugging 30lbs of household goods, changed his mind and turned around. And that’s how it is with street surfaces in Amsterdam. You wanna ride here? Well go ahead! You won’t mind this brick bike lane…
(Out go the clipless pedals)
How about this? I mean, it does rain in Amsterdam... (out goes the road bike)
In short, the local government in Amsterdam acts much like a passive-aggressive parent, quietly manipulating traffic with a gimlet eye, and only stepping in when things get dangerous.
And by the way, these pavement speed “disrupters” aren’t constant. There are just enough of them that delivery people (yes, they have them) ride the same speed as everyone else - and no one’s riding fast. Because after you’ve invested in a 40lb bike for all weather and all street surfaces, you’re not riding any faster just because the road got temporarily smooth.
Yes, those lycra guys still exist - but they pretty much ride on the smoother paths which - not surprisingly - can be found anywhere on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where they’re not likely to bother anybody. Coincidence? I think not.
The biggest upshot of all of this is safety. So that unlike NYC, where a silly mistake can cost you your life, the same mistake in Amsterdam at 10mph, is just that: a mistake. You trade embarrassed glances at the rider you thought you could turn in front of in the middle of an intersection - or even a driver - and ride on. You’ll live to ride smarter, another day. Cars are held to a higher standard.
The one thing these speed disrupters are not good for is some of the new mobility devices like electric unicycles, segways or scooters, tho I've seen a few - mostly parked. Because, aside from being illegal, on brick or cobblestones, you may end up carrying them a lot more than they carry you. Wheelchairs manage fine except for cobblestones.
One more observation. While in Amsterdam, I rode traffic circles - for the first time, with a protected lane. The feeling of freedom that comes with riding a separate, protected bike lane with timed signaling all the way around is unique, even enviable. Are you listening @NYC_DOT (#Columbus Circle)? This is the Wetteringchans traffic circle...
Is the bike infrastructure in Amsterdam perfect? No, it’s not. At an (English speaking) evening of improv I went to, when the audience was asked what was their greatest annoyance, the answer came almost in unison: Pedestrians in the bike lane! (Motor) scooters in the bike lane! And it’s true, motor scooters (not the NY kind, the old fossil fuel kind) have come more and more, to infest the bike infrastructure in Amsterdam. They’re loud, they’re too fast and they’re smelly.
They’re also illegal in these lanes, but so far there has been no serious crackdown I expect that it will happen though. The Dutch are smart. As for pedestrians in the bike lane, as a New Yorker I have plenty of experience with tourists - I this case I was one of them. Personally I had no problem with pedestrians. Broadly speaking, there was room for everybody.