The Architecture of Memory: Visiting Amsterdam’s New Holocaust Memorial
AMSTERDAM CAN FEEL LIKE A CITY OF GHOSTS. The past is always present there. On a drizzly October morning, my partner Ellen and I visited the National Holocaust Memorial of Names in Amsterdam—a.k.a. Namenmonument—which enshrines the names, birthdates, and years lived of 102,000 Dutch Jews and 220 Sinti and Roma people murdered by Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. The majority of the souls listed perished in concentration and death camps between 1940 and 1945. The most famous name is, of course, Anne Frank.
Located in the heart of what was the prewar Jewish Quarter, the monument presents an understated profile from the Weesperstraat. Studio Libeskind’s design consists of zigzagging walls faced by the same kind of red-brown and amber-colored bricks that have been used as the building blocks of Netherlandish architecture for centuries. A name is engraved on each brick, except for 1,000 blank bricks symbolizing unknown Holocaust victims. Varying tonality underscores the individuality of the people commemorated here—people who lived and worked in structures built of similar material. Aggregated within the monument, they stand in solidarity against evil.
Unlike the polished granite of Washington D.C.’s Vietnam Memorial, the Namenmonument’s humble surfaces do not reflect faces of the living through engraved names, and thus lacks the reassurance of elegance. Yet, it is still a high-concept design. The stack-bond brick walls support polished stainless steel volumes which reflect the surrounding old red-brick buildings—architectural witnesses, if you will. From the air, the metal “roofs” of the monument spell the Hebrew letters לזכר—meaning “in memory of”.
The memorial site is recessed between the junction of two sidewalks, like polder land below a dyke. Walking between the walls provides both an expansive and an intimate experience. At first the vast array of names overwhelms, but then one’s focus narrows to specific names and the information flanking the hyphens—the aforementioned birthdates and ages at death. That’s when it got personal: Van der Stam, a surname from the Jewish side of my family, is engraved ninety-two times across the two-meter tall walls. I found my grandmother, Julia van der Stam-Beetz 11.3.1894 – 50 jaar; my grandfather whose first name I bear, Alexander van der Stam 30.9.1894 – 47 jaar; my uncle (whose first name is also my middle name) Leon van der Stam 24.11.1917 – 25 jaar; and my cousin: Alexander van der Stam 25.3.1941 – 1 jaar. Just one year old. I placed white stones below their names.
Among the other names there of families to whom I’m related: Cohen, Frankfoorder, Van Beetz, Hartog, Levi, Moffie, Peereboom, Salomon, and Van der Ziel. Miraculously, my mother Sonja van der Stam and her sister Sientje survived internment in Bergen-Belson. They were two of the less than 25% of Dutch Jews who survived the Holocaust.
A woman standing nearby said her husband was one of the prime movers in getting the monument built, which was unveiled by King Willem-Alexander on 19 September 2021. Jacques Grishaver, chair of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, worked for fifteen years to overcome neighborhood objections about increased traffic and other NIMBY concerns. Was antisemitism an unspoken factor in opposition to the memorial? Comedian Chris Rock was dead serious when he said, “That train’s never late.” I thought of the indifference and betrayals by certain Dutch people some eighty years earlier that led to the grim German fate of all those memorialized.
Mr. Grishaver’s partner pointed him out talking to visitors on the adjacent sidewalk, a stout man with snowy white hair that contrasted with his black overcoat. I shook his hand and thanked him. My Aunt Tine who was also there with us (we were in Amsterdam to celebrate her ninety-fourth birthday) asked me how I felt. It wasn’t sadness exactly. I didn’t know how to express in Dutch my feeling of cold satisfaction—all those consigned to the anonymity of mass graves at least were now afforded the dignity of individual brick markers. I turned to Tine and answered, “Eindelijk.” Finally, the ghosts had names.
Alex Swart serves as a Director on the Boards of Anne Frank LA and The Netherland-America Foundation/SoCal Chapter.