Along with the rest of the country, Amsterdam was occupied in May 1940. It was liberated by the German capitulation that ended the war in the Netherlands on 5 May 1945.
Even after the war was officially over, incidents of violence still occurred. Some German forces simply refused to lay down their arms, and clashed with members of the Dutch Interior Forces or resistance fighters. These incidents led to the death of 19 civilians in Amsterdam.
Unlike Rotterdam, Amsterdam was spared physical damage during the war, but its people still suffered, living in constant fear of attracting the attention of the authorities. As a largely open, tolerant, mercantile community, Amsterdam had attracted many foreign Jews who sought safety here before the war. Nazi Germany’s virulent anti-Semitism dealt a devastating blow to the city. After the war, the fate of teenager Anne Frank provided a human face to the impersonal cruelty of the Holocaust, and Amsterdam has several monuments related to its Jewish past.
Several other sites connected to the war and the Liberation, near Utrecht and Amersfoort, are within easy reach of Amsterdam.
A poignant memorial to the Holocaust, Anne Frank House is one of Amsterdam’s most visited sights. Since the publication of her diaries, Anne Frank has become extraordinarily famous, in the first instance for recording the iniquities of the Holocaust, and latterly as a symbol of the fight against oppression in general and racism in particular.
Anne Frank House is in the premises on Prinsengracht where the Frank and Van Daan families lived in secrecy for two years before being discovered by the Nazis. Well-chosen displays, old offices and filmed interviews with some of the leading characters, including Anne’s friend Hanneli Goslar and Anne Frank’s father, Otto, fill out the background. There are also displays on the persecution of the Jews – from arrest and deportation through to the concentration camps. Further sections are devoted to Anne as a writer/diarist; information on the Franks’ Dutch helpers; and the importance of Anne’s diary to other prisoners, most notably Nelson Mandela.
Behind a hinged bookcase are the secret rooms that were occupied in 1942–44 by eight people – only one of whom, Otto Frank, would survive the war. Anne Frank was among 100,000 Dutch Jews who died during World War II, but this, her final home, provides one of the most enduring testaments to its horrors and, despite the number of visitors, most people find a visit very moving.
The excellent Dutch Resistance Museum, located in a former synagogue, tells the story of the 25,000 Dutch men and women who risked their lives to oppose the Nazi regime. Thoughtfully presented, the main gangway examines the experience of the majority of the population, dealing honestly with the fine balance between cooperation and collaboration. Side rooms are devoted to different aspects of the resistance, from the brave determination of the Communist Party to more ad hoc responses like the so-called Melkstaking (Milk Strike) of 1943, when hundreds of milk producers refused to deliver in protest at the Germans’ threatened deportation of 300,000 former (demobilized) Dutch soldiers to labour camps in Germany. A range of ingenious objects – forging tools, a hollow chessboard to hide false documents and a “broadcasting suitcase” containing a radio – depict the challenges of operating undercover. Other poignant exhibits include a farewell letter written by a condemned prisoner and a tiny box of potatoes sent from the country to the city – a godsend to anyone trying to survive the Hunger Winter that the Nazis inflicted from November 1944 until the country was liberated in May 1945.
Originally a Jewish theatre, in 1942 this building was commandeered by the Nazis for use as a holding centre for Amsterdam Jews. An estimated 60,000 Jews passed through here on their way to concentration and extermination camps. After the war, the building was left unused for many years before being turned into a national memorial to the Holocaust. The front of the edifice has been refurbished to display a list of the dead and an eternal flame along with a small exhibition on the plight of the city’s Jews, but the old auditorium out at the back has been left as an empty, roofless shell. A memorial column of basalt on a Star of David base stands where the stage once was, an intensely mournful monument to suffering of unfathomable proportions.
To one side of Amsterdam’s main square is the country’s National Monument, where two sculpted lions commemorate the Dutch people who were killed during World War II. Every year on 4 May, the day before the war ended in the Netherlands, a ceremony called Dodneherdenking (Remembrance of the Dead) is held here.
The National Military Museum, situated in a former airbase between Amersfoort and Utrecht (southeast of Amsterdam), deals with all wars – including World War II. Its main purpose is to demonstrate the importance of the armed forces to modern societies.
Top image: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam © Kavalenkava Volha/iStock