By Meyer Shuyser
Every time I walk through Marken Alley nowadays, I am amazed that the few houses that are still there, are standing so close together. In my youth the alley where I grew up formed a small gully in the massive block of Amsterdam houses. It was gloomy nearly all day there. Only around three o'clock in the afternoon, when the sun shone on the cobblestones, bright lights and sharp shadows were cast on the pavement, and that occurred only during a few summer weeks.
You can see that there were more houses in those days. They were pulled down later and no new ones were added. Now the alley is like a set of teeth out of which the dentist has pulled a tooth here, a molar there, and over there another tooth, whether it hurt or not. My parents' house is gone too, and maybe that's the reason why it's so difficult for me to recognise the old alley. Somehow I have the feeling that I've dreamed it all, that it is a phantom street.
The houses haven't subsided from old age. People have lent a helping hand. In the icy cold winter of 1944 when the inhabitants of Amsterdam were without fuel, they pulled out the floors of the houses which the Jews had left behind, empty. Later, they stole the beams, the doors, the window frames. And after that, even the joists from the roof.
There was no furniture in the houses thenthat had already been taken away by the Nazi's. The residents had previously moved, not with furniture vans but with a simple rucksack on their back and a cap on their head. From Marken Alley they travelled to the East, destination Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Sobibor.
They were born in the slums of Amsterdam, rich people, poor ones, street vendors, shopkeepers, workers. Dark-haired, red-haired, blondes, brunettes. They lived their little lives close to each other in this congested neighbourhood. Each one a small planet in the solar system of his own family, together they formed their universe. But it was written that all should die the same death, somewhere in Eastern Europe. There they crossed the thin line at the end of their journey.
Nobody knows where their bones lie. A few of them are lucky, they have a son a kaddish or a next of kin who got off alive. The few who have survived from the Holocaust bear a letter and a number tattooed on their left arm, indelibly.
When the shivering people of Amsterdam in the winter of 1944 pulled down the houses of Marken Alley, the memory of the former inhabitants was already fading. The portraits that had once hung on the walls of their living rooms lay scattered between rubbish. Removed from their frames, because wooden frames are excellent fuel for heaters.
The photographs lay there for some time in the rain and the snow. Then the paper became soggy and torn. A gust of wind blew away the shreds. Now, nobody knows anymore what the people looked like before they left.
A handful of Amsterdam Jews have survived judgement day. When they are together, one of them says musing "I don't know why we deserve to still be here."
The other says "We don't deserve it."
Nobody laughs. They never say "That one and that one has died."
They always say "That one and that one is still here."
Sometimes they talk about the days when the family was united on this side of the thin wall. It is always in their minds.
With words they try to replace the portraits which have been scattered in the wind. A photograph is really a funny thing, a picture that pretends to be more than it has a right to. It tries to cling onto a second that has disappeared irrevocably into eternity.
Recently, the city-councillors of Amsterdam have decided to pull down the remains of the former Jewish district. Next year the walls of the houses will be torn down. When the debris has been cleared away, they will build a highway right across it.
Those who knew the old district tell me "Write down your memories before it is too late."
I believe I should. Our memory is like a sand beach, the footsteps of the people who lived here are printed in the sand, but soon high tide will wipe them out. What will be left of the old neighbourhood in ten or twenty years time? Already grass is growing in the streets between the cobblestones. Soon the old generation will have carried its sadness into the grave.
Superstitious folks say that a house has a soul. I know this to be true. The house is built as a cold, lifeless object out of bricks and mortar. But people marry and are happy within its wallsa piece of their happiness remains in the house. A child is bornanother thread of happiness is added. Someone dies and a bedroom suddenly becomes a holy place. Then the house has a soul. In those derelict ruins that remain of the old Jewish neighbourhood, a thousand threads together form the remembrance of its past.
"Write down your memories before you forget
I wander along the alley, between the houses, aimlessly. Spirits speak to me, but I cannot hear their voices.
I walk like a Golem.
I cross the threshold between being and non-being. Days become hours, and hours seconds.
I am lying again in the warm bed on the third floor of our house in Marken Alley. When I close my eyes, I see on the inside of my eyelids the neighbourhood as I knew it during the forty years before the Great Sorrow.
The streets, the houses, the little front-rooms and back-rooms. A thousand cubes, a bewildering honeycomb.
In all these cubby-holes people live. The walls are too narrow to constrain their exuberant bustle. It bursts out through the open doors. It presses through the open windows. It spills through the streets. The living
river eddies between the high banks of the houses. Pushcarts with their trade stick out like islands in the stream.
People, people, people.
I know all their faces. Names drift on the slow waves of memory. Every face is a novel, each life is different.
As long as I keep my eyes closed the neighbourhood is still there. The houses have not fallen in decay, the people live. I see this image very sharply, as though I hold an aerial photo in my hand.
It is not true that Time is a flowing stream. Time stands still, and we travel along it from memory to memory.
Past and Present lie along the same line.
Yesterday and Today are parts of the same reality.
aA story from the book "Mr. Monday and Other Tales of Jewish Amsterdam" available online at www.FiveStarPublications.com
from the August 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine