The Ghosts of Amsterdam

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It only recently occurred to me that one very fine if not exactly intentional purpose for historic preservation is to keep dead people alive. Having spent the past several years living in Amsterdam and researching a book about its history, I now find that virtually anywhere I walk in this city, whose center has been so tenderly and smartly maintained, I am jostled by ghosts.

Some of the ghosts never actually lived in Amsterdam but rather are perennially passing through, eternally re-enacting a moment they spent here.

Every time I cycle down the medieval Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal, for example, and turn to look through the stone gate that leads into the courtyard of the Grand Hotel, I get a glimpse of the reassuringly stolid figure of Winston Churchill, decked out in top hat and overcoat, beaming, tapping his cane on the pavement.

The building that the hotel occupies was a convent in the 16th century, and many other things after that; for much of the last century it served as City Hall, and after World War II, in which the Dutch suffered so much and which the British prime minister helped lead with his special intensity, he made a celebratory appearance here.

Whenever I'm heading west on the Haarlemmerdijk, meanwhile, I encounter a crowd of 19th-century proletariat types coming the other way, eagerly and nervously surrounding a serious man with a wiry mass of gray hair and beard: Karl Marx, who arrived in 1872 to urge workers to unite.

The train station used to be at the other end of this street; the leader of the Communist movement disembarked and headed this way, and lodged in my mind are the reports of the policemen who were assigned to follow his movements.

Not all the ghosts who populate my travels in Amsterdam are famous ones, though most seem to have done fairly consequential things in life. Walking down a narrow, dark alley called the Nes, which extends from the harbor toward the city center, can be a vacant experience -- there are some interesting restaurants and bars but few tourist sites, and almost nothing seems of historical note.

But when I'm on the Nes I feel I'm about to run into a tall, handsome, wily man who in his day favored lace collars and a twisty little mustache. His name was Dirck van Os, and, while history has forgotten him, his house on this street (which, alas, no longer exists) could be considered the birthplace of capitalism.

For four months in 1602, Amsterdammers streamed into his parlor to buy pieces of a new kind of corporation, one that allowed backers to sell their portion at a later date, at a higher (or lower) value. The Dutch East India Company transformed the world, and it made Amsterdam, briefly and improbably, the most powerful city in the world.

But its biggest contribution to history may be in the fact that in this little alley van Os and his merchant colleagues gave birth to the concept of "shares of stock." A few years later, a little farther down the street, came the first stock exchange. Things would never be the same.

Some ghosts are not attached to a particular street or neighborhood but are coaxed into being by a mood that settles over the city. In the 1870s a mercurial 24-year-old Dutchman from the southern part of the country spent a year here.

He came intending to train for the ministry, but discovered that he wasn't suited for it. Instead, he roamed Amsterdam's quays and harborfront, seething, fuming, confused, occasionally erupting with joy at things he observed: "these old, narrow, rather somber streets," "a canal lined with elm trees," "a stormy sky with big clouds reflecting in puddles on the ground," "gnarled undergrowth and the trees with their strange shapes."

He didn't realize it, but Vincent van Gogh, though not yet an artist, was already painting, with words. For me, today, a heavy cloud reflected in a canal or a set of twisted tree trunks will summon, if not the artist himself, a manic flash akin to his.

Another vanished van Gogh, meanwhile, retains a spectral presence over the Linnaeusstraat, a broad avenue that runs along the Oosterpark. Vincent wrote the above observations to his brother, Theo, his closest confidante. A descendant of Theo's, also Theo van Gogh, was a famous, and in many ways infamous, Amsterdam filmmaker and societal gadfly of recent memory. He was murdered here, on the street in front of his house, in 2004, in reaction to an anti-Islamic film he made. The event shocked the city and touched off waves of angst in Europe over immigration, which have yet to settle.

Of all the ghosts of Amsterdam, though, two stand far above the rest. I encounter one or the other almost daily. Somehow, their lives were lived in this city with such an intensity that they seem to have become part of it.

In the heart of Amsterdam a little iron drawbridge crosses the Kloveniersburgwal canal. Standing in the middle of it gives a panorama of views: up and down the canal, through a tiny cafe-cluttered street, down yet another street, through an ancient gateway into a courtyard, and to a place where the waters that flow through and around the city execute a complicated branching maneuver. As Gary Schwartz, an American-born Rembrandt scholar, once pointed out to me, from this spot you take in the Amsterdam that the greatest-ever Dutch master experienced.

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden, 30 miles away, but came to Amsterdam in his 20s, drawn by the city's rapid rise and the many upwardly mobile merchants who would be likely customers. And once he arrived, he seems not only never to have left, but by and large to have restricted himself to this little zone. Virtually everything important Rembrandt did he did within a few minutes' walk of this bridge.

Rembrandt figures so thoroughly in Amsterdam, I think, because he is intimately associated with the city's greatest achievement. Amsterdam in his era pioneered many of the concepts embedded in the term "liberal," which I mean not in the sex-and-drugs permissive sense (though that would come too) but, more deeply and broadly, as a philosophy based on the individual and individual freedom: the essence of what makes us modern.

Amsterdam led the rest of Europe away from the dogma that all authority came from monarch and church; rather, this new philosophy held, truth was based on reason -- in the words of the Frenchman René Descartes, who also lived in Amsterdam -- on "the mind and its good sense." Central to this was a new awareness of oneself as an individual distinct from the group. And an outgrowth of this awareness was a sudden fascination with the human face -- with portraits.

Rembrandt fed the portrait craze. We remember him for his dizzying output and his dexterity with so many styles of painting.

But his fame among his contemporaries came from his way with faces: his ability not just to paint what people looked like on the outside, but also to give a sense, which was shockingly and exhilaratingly new at the time, of the person within. In one two-year period, he churned out 42 portraits, many of people who lived in the houses in this neighborhood.

Rembrandt was a man on the rise, and he felt it appropriate that he live in this same area. He married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of his art dealer, and the two moved into a rental house just around the corner from the little iron bridge. The site of their house is now a big, modern airy cafe called De Jaren, where I spent a good portion of time writing my history of the city, and it was impossible, while doing such work in this spot, not to imagine the ambitious, arrogant artist barreling in and out of the place.

From his house it was a moment's walk around the corner and over the bridge to a building on the left side of the street that housed, of all things, the board responsible for maintaining quality control on textiles that the city shipped out. Not a very exciting occupation, but even these men wanted their likenesses captured, and Rembrandt managed to give these seemingly quashingly bland officials an air of brooding mystery. "The Staalmeesters" ("staal" being Dutch for "sample"), while considered a masterpiece, eventually achieved a second kind of immortality when it was adopted as the logo for Dutch Masters cigars.

Just behind the bridge, meanwhile, a corner building (now a hotel) was the headquarters of one of the civic guard companies that were given the task of patrolling the city streets. They too were mad for images of themselves; they commissioned Rembrandt to paint their group portrait, and, love it or hate it, the result, "The Night Watch," is considered one of the world's great art treasures.

The ghosts of Rembrandt's friends populate this neighborhood as well, and they too have associations with the city's liberal heritage. The focus on the individual and the secular put Amsterdam at the cutting edge of science.

The square called the Nieuwmarkt, a short distance away from the bridge, is dominated by a squat medieval building called de Waag, or Weigh House, which has had many functions through the centuries.

Today its ground floor accommodates a restaurant; in the 17th century its upper chamber was the city's anatomical theater. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the city's chief physician and one of its most revered residents, performed public dissections here, and in the winter of 1631-2 (dissections took place in winter because the cold kept the stench down), the young Rembrandt tramped up here to make studies for what would be his first great painting. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp," in highlighting science, the human body and the distinctive personality of the physician, is a kind of trifecta of Dutch liberalism.

As Rembrandt reached the height of his fame, he bought a house a few streets away (the building is now the Rembrandt House Museum) that cost more than he could afford. That, plus the arrogance that eventually caused his patrons to flee, set off his slide into eventual bankruptcy.

In this house his wife died in childbirth. Here, too, he began a tempestuous affair with Geertje Dircx, the nurse he hired to care for the child. He tried to end the affair, but Geertje refused to be cast aside. He solved the problem by using his influence to have her committed to a workhouse.

For all the world-historic insight into humanity that his portraits show, he revealed himself, at the sad end of his life, to be adept at quite inhuman behavior.

Two years ago, my daughter and I took a walk together across Amsterdam, following in the footsteps of the historical figure who has become, so to speak, the city's most famous export. Eva was 14 at the time, the same age as Anne Frank when she set out on her much more somber walk.

Probably every visitor to the city knows the Anne Frank House, where the girl and her family, along with a few other people, hid from the Nazis, and where Anne wrote her diary. That building, on the Prinsengracht, one of the grand central canals, was not the family's normal residence but her father's place of business.

They lived in the Rivierenbuurt, then a newly built area to the south of the central canal zone. In her diary Anne describes the day she, her father and her mother left their apartment for good, and walked to her father's company, where a secret space had been built to house them. (Her sister, Margot, went separately, by bicycle.) Anne didn't give the exact route they took, so Eva and I made a guess.

We started at Merwedeplein, the little plein, or square, that the Franks' apartment looked out on. The apartment is today owned by the city, which honors the memory of its former inhabitants by making it available to foreign writers who have fled persecution.

We sat on a bench in the square and (at my urging) Eva read aloud the passage about the family's departure: how they wore layers of clothing because carrying suitcases would tip off the Nazis that they were going into hiding. Then we set off. The neighborhood, which used to be the heart of Jewish Amsterdam, is a peaceful one. The buildings, dating from the period just before the Franks moved in, are surprisingly modern-looking.

Crossing a canal, we entered De Pijp, and things livened up. De Pijp is a ragged, busy neighborhood of falafel stands, artists' lofts, yoga studios, Surinamese restaurants and coffee shops with reggae and pot smoke coming out their windows. It was a warm spring day and the sun gave the city an uncharacteristically drowsy feel.

The city the Franks walked through had been surprisingly calm for a time after the Nazi invasion. But then came the gray-and-green military vehicles of the occupiers. The razzias, roundups of Jews, began. The Franks were on foot that morning because Jews had been barred from public transportation (and from parks, libraries and restaurants). The great gift of the age of Rembrandt -- the ennobling of the individual human being -- was about to be ruthlessly stripped away.

Worse still, Amsterdammers themselves assisted in this violent betrayal of their liberal tradition. The city's efficient administrators made it easier for Nazis to identify and remove Jews. As a result, a much greater percentage of Jews were murdered during the war than those of any other country. Amsterdam before the Holocaust had 80,000 Jews; today there are about 15,000.

Anne and her parents made it safely to the placid district of the central canals, the main tourist zone today, which had been built in the city's Golden Age heyday. They slipped into the building where Otto Frank, Anne's father, worked, and remained there until, two years later, they were caught and shipped off to concentration camps.

Eva and I walked past the Anne Frank House (which we'd visited several times before), and found a canalside cafe. Of course, our walk had been in part a typical parental ploy to instill something meaningful in a child. I asked Eva what she thought about it. She answered by saying, "Have you read Oliver Sacks? He's amazing."

I instantly recognized the non sequitur as a classic teenage gambit to thwart parental pedagogy, but it still worked. I was disoriented: surely it hadn't been that long ago that she was enthralled by "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Since when had she grown up to become a reader of neuroscientific case studies? Who was this person?

Then I recalled something that Otto Frank had written. He was the only member of the family to survive the war. He'd been stunned when he read the diary that his teenage daughter had left behind, and said it made him feel that he had never really known her.

What surprised him, was, I think, the very thing that made the diary an international sensation. It vividly displays both what Amsterdam's history has always been about and what the Nazi occupation so vibrantly threatened: the mysterious complexity that is the individual human being.

This girl who would soon have the life crushed out of her represents not just the others who died without leaving words behind, but all of us. She showed us what human individuality is. And she did it, surprisingly enough, in the same way Rembrandt did: by painting a portrait.

As her father was shocked, and embarrassed, to discover, her diary reveals a full, deep, complicated person, who insists on continuing with her adolescent's journey of self-discovery even as the swastikas paraded by outside: "It's funny, but I can sometimes see myself as others see me. I take a leisurely look at the person called 'Anne Frank' and browse through the pages of her life as though she were a stranger."

If ghosts who represent stages in the rise of individual freedom still haunt the streets of Amsterdam, making the city itself far greater than the sum of its museums and tourist sites, for me the spirit of this girl stands out above all the others because, in addition, she showed how fragile that freedom is.

Russell Shorto is the author of "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City," to be published next month by Doubleday.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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