Connecting To The Past, Nieuwe Keizersgracht Style


Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia, once proclaimed an abbreviation that is hold very dear to Indonesians until present day: Jas Merah. It was the abbreviation of “jangan sekali-kali meninggalkan sejarah”, in English can be translated as “Never, even at once, leave history behind”. It was one of the most famous jargon of the then-president, who ended his presidency in 1965, after an earth-shattering coup in the country.

Referring from Soekarno’s words, the present world has a lot of ways to preserve history and not to leave history behind. In Indonesian language, the word “history” is translated to “sejarah”. The word “sejarah” can be traced to Arab word “syajaratun”, a word that means “tree”. To sum up, history is like a tree. Through history, people in the present can trace back their roots to the past in order to know themselves.

The inhabitants of Nieuwe Keizersgracht in Amsterdam is the perfect example of people who connect to the past. Nieuwe Keizersgracht is a small canal near Hermitage Amsterdam museum and is located on the Weesperbuurt and Plantage area. The location is very close to Natura Artis Magistra (Amsterdam Zoo) and Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. Before the World War 2, this area was used as the Jewish Quarter in the city. Around the area, we can find several Jews-related museums such as Joods Historisch Museum, Portuguese Synagogue, and Jewish Cultural Quarter (Hollandsche Schouwburg).

As I was strolling through Amsterdam on a sunny day, I passed a small bridge with a small history on the area. I was a bit intrigued by the bridge because turned out, next to the bridge, lied a small remembrance of what happened during World War 2 around this very street.

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The site is now called ‘Schaduwkade’ or Shadow Wall. It was described that this street used to be the house of Jews and they were taken away during the Germany occupation in the city. To commemorate the Jews from Nieuwe Keizersgracht who were taken away and murdered in several extermination camps in Europe, the present inhabitants of the street decided to make this memorial place. They tried to find who lived in their houses during Germany occupation around that time, and placed their names and their death place on the left side of the bridge.

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The names of people living in Nieuwe Keizersgracht 2, as well as their date of birth and the death camp where they were sent to.
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The house of Nieuwe Keizersgracht 2. The names are written on the left side of the canal, directly facing the houses on the other side of the canal, so we can see what kind of houses they used to live in.

For a few minutes, I felt a feeling so hard to describe. It was very touching, on what the current people in Nieuwe Keizersgracht were doing to commemorate the historical event and to research the families who used to stay in their house. I think it was an act of empathy and an effort to show the world of something awful that used to happen in the past. I could not help thinking about their efforts on tracing the families who used to live in their house now, and it must be hard for them to gather data and which concentration camps they were sent to. Maybe common people can’t understand this, but as a historian, I can relate to them. I can’t help not to think about what they felt when they were gathering the data. Maybe they felt a pang in their hearts for knowing that they were living in a historical house, not for good things that used to happen there, but for a very awful thing.

The people of Nieuwe Keizersgracht and their effort on building Schaduwkade is one of the proof that history and humanity still exist in the world, and this is just a small thing of what a community can do to preserve their district. I hope their stories can inspire us to do the same where ever we are living now.

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