Introduction Ronald Leopold to Saskia Coenen-Snyder

  Qoute: “We’ve all been a little confused this past week, because our dearly beloved Westertoren bells have been carted off to be melted down for the war, so we have no idea of the exact time, either night or day. I still have hopes that they’ll come up with a substitute, made of tin …


Qoute: “We’ve all been a little confused this past week, because our dearly beloved Westertoren bells have been carted off to be melted down for the war, so we have no idea of the exact time, either night or day. I still have hopes that they’ll come up with a substitute, made of tin or copper or some such thing, to remind the neighborhood of the clock.” Unq.

I assume some of you have recognized the words I just quoted. They come from the diary of Anne Frank, from an entry dated August 10, 1943, but written in 1944 when she wrote what she called a novel based on her diary entries. Already a few days after Anne and her family went into hiding, on July 6, 1942, Anne wrote about the bells of the Westertoren and what their sound meant to her.

Quote: “Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.” Unq.

The carting off of the bells of the Westertoren was most probably part of what after the war became known as ‘de Grote Klokkenroof’, ‘the great robbery of the bells’. Late 1942, the Nazi occupying forces ordered the removal of the bells from many church towers in the Netherlands in order to use its metal for the German war industry. Although the precise circumstances of the removal of the bells from the Westertoren are unclear (they were put back in place in November 1943), many church towers across the country fell silent.

An interesting sidenote regarding the Westertoren is the fact, that it was only in 1909 that a standard time zone for the entire country was introduced in the Netherlands with the exact time of the Westertoren as national standard. In May 1940, the Nazi’s introduced the Central European standard time which, taking into account Daylight Saving Time, was 1 hour and 40 min ahead of Westertoren time. Later on, the clock was turned back again, but only by one hour. Those 40 minutes have been lost forever.

Shut off from the outside world for 25 months, the forced silence pushed the auditory senses of those in hiding to the edge. Creaking footsteps, cars stopping in front of the building, people shouting on the street, ringing bicycle bells, every sound, day and night, carried a message of potential danger. The sense of danger was heightened from the end of 1943 on, when allied bombers flew over the city very frequently, sometimes releasing their lethal freight nearby. It was at those moments when they realized their complete defenselessness.

Trapped in a cramped place without any ventilation, it was not just their hearing that was pushed to the edge. The smells inside the hiding place oftentimes became unbearable.

Quote: “You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old! The kitchen smells like a mixture of spoiled plums, rotten eggs and brine. Ugh, just the thought of having to eat that muck makes me want to throw up! Besides that, our potatoes have contracted such strange diseases that one out of every two buckets of pommes de terre winds up in the garbage. We entertain ourselves by trying to figure out which disease they’ve got, and we’ve reached the conclusion that they suffer from cancer, smallpox and measles. Honestly, being in hiding during the fourth year of the war is no picnic. If only the whole stinking mess was over!” Unq. (14/3/1944)

Thanks to the diary of Anne Frank and to so many other diaries written during the war, we can get a picture of everyday life during Nazi occupation. Of course, how everyday life looked like much depended on the specific circumstances of each individual. For Anne Frank and all those others who were hiding for the Nazi’s, it was very different compared to the lives of ordinary Dutch citizens under Nazi occupation. But what they had in common was the fact that their senses were registering strange signs, sounds and smells that eventually influenced the way people experienced the occupation.

Every day or ordinary live remains a problematic category when we try to come to grips with the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Very quickly after the Netherlands surrendered to Nazi-Germany in May 1940, the ordinary lives of most of the Dutch took its normal course again. People went back to work or to school, they went out shopping, they went to the swimming pool. This was very much in line with what the Nazi’s had in mind. Unlike the ruthless and unrelentingly violent invasion and occupation of Poland late 1939, the Nazi’s did their very best to keep up the appearance that under their regime not much would change in the Netherlands. In their everyday lives, people quickly assimilated to a new normality. It is just as astonishing as well as frightening to see how under the delusion of this seemingly calm and orderly new reality, the process of registration, isolation and finally deportation of the Jews in the Netherlands could take place.

Our speaker tonight, Saskia Coenen-Snyder, will shed a new light on everyday life in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation by introducing a semiotic perspective. She will explore the ways people experienced those 5 long years of occupation by examining the changes in what I would call the sensory landscape: new signs, new sounds (or the opposite: new silence), new smells, or perhaps familiar signs and sounds with a whole new meaning. This sensory approach will surely contribute to our efforts to understand what still seems so fundamentally incomprehensible: the murder of 75% of the Jewish population of the Netherlands, by far the highest percentage of all Western European countries, while most Dutch citizens continued to live their everyday lives.

Saskia Coenen-Snyder is an associate professor Modern European Jewish History at the University of South Carolina and director of the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies at the same university. Professor Coenen-Snyder is an alumnus from the University of Utrecht and the University of Michigan, from which she holds a Ph.D.. She has published a wide range of books and articles, among many others I would like to mention her book ‘Building an Public Judaism’ on the architecture and construction of synagogues in the 19th century. She is currently preparing the publication of a book on the Amsterdam diamond industry.

After her presentation I will conduct a short interview with professor Coenen during which you will have plenty opportunity to ask questions. Please join me for a fascinating evening about the sounds and signs in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with Saskia Coenen-Snyder.