Amsterdam "Jewish Houses" project hits home

Millions of tourists have stood in line to see the cramped quarters where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis while writing the diary that so powerfully conveyed the horror of the Holocaust.

This week I discovered a link shockingly close to home: It turns out I live in a building — and have lived in the very apartment — where two Jews were deported and later murdered in Auschwitz.

A project called "Jewish Houses," part of Wednesday's commemorations of World War II victims, asked Amsterdam residents like me to put up posters marking the 21,662 houses where Jews are known to have lived before the community was systematically sent to be killed in Nazi concentration camps.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Amsterdam is asking residents to remember former Jewish citizens on Memorial Day by putting a poster in a window of houses where Jews lived during World War II. The "Jewish Houses" project led Associated Press correspondent Toby Sterling to discover the tragic history of his own building.


The May 4-5 Committee, named for the dates the Netherlands mourns the war dead and celebrates its liberation from German occupation in 1945, worked with Jewish organizations, city archives, and an art think-tank to create an Internet database that is searchable by name or address.

I typed my street name in, and it came up instantly.

Hemonystraat 46, third floor: Elsje Wagenhuizen, died at Auschwitz Oct. 1, 1942, and Arnold Kater, died at Auschwitz On Dec. 7, 1942.

It sent a chill through me. I'm not Jewish, but that wouldn't have made any difference to Hitler: Under Germany's 1935 Nuremburg laws, I am one-half Jewish, which would have been enough to condemn me. My Jewish grandparents had emigrated to the United States before Hitler's rise.

I own half of the building together with another American and our Dutch wives. I wondered whether it was cosmic justice that two Americans, both partially of Jewish descent, now own the building and have several Dutch tenants. We bought the place from an elderly Turkish immigrant a decade ago.

I resolved to participate in the project and find out what I could about the former inhabitants.

The city archives provided sketchy details. Birth dates made Wagenhuizen and Kater 53 and 54 years old respectively when they died. Wagenhuizen, a seamstress, was the eldest daughter of a large family. She lived alone with her father at the apartment until his death in 1934, and then apparently stayed on.

Less is known about Kater, who is listed in the archives as a traveling salesman and who had no known surviving family. It wasn't clear when he moved into the apartment.

During the war the house was owned by a Dutchman, who rented out the apartment to a Dutch family soon after the Jews were gone. Owners and renters have changed many times since then.

A helpful archivist cross-checked the files of the two wartime tenants with the city's marriage database to confirm they were not married. Were they lovers? There's no way to know. Like many people in hard times then and now, they may have just roomed together to save on rent.

"Jewish Houses" spokeswoman Olivia Somsen said it had proved relatively easy to create the database: Amsterdam was notoriously efficient at registering and deporting its Jews during the occupation. Bureaucrats even created a map for the Germans, marking each house with a Jew with a black dot — and showing which neighborhoods should be targeted.

Jews made up 10 percent of the city's prewar population in 1939. An estimated 61,700 died in the Holocaust, more than 70 percent. Afterward, Jews comprised less than 3 percent of Amsterdam's population, as many survivors emigrated.

"It's a black chapter in our history, but we don't want to forget it," Somsen said. "On the contrary: the idea is to make the victims visible, to make people know that this happened even in their own neighborhoods."

The posters mark each house as "1 of the 21,662 houses where Jews lived who were murdered in World War II."

She said the project has drawn strong reactions. Some find it creepy, others, depressing. Many, like me, were surprised to learn their neighborhoods were once strongly Jewish.

One man, Kenneth Kuhn, uncovered living relatives in Canada of the Jews who had lived in his house, and obtained photographs of them which he had printed and hung in his window.

"I'm very happy to be able to give them a name and a face," he said. "It helps you to comprehend the importance of what happened here, so we don't forget and make the same mistakes."