My mother has a new neighbor–again.
Since I moved to the United States in 1981, my mother, Attie, and I talk on the phone every Sunday morning at 10 am. In June of 2001, she announced casually that she had a new neighbor.
Attie and her husband Chris live in a perfectly nice middle class neighborhood in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, a beach resort and fishing town that is part of The Hague. Since the new neighbor moved in by helicopter, my mother said disapprovingly–parodying her own very-proper mother–he was obviously an unsavory character.
At my daughterly impatience with this coyness Attie added that his first name was Slobodan, and she was sorry the maximum penalty the International Criminal Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991(ICTY) can impose is life imprisonment. She’d like to see him hanged or shot. One Slobodan Milosevic had moved into the prison across the street.
Attie is not ordinarily bloodthirsty, but she carries within herself the trouble and violence of Europe in her lifetime. As a child, she traveled through a Germany and Austria, rapidly changing into something her mother, who was raised in Germany, swore she would never return to.
Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940–the Netherlands capitulated on the 14th, after Rotterdam had been bombed to smithereens–an order to cease had gone astray, apparently. On May 13, 1940, my grandfather, a captain assigned to the Minister of Defense, fled with the rest of the Dutch government and the royal family to exile in England for the duration. His family stayed behind. No Daddy, no army, no government–no income.
In short order, placid Dutch bourgeois life became really weird. The"family" consisted of my grandmother, my mother (12) and two Jewish boys younger than 6 whose mother had taken off for parts unknown and whose father called from Indonesia to entrust them in her care. Fortunately, my grandmother had a boyfriend, who quickly moved in with the family. (My "Oma"wasn’t quite as"nice"as she later appeared to be.) The new live-in boyfriend,"Opa"to me as a child, was a businessman who came with an adopted daughter and had many friends among the Jewish community in Amsterdam. People came knocking for a safe haven after the Nazi net was tightened one raid (razzia) after another,
Two Jewish young men joined the crowd. Another couple moved in for about three months–the woman gave my mother a ring I now cherish–but moved on because they felt it was too crowded in the small apartment of a middle-level military family. They were never heard from again.
As the Allied war effort heated up after the Americans joined in December 1941, Nazi defenses also ramped up. For the construction of the Atlantikwall, large parts of Scheveningen and The Hague were torn down. My grandmother and her extensive family were evacuated to Gouda in 1943. This meant crossing a number of checkpoints, accomplished with a combination of false papers and my mother checking through with each of the older boys, dressed as girls with Dutch head scarves, in turn. (Detail: Karel looks pan-Semitic, a crossover King Hussein of Jordan, Assad, and Omar Sharif. He was fairly difficult to disguise as either Dutch or a girl.)
Occupied Holland got progressively difficult to move around in. After 1942, Dutch men 18 and over were conscripted to work in German munitions factories–the same factories bombed in raids that involved hundreds and thousands of Allied planes crossing over the western part of Holland each and every dark, dark night. V-1 and V-2 missiles were launched from Scheveningen; many simply exploded upon launching. You get the picture: Dutch and Jewish boys under the floor, no more school, some resistance work, cold, hunger, fear.
Attie is pretty fierce about the war criminals living next door. But . . . she isn’t too sanguine about planes flying overhead and helicopters providing security, either. September 11, 2001 and the aftermath were a big deal for her. Here in the United States, the world became eerie in the utter quietude of the skies when all air traffic was shut down. In Holland, it apparently caused a great deal of jet fighter traffic overhead.
Attie announced that she was not coming to visit me that October, as planned, and that she would never do so again. She was too afraid she’d end up stranded across the ocean from home.
So when NPR casually announces that Radovan Karad~i has been caught, and brought to The Hague to stand trial, I take notice. I call my mother to ask whether she has another new neighbor."He flew in by helicopter at 7:45 this morning, and must therefore be an unsavory character,"she says, and we laugh at the old joke.
History in some way touches us all. What we do and experience isn’t neutral or random. I am not about to argue it is predestined, preordained, or patterned. But I would say that what happens today, to us, the things we do, the choices we make, and the news we read–it all has a place in and among and related to the other things that happen. And when we can see that place a little bit, we understand more about the world and our own place in it.
War criminals need to be in prison and stand trial. But are all imprisonments the same? Does Prison define the Prisoner or vice versa? When lots of the same kind of people end up in prisons at one place and one time, is it because they are so much worse as people than others? Or does it have something to do with how the confiners define who has to be in prison?
The KB–the Dutch National Library, provides a terrific Web exhibit entitled, in English, Memory of the Netherlands. The theme War provides access to a great deal of imagery from World War II. Unfortunately, the labels of the articles are in Dutch. See also the exhibit Traces of War.