After growing up in the suburbs of a city once called Nieuw Amsterdam, admiring Franklin Roosevelt (from a family of Dutch settlers), lying on the floor listening to the radio under a reproduction of a Dutch painting (a solemn couple counting gold coins on a Persian carpet thrown over a table), and being fed Edam and Gouda cheeses, is it any wonder that, while living in London on fellowship, I made my first excursion on the continent to the city of Amsterdam?
In college I had come to admire the Netherlands as a refuge for political and religious exiles. I had marveled at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”; Vermeer’s silken “Girl with a Pearl Earring”; anything by Rembrandt.
The painting is tourist stuff, like fields of tulips or Amsterdam’s red-light district. It was in grad school that I got a little deeper into the quiet profundity of Dutch culture. The first revelation was by a historian, Johann Huizinga, author not only of The Waning of the Middle Ages, but also of Homo Luidens (Latin for “man playing”). In the latter book, Huizinga argues in some detail that culture arises out of play-forms. This became the subject of a special degree program about social imagination.
I began to feel an even stronger affinity with the Netherlands and returned several times, once for an ethno-botanical conference. An elder in a three-piece suit walked slowly to the lectern and I prepared for a few fragments of wisdom, at best. “Oh, he began, “to be ninety again!” He smiled winningly. . It was Albert Hofmann, the discoverer in 1943 of the psychedelic effects of LSD. (Homo Ludens was published in Switzerland in 1944.)
However, I did not really get into the heart of Amsterdam until meeting a man who was just starting adolescence when his native city was occupied by the German Army. Like his schoolmate Anne Frank of the famous “diary,” Robbert was Jewish, but unlike Anne, he managed to survive. When we met in in the San Francisco Bay Area, he asked me to write about his growing up, a project that led to a book called Gift of Darkness.
After a week in Amsterdam with him, I realized that I was seeing not the city of the 1990s, , but the city of the early 1940s, a city with school limited to Jewish kids, of Robbert transporting big pots of food to a theater where the police brought Jews before shipping them to a death camp, of a tiny place where, when even social workers like young Robbert were no longer exempt from capture, he and his Dad escaped a dawn police raid.
In contrast to the Nazis, the Netherlands came to stand for the International Court in the Hague, as it once stood for the best in churchly humanism, in the form of Erasmus. In college I purloined he spirit of a title from Erasmus, who wrote In Praise of Folly. Again, as with Huizinga, you feel a sense of mischief., suggesting that Dutch culture expresses something more than fairness and sobriety.