Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Chimes of Westerkirk

(A and I by Bloemgracht Canal.)

This past August Gem and I had a wonderful holiday in the Netherlands. Gem immigrated to Canada with his parents and two older sisters when he was nine years old. He had never been back to Holland since, so for him it was a pilgrimage of sorts, to his roots. We brought our lovely eight year old granddaughter, A, with us, and her presence added a beauty, a light, and a perspective we wouldn't otherwise have had. I plan over the next months to write the little stories about our time there. This is the first one.

Instead of staying in a hotel, for the first week we rented an apartment in a 17th century row house along the Bloemgracht (Flower canal) in Amsterdam. The house boasted twenty foot ceilings, wide windows overlooking the canal, gleaming black shutters, crisp white scalloped curtains and a wood floor worn beautifully smooth and uneven with the years. The street breathed romance, like old songs and old books.

Our apartment was located so close to Anne Frank house that we could hear the chiming of the nearby Westerkirk every fifteen minutes, just as she had. In the diary she kept while in hiding, Anne wrote about finding the sound so very comforting and reassuring, and how it made her want to both cry and sing.

(Westerkirk, Amsterdam, built in 1620.)

The evening before we visited Anne Frank house, I told A, Anne's story. She was very interested and asked many questions. The next day, as we waited for our turn to view the house, a woman near us reached over and gently touched A's hair, "You know, I think you look a little like Anne", she said.

Once, this canal house on 263 Prinsengracht was the office of Otto Frank, Anne's father, for his spice business. Entering, I’m immediatly struck by the subdued atmosphere. Voices are low. It is very quiet, very solemn. I begin to imagine what it must have been like, living in this eternal dusk ... day in, day out; in constant fear of discovery. Poignant excerpts from Anne’s diary are written on the walls:

(Anne's actual diary, which she received for her 13th birthday.)

11 June 1942

"We will have to whisper and tread lightly during the day; otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us."

19 November 1942

"I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."

21 August 1943

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death."

In Anne's room we gaze silently at pictures and newspaper cuttings she had pasted on the wall almost seventy years ago: the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Ginger Rogers, Sonia Henie, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Nearby are the pencil marks on the wall, drawn by her father, noting her growth during her years in hiding. A stands very still. I see tears start to trace her cheeks. I place my arms around her, draw her close to me. "It just wasn't fair, Nana. It just wasn't fair", she whispers.

Later that evening after tucking A into bed with her prayers, I lay down beside her for a while. The silvery melodic bells of Westerkirk start to ring in the summer darkness. As the tones die out, A says in a tender voice, "When I hear those bells, it's like Anne is speaking to me because she could hear them, too." I will never forget the hush and holiness of that moment.

(A 8, beside the statue of Anne Frank outside the house where she wrote her diary, while hidden with her family for two and half years, 1942 - 1944.)


  1. Amsterdam has always been one of my favourite cities in the world. If I were a city and might play with the idea of being as grand as Athens or as beautiful as Venice, but I would happily settle for being as free as Amsterdam

  2. A moving account of your visit to the Anne Frank house, Jo. And, a post full of hope, in that Anne's story touched the heart of Ariana.

  3. A Good Education.
    Yes,Amsterdam is a Cool City....I Like The Dutch Style.'Looking forward to more Dutch Adventures!

  4. I wasn't expecting to cry when I read this. Ariana saying, "It just wasn't fair, Nana" touched me. Children know what is fair and what isn't. Anne Frank's diary has been a favorite of mine. What a great trip!