Tuesday, May 09, 2006

An Encounter In Amsterdam

In 1980 I returned to Amsterdam for the second time in two years. My first trip was a two week rush through the city, and London, and Paris. This trip was going to be much longer and cover more of Europe.

I had read a lot about Europe and it's history. I enjoyed most of the information but some of the modern history bothered me. Especially the period around World War 2. I planned to absorb as much history as I could but still avoid the unpleasant parts. This was more of an unconscious act than something organized. I just 'knew' there were things I didn't want to see.

Returning to Amsterdam felt like returning home in a way. It was new and yet familiar. I wanted to ride the trams and canal boats again. I also wanted to go to all the 'wild' places I had heard about. I didn't want to go to anything depressing. I knew I would see some unpleasant things but I would not seek them out.

During my previous trip I had started collecting badges and pinning them to my jacket. I was surprised at what could be bought in war memorabilia shops and what some of the young people would wear. They seemed ambivalent about the meaning of the badges and symbols.

As I wandered around Amsterdam my badges attracted attention and this often lead to interesting discussions with locals. Once people found out I was Canadian they were very nice to me. It had been Canadian soldiers that had liberated The Netherlands from the Germans.

I remember watching a group of young punkers standing on the street corner. They wore a mix of clothing and jewelry meant to shock people. People frowned at them or laughed but didn't bother them. I noticed again that ambivalence towards the past.

I thought I had learned something and this came into play when I passed another memorabilia shop. I went inside and had a look at the badges. I already had two World War 1 medals hanging on my jacket so I looked for something related to the Second World War. I avoided anything with a swastika of course but found a brass German badge that was interesting but not noticeable. Pleased with my find I bought it and pinned it to my jacket.

When I left the shop I was a little nervous but noticed no change in the people around me. Even when I stopped for coffee nobody said anything. I forgot about the badge.

The next day I visited a big park and had a pleasant walk. I walking toward an elderly couple and the woman noticed my jacket and said something to the man. He smiled and said something in Dutch and then in broken English he said "American?". I said "Canadian" and both of them broke into big smiles.

They approached and the man began to look at my badges. Suddenly he got a stricken look as if I had slapped him. He looked me right in the eye and I went cold. He was wearing long sleeves so I couldn't see any numbers tattooed on his arms - but I could see them in his eyes.

The man backed away and cursed in Dutch and another language. He kept gesturing for me to throw away the badge. The woman was upset too but looked at me as if to apologize for the man. She managed to get him walking the other way.

I was stunned.

I stood there in shock unable to move. I felt so ashamed and burst into tears crying and shaking with humiliation. I sobbed and removed the badge and walked over to a trash can. In my anger I bent the badge in half and threw it in. I was still crying as I slowly walked away. It took a while to regain my composure.

I had tried to avoid some of the unpleasant things about Europe. In one afternoon I found that you can't ignore the past. Some people may be able to forget but others cannot.

I have thought about that encounter fairly often over the years. I wondered about that couple and what became of them. I even considered writing a letter of apology and sending it to a Dutch paper.

When I returned home I didn't tell anyone of that encounter. I did change how I looked at history and began to learn about the occupation and the Holocaust. I stopped looking away and hiding from the unpleasant things. I learned something.

That encounter in Amsterdam changed my life.

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