Bridges through time
– Bruce Jackson
James Walker speaks with Peter Schaapman, a long-time Amsterdam resident, World War II historian and owner of HistoryWalks.eu.
The magnificent Aluminiumbrug was one of the first bridges we covered here on Bridges of Amsterdam – no doubt because the area around the Staalstraat is a regular meeting point for our photography excursions. Its central location means you are less than five minutes’ walk from several distinct regions that are peppered with bridges: the busy hub of Rokin and Muntplein; the sheltered grounds of the University of Amsterdam; Waterlooplein and the Jewish Quarter to the east; the Red Light to the north.
But the area around Aluminiumbrug is not just used as a springboard to other districts. Staalstraat itself is steeped in history, and each return visit reveals something new. Kloveniersburgwal – the body of water crossed by the bridge – has become a common canal-side refreshment stop for the Bridges of Amsterdam team. A place to down the cameras and unwind.
In the summer of 2016 we booked a tour of Amsterdam, on recommendation, with HistoryWalks.eu. Our guide was Peter Schaapman, and during the three-hour walk, which traversed the city from west to east, we found out that he owned the business.
During the tour, Peter depicted an Amsterdam of yesteryear, and placed particular focus on Amsterdam in World War II. He often presented old black and white photographs, holding them up to the horizon so you could see how the city looked back then, against the backdrop of the modern city.
As we approached Aluminiumbrug, en route to the old Jewish Quarter, Peter described how the nearby Halvemaansbrug (which was in eyeshot) was used as a checkpoint during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, where those wishing to cross would have to show their identification papers.
Our small group walked across the bridge and down towards Staalstraat. Here Peter handed out small booklets to everyone on the tour. They were headed with the words:
Today and in the past
The booklets listed each one of the 50 Jewish victims of the Nazis who lived in houses along this small street and ended their lives in the death camps of Sobibor and Auschwitz. After having had barely enough time to process the gravity of the documents we had been handed, and as the pedestrians and cyclists passed by, we were led to Staalmeestersbrug. Peter held up his folder and showed the bridge as it had been portrayed by Monet.
We moved on, and the tour continued in much the same way, with each sombre WII fact being balanced with a snippet of Amsterdam in more peaceful times.
On a rainy afternoon in November, I met Peter at Aluminiumbrug and we headed to a nearby café on Staalstraat. I was eager to learn more about Amsterdam in the Second World War, and whether he had any other stories relating to the city’s bridges during the German occupation. Once inside, we ordered a coffee and Peter immediately presented a stack of papers.
“There is a bridge – a bridge near the Amstel river,” he said, flicking through the documents. “I will show you on a map. This is the Walter Süskindbrug. It’s on the Nieuwe Herengracht. It’s named after Walter Süskind, and he was the manager of the deportation centre in Amsterdam. He was a Jewish refugee from Lüdenscheid in Germany who came here in 1938. He was arrested by the Germans and they put him in the deportation centre. He was forced to organise the deportation centre. He was, in a way, the manager of the deportation centre.”
Peter described how, during his time as the administrator of the Hollandsche Schouwburg, Süskind falsified the data of registered Jewish children. “He helped to smuggle hundreds of children safely out of Amsterdam. He saved them from deportation. The bridge was named after him and there is a plaque on the bridge that is dedicated to him.”
Süskind was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, and he died in January 1945. When the Russians came near to the camp, the Germans forced the Jews to walk to another camp. “He died during the death march,” Peter said. “There was one witness who saw when he was shot.”
Peter went on to talk more about the Halvemaansbrug, which he previously said was used as a checkpoint during the war. “The road led from Rembrandtplein, over the Amstel river and towards the Jewish Quarter. This area was not a ghetto, but it was a place where most of the Jews lived in the city. But the Germans bullied the Jews and put checkpoints and fences on the roads. At the beginning of the war, Jews could move all over Amsterdam, but they had to have their identity card.”
Our conversation continued…
Bridges of Amsterdam: Where are you from originally, and how did you come to live in Amsterdam?
Peter Schaapman: Like many people in this city, I’m an import. I’m from Enschede. I came over to study at University in 1969. After my studies I worked for 30 years in the Dutch television industry. I also taught video at university, and later I worked for the Media Academy – that’s the education division of the television studios in Hilversum. I was head of the internship office and organised the internships for public and commercial broadcasts. But then, nine years ago, there was a reorganisation. I took early retirement and decided to start my second studies here, this time in history. I wrote my bachelor thesis about the rescue of the Danish Jews during the Second World War, and have been conducting walking tours around Amsterdam since 2012.
BoA: Have you always been interested in history, and particularly World War II history?
PS: Yes, yes. I grew up in a Dutch-German border town. And when I was a young boy I went out many times with my father, on the bike, to Germany. It’s only 20 minutes from my home town. In the 1950s, when I was a young boy, the war was still fresh – it was only 10 years ago. So I was brought up with anti-German feelings, but today it’s my favourite holiday country. There are so many interesting things, from the Great War to the Second World War, the communistic time, the Wall.
BoA: What’s the biggest change in Amsterdam you have seen in your 47 years here?
PS: Oh, de Negen Straatjes. Those nine little streets. That’s the most terrible project. Lots of the small shops have had to close because the rent has been put up two or three times more. That, I think, is a bad change. These houses and buildings are now owned by investment organisations. There was a bakery nearby – a nice bakery with organic bread. And they doubled the rent. And it’s now a perfume shop. But what can you do? These people are so rich. They own the whole street, all the businesses. There is a bookshop with travel books on one of these little streets, but the owner wants to double the rent, so they will probably kick him out.
BoA: Do you have a favourite bridge in Amsterdam?
PS: My favourite bridge is the bridge over the Looiersgracht. There’s a little bridge there. This is bridge I cross to go to Albert Heijn! Bridges are everywhere, and every bridge has its own history.