Amsterdam: Ever-Present Past

Amsterdam, like all great cities, strikes every person differently. The last time I was here was the summer I turned sixteen, and what hit me then was promise. I saw a city overflowing with laughter and noise (and beer), brimming with a life and excitement that I was just old enough to begin appreciating. It was all possible, tangible, and in front of me.

But in this trip, I’ve been spending as much time looking back as forward. In talking, learning, and maybe obsessing, about the past lately, I’m almost living in a double-reality. And as a result, I’m in an endless state of reflection on time and change. But while, two years ago, I was just-old-enough to appreciate everything this world has to offer, I’m now just-old-enough to begin contributing to it. It’s time to look forward. This heritage is my inheritance. Now it’s my turn to make something of it.

Maybe it’s my state of mind, but that conflict between past and present seems to be sewn into the fabric of Amsterdam. The streets are hundreds of years old, but always under some kind of construction, endlessly being built and rebuilt upon. Everything is new and old all at once, pushing forward towards the future and endlessly, painstakingly making room for the past.

And when I first began to formulate this blog post yesterday, I wanted to write about that. I wanted to talk about walking through these streets and seeing the old and the new, walking in the shadows of history, and seeing how I fit in. But I don’t know that I can.

Since my arrival in Amsterdam on Friday, my godfather and I have been to the Rijksmuseum, the Jewish Historical Museum, the memorial at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, and the Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief, which was holding an exhibit entitled In Memoriam. The exhibit aims to list the name and photo of each of the 19,000 children taken from Holland and murdered in the Holocaust. It’s overwhelming, and very well done, and I wish I could talk about it well. But I’m not worthy of contributing to that conversation. Even that ‘there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before’ has been said too many times.

And suddenly, I don’t yet feel worthy of contributing to any conversation. Instead of finding a footing in the past, I feel dwarfed by it. There are things, as a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, twenty-first century woman that I will never understand about discrimination. There are things, as someone who has never experienced poverty or war, that I will never understand about suffering and loss. And there are things as someone raised in the United States that I will never understand about the Netherlands, or Dutch culture.

So my generation is on the verge of inheriting the world. But when I look at these streets and think of all the miracles and tragedies that have happened here, I’m forced to ask, who are we to insert ourselves into this history, or pretend that we are worthy of continuing it?

What can we say that hasn’t been said before?

Sara Laughed

Hey hey! I'm Sara, an American writer living in the Netherlands and working as a product manager.

  1. Unknown says:

    I don’t know that we’d be inserting ourselves into history, any history, just by living our lives. We’re all walking into a future whose possibilities are not necessarily yet constrained by the past, and about which we cannot yet know whether we’re worthy or not worthy.

    More importantly, history doesn’t actually exist. What exists only is the debris, the material remains, left by innumerable lives lived in the past. We hold on to that past by lovingly collecting the debris and the remains, by trying to recover the stories behind them–and in doing so we’re turning it into history, every day.

    So really, we cannot insert ourselves into a history that is kept alive only in our minds. We’re walking on a path with unknown destination, with a backpack of memories and histories that we have decided are important and that we want to take with us on that path.

    In Amsterdam you have found new things to carry in that backpack: it’s your way of honoring those who lived before us. Where we ourselves fit into that history is not a question that should burden us now. We have lives to live. Let future generations decide what kind of history they want to make out of our lives. I hope we’ll give them stuff to laugh as well as cry.

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