News: Going Dutch

Your Negro Tour Guide does Amsterdam

Aug 9, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Kathy Y. Wilson

"As a teen-ager I dreamed to see the world. But how could I do this; me, a poor black girl?"
— "Try" by Jill Scott

I'd always wanted to go to Amsterdam, mostly because it seemed tolerant and exotic. I didn't know how or when I'd get there, but I knew it would come to pass.

I repeatedly fought the urge not to go. I had to silence the voices of my childhood that told me I didn't belong anywhere but where I was. Little black girls from Hamilton were not supposed to go to Europe, much less Amsterdam.

I put Amsterdam on the back burner as my 36th birthday approached, but still I dreamed of going there.

A job to do

I was born and grew up for a time in Hamilton, Ohio, where I became a young writer, a little girl too sensitive for my own good, too attached to my father, then my mother.

On the corner of Pershing Avenue and Fourth Street is a mailbox where I used to drop letters addressed to God.

I had a lot of questions. Mostly I wanted to know why I couldn't shake the notion of always, always, always watching people and internalizing the nuances of my surroundings.

Why was I the one always soaking up everybody's bullshit when everybody else seemed to be able to shake off life's drama?

I had no choice but to write for my life. I knew this early on.

Fast-forward through my parents' divorce, an uprooted childhood spent bouncing around, an abrupt change of custody from mother to father, a life as a lazy student and ultimately as a wandering college drop-out — then there I am, scared to death in the winter of 1993 behind an orange metal World War II-issue desk in the newsroom of the Journal-News.

My hometown newspaper never left an indelible mark on me as a kid who read everything I could get my hands on. The paper was something for white people. The only blacks in it were always dead, dying or on their way to jail.

I spent the first few months convincing myself that I had a job to do there.

I did.

Something in the earth shifted
Anne Frank hid from the Nazis in the attic of a building behind her father's job on what is now a main avenue in Amsterdam.

She was a writer and a sensitive girl always, as my mother would say, "in grown folks' business." Frank is known the world over for her diary and as the young girl who personalized the atrocities and abruptness of the Holocaust.

Hannah Gosslar, one of the last people to ever see Anne alive, is an old Jewish woman who lives now with her family in Israel. She, her daughter and granddaughter travel around speaking candidly about tolerance. I dragged my sorry butt out of bed early one morning before dawn and made the 45-minute drive to Hamilton High School to hear her speak.

All I knew was this Jewish woman was going to talk to students about being Jewish. It didn't interest me so much personally as it did professionally. Journalists, you see — especially those who toil away at small dailies — are measured not by the breadth of their talent, but by the size of their output. I needed bylines.

Hannah Gosslar could've been my own grandmother. She was beautiful in a handsome way.

The hour was too early and I was not prepared for her story, for the history in the lines of her face and her thick accent. I sat there paralyzed by the reality that this woman had gone through hell and back. There she sat, calmly talking about seeing neighbors and friends disappear, about losing her family, about finding a place in the world to settle.

She told of being Anne Frank's friend. She told us how, risking her own life, she would have clandestine meetings with Anne at a barbed wire fence constantly awash in the sinister light of a sweeping Nazi searchlight.

She tossed rations over the barbed wire in a ratty blanket to Anne, who was starving herself to death trying to keep her sister alive.

Hannah Gosslar was a teen-ager in a Nazi prison camp who saved the life of another teen-aged girl in a Nazi prison camp. Hanna was the one who told Anne her mother was dead — and so, too, was her father.

Anne eventually gave up the fight, but not before her father. History proved the prison camp rumor mill had been wrong. Anne's father, Otto Frank, was still very much alive. But Anne didn't know this, and she died thinking she was alone in the world.

Hannah and Anne were friends from their last days of freedom when they could still walk the streets in Amsterdam, go to school and attend each other's birthday parties.

That morning in the Hamilton High library, my life opened up. I flowered a little bit, and my flowering made the drudgery of churning out stories about school levies more bearable.

It was a moment I felt something shifting in the earth and in myself.

I filed it away and wrote a moving, front-page story of this woman's experiences not only as Anne Frank's friend, but also as a survivor.

Grilled cheese and grifters
One day years later I opened the mailbox and found a letter from the Journal-News. I was asked to settle my retirement account, because the newspaper had been sold. I signed the form, mailed it and soon got a check for several thousand dollars.

Amsterdam became a reality, an obsession even.

Who would I go with?

Last July, I lit Nicole's cigarette in the Greenwich Tavern and we've either talked on the phone or seen each other everyday since. She is impetuous, adventurous, smart and energetic.

She cruised the Internet, reserved the tickets and I purchased them. We paid extra to have our passports extradited.

Timothy Thomas hadn't been dead long. We were all still edgy with anger and frustration. The citywide curfew was in effect — except, of course, in Hyde Park and Mount Adams. It seemed a good time to leave.

We spent almost 10 days walking the streets of the Red Light District, trying not to look like hicks with our lives strapped on our backs in borrowed backpacks.

We navigated public transportation, dodged crazed bicyclists and were awestruck by the painful strokes of Van Gogh's brush.

We ate our share of grilled cheese sandwiches, watched late-night porn and changed hostels for what seemed a million times.

We met newly graduated American med students, an Irish bar maid, a black British bus driver and a local psychiatrist and her doctor girlfriend. We toured the canals, got invitations to live with strangers, and received detailed advice from a grifter on how to use an international calling card at a public telephone.

The first time I walked through the heavy doors of Centraal Station and set foot in the main square, I stopped cold. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that ominous steel sign: Centraal Station. I felt history at my back.

Inside, the platforms were dirty and sat high above the tangle of tracks, and it felt like the Old World.

True to the memories
Back home I had serious jet lag of the bedridden variety for nearly one month. I thought Europe in general and Amsterdam specifically would've changed me.

But it didn't wash over me. I wasn't badder. I didn't feel freer. I didn't look like the world traveler I thought I'd become.

Then one Sunday night The Anne Frank Story came on television.

I was mesmerized. I studied each scene looking for familiar landscapes and landmarks. I didn't even know if the movie were filmed in Amsterdam, but I knew I'd been there.

Then the scenes of the relationship between Hannah and Anne, true to my memories of Hannah's recounting, came across my television screen.

I wept, because I'd met and known Hannah Gosslar; I'd hugged her — the woman who tried to save her friend.

I wept because I was overcome, old as the story was, by the weight of the loss of all those lives.

I wept because I'd strolled across the floors that Otto Frank had walked with anticipation before he read the lists posted outside Centraal Station that included names of family members returning from the camps.

Had I stood, posing for a silly tourist's portrait, in the very spot of one of those long-ago signs? Had I stood, waiting for a train to the airport, on one of the very same platforms as Otto Frank?

In the movie, when Otto Frank steps outside the station and takes in the view of the city that betrayed him, the camera pulls back to reveal the sign above his shoulders: "Centraal Station."

I was blown way by the cosmic serendipity of the whole thing. I was different, after all.

People kept asking, "How was your trip?"

I didn't have much to report, because I didn't really take that trip.

It took me. ©