Boccaccio’s Lessons from the Black Death

As I struggle, like so many others, to make sense of the pandemic that has engulfed our lives, I find myself searching for texts that can speak to our time of tremendous upheaval and fear. Written sometime between 1348 and 1353, Boccaccio’s Decameron is set in pestilential Florence, at the height of the first European outbreak of the Black Death in at least six centuries.  The frame narrative describes in detail both the symptoms of the disease (including a graphic depiction of buboes, the signature swollen lymph nodes of  “bubonic plague”) and the concomitant breakdown of society: abandonment of the sick, the young, the very old; mass burials with little or no ritual; an “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude contrasted with the specter of the flagellants, whose public displays of physical penitence likely contributed to the spread of the mysterious and virulent disease.

Procession of Flagellants

Between 1346 and 1353, as much as sixty percent of Europe’s population was killed by the plague. But illness is not the main focus of Boccaccio’s work.  Rather, it is story-telling. The seven women and three men who gather in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, burnt out from grief and caring for the sick, make a decision to withdraw into the hills.  This is not a cure but a respite: In this retreat to beauty and tranquillity, their main activity is to sit and tell stories. Over the course of ten days, each of those gathered takes a turn as monarch, and sets a theme; the stories they tell (ranging from felicitous to tragic, depicting acts of nobility or bawdy slapstick) explore the full range of human experience and emotion, reminding us of the companionship, community, and compassion to be found in story-telling.

I have been thinking a lot about the Decameron these days.  In the years before my focus shifted to honors and administration, the Black Death (along with excerpts, at least, from The Decameron) were a frequent starting point for my seminars and surveys of “Renaissance humanities.”  Tell me, I would ask my students, when in your lifetime was the world turned upside down?

In my assistant professor days of the 1990’s, students would frequently evoke the AIDS epidemic, while older (or what we now call “nontraditional”) students would chime in with memories of the Kennedy assassination.  After 9/11, of course, we all shared that obvious touchstone. But in 2012, when I taught a new honors first year seminar, the response shifted. That class met for the first time on the first day of the semester, at 8:30 a.m. in a classroom on the honors floor of the residence hall.  (Showing up in pajamas was optional, toothbrushing was not.) By 9 a.m., however, with Hurricane Isaac fast approaching a campus that had been shut down by Katrina seven years earlier, the decision was made to cancel classes for a week.

When my students finally returned to class, the answer to my question, “When was the world turned upside down?” was unanimous: last week, when their brand new college career was abruptly interrupted after half an hour.  And, with little electricity or internet available, every student had read, pretty much, all one hundred stories in The Decameron. We had a great discussion. I wonder, have those students, now alumni, been thinking lately about The Decameron? What might their younger colleagues, sent home abruptly from Loyola and now confined to home, have to say?

Missing my students on an empty campus

“It’s human to have compassion on those who suffer,” proclaims The Decameron‘s author, in the volume’s very first sentence.  In other words, the focus, here, is not on the suffering, but on how we might respond to it.   In that sense, Boccaccio’s story of the Black Death has a lot to teach us about our own pandemic. There is a great deal of suffering in the world today, and also a lot of compassion. Owners are retrofitting their businesses to sew medical masks, or feed health care workers, or even, as in the case of two New Orleans restauranteurs, opening a new business that employs hospitality workers to help folks navigate the maze of online healthcare.  Other community members, too, are looking to be kind, whether by buying groceries for those shut-in, or clapping and cheering for healthcare workers, as is now New York City’s new 8 p.m. ritual.

Like most professors these days, I am working from home, stuck,  if not in the proverbial ivory tower, at least in an enclosed sunroom on the second story of my home. Gazing from the windows at the leafy green branches of massive live oaks and cypress trees, it’s hard to remember, sometimes, that the world is upside down. Boccaccio’s companions, however, call to me and all of us, reminding us not just to share stories, but to find community and commonality of purpose, even in moments of greatest affliction.

Anne Frank, American Icon

When I told my sister, two years ago, that I had been invited to the Netherlands to speak about Anne Frank, her response was something of an eye-roll.

“Well, of course, you’re going to speak about Anne Frank,” she said, dismissively. “What else would you be talking about in the Netherlands?”

My sister’s comment was not intended as an affirmation of my status as a renowned scholar of either Anne Frank or the Holocaust. Rather, both the comment and, in fact, the invitation itself — to lead a workshop about Anne Frank at a summer institute focused on “Tolerance, Diversity, and Lessons from the Holocaust” — underscore Anne Frank’s role as iconic Jewish girl, and, despite her birth in Germany, Dutch exemplar. For most Americans, Anne Frank is not just a but the Dutch girl. For us, Anne Frank (pronounced American style, rather than “Ahnna Frahnk,” as she would have called herself), is the third single story about the Netherlands.

Anne’s story, and the supporting role of Miep Gies and the other helpers who enabled Anne’s family, the van Pels family, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, to remain in hiding for over two years, fundamentally shape the American view of the Dutch experience of the Holocaust and of World War II in general.

Most Americans, for example, do not know that the Netherlands lost a higher percentage of its Jewish people than any other country in Western Europe. We do not know that the trains to and from Westerbork (the Dutch transit camp from which Jews, Sinti-Roma, and people from other targeted groups were sent to the extermination camps in the East) were never delayed, and that the people living in the surrounding community did not try to stop the trains they saw arrive and depart each week.

A memorial plaque, inscribed with a quote in Hebrew (and its translation, "my sorrow is continually before me," and dedicated Israeli president Chaim Herzog. is displayed surrounded by green foliage, with a background of trees, at Memorial Camp Westerbork
A memorial plaque at Camp Westerbork

Most of us know nothing of the travails of the Dutch under Nazi occupation, or the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, during which, in retaliation for a railroad strike, the Germans cut off almost all food supplies to the Netherlands. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have borne the effects of that famine throughout their lives, experiencing higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia, for example, than does the general Dutch population.

Anne’s voice, so poignantly and powerfully preserved for us in her diary, is for many Americans the single story about the Holocaust, at least in the Netherlands. And, like all single stories, it is incomplete, a radical simplification of multiple narratives about Anne Frank and the Dutch experience of the war for both Jewish and Gentile people.

For example, most of us are unaware that, in addition to the denizens of the “Secret Annex” (Het achterhuis, which is the name that Anne chose for the novel she hope to publish after the war), 25,000 other Jewish people in the Netherlands also went into hiding. Unlike Anne, her sister Margot, her mother Edith; Hermann, Auguste, and Peter Van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer, approximately 16,000 of these onderduikers (pronounced OhnderDOWkers) survived.

A book with the title, "Ondergedoken als Anne Frank: tales of Jewish children in hiding."  The cover features black and white photos of several children.
Diving under like Anne Frank: Tales of Jewish Children in Hiding During World War II

The term onderduiker literally means someone who “dives under.” The Frank family was unusual, first, in that they “dove under” in the midst of a big city, Amsterdam, and second, that they remained together as a family. Hermann Pollack, a survivor who spoke to me and my students at Memorial Camp Westerbork last summer, described being hidden as a small child in as many as six different locations, including by himself (at age 6!) in a department store’s bedding section. Emuna Elon’s novel, The House on Endless Waters, provides a haunting account of the choreographed transition of hands pushing a baby stroller, as a mother passes her beloved toddler to a member of the resistance in the midst of a crowded market.

A number of Dutch friends have shared with me their families’ experience of the war. As a small child, one colleague’s sister was surprised to see a man suddenly emerge out of a trap door in the living room. Both grandmothers of Liesbeth, co-director of the Windesheim Honours College where I am teaching, sheltered onderduikers. One of these grandmothers was caught, and although her husband, a jeweler, was able to rescue his wife with the bribe of a gold watch, he could not save the Jewish man they had hidden.

Not all onderduikers were Jews. The term also refers to Dutch young men who went into hiding rather than be conscripted into the occupying German army. It includes many who were part of the resistance, secretly forging ration books and identity papers. Indeed, in addition to the 25,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 300,000 other Dutch people were hidden by illegal “landlords” who risked their own lives in this powerful act of verzet, resistance, .

During our own challenging times of illness, fear, and social distancing, a popular meme on facebook reminds us that “Anne Frank and seven other people hid in a 450 square foot attic for 761 days, quietly trying to stay undiscovered, to stay alive.” I have already been thinking a lot about Anne Frank these days (it’s part of my job), but I find this posting slightly puzzling: Is it meant to admonish us, just a little, to stop whining about social distancing? Or can we view it as a call to empathy and courage, in a challenging moment?

The Frank family hid, it is true, because they feared for their lives. But the Dutch term for them, onderduiker, reminds us that theirs was not an act of cowardice. Rather, “diving under” was a choice of tremendous courage at an unfathomably difficult time. The Franks chose to protect their daughters. They and their helpers chose to include a second family. And then, despite the cramped and uncomfortable conditions, the unbelievable difficulty of finding enough to eat, they chose to offer shelter to another man, one they did not know.

Remembering the experience of Anne or any of the other onderduikers can put in perspective our time of social distance and sheltering in place. The challenges of the healthy members of our community, compelled to remain in their own homes in the midst of the current pandemic, are not truly analogous to the travails of both those who went into hiding, and those others who protected them, at great danger to themselves. And yet we are living in a frightening moment: many have lost their livelihoods and even their lives. Healthcare workers, police officers, and grocery cashiers are placing their own health at risk for the sake of others.  In times of uncertainty and pain, it is inspiring to be reminded of our own power to make difficult choices, and of the powerful difference those choices can make.

Het achterhuis. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, taken by me in June, 2019.

If you want to learn more about Anne Frank and the other onderduikers from the secret annex, here is a video from the Anne Frank House

Imaginary friends in a time of social distance

This little girl, with her purse, her flower, and — barely visible — reins to make sure she doesn’t wander off, was painted by Gerard Terborch, born in Zwolle and after whom my street here was named.

When I first started blogging about life in Zwolle, I pointed out that, not only are many Americans unclear about the exact location of the Netherlands, they believe that Amsterdam is the only city in the tulip-filled country of “Holland.” Sure enough, the Netherlands has been largely absent from the corona virus story, as narrated, at least, by CNN, BBCTV, Euronews and the New York Times, our main sources of information here on Terborchstraat. A few days ago, a Times map, showing the spread of Covid-19 in Europe, failed even to identify the Netherlands, while all four of these major news outlets ignored the first live television address by a Dutch prime minister since the oil crisis of the 1970’s. In keeping with what I call the “second single story” about the Netherlands (sex, drugs, and tolerance), Euronews finally ran a story yesterday announcing that tourist sites, restaurants, and even sex and marijuana shops were closed in Amsterdam. I guess we in Zwolle, like the rest of the country, are just leverworst.

Here in Zwolle, life is calm and also confusing. The restaurants and cafes (as well as the marijuana coffee shop) are now closed; of course we miss Swolse Friets, with its spectacular fries and ingenious plating, but we are also worrying about the proprietor and his three daughters. Windesheim Honors College, along with all the other universities in the Netherlands and so many others world wide, has moved online.

Note both the dedicated spot for dipping sauce and the ingenious grated holder, so that no fry is left behind.

This morning, in fact, we had a meeting of our “value creators” class, in which students work in teams to learn about and address in a specific, and potentially systemic, way one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals. After a discussion about how the course’s grading structure might change (kudos to my European students for being a lot more phlegmatic on this issue than their American counterparts) and how end-products (the value created) might look different this semester, the conversation shifted to how, beyond their group projects, students might create value NOW in their communities. Someone suggested creating videos and lessons that might be used by our own faculty with small children, as well as other families abruptly coping with home-schooling. A colleague sent a link about “caremongering” in Canada. Suddenly, the chat window was full of links and suggestions, including one to online volunteering through the United Nations and another, translated as “Corona-proof volunteerwork.”

If you know me, you know that I love my students, And if you have read the “about” page of this blog, you probably know that I am on a quest: How do we guide our students to be, in a formulation not just for Jesuits, for and with others? How do we teach our students to address the challenges of the 21st century?

Loyola Honors and friends in Amsterdam: Nicole Margavio, Mary Kate Andrepont, Anne Frank, me, and Michael Pashkevich (photo courtesy of Khadija Moses)

Well, one of the world’s greatest challenges now surrounds us. We are all striving to make sense of a new normal, at least (as my mother would say) for now, in an ever-changing landscape. And, as always, the “teacher” is learning from her students, both here in the Netherlands, and back at Loyola in New Orleans, where many of “my” seniors — their classes moved on line, their recitals and shows cancelled, their commencement activities in limbo — used the funds remaining in their meal plans to buy nonperishables for the university’s food pantry.

Like so many others right now, struggling to make sense of the crisis engulfing us all, I am trying to figure out the correct path forward for me and my family. I am worried about my children and older family members and friends; I am trying not to think too hard about the tumbling of the markets, the people losing their jobs, those struggling with — or even losing that struggle to — this terrible illness.

And, if I am honest, I have to admit that I have also lingered a few moments in personal disappointment: my great Fulbright adventure is not, to say the least, as I imagined it might be. Even if I shelter on Terborchstraat rather than Calhoun Street, there will be no keynote to deliver at Windesheim’s international week celebration, no dedication of seventeen new stumbling stones here, no face-to-face meetings or coffees with students and colleagues, no seder with my new community.

courtesy of wikicommons

Perhaps, if you are lucky enough that the changes in your life right now are not overwhelming or tragic, you have also had such moments of wistful regret. And, despite Casablanca‘s timely reminder that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” that’s ok, for now. There is no need to flog yourself for feeling sad about the commencement you worked so hard for, the wedding celebration you dreamed about, the performance you so carefully prepared, the many things — large and small — that you imagined and which will no longer materialize.

But imagination is a powerful tool, and a two-way street. Thanks to streaming platforms, Casablanca’s compelling war-time love story can offer us a moment of escapism, but it also can encourage us to feel empathy for the pain of those all around us, caught up — like Rick and Ilsa — in events beyond their control. We can spend our time envisioning “what might have been, longing for a world where “corona” was an arcane Latin term for “crown” most of us only used or heard in advance of a solar eclipse.

Or we can use our imaginations constructively: taking the time to imagine how we can be for and with others, helping our communities, great and small, to navigate this crisis.

The senior rabbi at my beloved Touro Synagogue sent the board a “Covid Action Plan” that opened with a beautiful midrash (an elaboration of a biblical narrative) about how Noah was transformed by his time in the ark. Drawing from Aviva Zornberg’s book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Rabbi Bauman explains that, before the flood, Noah was callous and materialistic, but that the raging water and confinement with the animals forced him “to focus on the essential. Every life on his ark becomes precious. He gains an awareness of his responsibility for the safety of others.”

For Noah, the flood is traumatic but also transformative. Rabbi Bauman writes that Noah “centers down in a way that would have been [previously] unthinkable.” Poignantly, she explains, the ark becomes “a ‘laboratory of kindness’ where Noah reclaims what is good in his soul and transforms himself into one who can emerge and merit God’s hope.”

Some (my husband included) may be put off by the reference to Noah, let alone God. But regardless of our faith orientations or personal tenets, our worldview constructions, I firmly believe in the power of “imaginary friends.” These “friends,” figures of the world’s great texts and traditions, can engage our imaginations, in essential ways, with issues regarding empathy and compassion. The “friends” can be compelling companions in our daily lives, but, for me at least, are indispensable in times of unfathomable challenge, offering companionship and guidance, along with intellectual and moral engagement.

Some of my “imaginary friends” in the Rijksmuseum. Note that “imaginary” does not mean, necessarily, that they are “made up” but rather that they engage the imagination.

In the weeks ahead, as I withdraw, like you all, into social distancing, I will be engaging — partying, even — with my imaginary friends, searching for new pathways forward. This term, “imaginary,” is not intended to be dismissive, or imply that they are “made up,” although some (like Harry Potter, or Homer’s Achilles, for example) emerge from some of the world’s most creative imaginations. Rather, “imaginary” implies that each of these figures, from a diverse spectrum of provenances — the Bible, children’s literature, history — engages my imagination, speaks to and with me, in many profound ways. At this unprecedented moment, we must find strength to imagine and then do what is best for our communities, transforming this strange moment of retreat and self-quarantine into an ark, a “laboratory of kindness,” where we all grow in ways we cannot even imagine.

Holding forth about my relationship with my imaginary friend, at the Shelter Cities kick-off on March 5

I look forward to sharing my friendships with you (starting with Anne Frank, as might be expected from a nice Jewish girl exploring the limits of tolerance in the Netherlands), and I hope you will share some of your friends with me, as well.

You may leave a comment or reach me at; I answer every email.


Boodschapen: Making groceries in a time of uncertainty

Photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos

One of my favorite places in Zwolle is the Grote markt, which features an open-air market on Fridays and Saturdays. Each day has its own vendors, but there are always tasty cheese samples to nibble, fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven, bright orange peppers and little green brussels sprouts. I prefer the appelflappen sold on Fridays, seemingly familiar pastries that raise the simple apple turnover to an art form, but the Saturday bakery has the best croissants. Fortunately, the fish folks, Visschers, are there on both days, so the XL zak of freshly fried kibbeling is now a tradition in our house, although we forego another Dutch treat my mother would have loved, raw herring with chopped onions.

“Making groceries” is a fabulous New Orleans locution that means to go shopping. After six weeks in the Netherlands (along with 297 days of Duolingo), I can now make groceries (boodschapen) pretty much all in Dutch, augmented by lots of smiles, nods, and the occasional hand gesture. I have learned how to request my bread be sliced (“ja, dank je, sneden” is so much more civilized than tilting my parallel hands up and down very quickly, like a frenzied flight attendant ). I can ask to pay by debit card (“ik wil pinnen”), proclaim that something is very tasty (“Lekker!“), and offer an appropriate thank you and farewell (“Dank je wel. Tot ziens!”). I even managed to explain that I needed dark roast coffee (Veel donker en sterk voor de French Press).

Learning languages has always been both fun and important to me. I find great joy in deciphering the meaning of words that secretly make me giggle with their fluted vowels, rolled r’s, and aspirated g’s that sit slightly higher in the throat than the ch in Chanukah.

My struggles in expression and comprehension also serve to humble me, reminding of my own strange privilege: I teach at a Dutch university, in an international program conducted solely in English. I am continually in awe of the remarkable linguistic gifts of my students, completing university and professional work in a second or third language. When we break into small groups, the discussion may take place in Dutch, German, Spanish or something else, but when we come back together, it’s in my mother tongue.

I love the way language can open the door to another culture, creating a sense of connection and community. My Dutch students smile and laugh encouragingly when I greet them in Dutch or use a Dutch expression. And, in general, I have found the Dutch very patient (veel geduldig) in putting up with my toddling linguistic efforts — not only the vendors at the market, who take time to understand me, but the unfortunate patrons stuck behind me, waiting to be served. Speaking Dutch, however is still very challenging; although I can now navigate basic needs (for those of you dealing with hoarders, ik heb wc-papier nodig is “I need toilet paper”), I quickly reach a point where I am lost, where I can neither express myself nor understand what is being said.

Somehow, my labors with Dutch seems a fit metaphor for this moment of incomprehension, when we are all struggling to make sense of what is going on. No matter what language we speak, this is a time of confusion, uncertainty, fear, for all of us.

Boring pantry staples just in case, slightly redeemed by excellent chocolate

Thursday, instead of the market, we went to the Jumbo, the big supermarket located outside of the original city walls, to stock up, just in case. We bought pasta, canned vegetables, boring but practical nonperishables, despite the fact that, Thursday, although meetings of more than one hundred people had been cancelled, the university and all the town’s amenities – cafes, museums, churches, the synagogue – were still open for business as usual. Friday, however, we woke to the news that all classes were canceled (we will go to online learning until April 1st), that museums were closed, and that Belgium, our neighbor to the south, had declared a state of emergency. Today, so had Spain, while Denmark, Poland, and other countries had closed their borders. Windesheim is calling home all our seniors doing capstone research abroad. Like so many others at this challenging time, I am confused and sad, feeling grateful for what I have but gently mourning the experiences I had anticipated in the months ahead.

I was back at the market today with my winkelwagen, the little covered shopping cart that has quickly become one of my most prized possessions here in Zwolle. On an unusual sunny day, it was more crowded than usual in the market, and the cheesemonger (ill-advisedly, I’m sure) was still offering tastes of a variety of cheeses.

In the center of the square, the statue of the Archangel Michael was still keeping watch over the community. Michael, described as leading God’s army in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is the patron saint of Zwolle and frequently depicted in Dutch art struggling with a dragon or serpent.

“The Archangel Michael kills the devil.” Lucas Kilian, after Peter de Witte, after Hubert Gerhards, 1589 – 1615. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The green glass sculpture in the marketplace, however, depicts Michael in a more gentle guise, keeping watch over the citizens of Zwolle. This archangel Michael is familiar to me from the Jewish tradition, where he is described as protector of both the community and its individual members. In the Hebrew Bible, Michael appears to Daniel as the protector of Israel, while the prayer recited at bedtime calls on Michael and three other archangels to surround us in protection: we invite Michael to be at our right hand, Gabriel our left, Raphael (my personal favorite) behind us, and Uriel, before us, lighting the way.

It is a comforting thought, in these confusing times, to envision ourselves surrounded by Michael and his companions. But, in Hebrew, the word malach, angel, also means “messenger.” In a passage quoted in the Reform Jewish prayer book, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that, not only may we not recognize the messengers, the angels, all around us, we, too, have the capacity to choose to be angels:

“And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity. Often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you too yourself may be a messenger.”

In this time of uncertainty and confusion, when borders are closing and our institutions are going dark, we must choose to remember that the universal language is shared in acts of compassion, kindness, and love.

A modern statue of St. Michael gazes at the market

Sjabbes in Sjoel (shabbat shalom from Zwolle)

Looking towards the synagogue on Samuel Hirschstraat in Zwolle

It’s only a ten-minute walk from my house to the beautiful synagogue on Samuel Hirschstraat, a majestic brick structure from the late nineteenth century, designed to house a much larger community than the thirty Jews remaining in Zwolle. On Saturday morning, the door is locked for safety concerns, but when I ring the bell (not the intercom buzzer, which is electric and thus forbidden on the sabbath), I am warmly welcomed. The left side of the prayer book may be in Dutch instead of the English I am used to, but on the right side are the same Hebrew prayers, frequently sung to tunes familiar to me from home. It’s a bit of a surprise to start with adon olam — the concluding prayer that can be adapted to almost any melody, from This land is your land to Hamilton’s You’ll be back — and also very comforting: we may be in Zwolle, but this is definitely shul. Or, rather, sjoel.

Because it is winter, when attendance is so low and heating is so expensive, we meet in the small chapel. In sephardic style, the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) is in the center, with pews facing each other (men on the left, women on the right). It is a warm and friendly group; as each male congregant enters, he comes around to shake hands with first the women and then the men. Following the service, we go upstairs to a dining room, where the wine is blessed and we share tea, coffee, delicious homemade coffee cake, and oranges.

Jewish people first came to Zwolle at the beginning of the 14th century, but in August of 1349, all Jews of the city were burned, to “honor” God, it was alleged, and call down God’s mercy on a community decimated by the Plague. At a time when we are struggling with a powerful and mysterious pandemic, this history is a startling and brutal reminder that our own fears can be as deadly as illness. Jews returned to Zwolle in the 18th century, and established their first synagogue in the Librije — the former library of the Domenican monastery, by the water’s edge; by 1899, the Jewish community of over 700 needed a new building.

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

The Torah from which we read is a survivor, hidden in a nearby bank vault during the 5-year Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. But fewer than 250 of the Jewish people of Zwolle survived the war. On small brass pavers throughout the city, I see traces of my lost Jewish neighbors. The stolpelsteiners, or “stumbling stones,” each engraved with the statement, “Hier woonde” (here lived), followed by a name, birth and death dates, and the locations in which those events occurred. The stones mark the last spot where someone, later murdered by the Nazis, lived freely and by choice. The artist, Gunter Demnig, placed the first fifty memorial stones(commemorating Roma-Sinti people) in Berlin over 20 years ago; his goal was to replace the narrative of mass victimization with the reminder that each person dragged off, dehumanized, murdered, disappeared, was a unique individual, worthy of dignity.

There are now over 70,000 stumbling stones, or struikelstenen, as they are called in Dutch. For Demnig, the markers are an intrusion of memory into quotidian life, a reminder of the Talmud’s affirmation that “a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten.” The stumbling stones remind us that the millions who died were each a human being, someone who lived and loved; they tell us that on this spot, here in our neighborhood, birthdays were celebrated, deaths were mourned, family meals eaten, books read.

There are plans to install twenty stones here, later this month , and to continue until there is a memorial for every one who was murdered. Already, there are many more stumbling stones in Zwolle than living Jews in its synagogue. They are here on Terborchstraat, around the corner, in front of the cute little pizzeria with the wood-fired oven. There are at least 8 struikelstenen in the Melkmaarkt, the square where we go to buy cheese and bread and vegetables, tasty fried fish, and the occasional fresh stroopwaffel. No longer shiny, the brass markers are dirty and dull from the winter, poignant, silent witnesses, calling us — if we take a moment to look down — to remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.

My neighbors on Terborchstraat. May their memory be for a blessing.

Lice happens

Gerard ter Borch, Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, known as ‘Hunting for Lice’, c. 1652 – 1653. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague.

At the Mauritshuis in the Hague, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is everywhere. She is outlined in sequins on the uniforms of the coat check attendants and guards, reproduced on myriad items in the gift shop (umbrellas, notebooks, keychains), morphed into a rubber duck or embroidered as a cat (each with the requisite earring and scarf) on bags that sell for over thirty dollars each.

Standing in Gallery 15 of this exquisite dollhouse of a museum, I was book-ended by the actual painting on my right, and, out the window, her face — with its sweet, perhaps melancholic glance, its open mouth with light-glossed lips — waving in the heavy wind.

The view from Gallery 15 (photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos)

But The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not the only painting in the Mauritshuis, or even in the gallery. Not for the first time, I was struck by how, for so many, the museum experience has become the selfie by the masterpiece (Girl with the girl with the pearl). I am not criticizing that impulse per se; anyone who follows my husband’s facebook page has seen me posed, like Let’s make a deal‘s Carol Merrill, next to whatever of the world’s masterworks we might be viewing. What surprises and, frankly, disappoints me is the way in which folks so frequently ignore what else is in the room.

Right next to The Girl, and pretty much unnoticed, hangs a much smaller work. Painted by Gerard Ter Borch (originally from Zwolle!), Woman combing her son’s hair depicts a simply but well-dressed woman, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun with a cap, her brown velvet coat edged with white fur, carefully searching her son’s blond hair for lice. He, too, is clean and composed, holding an apple in his hands, with his brown eyes gazing at what seems to be a window just outside the frame of the painting.

What is going on here? The Girl with a Pearl Earring is celebrated for its mystery: no one knows who the Girl is (Vermeer’s daughter? His maid, as Tracy Chevalier and Scarlett Johansson would assert?). In contrast, Woman combing her son’s hair (or Lice hunting, as it is also known) comes out of a tradition of genre painting that had a great deal of significance in seventeenth century Dutch culture, but whose meaning has been largely lost to those who haven’t learned about the period.

Before this time, known as the Dutch “Golden Age” (the gold, my students remind me, coming from the slave trade), the Netherlands had a long tradition of beautiful religious art; oil painting, in fact, was developed in the low countries before spreading to Italy. After the country became Protestant, however, art changed. The Calvinists were iconoclasts, who white-washed their church walls and destroyed many Catholic images, viewing them as idolatrous rather than sacred. But although art was no longer a part of worship, it did not disappear. Rather, it became part of the secular economy, a symbol of wealth and prosperity in upper- and middle-class homes.

And artists, instead of focusing on sacred images, became specialists: some painted the exquisite flower paintings I love, or the still lives that I can appreciate at an intellectual level, but, frankly, do not find appealing. Others depicted stories from the Bible, not as objects of veneration but as moralistic fables. And some created what are known as genre paintings, images of every day life and values.

Woman combing her son’s hair is such a work, giving us a glimpse into 17th-century life and hygiene. This is clearly not a scene of squalor or moral depredation, a “Jan Steen” family, where life and values are topsy-turvy.

Jan Steen, The Merry Family (image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Rather, then, as now, lice happens, even in the “nicest” households. If you have ever had the experience of receiving a letter from your child’s school, announcing that lice has been detected, you know such missives generally emphasize that lice should not be considered a sign of uncleanliness or a source of shame. (“Lice prefer clean hair” is a frequent assertion to signify that you are not a bad mother, even if your child has bugs in her braids.)

Perhaps such letters should include a copy of Ter Borch’s image, which underscores that lice hunting is not a sign of bad but good housekeeping, a “maternal duty,” as a similar work in the Rijksmuseum, by Pieter de Hooch, is known.

Pieter de Hooch, The Maternal Duty (courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Unlike the close-up of the image by Ter Borch, de Hooch draws back to show us the tidy and well-appointed household, light flowing in through clean panes and an open window, to shine on the spotless floor as, before the tidily made box bed with its white pillows, a mother carefully explores her child’s head. Like the images of the Madonna lactans of the 14th and 15th centuries, this is a moment of supreme maternal care and intimacy: Just as the Virgin Mary nurses her own child in a sign of the humility that paradoxically exalts her, so the housewife — not a maid or a servant — conducts this humble task of lice hunting, demonstrating that no detail is beneath her notice or attention in the most important work of caring for her family.

Madonna of the Firescreen (courtesy of the National Gallery via Wikicommons)

As a mom, I am drawn to these images of quotidian child care, which speak to me of my own experience. Just as I, now long ago, spent countless hours suckling my own babies, I have also (fortunately, also now long ago), invested considerable time in patiently combing through long, curly hair, with a tiny comb and lots and lots of conditioner, in the curious intimacy of hunting for lice.

That time spent is a reminder, paradoxically, of privilege. Cutting off the hair might be expedient, but drastic, cruel — historically, a sign of shame. As a mother, I was fortunate to have a job and a life that allowed me time to nurse my babies, and later, as necessary, to take time to attend to their other needs, when they were sick, or scared, or, perhaps, vermin-infested. Ter Borch’s painting, like De Hooch’s, celebrates that privilege in the context of the 17th-century Protestant work ethic, which allies fiscal prosperity, along with cleanliness, with Godliness. The good mother has time to invest in this time-consuming, intimate responsibility that is a synecdoche for the housekeeping that is her maternal duty.

And what about the lice? There are some who like to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I don’t agree with that. I believe that “everything happens” — including lice — whether we expect it or not, and it is our job to make sense of it, and, even, to find the good in it. We may or may not agree with the vision of motherhood, or all of the values, of these paintings by Ter Borch and De Hooch; we may prefer the mystery and luminous beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But Lice hunting also reminds me of the unanticipated moments of intimacy and grace we may sometimes find in doing the humble tasks that are our duty to others.

Image courtesy of Mary Kate Andrepont

Red light, green light, one two three.

The second story: Tolerance

Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s installation, “We may have come in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now”

When I was walking to the train station from the Rijksmuseum last week, struggling to keep my new Van Gogh umbrella (“almond blossoms”) from being blown inside out by winter storm Ciara, I suddenly noticed red lights twinkling around the windows I was passing. Some kind of Mardi Gras celebration, I wondered, feeling just a teensy bit wistful. Then I saw the woman framed by the lights, clad only in a black lace bra and garters, looking bored. Of course: the red light district.

I have seen similar women as I walked from my boutique hotel in Groningen to the synagogue, and out the windows of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, when I took students there to see an installation about refugees that had us struggling not to touch sheets of what looked like gold wrapping paper spread on the cathedral’s massive stone floor. The gold mylar blankets, frequently seen in photos of refugees after their harrowing sea crossings, serve to recall to visitors the intimate connection of this Dutch church to the sea, and to sailors, as a place of protection, blessing, and final rest.

The artist, Sara van Sonsbeeck, evokes Martin Luther King in her title, “We may have come in different ships but we’re in the same boat now,” but also reminds viewers that the church served an essential physical and imaginative role in a community dependent upon maritime industry. “The church was one of the few public, covered places where sails and nets could be mended, and a place where naval heroes were buried. The barrel vaulting was also fabricated like the inverted hull of a ship using shipbuilding techniques. And it is not for nothing that the main section of the church is traditionally known in Dutch as the ‘schip’, or nave. In the church there are actually fragments of paintings that feature motifs found on sailors’ tattoos.”

Like the installation in its local church, the Red Light District is part of a story of tolerance that is central to the Dutch narrative.The Netherlands became a haven for Jews after their Expulsion from Spain, and, despite its Calvinist outlook, adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward Catholics in the 17th century.  The Dutch COC, founded in 1946 just after World War II, is the world’s oldest existing LGBTQ organization, and, on April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. The Netherlands famously allows for the legal consumption (although not production) of marijuana, which you can buy in “coffee shops” (distinguished from cafes) throughout the country but particularly in Amsterdam.

And, of course, there’s the legalized sex trade. The Netherlands ranked 1 out of 167 countries, and was the only country to score an A, on the Global Slavery Index released by the Walk Free Foundation. But the trafficking figures in the Netherlands were reported to be five times higher than expected, with approximately 6250 victims a year, According to the report, 2 to 3 out of every thousand high school students falls under the control of a pimp, with authorities aware of only 11% of these situations.

On a more local level, my students tell me that, although sex education in the Netherlands is considered a model for other countries, access is variable. My “value creators” team (students at Windesheim Honours College are required to devote a semester to a team project designed to address one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals) has chosen the topic of sex education for refugees. What the focus will be — anatomy and physiology, sexual harrassment, positive relationships, or how to give pleasure — has yet to be determined.

Like the complexities of the sex trade, my students remind me that tolerance is not static, but an exercise, something on which we must continually be working. Like Sarah van Sonsbeek’s golden sails, spread in the Oude Kerk, tolerance is not fixed; it must be expanded and furled and trimmed and maneuvered to catch the wind. Sometimes it needs to be mended. Sometimes there is no wind, and we all must row together.

Three single stories about the Dutch.

In a TedTalk that has been viewed literally millions of times (including, last week, by my students here at Windesheim), Nigerian writer  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “The Danger of a Single Story.”  “The single story,” she reminds us, “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The First Story: Welcome to Holland

A windmill in Utrecht, on the way to visit a student at her internship with Tear

One of my students told me about going to a concert in Rotterdam, a major port city on the coast of the Netherlands. The artist strode onto the stage, crying out, “Hello, Amsterdam!”

Rotterdam (population 623,652, or more than twice the size of New Orleans) is most definitely NOT Amsterdam (population 821,752). The city is probably best known for its modern architecture; the historic city center was destroyed by the German luftwaffe on May 14, 1940, four days after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Not only did the bombs reduce most of this industrial city to rubble, they also destroyed the resolve of the largely unprotected Netherlands, a country that had expected to remain neutral in World War II, as it had during the first World War. Upon receiving an ultimatum that the next target would be Utrecht (a beautiful city of medieval structures and canals that is also at the physical center of the country), the Netherlands surrendered.

(Rotterdam is connected to the American “Pilgrim” story by being the home of the “Pilgrim Fathers Church,” whence sailed a number of Protestant dissenters who later ended up on the Mayflower, after their ship the Speedwell started taking on water. But “The Pilgrims” is a single story for another day.)

The geographic synecdoche of “Amsterdam” is perhaps connected to another story that similarly takes the part for the whole: “Holland,” a quaint country of tulips, wooden shoes, and windmills.  This story makes great gifts, which you can find on display at Schiphol airport, as well as all the souvenir shops in Amsterdam, the Hague and Delft, and even on my keyring.

And, like so many stories, in some ways, it is true. The Netherlands — “Holland” — has stunningly beautiful flowers; when I first walked into my apartment two weeks ago, I found that my colleagues at Windesheim had sent me a stunning arrangement. My friend Henmar sent me an exquisite bouquet of tulips. And outside my door, despite the cold, little purple flowers, each with an orange center, are beginning to grow. The flowers, in fact, are tangentially connected to the wooden shoes: Henmar’s husband, last summer, took a photo of me, trying on his gardening klompen. My students, however, almost universally wear sneakers, while my colleagues opt for boots.

Sporting klompen near Groningen

As for windmills (windmollen), although many have now been replaced by electricity, steam, or the far more modern windfarm model , the traditional windmill was not just a picturesque feature on the landscape but a symbol of Dutch identity, representing both the conquest of the sea by the denizens of this low-lying country, and also — as in Jacob van Ruisdael’s 1668-70 Mill at Wijk bij Duurstade — hard-won struggle for independence during the 80-years war with Spain.

courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Windmills and tulips and shoes — oh my! There is nothing wrong with this story, except that it denies the complexity of this mixed-market advanced economy that has the thirteenth highest per capita income in the world, that hosts the international criminal court (in The Hague, not Amsterdam), and that has some of the world’s highest rankings in freedom of the press, personal freedom, and happiness.

Indeed, as the first country to legalize same-sex marriage (2001), along with its liberal policy toward marijuana and the sex trade, The Netherlands is often celebrated as the poster child of tolerance. But that’s another Single Story. Tot ziens — see you soon — for that one.