The weather in Groningen being slightly better on my second full day there, we take the opportunity to climb the tower of the Martinikerk, a tower which was first built in the 1200s but has been rebuilt a number of times since then. Nevertheless, it is a formidable structure, notwithstanding the mechanised revolving door that lets us through to the entrance. The steps are many and it is icily windy as we climb; but mercifully there is no rain and so we can step out at a few points and survey the magnificent view the tower affords of Groningen. Eventually we find ourselves at the top, looking out over the city through the hands of the church clock. I notice the hands move, moments before the bells start sounding for the half hour, a surprising din that lasts a minute or so and leaves us both shocked and exhilarated when it is over. And then we take the stairs again, a little dizzy from the ascent and the tightness of the spiral beneath us. The air is fresh when we set out again and there is light drizzle, but this passes, and we are able to enjoy the more historic side of Groningen without the worst extremes of the autumn weather.
In the afternoon we set off towards the main canal running through Groningen. There is found the Groninger Museum, an intriguing, rectangular building covered in a mosaic of tiles, sitting within the canal with much of the museum’s exhibits half-below, half-above the waterline. It is a striking building and its exhibits are equally striking, including a permanent exhibition of 20th century Dutch Impressionist works – Dijkstra and others of his vintage – and a fascinating collection of Chinese ceramics dating to the high period of Dutch exploration and trade throughout Asia. Then there are the two special exhibitions: a collection of sculptures by a modern Chinese artist, Yin ???, who uses old clothes and other found objects to make large, intriguing representations of life, culture and emotion; and a collection of 19th and 20th century Canadian landscape painters. Both collections, in their very different ways, reflect their changing societies – China under urbanisation and Canada at a time of change in its northern rural areas. The collection is surprising and beautiful, and at times it is nice just to stand at one of the windows and look out onto the canal, the surface of which stands at chest level. It is a peaceful outlook, and a work of art in itself.
The next day takes us to two quite different places, though united surprisingly by one thing: the period of the German occupation of the Netherlands during the 1940s.
First we go to Haarlem, the place I know best as the home of Corrie Ten Boom, the spinster and watchmaker’s daughter who made her home a “hiding place” for both Jews and young men who refused to join the German forces during the war. Her house, still above a jeweller’s store, has now become a free Museum. Tours are run, in English and Dutch, on alternate half hours. The group on my tour is unexpectedly large and as a result we struggle all to fit in the space, but even this makes the experience an interesting one: it gives us a sense of how remarkable the Ten Boom’s generosity was in opening up a house that was quite humble and not especially large. We do not try to fit in the “hiding place” itself – a cavity behind a fake wall – where famously six adults hid for three days when the Ten Booms were arrested; but we can see for ourselves how extraordinary it was that they all stayed there as long as they did. One small boy is allowed to enter through the secret passage to give us a sense of how it was done; it is easy for him, but we can imagine who much harder it would be for an adult to do it, let alone six. The tour is moving and deeply memorable; I have read the story before, but it is another thing to look myself at the very place where the fugitives hid, to see Corrie’s Bible opened to the Psalm from which her most famous book took its name. I have had several experiences this week of standing in a place that has seen so much history; this gas been one of the most powerful of those moments.
In the afternoon, we take another train to den Haag, the seat of the Netherlands’ parliament and home to a number of other international and diplomatic bodies. It is also the home to the MC Escher Museum, a permanent exhibition of the Dutch lithographer and graphic artist’s work, situated in the old palace, a building simultaneously gloomy and beautiful and full of the kinds of mirrors and staircases that inhabit Escher’s work. Escher was undoubtedly a genius; a cursory glance at his most famous work can tell you that, but a closer look at the tiny, intricate details of his work, the near-perfection of its construction, reveals it in even deeper ways. Yet what is interesting to note, in contrast to the Ten Boom house, is the silent period in Escher’s work – a deacde-and-a-half missing from his body of work, the time of the German Occupation during which Escher had to focus on providing for his family, but finding quiet inspiration and clarification through reading Lewis Carroll and listening to Bach, creative kindred spirits for him. Escher, we are told, nearly went crazy from the boredom and tedium of his life at this time; Corrie Ten Boom nearly died in Ravensbruck.
It is an unfortunate comparison to make. Escher was a truly extraordinary artist and undoubtedly one of the Netherlands’ most significant cultural contributors of the modern age. It might be unfair to say he was complicit in the evils of Nazism, but there is no evidence in his work that he did anying to engage with the crisis that beset his nation and the people in it. Corrie Ten Boom is less famous; her books are not accomplished; her life was humble. Escher is remembered as a great artist and many know his work even if they do not know his name or that he was Dutch; Corrie Ten Boom is quite unknown to most people who are not Christian. It is a reminder that human greatness is often not bestowed for the right reasons, a reminder that loving and forgiving are more important than genius, however history may remember us.
The Netherlands now is an extraordinarily peaceful country. It is difficult to believe the pain it endured only 70 years ago. I will leave with these memories of it: its beauty, its culture, its efficiency and its peace. But times can come to all of us, unexpectedly, when all of these things are taken away. When that happens, what next? How will we respond when we find ourselves, like Escher, like the Ten Booms, like the artists in the Groninger Museum, losing the world we know well? I hope that this question too can stay with me; I can never tell when I will need to answer it.