From the outside, the building doesn’t look like much. Three stories high, whitewashed facade, tucked between similarly modest buildings on a busy Amsterdam street. It was built as a theater. In 1941, the Nazis renamed it “Jewish Theater,” the only one that Jewish people were allowed to attend and the only one where Jewish artists could perform. In 1942, the theater became a detention center.
Some of the Dutch Jews turned themselves in there, complying with Nazi-inspired orders issued by the Dutch police. Over the next year, many more were arrested or betrayed — their hiding places exposed — by neighbors and organized bounty hunters seeking the reward money offered to anyone who turned in a Jew. Thousands of terrified people were locked up in the theater, for days, sometimes weeks. No one knew what was going to happen. Some committed suicide. A few tried to escape. All the rest were sent on to the Westerbork transit camp and from there to the death camps, where more than 100,000 Jews from the Netherlands were murdered.
Today the theater is a Holocaust memorial. My husband and I went there last month. Most of the interior has been demolished; only a suggestion of the original walls remains. To the left of the lobby is a small room whose wall is covered with a list of the family names of those who died — nearly 7,000 last names in white type against a black background. At the foot of the wall visitors have left pebbles, small gestures of remembrance.
We sat on a bench and watched a film about the theater: footage from the time and interviews with survivors. A letter from a mother and father to their children, saying goodbye. A letter from a woman to a friend: Please take care of my cat. A woman whose friend whispered that they might escape if they ran out and hid between the trams. A woman who remembers screaming for her mother. Photos of families walking, under guard, to the theater. Blurry films of people climbing into cattle cars, waving until the doors slid shut.
Outside again, my husband and I blinked in the daylight. In front of the theater the same tramline was still running.
As a teenager I had read and reread Anne Frank’s diary, and in Amsterdam you can visit the house where she and her family hid before they were betrayed, captured, and deported. Hers is the individual voice of a person who suffered the collective fate of millions.
The theater offers a different kind of glimpse of that collective fate: an ordinary building on an ordinary city street used as a way station in the relentless, organized process that sent thousands of people off each week to be slaughtered.
Before the war, the Netherlands was known as a country with relatively little anti-Semitism. During the 1930s, many German Jews had gone there or sent their children there, thinking it was a place of refuge.
Hate movements don’t go from zero to 60 in an instant. They build incrementally, stigmatizing people based on race, religion, or ethnicity, and relying on the complacency of other people who don’t feel personally threatened.
The disaster can start with a gradual eroding or denial of civil rights. Among the displays in the Amsterdam Holocaust memorial are census maps, which the Nazis and the Dutch police used to identify city blocks with the highest concentration of Jewish
Also on display is a pair of shoes. Someone wore them, somehow they got left behind. The theater is not just a place of powerful words — the names on the wall, the voices of survivors in the film. It is, with equal or perhaps even greater eloquence, a place of vast and unending silence.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The News from Spain” and “The Suicide Index.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.