9/11 In Amsterdam

9/11 In Amsterdam

Warning: What follows has nothing to do with intermarriage, and it’s a few days late for the mountain of 10-year anniversary reflections. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to write and share it anyway:

Had we not been tired and had the admissions lines not been so long that afternoon, my husband and I would have been in the Anne Frank House on 9/11, when the planes hit.

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be standing in that famous and ultimately failed hiding place, surrounded by evidence of human evil (and heroism), while hearing the horrifying news.

Instead, Joe and I were enjoying an afternoon nap in a cozy, sloped ceiling Amsterdam hotel room when the sound of TV news reports, in incomprehensible (to us) Dutch but punctuated with English-language dispatches, broke through the thin walls. Like when a morning alarm goes off and is first incorporated into your dream before yanking you from a state of sleep to consciousness, the news of 9/11 came to us in stages.
In the first few seconds, based on the sound of sirens and urgent voices coming from our neighbor’s TV, I assumed there had been another terrorist attack in Israel. Then, when I picked out the word “Manhattan” from the string of otherwise indecipherable words, I thought the attack was on the Israeli Consulate, or a Jewish organization.

Only when we turned on our own TV and saw the footage of the Twin Towers, the planes, the hordes of ash-covered people fleeing Lower Manhattan — a neighborhood in which both of us had worked until recently — did we understand what was happening. And even after that, it took us what seemed like an eternity of frantic channel flipping before we could find any news reports in English.

Had the second plane already hit by the time we turned on the TV? Had the buildings collapsed? Our memory now is blurry.

It was our first full day in Amsterdam — the final leg of a last-hurrah two-week European vacation before we planned on tying ourselves down with children. The evening before, we’d arrived on a much-delayed flight from Paris. And that morning, hours before dawn would come to New York, we’d enjoyed a hotel breakfast of toast covered with butter and little flecks of chocolate, before visiting the Westerkerk church and climbing its 278-foot-high bell tower. Although a fraction of the size of the Twin Towers, that church tower was one of the highest spots in Amsterdam, affording a panoramic view of the city. I remember looking out the window and contrasting the beauty and relative homogeneity of that city’s mostly low-rise architecture, most of it from the 16th and 17th centuries, with the enormity, modernity and relative chaos — but also vitality and excitement — of the New York vista.

Not knowing that within hours the New York vista would change dramatically.

Since the church was just down the street, a lovely canal street, from Anne Frank’s house — Westerkerk and its bells are even mentioned in her diary — we considered heading there next. I’d actually visited it years earlier, when I was 10, on a family vacation; as a kid obsessed with the Holocaust, it had been the one site in Amsterdam I’d been determined to see.

But that morning with Joe, as we approached the entrance and saw the long line of visitors, we felt our energy disappearing. We didn’t have the strength to confront tragedy right then; better to have lunch, take a nap, maybe come back the next day.

We never did make it to the Anne Frank house.

The hours and days after finding out what had happened at the World Trade Center were consumed with phone calls to family, visits to Internet cafes to read The New York Times online and scroll through photos of the carnage, calls to the airline to determine when we’d be able to return to New York (miraculously, we made it back five days later on our originally scheduled flight).

Our time in Amsterdam was mostly filled with dazed strolls around the city, both of us unsure whether it was ethically permissible to visit museums or restaurants or do any of the other vacation things we’d planned, at a time when back home so many people’s lives were lost or in disarray. Visiting Anne Frank’s house was one of the few activities that seemed sufficiently somber, and yet grappling with 9/11 felt like enough for the time being without piling the Holocaust on top of it.

We were lucky that day not to lose anyone we knew personally. And we were lucky not to be caught up in the mob scene in Manhattan, not to have to trek home by foot. At the same time, it was a strange feeling to be so far from home, to see horror-movie footage of familiar streets on TV, to be unable to do anything.

Some day, maybe, we’ll return to Amsterdam.

But, even more than Ground Zero itself — whose power has diffused somewhat over the years, as I’ve walked past it countless times, often with my kids on completely unrelated excursions, to the Staten Island Ferry, to Battery Park City — Amsterdam is associated for me with the sadness of 9/11.

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