Alcazar


"Alcazar" is a series of paintings I started working on about 3 years ago. The body of works is still growing and comprises about 40.

Some of them are completed. Some are mere sketches and others are being reworked constantly....

So what's it all about?

In the summer of 2011 I visited the Amsterdam Historical Museum and was caught by a silent, black and white movie screened in a corner of the department of the history of WW2.

I was intrigued by what I saw... People going around their daily business in the environment of a typical dutch home-men and women of all ages, talking, laughing, crying, cooking, hiding, sleeping.... But you could tell they were acting, constantly aware of the camera recording their moves.

The film quality and camera work seemed a bit unprofessional adding even more to the haunting and mysterious atmosphere.

It turned out I was watching the movie "Alcazar". An amazing film with an even more amazing background.

Some historical background...

The Alcazar Cabaret in Amsterdam was a favorite night club of the Germans during the 1942—1943 period. Every night, soldiers would flock to the Alcazar at the Thorbeckepein, oblivious to the fact that 14 Jewish fugitives were hiding just over their heads. (Ironically, Alcazar was very popular with the Jewish population of Amsterdam before the war broke out. In February 1941 a massive fight between dutch nazi collaborators and jewish self defense groups aided by anti german activists led to the near destruction of the club. The reason was that the owner, Dirk Vreeswijk, refused to hang the sign "No entry for Jews" on the window. The riot spread to other parts of the jewish quarter, leaving one dutch nazi dead. The pogrom that followed lead to the famous "Februari strike".)

The attack on Alcazar by dutch nazi collaborators

Dirk and Marie Vreeswijk ran both the club and the adjacent boarding house. Originally, regular tenants had lived in the boarding house but during the course of the war it gradually became a refuge for those fleeing from the Nazis. One of the illegal tenants, Harry Swaab, made a 16 mm film of the daily life of his rescuers and his sister Mina was also hidden there. In the film, he describes the accommodations vividly. Each of the 14 Jews had a comfortable bed and many other amenities. Every day, Dirk and Marie would try to provide them with a sufficient quantity of food. In addition to the film, Harry and a friend, Henry Levy Robinsky, wrote about the period in a diary. These documents were hidden behind a closet in one of the walls and discovered later by pure chance. Harry Swaab was later to testify that the Vreeswijks cared for their secret guests with much love. Each of the lodgers paid the very reasonable sum of 30 florins a week. Harry also emphasized the enormous risks taken by the Vreeswijks in hiding so many Jews because the Germans were nearby at all hours of the day. In March 1943, the Jews were betrayed and the lodgings were uncovered. Some of the Jews escaped but others were deported to Westerbork (where two of them committed suicide) and later to the death camps. Dirk and Marie Vreeswijk were arrested. Marie was sentenced to ten months imprisonment in the notorious Vught concentration camp. Dirk managed to escape. Both survived the war. Harry Swaab, who had married a German non-jewish woman, survived the war as did Henry Robinsky. The latter changed his name and didn't want to be reminded of the past or his religion anymore.

By sheer coincidence the nightclub, which after the war had become the strip club "Moulin Rouge" , burned down in 1983. During the renovation the dairy written by Henry was found by a construction worker behind a wall. The news of the discovery soon spread and Harry Swaab, who was first thought to have perished in an concentration camp, was located. It appeared that after the war he had gone back to the appartment to pick up a copy of the film he had hidden there. He had kept it in a bank safe and vowed it would not be shown till after his death.

Robinsky too tried to ban the film from showing. In spite of all this, Swaab gave his permission in the end and this led to the impressive documentary " Ondergedoken in Alcazar" (Hidden in Alcazar) by dutch film maker Ben Elkerbout in which major parts of the film were shown.

Click to see excerpts from the movie "Alcazar"

Watching the film over and over again, I started transferring the scenes and persons to the panel and canvas. Most of them were painted in dark , subdued colors: black, brown, ocre, grey. Sparesly I added some color, mainly in the clothing of the women, guessing what color they would have worn in reality. The persons in the movie, some of them I already knew by name, became alive. The reminded me of my own family who had, in part, survived the war. Hidden for almost five years in the homes of good-hearted dutch people, who would take extreme risks to save them, often asking nothing in reward. I remembered my parents' stories about their experience of living in hiding: keeping quiet in times of danger, their fears, their despair, the constant threat of being discovered, betrayed and sent to a certain death.

Through this film I could more or less imagine what my own family looked like in those days. While this movie was being made, my own parents and grandparents were probably in the same situation, several hundred kilometers from Amsterdam. Sitting together, reading the newspaper, playing cards, talking and sleeping, separated from the direct daylight so nobody would see them. Hoping to survive....

to be continued...

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