The Dutch Resistance Museum (the Verzetsmuseum) is a gem, but it’s the Junior museum housed inside which offers one of Amsterdam’s most exceptional kids’ museum experiences – or as Tablet Magazine called it “The best WWII children’s museum you’ve never heard of”.
Ironically, only the day before our visit I’d been telling the boys about how different museums were in my youth. Apart from a transparent cow at London’s Commonwealth Institute that showed how milk was produced, museum experiences tended to involve looking at dusty old objects in glass cases.
These days exhibits move, talk, engage and inspire and our kids tend to see a museum trip as the highlight of their travels. And rightly so.
Which brings me onto The Resistance Museum. Somewhat low key on Amsterdam museum radar, we had never been despite having taken the boys to both the Anne Frank House and the Jewish Museum in the past. Aimed at 9 to 14 year olds, this year felt like the right time to visit, not least as the boys’ Amsterdam Jewish heritage means we are incredibly keen for them to understand more about the profound loss of Amsterdam’s Jewish community during the war. Our children and their relatives literally owe their existence to a mixture of grit, chance and bravery shown by their Great Grandparents and Great, Great Grandparents and the humbling actions of “righteous gentiles” in the wider Dutch population.
And so it was we found ourselves in the Plantage area ready to step into Amsterdam’s past.
On arrival we were given workbooks for the kids (available in English and Dutch) and audio devices available in a range of languages. Although visitors can walk straight through the main museum exhibit to the Junior Museum at the back, if you are with children I’d still recommend stopping off briefly for the 10 minute museum introduction video (in Dutch with English subtitles). I already knew we were in for a treat when my two restless boys sat in complete silence listening carefully to the explanation as it unfolded. As with the whole museum it is informative for this age group whilst never patronising. Indeed, had we left at this point I honestly think the experience would already have been worthwhile. Not least leaving them pondering the powerful repeated question: “Adjust, collaborate or resist?”
It was time to head into the Junior Museum at the back to understand more about those options and others.
The entrance to the Junior Museum area is beautifully designed, with a “time machine” that turns the clock back through music and entertainment over the last 90 years. It gave me a chance to reminisce about the entertainment of my youth and allowed me to position the experience the boys were about to see as one their Great Grandparents lived through and not a story from ancient history. Truth be told, it probably did still feel pretty ancient to a 9 and 10 year old, however they were about to identify with four very real children whose lives might have been similar to their own had they been alive back in the 30’s and 40’s.
And so we were introduced to Henk, Eva, Jan and Nelly.
Henk is 8 and at first he is rather thrilled by the war, collecting shrapnel and bullets, until he ultimately comes to realise that has rather more terrible consequences than the Boys Own Adventure he had imagined.
Eva is 11. A Jewish girl who fled Austria for Amsterdam. She lives opposite Anne Frank and though she likes Anne’s cat she is less of a fan of the popular girl who giggles about boys.
Jan is 7. His father is a Church Minister who is against the Nazis and who, as a member of the resistance, ultimately ends up hiding a number of people in their house.
Finally there is 14 year old Nelly who is perhaps the most complex character of all especially to children who are used young people being storybook heroes and who occupy a world which clings to a simple ‘good and evil’ narrative. Nelly signs up for the youth organisation of the Dutch Nazi Party and her parents sell the Nazi newspaper in town.
Stepping into the central museum area is breathtaking. The design really is exceptional – a series of houses around a central square, each complete with interactive videos and seating areas, doors to open, cupboards to explore and stories to discover.
10 year old Oscar was very keen to complete his workbook alone. With his “pick and mix” approach to nationality, that meant reading, watching and listening to some parts in Dutch and others in English. That said, the workbook trail and artifact descriptions are presented in both languages, whilst the audio devices translate the multimedia presentations, ensuring that English speakers are left at absolutely no disadvantage.
Oscar’s rather independent approach meant I wasn’t able to sit and take in all the interactive elements alongside him but what I saw was stunning. The rooms are BEAUTIFULLY created, everything is pristine. The interactivity is inspired – phones ring, doorbells chime, records turn and whilst it might sound like a cliche, the stories really do come alive.
The Junior Resistance Museum really is a must-visit for 9-14 year olds, before or after a trip to the Anne Frank House. And for those that don’t get tickets to the house itself, this experience is more than enough to give a deep insight into the reality of The Netherlands in wartime.
We often remark that the story of Anne Frank has left the world with an impression that the Dutch were a marvellous nation, quick to protect and hide the Jewish population from the Nazis. The tragic truth is far more complex and the subtleties of the narrative in the museum reflect a more nuanced story showing just how many (to reference the initial film) turned a blind eye and simply “adjusted” or worse became collaborators. Resistance was not the norm, though many incredible Dutch natives chose this path and are rightly recognised and honoured for their effort to this day.
The museum was particularly important for our boys whose own extended family were protected by members of the resistance. Great men and women took in and hid the boys’ great uncle and cousins in the countryside and Oscar and Zac’s relatives owe their lives to these remarkable individuals.
Back in the museum the workbooks were nearly complete. Some of the displays are so extraordinary we marvelled at how they worked. Turn the pages of a large book and the projections on the pages change and refresh; listen in the bathroom as the door shuts and suddenly Germans can be heard hunting for Jews nearby; pick up a ringing phone and listen to the message warning Reverend Slomp to hide.
For me, the most difficult experience was Eva’s train journey to Westerbork. Since having children myself, I have never been able to listen to stories about the camps without transposing myself into the shoes of those Jewish mothers and confronting the agony of being forcibly separated from my children. Here it was presented with grace and balance despite the harrowing subject. The children (as is so often the case) were less disturbed than I was. Rather they were interested and talked about how they would have felt – touching the clothing with yellow “Jood” star and discussing how awful to be made to display your Jewish identity with so much shame and so many resulting restrictions.
Oscar asked me if the stories of these four individuals were “real” and though I felt sure they were, as we entered the Liberation room the truth was fully revealed. Here in the most moving part of the experience, the four absolutely genuine and now octogenarian protagonists – Eva, Jan, Nelly and Henk are filmed sharing details of their lives since the war – the children and grandchildren they went on to have; their feelings about freedom and prejudice and their reflections on life. I was deeply touched and not just by the unexpected twist at the end of Eva’s story.
It is a tried and tested device at the end of a film to show the now-elderly subjects on whom a story is based. Here, the reveal feels even more profound, having explored the homes of these four survivors and peeked into their lives. Even Nelly’s testimony which is perhaps the most complex of all with her sense of defiance, placing herself as a victim of sorts allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about her narrative without the need to spell out her complicity in this terrible era.
If you are looking to really understand the Dutch wartime experience. If the story of Anne Frank has become too fabled to have the resonance it once did. If your tweens and teens are jaded and museum-weary please, please spend a few hours in this truly remarkable museum.
Some adjusted. Some collaborated. Some resisted.