As chronicled in my previous essay, my mother’s new neighbor, Radovan Karad~i , was brought by helicopter to the prison now called "United Nations Detention Unit" in Scheveningen, across the street from my mother’s house.
An "ordinary prison" it is, located in an ordinary middle class residential neighborhood. It’s a place where you would expect burglars, drug wholesalers, wife beaters, and perhaps a murderer or two: people with a criminal record. While I was growing up, Sunday afternoons offered parking difficulties: family-visiting time in the prison.
It was built between 1883 and 1886 on the outskirts of The Hague, at the edge of the dunes at the sea. (The neighborhood was built in the 1920s and 1930s.) Despite its location in a beach resort, the prison has a formal medieval entrance (no longer used), and locking people up is a medieval practice. The Dutch, and apparently the UN, tend to not mince words. Thus, a prison is called a huis van bewaring, which translates, literally, to house for keeping. Forget the "corrections" euphemism we use here in the USA. Locking up or keeping is really the issue: whom a society keeps in such a place tells us what the society is. I call this institution that physically dominated my childhood "The Keep."
During World War I, The Netherlands were officially neutral but in a state of military preparedness for four years. It was a very Dutch compromise: survive by acting as if you weren’t there, and meanwhile keep going at your business. The Keep was part of it all: barracks were built in the central courtyard to lock up deserters and smugglers.
During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Keep was used to keep, though not safeguard, those who committed crimes, or were suspected of committing crimes, against the occupying government–sometimes in the form of attacking persons, most often in the form of raids for food or false papers, or to disrupt communications. They were defined criminally, sort of as "unlawful" combatants, though I don’t think that particular euphemism for enemy had been invented. Soon there were so many of them that new barracks had to be added.
As a result, the Keep received a new, proud name among the people: Oranjehotel, or Hotel Orange, after the Dutch royal family. On March 8th, 1945, 38 prisoners were taken from this Hotel and shot in the dunes about a mile away. They were the last of some 238 Dutch prisoners from the Keep shot during World War II. (Monument Waalsdorpervlakte) On May 7, 1946, Anton Mussert, the leader of the Dutch Nazi Party, was executed in the same spot. The field is right behind the former military compound that now houses the administrative and guarding personnel of the Keep for ICTY – the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Dutch personnel have not always been found to be neutral enough to guard these prisoners.
As of May 8, 1945 (Holland having been liberated on the 5th by the First Canadian Army known as the Tommies, collectively, in Holland), the Keep and my family entered a truly bizarre relationship. Remember my grandmother and the Jewish and Dutch boys under the floor in Gouda? They could not get ration coupons for all those illegal folks during the food scarcity that characterized the winter of 1944/1945. However, some German soldiers were quartered next door. And lo and behold, loaves of bread and other food started appearing on the back step. Never was a word said. But those goodies kept them alive and safe in the crawl space under the floor of my grandmother’s house.
Remember, also, my grandfather fleeing to England with the Minister of Defense? He’d done pretty well for himself there, presumably not in the least because he soon had a new girlfriend–the niece of the Minister of War. But to give him credit, he was a bureaucrat of note. He was put in charge of organizing the temporary military government that was to rule the Netherlands until martial law would be superseded. He returned in 1945 Chief of the General Staff. Honcho. In charge. The buck stopped with him–after him, Eisenhower. He wasn’t a softie, as it were.
The General and his estranged wife were on a collision course. Upon the coming of the Tommies, the German soldiers next door to my grandmother wanted to flee but had no civilian clothing. My under-the-floor Jewish "uncles" Karel and Jules gave them their suits. The soldiers were caught and squealed. My grandmother was locked up for collaboration with the Nazi occupation–in the Keep. Grandpa could hardly play favorites with the woman who was still his wife, I presume.
What happened next I don’t know. My grandmother was a woman given to telling myths rather than histories. Legend has it that she was in the Keep for a short time, and came out with snow-white hair. My mother says she doesn’t know exactly. Having joined the army in May of 1945, she was a soldier in England by the time of Oma’s sojourn in the Keep. She did visit her there, once, Karel says he does not know. Everyone else is dead. I should’ve asked earlier.
My childhood took place in the orange glow of The Keep. Not the aura of the royal family, we weren’t religious, but that of the sodium vapor lights. I saw the Milky Way for the first time in my early twenties, on top of a mountain in Austria. Magic. As magic but not quite as creepy as childhood adventures breaking into and crawling through the underground tunnels and bunkers in the dunes behind our house–leftovers from the mighty Atlantikwall.
And so it isn’t neutral when my mother gets a new neighbor. Especially not when the neighbor is Radovan Karad~i –comfortably ensconced in a clean Dutch cell in the prison that once again is a hotel, a Scheveningen Hilton this time. He is generally seen as behind the massacre of some eight thousand Muslim boys and men in the UN Safe Haven Srebenica in July of 1995. A place where 400 Dutch blue helmets of UNPROFOR did not distinguish themselves for quick action and were essentially taken hostage to stop NATO from preventing the takeover of the town. The Dutch have taken a lot of flak (the word comes from German anti-aircraft guns in WWII) for that, internationally as well as from within.
Dutch people are pretty angry about all this: about the accusations from the world, about being abandoned by NATO, about being not quite as courageous under fire as jongens van Jan de Witt are supposed to be, as Dutch World War II mythology makes the resistance fighters to be. But most of all, the Dutch are pretty angry for having been put in that position in the first place, about genocide in a Europe that been through one of these recently.
If you happen to know parts of its history, the Keep could be seen as a Site of Conscience: you can tell by who’s in it, who’s without it–the character of the authority that does the imprisoning. In this case, I’d venture to say Mr. Karadzic is safer within the Keep than without. And for the people in Scheveningen? Next door to the imposing wall of The Keep is my favorite coffee house of all times, Duinzicht. If you want to know what’s going on in the mind of your average Dutch person on the street, say, a painter, you can hear it there: soccer.