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“Meneer…” iemand achter me vraagt mijn aandacht, dus ik draai me om. “O sorry, hoor… ik bedoel ‘mevrouw’.” Met een geruststellende glimlach zeg ik dat het niet geeft, dat het mij vaker overkomt dat ik met ‘meneer’ word aangesproken. En dat ik dat niet erg vind. Maar toch voelt degene die mij met de ‘verkeerde’ titel aansprak zich ongemakkelijk. Waarom? Wat is er zo belangrijk aan iemands geslacht?

Er was een tijd dat ik het juist fijn vond om met ‘meneer’ te worden aangesproken. Het bevestigde mijn overtuiging dat ik eigenlijk als jongetje geboren had moeten worden. Ik schrijf met opzet ‘overtuiging’ en niet ‘gevoel’. Net als vrijwel iedereen dacht ik in binaire termen: je bent een man of je bent een vrouw. Maar wat ik dacht, kwam niet overeen met wat ik voelde: soms noch het één noch het ander en soms beide.

Als kind maakte ik het onderscheid niet, al speelde ik liever met jongetjes omdat die dezelfde dingen leuk vonden als ik. Avontuurlijke spelletjes, pijl en boog maken, in bomen klimmen (weer naar beneden komen was een heel ander verhaal – dan deed mijn hoogtevrees zich gelden), vissen en fikkies stoken. In het algemeen hield ik meer van doen dan van kwebbelen. Ik had één goede vriendin op de lagere school – maar die had een grote hond, reed paard en hield van stoere spelletjes, bij voorkeur met de windbuks van haar oudere broer – dus die had zich gekwalificeerd als geschikt speelkameraadje.

Toen mijn borsten begonnen te groeien, voelde ik mij verraden. Ik had geen magische bezweringsformules à la Andreas Burnier, maar riep woedend tegen mijn moeder ‘ik hak ze eraf!’ Helaas trok mijn lichaam zich niets aan van wat ik wilde en werd een vrouwenlichaam. Mijn puberteit was zo mogelijk nog verwarrender dan hij toch al hoort te zijn. Gestimuleerd door mijn mooie en zeer ijdele moeder begon ik soms vrouwenkleding te dragen, mij op te maken en ik liet mijn haar groeien. Alles om haar maar gelukkig te maken, hoe ongemakkelijk ik mij ook voelde in sexy, vrouwelijke kleding. Ik voel nog steeds de te korte rokken (mini was in de mode) die ik uit alle macht naar beneden bleef trekken. Jeans waren mijn redding: modieus en niet al te vrouwelijk, al moesten ze wel strak zitten volgens de geldende normen.

Rond mijn achttiende, in 1974, overwoog ik serieus een geslachtsveranderende operatie. Maar de endocrinoloog van de VU was het daar niet mee eens en verwees mij naar een psycholoog. Daar ging het al heel snel over andere zaken die mij dwarszaten. Het onderwerp ‘geslacht’ was kennelijk afgehandeld en ik legde mij enigszins mokkend neer bij de onveranderbaarheid van mijn lichaam.

Wat bleef, was de aantrekkingskracht van androgyne verschijningen, of zij nu man of vrouw waren. Vooral ‘jongensachtige’ meisjes en vrouwen waren het object van mijn – meestal stille – aanbidding. Maar ook mannen met een vrouwelijke uitstraling intrigeerden mij, ware het dat mijn belangstelling voor hen niet seksueel van aard was.

Gedurende een lange periode bleef mijn haarlengte de morsecode waaraan mijn genderidentificatie van het moment viel af te lezen: lang – kort – kort – lang – lang – kort. Ik kleedde mij meestal zo neutraal mogelijk, maar dat viel niet op in de kringen waarin ik verkeerde, linkse activisten en krakers.

Langzaam, achteraf verbazend langzaam, ging de buitenkant, de uiterlijke schijn van mijn lichaam, er steeds minder toe doen. Door onderzoek te doen kwam ik erachter dat mijn hersenen meer ‘mannelijke’ eigenschappen hebben dan die van de gemiddelde vrouw. Dat klopt met mijn ervaringen met hetero-vriendinnen die mij soms geïrriteerd laten weten dat ik in mijn reacties ‘net een man’ ben. Tja, als je mij uitgebreid gaat vertellen over je problemen, dan verwacht ik dat je advies wilt hebben, maar dat blijkt dus een mannelijke gedachte te zijn.

Tegelijkertijd ben ik zeer zorgzaam (dus ‘vrouwelijk’), zoals ik de afgelopen tien jaar heb ontdekt. Het zorgen voor mijn oude moeder openbaarde een moederlijkheid die ik niet van mijzelf kende. Ik kookte vaak voor een hele week voor haar, omdat zij de door de zorginstelling aan huis bezorgde diepvries maaltijden vies vond. En terecht. Ik zette moeder en rollator (later rolstoel) in mijn auto en reed het hele land door naar tentoonstellingen of concerten. Want zonder kunst, literatuur en muziek had het leven geen zin voor haar. Mijn rug bleek na het overlijden van mijn moeder voorgoed beschadigd, maar dat woog niet op tegen het besef dat ik haar laatste jaren een beetje minder verschrikkelijk had helpen maken. Hoe vrouwelijk van mij.

Het erkennen, nee, omarmen van beide kanten van mijzelf blijkt te zijn wat ik nodig heb. De gedachte dat ik ‘in het verkeerde lichaam’ zit, stierf langzaam weg. Goed, ik geef toe dat ik nog steeds zou willen dat mijn borsten kleiner waren, liefst ‘erwten op een plankje’, maar aangezien ik principieel tegen onnodige medische ingrepen ben, laat ik het maar zo. Uiteraard beschouw ik geslachtsveranderende operaties bij transgenders niet als onnodig. Ik begrijp het lijden, maar weet nu definitief dat ik niet tot deze groep behoor.

Ik ben ouderwets androgyn. Dus ik draai me om als iemand ‘meneer’ naar me roept en glimlach vriendelijk. Want ik ben óók een meneer.

Na de veel te snelle versoepeling van de ‘intelligente’ lockdown, maar vooral de weigering van Rutte (‘we zijn geen politiestaat’) om de toch nog geldende regels te handhaven, zitten we nu aan het begin van een tweede golf. De neoliberale aanpak van de pandemie laat steeds meer zijn ware gezicht zien: wie kwetsbaar of oud is, moet het zelf maar uitzoeken. De economisch productieve mens gaat voor.

Deskundigen die ingaan tegen het vooral door economische motieven ingegeven beleid, worden genegeerd of afgeserveerd. Het belangrijkste doel blijft de economie draaiend te houden. Daarom wordt er meestal laat, zelfs veel te laat, gereageerd op tekenen dat het de verkeerde kant opgaat. Dat was zo tijdens de eerste golf en dat is niet veranderd.

Even terug naar het begin. Er wordt ingezet op ‘groepsimmuniteit’, iets dat op dat moment al als onhoudbaar is verworpen door bijvoorbeeld dezelfde Britse wetenschappers die eerder met dit idee kwamen. Marion Koopman, lid van het OMT en hoogleraar virologie aan de Erasmus Universiteit te Rotterdam, moet toegeven dat deze strategie veertig- tot tachtigduizend doden zou kunnen kosten. Het OMT, bij monde van voorzitter Jaap van Dissel, sust de boel de volgende dag door te zeggen dat groepsimmuniteit geen doel op zich is. Zie meer hierover in het uitstekende artikel van Jop de Vrieze in De Groene Amsterdammer.

Dat wordt geslikt. Zowel media als Tweede Kamer zien over het hoofd dat met deze sussende woorden de strategie niet is veranderd. En dat blijkt. De kwetsbaren, die volgens Rutte beschermd zouden worden, sterven bij bosjes in verpleeghuizen omdat daar geen beschermende kleding beschikbaar komt.

Van Dissel en de zijnen houden de oogkleppen op: alleen wat binnen hun eigen kleine kring als goed beleid wordt gezien, wordt in overweging genomen. De veel betere resultaten van ander beleid, denk aan Duitsland en Nieuw Zeeland, worden eenvoudig genegeerd. Het OMT lijkt in dienst te staan van het neoliberale beleid: zolang de ICs niet overstromen, is er niets aan de hand. Dan mag het virus zich vrijwel ongehinderd verspreiden. Ook nu er op grotere schaal wordt getest, blijft dat gelden. Want dit testen leidt niet tot verplichte quarantaine, dus iedereen heeft de mogelijkheid om – positief getest en wel – vrolijk andere mensen te blijven besmetten.

Dat laatste wordt erger met het verstrijken van de maanden. Door de veel te snelle versoepeling van de maatregelen aan het einde van de eerste golf verspreidt het virus zich razendsnel en dient een tweede golf zich al aan in augustus. Rutte blijft vrijblijvend oproepen om toch vooral de maatregelen in acht te nemen. Ook als steeds minder mensen dat doen, blijft hij dat volhouden met de drogredenering dat ‘we geen dictatuur zijn’. Handhaving van maatregelen die moeten voorkomen dat duizenden mensen een afschuwelijke dood sterven staat gelijk aan dictatuur? Dat zou dan ook moeten gelden voor maatregelen als de verplichting veiligheidsgordels te dragen in de auto; niet te mogen appen op de fiets; of simpelweg de verplichting te stoppen voor een rood stoplicht.

Een steeds grotere groep mensen pikt het signaal dat Rutte geeft feilloos op: als er niet wordt gehandhaafd, is het kennelijk niet belangrijk. En dus wordt de anderhalve meter maatregel nu vrijwel door iedereen overtreden; zitten de kroegen stampvol; dragen veel mensen de in het OV verplichte mondkapjes onder de kin; en om nog eens te bevestigen dat je je achterwerk kunt afvegen met die coronamaatregelen, hield de minister van Justitie en Veiligheid een huwelijksfeest waarbij men dicht opeengepakt stond. Diezelfde minister die mensen die zich niet aan de regels houden ‘aso’s’ noemde. Politieke gevolgen? Welnee! Rutte vindt Grapperhaus nog steeds ‘geloofwaardig’. De vergelijking met een zekere president van de Verenigde Staten begint zich op te dringen. Rutte als ‘Trump light’. Ook het laffe afschuiven van de verantwoordelijkheid voor impopulaire maatregelen op de regio’s doet sterk denken aan Trump.

Het komt er op neer dat straks – nog meer dan nu – de grote bekken heer en meester zullen zijn in de openbare ruimte. Het ‘we zijn geen politiestaat’ betekent in de praktijk dat de overheid weigert de zwakkeren te beschermen. Het lijkt een metafoor voor het neoliberalisme, een ideologie die zich als ‘vrijheid, blijheid’ presenteert, maar in de praktijk alleen oog heeft voor de vrijheid van de sterksten, in de praktijk meestal de grote bedrijven. De economisch onproductieven, de ouderen, worden ‘dor hout’ genoemd.

Het ‘wij zijn geen dictatuur’ van Rutte past geheel in deze wijze van denken. De economisch sterksten schrijven immers al tijden (soms zelfs letterlijk) de wet voor. Ons welzijn, onze gezondheid, de natuur en andere economisch oninteressante zaken worden alleen met de mond gesteund, de portemonnee gaat alleen open voor grote bedrijven.

De zwakkeren staan nu voor de keuze om alsnog besmet te raken of in het geheel niet meer buiten te komen. Want op straat heerst – aangemoedigd door Rutte – het recht van de sterkste.

A few years after my mother and I visited Krakóv , I spent some time in that city again. After seeing the Disneyfication of the old ghetto Kazimierz, I vowed never to come back. This place of remembrance and contemplation, of sorrow and grief had become a milk-cow for commercial exploiters of false nostalgia. It made me sick.

Kaddish for Kazimierz
Yitgadal veyitkadash sh’mei raba
let it rest now, it is over – don’t pretend
b’alma divrah chirutei
don’t desecrate its slaughtered body
v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon
don’t put its corpse on show
uv’yomeichon uv’chayei
embalmed and made up
d’chol beit yisra’el
lipstick on putrified lips
ba’agalah u’vizman kariv
kohl on empty eye sockets

Yehei shemei raba mevorach
le’olam ul’almei almayah

yitbarach veyishtabach veyitpa’ar
you have earned the right to rest
veyitromam veyitnasei veyithadar
the right to be left alone, to mourn
veyitalei veyithalal
alone, undisturbed
shemei d’kudsha b’rich hu
Eternal One, send them away

le’eilah min kol birchata v’shirata
even in death you find no peace
tushbechata v’nechemata
but are bought and sold again
da’amiran b’alma v’imru amein
your memories twisted, on display

yehei shlama raba min shemaya
killing you again and again
v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisra’el
heartless, ruthless nostalgia
v’imru amein

osei shalom bimromav
hu ya’asei shalom aleinu
v’al kol yisra’el
v’imru amein

Graves

1
In a stone forest of
barely legible words
the trees whisper your greeting:
‘your unexpected existence
is without guilt –
not because, but despite
is what you are
feel welcome in our dead midst
living sprout
from a trunk presumed dead’.

2
I wanted to embrace and kiss them,
the cold sorrowful stones:
‘here I am, finally
I found you
in the maze of time’

there was no embrace
only the tips of my fingers
touched the rough hard skin
the underworld awoke
with a startled smile

after so many years, a voice!
the cool silence colours
in the shadowy depths
women with sheytls,
men in caftans shiver

my longing cannot bring back
the stones to life nor the ashes
the nameless not far from here
within the refuge of these ravaged walls

never before was I this close
each step pushes the distance along
my voice brings forth only silence
a last powerless look
I turn and leave.

3
the tender cracks sing
a long forgotten song
fear sinks deep –
in the awaiting ground
an unspoken question

how strange am I how close
to these ancestral graves –
will they mourn me or
refuse to speak my name,
still curse me?

will their curse damn me,
bring me to my knees
or make me revolt –
do I have to be like you,
because, because, because
and then?

how close am I how strange
to your perished world
but still –
our longing drives me
to this transparent dusk:
in vain?

4
While I softly caress the stone, the same
as she whose name I bear
she who died nameless
and sleeps without a name
while I softly caress this stone
the fog dissolves for a moment
time becomes transparent
then and later and now
the voice of the Eternal
sings in my head.

5
In this place
far away from the world
enclosed by walls
sprigs of ivy nurse
the stones and the dead
hidden like Your love
without beginning or end.

6
Small stone on big stone
salt tear in sweet pond
flesh of your flesh
if –
if I lay me down here, stretch
arms, legs on the soft ground
my roots will grow into the earth
reach out –
but never reach.

Ghosts

1
Standing among the speaking stones
I stare silently at the house
the scent of poverty in my nose
through the windows of time
I can see you on the porch
your pale face staring over the graves
– at me, or so it seems
but your eyes don’t see me
you don’t see me at all;
the stones become silent
the porch deserted
the windows reflect a broken sky
opaque as time.

2
shadow that enfolds me
and flees –
only patches
of boots, coat, beard
your voice hidden in time
sings in the shul nearby
your leather-wound hand
covers my eyes –
your feet dance away, away
from me –
shadow that flees
and enfolds me.

 

This is a cycle of poems I wrote in 1989 after a visit with my mother to Krakóv – where my family on my mother’s side came from.
I recently found them among my mother’s papers and I corrected and edited them. I do not pretend this is great poetry, but it reflects my thoughts and feelings upon visiting this emotionally charged city where my grandparents – and, for a couple of years, my mother – lived. My grandfather grew up in the Jewish ghetto Kazimierz, in a building that looks on the cemetery where the famous Rabbi Moses Isserles (writer of the Shulchan Aruch) is buried. My mother told me about the poverty and unsanitary circumstances in the ghetto; she saw it every time they visited her grandparents there. I visited the other cemetery, where many of my relatives (the ones who were lucky enough to die before the nazi occupation) are buried. I found graves of some of them.

I dedicate these poems to my Mother’s memory.

Intro
Two halves united
like Persephone in ancient times
led by your hand I enter
the land of shadows
as a bride – the gloomy king
forges in vain
chains made of Then

Outside new life beckons
the eternally young Queen
the sun caresses your hands, my skin –
then, underground chains rattle
me back in a soft whisper

Summer here, winter there
my life is split
since you gave me both
the gap closed
the Styx navigable
and me – a fragile bridge.

Streets

1
Buildings die slowly
grief shatters stones
skin bursts in nameless pain
doors as open wounds
never closed
walls mould feverishly

to die like this –
among strangers
listening, shivering
doorsteps wait for a beloved foot
life remembered in vain
in this emptiness
full of Then.

2
No flowers for empty streets
filled with decay and disgust
let the end come quickly now
body without a soul

buildings degraded to bricks
housing nothing but slimy rot
nothing will bring back together
what was separated by man.

Let us carry you to your grave
under a clear sky, in the light
of a cold, cold day
our eyes without tears.

3 Uprising in the ghetto
to stay to look to see
nameless courage in vain
streets covered with bodies,
warm, pierced – everywhere
you stand or walk
here they lay
feel the warmth of their blood
feel the softness of their strength
feel the harshness of their deaths
feel the unknown names –
etched in every stone.

My mother’s last breath was a sigh of relief. She was relieved to leave this world that had murdered six millions of her kind, including hundreds of members of her large extended family: the people she loved, the ones she hated; the relatives and friends she liked as well as those she despised. She was also relieved not to have to go through the ever advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a demon that had haunted her even before it touched her.

There were only 36 kilos left of her, a tiny, frail old lady. Still she fought like a lioness when we tried to sedate her; I think she was afraid we were going to prolong her suffering, but we weren’t. My sister Caroline and I had finally convinced the doctors to sedate her because she was suffering from a delirium, something that often happens to people as old and weak as she was when admitted to hospital. I tried to tell her we were only helping her and she wrapped her arms around my neck and broke the silence she had retreated into for one last time as she said: “Mijn kind, mijn kind.” (My child, my child.)

Eventually she was sedated and calmed down. The screaming and flailing stopped. She just lay there, sleeping. My sister and I took turns sitting at her bedside, stroking her hand. The next evening, my sister went home for a short break, she was exhausted. I was alone with my mother. Her breath was already superficial, but there was no sign she would die soon. As I sat there, I spontaneously started to sing the hymn Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe) for her. She always liked my singing and I hoped the familiar voice would be soothing. There was no visible response, but when the last note of the song died out, she exhaled and stopped breathing. No struggle, no fear, she just stopped. It was over for her. I said sheimes for her, the last words every Jew should say before they die: Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad (Hear Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One) and called my sister, who obviously was very distraught she hadn’t been there when our mother died.

I still miss her more than I can say. Our relationship had always been complicated, but I loved her fiercely. So much so that I haven’t been able to write about her since her death on November 24th last year. Last week, though, words all of a sudden flooded my mind and I wrote them down on the back of an envelope. What unblocked me, was the image of a Syrian toddler lying dead on the beach in Turkey. Or rather the thought that flashed through my mind when I saw it: I’m so glad my mother doesn’t have to see this. That she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her adopted country, The Netherlands, for its harsh and unjust policies towards refugees.

After the war was over in 1945, my mother and her parents stayed in The Netherlands. There was nothing to return to: no relatives and a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union. She married the love of her life, a much older German Jew who was an art historian. The marriage was not a happy one: her husband turned out to be gay and neither able nor willing to consummate the marriage. She divorced him in 1951, when her husband announced he wanted to return to Frankfurt, Germany.

Two years later, she met my father, a journalist who’d been involved in the resistance against the Nazis, was betrayed, and had spent years in camps as a political prisoner. He was both physically and mentally broken after the war. The way they met was very romantic: they both were members of a club for artists and intellectuals, and one night, when my mother was sitting at the bar and maybe had had a little too much to drink, she fell backward and was caught by my father. He was in every way the opposite of her first husband: tall and ruggedly handsome, down to earth, straightforward and extremely principled.

They had two children: me and my younger sister Caroline. Both our parents were severely traumatised by the war, and also had very different, often clashing personalities. Little by little their marriage deteriorated, through no fault of either of them. When I was seventeen, they finally separated. I was relieved, but my younger sister was heartbroken.

My mother had arrived in The Netherlands as a refugee in the late 1930s (“Just in time for the party,” as she always joked), destroyed her Polish passport, and remained a displaced person until she married my father and received the Dutch nationality, something that had always filled her with pride, until recently. Despite her advanced age – she was 93 when she died – she was acutely aware of the deteriorating political situation in this country. The inhumane treatment of immigrants and especially refugees by the government and many citizens alike made her cringe. The fact that nothing seemed to have changed since the war, made her despair of humanity.

She had spent almost three years in hiding during the war and used to say she didn’t have the right to complain about it, considering what others, who were deported to concentration camps, went through. But still I gathered from the few words she ever spoke about that period in her life, it hadn’t been a picnic. She was in a relatively safe place in Amsterdam, where she was in hiding with four others in the home of two German ladies. The others were her future first husband, his brother, his mother and a friend of his mother’s. Apart from having to live with so many people in a relatively small space – without the option to go for a walk – the German ladies weren’t very friendly to put it mildly. My mother refused to elaborate: after all, they’d saved her life. To kill time, they played endless games of bridge. After the war, my mother never played another game of cards. But of course there were more serious matters: every now and then there would be a razzia in the neighbourhood and my mother and the other hidden Jews would have to clamber into a space behind a closet and keep still for as long as it lasted. Things always ended well, after all, these ladies were Germans and they greeted the soldiers with “Heil Hitler” to suggest they were Nazis. Still, it must have been very scary there in that dark, cramped space behind the closet.

Before my mother came to Amsterdam, she was in a Jewish boarding school in London, where her parents had sent her. This was the second time her education was interrupted. Before she went to London, my grandparents and their daughter had returned to their native Cracow in Poland. It was early 1934 and living conditions in Berlin – where they had lived since 1923 – had become unbearable as well as dangerous. So they moved back to Cracow, where my mother of course had to go to a Polish school. She already spoke Polish, as they had spend every vacation with her grandparents in their native Poland. But in 1935 the Polish government introduced anti-Jewish boycott laws, which made earning a living next to impossible for my grandfather. He made his way to The Netherlands, as he thought this neutral country would be the safest place to be in the next war he knew would break out soon, and after his arrival had his wife and daughter join him. They travelled by train. It took them a very long time, because my grandfather had judged it prudent to avoid travelling through Germany, so their route went via Switzerland, France and Belgium to Amsterdam. Shortly afterwards, my mother was sent to a Jewish boarding school in London. The only thing she liked about it was being able to visit the British Museum as often as possible in her spare time.

But the ten years she and her parents lived in Berlin had been the most formative of her life: before the Nazis came to power, this city had been a heaven for culture lovers. Her father – an art dealer – took her to museums, the opera and concerts. She was immersed in the world of art and literature and would remain an avid reader and art and music lover for the rest of her life. Life in Berlin was exciting, but it had its downside: German Jews in general despised “Ostjuden” (Jews from Eastern Europe) and they made them feel it. Some girls in her class weren’t allowed to be friends with her, for one thing. The stock market crash of 1929 caused financial insecurity for most people, and her father was no exception. At the same time, the political landscape changed noticeably. Some teachers in her school wore swastika bands all of a sudden; they made Jewish kids feel unwanted, even before the Nazis came to power and they had to sit apart from other pupils in the classroom. Towards the end of 1933 my grandfather discovered that his German, non-Jewish bookkeeper had stolen a significant amount of money from him. When he confronted the man, the bookkeeper threatened him and told him not to go to the police, because he had friends in “the party”, obviously referring to the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. My grandfather decided to move back to Cracow with his family. My mother’s two much older brothers had already left in 1929, when they moved to Chile to build a future for themselves in a place where they hoped they would not be discriminated against.

My mother was born two years before her parents moved to Berlin, in 1921, in The Hague. When the First World War broke out, her father was in London on a business trip. As a citizen of an “enemy country” – the southern part of Poland was Austrian at the time – he had been arrested and put in an internment camp. It’s hard to miss the irony here. After the war, he travelled to The Netherlands and had his wife and children join him. My mother was the fruit of their reunion. Her father, though, soon found out that The Hague really wasn’t the place to be for an art dealer. As Berlin was quickly becoming the cultural centre of Europe, he once again packed his bags and moved to the capital of Germany with his family, hoping to become a successful art dealer, but also because he wanted to be in a place with a vibrant art and culture scene.

I often wondered what it must have been like for my mother to move from one place to another with her parents, forced by the economic and political eb and flow of Europe. On the one hand, it made her a cosmopolitan who spoke many languages fluently. On the other, the reasons they had to move and the treatment they received in most places must have robbed her of any sense of belonging.

Tehi nafsha tseror bitsror hachayim: may her soul be bundled in the bundle of life, and may her memory be for a blessing. Mama, my dear mother, Hadassa bat Mendel Meir, Felicitas Rössler [pronounced Ressler], you will always be a part of me.

In his beautiful novel Dis, Dutch Jewish author Marcel Möring takes the reader on a journey with Jakob Noach, a Jew who survived the Shoah in a hole in the ground near his home town Assen, a sleepy provincial town in the eastern part of The Netherlands. The novel is inspired both by James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dante’s depiction of Hell in his Divine Comedy. The five hundred pages of the novel tell the story of one night: the night before the annual “TT-races”, motor-cross races. On the night before the races, thousands of bikers descend on the little town, drinking, fighting, fucking and passing out in the usually quiet streets. Jakob observes the spectacle which could have been taken from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. But the night of loud music, leather and vomit is only the surface of the hell that the town of Assen has become to Jakob Noach. His parents and brother were deported and murdered by the Nazis, assisted by the helpful population of Assen. Jakob wanted vengeance after the war; he took back his father’s shoe store from Nazi collaborators who had turned it into a National-Socialist bookshop and turned it into a successful business in ladies’ lingerie, little by little expanding until he owned the largest department store of Assen. But neither his success as a businessman, nor his marriage with the daughter of the farmer who saved him by hiding him on his land, nor his three daughters could fill the void in his existence. Author Marcel Möring and director Manon Barthels  adapted this complicated and rich novel for the stage and the result is an impressive dramatic monologue, also because of actor Bob Schwarze’s excellent performance.   Until October 12, 2014 at Literair

Theater Branoul, Maliestraat 12, The Hague. Dutch spoken.

As my Aliki is a Cretan Hound mix, I wanted to find out more about this breed. It turns out to be almost 4,000 years old and was probably introduced on Crete in the Minoan age. Like most Mediterranean breeds, they originate in Africa. Their close cousins are breeds like Podencos (Spain), Podengos (Portugal), Pharaoh Dogs/Kelb tal Fenek (Malta), and Kelev Kna’ani/Canaan Dogs (Israel). These breeds are called ‘primeval dogs’, probably because they aren’t as far removed from their wild cousins as most European and American pedigreed dogs.

A great source of information about dogs in Antiquity are images like you can find on ancient Greek pottery and Egyptian artifacts. It’s quite amazing how little these breeds have changed since ancient times. I guess they were lucky to be bred as work dogs, not for shows and kennel clubs. In that case they would have become mere caricatures of their original selves, like so many breeds that used to be wonderful.

Greek vase -- warriors with horse and dogAncient Egyptian Dogs1

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they are treated well. Not at all. Cretan hounds are ruthlessly killed if they don’t have what it takes to be great hare or rabbit hunters. The same – or worse – goes for podencos and galgos. They are tortured, maimed, hung by their necks to slowly asphyxiate if they don’t perform as well as their owners want them to. But even if they do their jobs, they are often kept in filthy shacks, chained to the concrete floor and hardly fed.

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The way these wonderful dogs are treated, is not just inhumane. It’s also a far cry from their standing in ancient times. Judging from the ways they were depicted, from the fact that there were burial grounds for dogs, and from the fact that they were sometimes embalmed to join their owners in their journey to the next world, it’s not a stretch to assume they stood in high regard. Especially in Egypt, where one of their gods, Anubis, was a desert dog (not a jackal!), these dogs must have had a certain status in human society.

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The classic authors praised the Cretan Hounds (Kressai Kynes) as the best hare-hunters known to man and in ancient times they were exported to the Greek colonies and other countries in Europe, reaching as far as Spain and the British islands, to mix and improve the local hounds. The dogs are evidently an ancient species, probably the oldest dog breed in Europe.

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Cretan Hounds are rare; only an estimated 400 of them exist. Their owners guard the breed even to the extent that a pure-bred Cretan Hound is never sold to an outsider. They never leave the island. They are, like their cousins around the Mediterranean, hare and rabbit hunters. They have excellent scent, speed, agility, and durability. Cretan Hound mixes, like my Aliki, are often adopted by foreigners. They are popular in Germany, where their owners organize agility contests, which the dogs themselves seem to enjoy very much. It’s a great sight to see these slender yet muscular dogs run and jump gracefully. Cretan HoundIMG_3175

Above a Cretan Hound, below Aliki. I noticed early on that Aliki has no problem with jumping fences that are at least three times as tall as she is, or with climbing complicated obstacles. Whenever she sees a rabbit or a hare, she will stand on her hind legs and follow the prey with her eyes. Of course only if she is on the leash, if she isn’t she’ll just go after it at an amazing speed. So far, luckily, she hasn’t caught anything. My impression is she doesn’t care if she catches her prey, the fun seems to be in the hunt itself. After all, she is never hungry anymore. Or maybe she just isn’t very good at hunting. But I doubt that. I witnessed her twice with a potential prey: one time it was a little mouse she had caught between her front legs; she just sniffed it, then pushed it with her nose and let it go. The other time there were some young waterbirds she went after (she’s an excellent swimmer as well). It was extremely funny, as these little birds dove every time she got near, and Aliki would look around kind of flabbergasted, not knowing where the fuck these birds had gone. Eventually, one of them emerged next to her, and again she just looked at it and then let it go. But I digress… It is likely that the Podencos and Galgos were taken to Spain by their mostly Berber (Amazigh) owners during the conquest of Spain in the period between the 8th and 15th centuries. But even before this, in ancient times, the Phoenician sailers whose trade routes covered all of Southern Europe, must have taken their dogs to places like Greece, Malta, Southern Italy and Spain. Malta is a case in point: the Kelb tal Fenek may have been named after the Phoenicians, as the meaning of the word Fenek is not completely clear. It could also mean “furry dog-like animal” or“fox”. Of course, all of this is speculation until there is solid DNA evidence. canaan dog

The Kelev Kna’ani/Canaan Dog is a special case: This breed is one of the oldest, dating back to biblical times. The caves of Einan and Hayonim are sites in which the oldest remains of dogs have been found (more than 10,000 years old). In the Hebrew Bible there are a number of references to roaming dogs and dogs that worked for humans. In ancient Egypt there were also burial sites for dogs, which were embalmed like members of the ruling class. Also other dog burial sites have been found in Israel, among which a Phoenician one where over 700 dogs are buried, all carefully placed in the same position. The Canaan dogs survived as pariah dogs until the 1930s, when Dr. Rudolphina Menzel came up with the idea to use these intelligent dogs, which by then were mainly found in the desert, as guard dogs for the scattered Jewish settlements and as military dogs. She captured and acquired wild and semi-wild Canaan dogs. She worked with semi-free and free-living dogs of a specific type, luring them into her camp and gaining their trust. She also captured litters of puppies, finding them remarkably adaptable to domestication. She began a breeding program in 1934, providing working dogs for the military and giving away pups to be pets and home guard dogs. She initiated a selective breeding program to produce the breed known today as the Canaan dog.

I found a lot of information for this article in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Aliki is an expensive dog. She was a stray, humiliated, kicked and beaten for so long, that I felt she needed to be treated like a princess for the rest of her life. In case that sounds cheesy, here’s the translation: she gets the best organic food and veterinarian care there is; no frills, no jewelry, no fancy food bowl, just everything she really needs. And it has helped her, both physically and mentally: she is incredibly healthy and shiny, in great shape, and she understands that I take care of her and protect her, which has made her more confident.

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In this picture, she is in the woods in the South-East of The Netherlands, on New Year’s morning. We always get out of town for New Year’s Eve, because of the fireworks. The noise scares her so much, she ends up hiding in her ‘panic room’ (bathroom), shaking and shivering. So I decided early on that I would leave town for a couple of days with her and a friend. We go to a dog-friendly hotel or rent a ditto vacation home. It’s become a wonderful tradition.

Today was a good day for Aliki. She made a new friend in the park, even played with two other dogs, instead of trotting off to go sniff the whole area by herself. She increasingly interacts well with people, as she is no longer afraid they’ll hurt her. She also is becoming better at communicating with her fellow dogs. I still have to help a little sometimes by reminding her that I want her to be friendly and if she can’t be, to keep walking (that’s actually the command I use: ‘keep walking’) and ignore the dog she doesn’t like or is afraid of (as is more often the case). After a couple of years of training, our hard work is beginning to pay off. I can tell she understands that this new behavior keeps her out of trouble. So she is less afraid and more often wags her tail tentatively even while she is still bristling. I am always moved when I see her struggle with her ‘demons’ and I admire her for not giving up. She has come so far from the dog that jumped at every noise, snapped at almost every dog, nipped men she was afraid of in their calves, lunged at puppies…

Her friendship with Zorba was also essential; he’s a year younger than she is, also from Crete, and the sweetest, good-natured dog you’ll ever meet. They hit it off immediately and have been best friends ever since. His sweetness  disarms everyone, but especially for Aliki this was a good experience. Their friendship has mellowed her, which has helped with her behavior towards other dogs as well. I’m especially happy that she is so much better with pups now. She may growl, but does so very softly and without showing her teeth. Dogs have different opinions about education than we do: growling and snapping at pups is acceptable, but within certain boundaries. They’re not supposed to ever, ever hurt a pup. Not that Aliki ever did, but she definitely scared them. Now she sometimes plays with them, even has a few puppy friends.

But of course it’s not all about training. It’s also about cuddling. She really, really likes to be stroked, especially her chest. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do before going to bed. She’ll turn on her back and act like a little puppy, licking my hands as if her life depends on it. I let her, because I know it’s how she shows affection. During the day, when I am working, she is usually sleeping next to me in her basket. But every now and then she wakes up and gives me a little push with her nose to tell me she needs affection. Which I then provide, of course.

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