No matter where I wander in the city I love most in the world, I can hear the bells of the Westertoren—a melodious constant in the cacophony of a buzzing European capital. From Amsterdam’s tallest church steeple, the bells have marked time since the 17th century, when Holland’s Dutch East India Company transformed the tiny Lowland country that seduced me centuries later into a world trading hub.
Long after the Golden Age ended but a decade before I was born, I imagine my late father may have heard the Westertoren bells when he served in the US Army during World War II. His personal battles during that conflict included slugging an officer who called him a “dirty Jew,” an incident that froze his military status and kept him from rising through the ranks. He passed his pride of our family’s religious heritage on to me, feeding my interest in Holocaust lore, including the work of the teen who became the world’s most famous diarist.
Anne Frank could see the blue imperial crown of Amsterdam’s Westertoren through a hole in the side of her family’s secret annex. Set just a stone’s throw from where wealthy Golden Age merchants once worshiped, the hideout behind Prinsengracht 263 not only allowed visual access to the city’s most important Protestant church, it was also within easy earshot of the melodious chimes that signaled the loud striking of the tower clock, telling the time several times an hour.
The incessant chiming of the bells and clanging of the clock kept most of Otto Frank’s family up at night. But for youngest daughter Anne the sounds were a soothing connection to the city where she and her loved ones found refuge from the Nazis for two years.
In the book that became a classic after her death, the Jewish girl from Germany who vented her frustrations in a diary she called “Kitty” wrote of their recurrent tolls: “Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night,” mused Anne Frank in the summer of 1942.
A year later, the bells of Amsterdam’s beloved carillon fell silent. Anne speculates they’ve been seized for what she sarcastically calls “factory use” in her diary. She fears they’ve been confiscated by the occupying Germans, as many bells were during the war, to be melted down into weapons.
Yet before the 1947 publication of The Diary of Anne Frank in Holland, the bells tolled again, as they still do today. Like the secret annex occupants, the tourists in lines snaking around Anne’s 17th-century hideout-turned-museum are in direct earshot of their mellifluous spell. Waiting to see the cramped quarters where the Franks hid, they may, like Anne, find solace in the chimes.
Today I can hear the robust notes of the Westertoren bells echoing over the Jordaan’s tree-lined canals. Beyond marking time, they’re now engaged in a serendipitous concert with a little boat called Notendop (The Nutshell). Festooned with triangles in the primary colors of Holland’s flag, the boat’s mast is topped with a fluffy pom-pom and a rainbow of streamers that blow in the wind behind the homemade craft. Bright roses, daisies, and a butter-colored sunflower sprout from the hull, where a lithe painted mermaid lounges coyly on her side, eyes downcast at the murky water. In the stern, multicolor blooms adorn a small boat motor.
At the helm is Reinier Sijpkens, a buoyant Dutchman sporting a lion’s mane of grey frizz under a floppy hat. A plaid vest, bow-tie, and red pants complete the getup of Amsterdam’s singular water musician. Filling his lungs with rich Lowland air, he launches the impromptu public performance by blowing through a giant conch shell that doubles as a horn.
“Ahoy mensen,” bellows Reinier, addressing the crowd gathering on the bridge above him in his native Dutch. Within minutes, visitors and locals are drawn in. Simultaneously steering the boat and playing his trumpet, the captain turned conductor orchestrates a musical call and response engaging the now captive audience with Amsterdam’s official carillonneur and the bells of the Westertoren.
Along with the conch shell, the onboard orchestra features trumpets, bells, and a hand-built barrel organ rigged to produce the sounds of strings, choirs, and a church organ.
As the melody of Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark March reaches a crescendo, the scarlet face of the Westertoren clock swings open and a human face appears. The carillonneur steps out and waves to the enthusiastic crowd. Encouraging the interaction, Reinier blasts his conch again and invites the audience to wave back.
I watch as the city transforms into an urban theater starring water musician, church bell-ringer, residents, visitors, and a musical thread that bridges centuries. At the center of the action, with her former hideout as a historic backdrop, the ghost of Anne Frank sits front and center, leading the chorus. No longer a passive observer, she’s engaged in an interaction unlike any she experienced before the world read her diary.
This post was originally published in Sonderers Magazine’s Celebrating Life issue in July 2016.