Madhu Jain writes of a house in Amsterdam with a history that proves humanity can exist in a time of war as well. And it has an Indian connection.
Guardian Angels: From left Lars Ebert, Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht, Frans Damman and Michael Defuster
Decades ago when Mumbai was Bombay, I went to visit an aunt who lived in Malabar Hill, then a tranquil oasis. She used to work for Peppi Chorosch, a Polish Jew who came to India in 1940 to escape the Nazis. Madame Chorosch was no longer alive. But my aunt continued to live in her elegant apartment, and work in her shop which continued to shimmer with French chiffon saris embellished by pearls and other sparkling accoutrements—all flown in from Paris. Maharanis shopped here, to be emulated later by reigning film stars who wanted to be like the royals.
It began as a pilgrimage, to see up close the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh in the land of their birth. Robert Aarsse, a Dutch friend who lives in Paris, arranged for us to stay at 401 Herengracht, a 17th-century canal house in the heart of Amsterdam. “You will see, it is a very special place,” he said enigmatically. Little did I know just how special; Castrum Peregrini (Castle of the Pilgrims), as this unusual homestay and vibrant cultural centre is called, served as a code name for a hiding place during the Second World War, after the Germans occupied the Netherlands.
The Anne Frank house, not too far away and on another canal, has long been a must-see. It is a pilgrimage of sorts for tourists after Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was published, even more so after the film based on the book was made in 1959. Castrum Peregrini, by contrast, is not on the tourist map. But the six-storey brown building has a fascinating history: the house itself deserves a biography. Several German and Dutch people—among them gays, mixed couples and a pair of Jewish teenagers—survived the war here. Dutch artist Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht and the German poet Wolfgang Frommel, who left Germany in 1937 and had started helping his Jewish friends, hid them. Neither was Jewish. They managed with the help of a network of friends who clandestinely provided food and whatever else was needed for the survival of the refugees.
Number 401 has a lift. But it does not stop at the third floor. Here, the small apartment in which many Jews and others were hidden has been kept intact. Sometimes, the three dedicated men—Michael Defuster, Frans Damman and Lars Ebert—who run Castrum Peregrini and keep the spirit of Gisèle alive, guide visitors through the apartment. Nothing has been moved, not even the armchair in front of a bookshelf placed before the partially drawn drapes. The two Jewish teenagers, who lived here for almost the entire duration of the German occupation, took turns sitting on the chair during the day. Nobody could see them through the windows, from below or the buildings across the canal. They slept most of the day and remained awake at night, when they could move about more freely.
Castrum Peregrini sheltered many refugees. However, the story of Claus Bock, who hid here for many years, moved me the most. He was 15 when he was brought here. There is also an Indian connection. His parents were affluent German Jews who escaped to Bombay after leaving their adolescent son in Eerde, an exclusive Quaker School near Ommen, a little over an hour from Amsterdam. They believed Jews would be safe in the Netherlands. Many children of wealthy European Jews studied in this expensive boarding school, located in a castle in the middle of a forest. But it wasn’t long before the Nazis came looking for them after Holland was occupied by Germany.
Frommel, the German poet, was associated with the school. After the school was asked to segregate students, he realised the Jewish ones were in danger. He rescued Claus Bock and Buri Womtschovski and hid them in Castrum Peregrini. To prevent the Nazis from searching for Claus, Frommel had his name deleted from the school register. He told the school authorities that the boy had committed suicide by drowning. Klaus’s parents—comfortably settled in Malabar Hill with a circle of friends which included other European Jews who had sought refuge in Bombay—were told their son had died. It wasn’t until after the war ended and German soldiers no longer roamed the streets of Holland that they found out Klaus was alive. Apparently, he was angry with his parents because they had left him in Europe—and taken their dog Nuschi.
Life in Castrum Peregrini wasn’t easy for the two boys. The Grüne Polizisten, part of the Nazi secret police and referred to as the “green police” because they wore uniforms of that colour, could come any time. In fact they did, several times. One night when Gisèle, Wolfgang and the two boys were reading by the light of an oil lamp, there was an ominous knock at the door. Claus hid in the bottom half of a white pianola—a self-playing piano which occupies a corner of the apartment. The engine that operated it had been removed and it was refitted to enable a person to hide in it.
Automatic for the People: Claus Bock’s hiding place
But it wasn’t just the fear of the midnight knock that made life traumatic for the two boys for almost five years. Keeping them sane was not easy for the artist and the poet. Neither of the boys could adjust to not being able to go outside. Gisèle urged them to find solace in the arts, and in friendship. They were encouraged to read German writers, learn poetry and paint. She believed that by doing so they could keep claustrophobia at bay and hang on to their sanity in the small space overflowing with books and art. Eventually, Buri became an artist, and Claus an academic and writer.
Artists and writers were required to register at the Reichskulturkammer (Chamber of Culture) during the German occupation. Gisèle refused and sold her paintings surreptitiously to support those she sheltered. She was a quite formidable painter, as one can see in her carefully preserved studio on the sixth floor. She also helped many others survive the Nazis. Among them was the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann. The celebrated Leipzig-born painter and printmaker was not a Jew. However, Hitler and the Nazis considered his work “degenerate”. His work was removed from public collections and he lost his teaching job in Frankfurt. Beckmann escaped to Amsterdam and lived there during the war years. He was also a friend and an admirer of Gisèle’s work. Gisèle asked her brothers who lived in the United States to help Beckmann move there and begin a new life.
After the Nazis left in 1945, there was no longer any need for safe houses in Holland. However, Castrum Peregrini continued its vocation, assuming different roles down the decades. In 1950, Gisèle began to publish a literary magazine from here with Frommel. Seven years later, she donated 401 Herengracht to the Foundation Castrum Peregrini, that she had established. Gisèle died in 2013, almost a year after she turned a hundred. It is now run by Defuster, Damman and Ebert, all of whom worked with Gisele, and imbibed her spirit.
Getaway to India: Claus’s mother, Hexe, in Bombay || Image Courtesy: Castrum Peregrini
Today, its cultural centre organises debates, events, residencies, art exhibitions and performances, combining the heroic legacy of the place with the needs of the time and an explicit belief in an inclusive society—all the more relevant now with mass migrations, closing borders and refugees fleeing in terror. Their think-tank is aptly referred to as an “Intellectual Playground”. The day we arrived there was a lecture and also dance performances. One of the dancers was 22-year- old Rohit from Shadipur Depot in Delhi. His family is part of a clan of puppeteers from Rajasthan who have settled there. His dance that night depicted his struggle to find his own identity—one distinct from his family, community and tradition. Rohit hopes that exploring contemporary dance forms and ideas will lead him to discover his own identity, and to become part of a larger, more inclusive world.
Gisèle at work on a self-portrait
Curious about Claus Bock, I continued to pester Damman for more information about him. There was a treat waiting for us the day we were to leave. Damman brought out several photo albums of the Bock family. The elder Bock was a successful businessman, and his wife and he had travelled extensively in India. But the more interesting photographs portrayed their apparently privileged life in Bombay: a shining black convertible, a liveried chauffeur, a smart-looking ayah, Nuschi the little black dog, and afternoons in gardens with their European friends, many of them Jewish.
Then I saw several photographs of a woman with her hair tied back. She was either standing in a porch or in front of an apartment building. She was obviously a good friend of the Bocks. The caption in black ink read “Peppi Chorosch”.
I went to visit my aunt, who now lives in another part of Malabar Hill. Her eyes are not as good as they once were; she is approaching 90. But they lit up when I showed her a photograph of Madame Chorosch (as she was known in Bombay) that Michael Defuster had kindly sent me. She went down memory lane once again. Her anecdotes about Madame Chorosch have long fascinated me, triggering my curiosity about the European Jews who came to India to escape the Nazis. She had managed to get onto a boat sailing to Hong Kong from Great Britain. She never made it to China. The ruler of a small state in Gujarat persuaded her to disembark in Bombay. She was good at playing cards and he wanted her to continue doing so there. She soon became a part of the group of Jewish exiles in the city. A few years later, when the Maharaja’s daughter was getting married, Peppi offered to make her trousseau: she was also good at sewing. And that was the beginning of Madame Chorosch’s gem-speckled French chiffon saris illuminating the lives of begums, maharanis and film stars.