Hieronymus, the 15th century Dutch painter who is best known for his fantastical works, took his last name from the place where he was born, ‘s-Hertogenbosch (a contraction of Archaic Dutch, which meant “the forest of the Duke).
Den Bosch, as it is commonly known today (pronounced dɛmˈbɔs), a city of about 150,000, is one of those places that can be easily overlooked by travelers to the Netherlands. The reason my husband and I have enjoyed spending time there is because we have Dutch friends who live in a city nearby.
Den Bosch is an old city; its city center, dominated by Sint Jans kathedraal (Saint John’s Cathedral, which dates to around 1220) is pleasant and welcoming. And it’s an interesting city to get to know. Den Bosch has many historic buildings with beautiful facades that line cobblestoned streets—the de Moriaan on the central square, tall and narrow with a turret on one side, is the oldest brick house in the Netherlands. It was built at the beginning of the 13th century. The town hall was built about a century later. And there is also De Markt, the old market square. The Sint Thoenis is where Bosch’s parents had a workshop, while In den Salvatoer was where Hieronimus Bosch resided after he married.
But Den Bosch is also a modern city today, with all of the amenities one expects to find. There are excellent shops as well as inviting cafés, restaurants, jazz cafés and trendy bars. And it has several world class museums. In the Museumkwartier, the Museum Quarter, one can find the renovated regional Noordbrabants Museum with its exhibits in the arts, history and culture of the province (Brabant), and the Stedelijk (Design) Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The Stedelijk Museum’s art collection centers mainly on contemporary paintings; it has works by Picasso, Cocteau and Mendini, among others.
In the Noordbrabants Museum’s there is an impressive collection of work dating from 1500-1800: those of Pieter Brueghel, Van Thulden and Bosschaert, and also some more recent ones by Vincent van Gogh who lived in Brabant. The last time we visited the museum we saw a wonderful exhibit of paintings by Van Eyck, Memling, Breugel, and Jordaens that were on loan from a museum in Romania. They had not been seen outside of Romania for two hundred years.
The Jheronimus Bosch Art Center which is dedicated to the famous artist—he signed many of his paintings Jheronimus—is in the center of Den Bosch. The museum displays reproductions of his paintings, as well as objects that draw one into his repellant but intriguing world of symbolism and bizarre creatures; fortunately, our friends were able to help us navigate through some of his more obscure conjuring.
Earlier in the day that we visited the Bosch Art Center, on a boat tour, we’d encountered three dimensional representations of some of Bosch’s grotesque creations. The tour on the Binnendieze (Deize is the name of one of the rivers that flowed through Den Bosch in medieval times) takes you through Den Bosch’s centuries-old canal system that is partially hidden below the old city. Because of a lack of space, people started building their houses and roads to straddle the river; today a large part of the water is hidden behind and under the buildings. As we sailed past monuments, historical buildings, floodgates and Den Bosch’s nature reserve, sometimes in the open air, sometimes passing beneath old buildings, an object taken from his paintings, would suddenly appear, jutting out from a wall. One observer remembered “a peaceful canal” and then suddenly, “a demonic figure might play a harp while riding a goose – but the goose turns out to be a penis with a giant breast as its hindquarters.”
When we were visiting our friends that year, 2016, it happened to be the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death (b. ca. 1450, d. 1516) and numerous commemorative events were being held in Den Bosch. One of those events was a Sound and Light show that we saw starting at dusk, as we sat in an outdoor café on the central square having a cup of delicious Dutch coffee and stuffing ourselves with Bosch bollen, a pastry similar to a very large cream puff, filled with thick whipped cream and coated with dark chocolate icing. (We ate them in the traditional way, with our fingers, messy but great fun.)
Scenes were projected on several buildings which depicted Bosch’s life in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he was born in his grandfather’s house. Although little is known of the artist’s life or training, since no letters or diaries have been found, what is known has been taken from references to him in the municipal records. Among the events in his life that was reconstructed in the Sound and Light show was a catastrophic fire that destroyed 4,000 houses in the town in 1463 which Bosch, then approximately thirteen-years-old, most likely had survived and witnessed. It was surprisingly exciting and impressive display.
Although our experiences in ‘s-Hertogenbosch have been positive and enjoyable, there is one exception. There is a dark side to the city’s modern history: one of only three major Nazi concentration camps in the Netherlands was located in the outskirts of the city, in German it was called Herzogenbusch (the others were Amersfoort and Westerbork Transit Camps). The camp was actually in the almost adjacent city of Vught where our friends Joke and Henk live today. Joke is an accomplished artist and teacher (her name is pronounced Yok-e, two syllables; the J in Dutch is pronounced the way we usually pronounce Y,) but it was Henk, a historian and writer who has also been an important community activist, who was instrumental in having the camp preserved. At first as an educational site, and later as a museum.
The camp, which was commonly known as Kamp Vught, was operated from January 1943 to September 1944. During that period, it held nearly 31,000 prisoners: Jews, political prisoners, resistance fighters, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, homeless people, black market traders, criminals, and hostages. When it was liberated by allied forces, the 500-600 prisoners who were still alive, were to have been executed that very afternoon.
We first visited the camp, Barak 1B, many years ago when Henk was involved with its restoration so that it could be converted into an educational museum. It has a unique history: at the end of the war the barracks were not demolished, but rather used to house political prisoners, primarily collaborators; later it was used as emergency housing for Moluccan refugees who’d come to the Netherlands from the former Dutch Indonesian colonies. Today, the grounds of the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, although just a fraction of the size of the original camp, contain a visitor center, memorials, reconstructed watchtowers, a crematorium, and the educational museum at Barak 1B.
A model of the camp is in the visitor center, as well as a large collection of documents, and a room in which the names of the victims are inscribed. Outside of the visitor center is a memorial dedicated to 1,269 Jewish children who were deported on June 6, 1943. It lists their names and ages—in some instances all the children from a single family were swept away from their parent and homes on that day— Emanuel Bierman, 4 jaar (years old); Erna Bierman, 2 jaar, Suzy Bierman, 6 jaar. The inscription on the memorial says that more than 1800 children had been sent to their death in other camps. It was intensely sobering and moving but an important moment in our visit to ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
Carole Bell Ford is a Hudson Valley writer. Her books include The Girls: Jewish
Women of Brownsville, Brooklyn 1940-1995 (State University of New York Press). An excerpt from The Girls was included in Jews of Brooklyn (University Press of New England, 2002). Her next book, The Women of CourtWatch: Reforming a corrupt family court system (University of Texas Press, 2005) was selected by the national organization, Justice for Children, as an outstanding work. After the Girls Club: How teenaged Holocaust survivors built new lives in America (Lexington Books) was published in 2010, and in 2013 an essay “Letters from Riverside,” based upon letters written by a young, mid-19th century feminist, was included in the award-winning anthology A Slant of Light, Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. (Codhill Press, 2013). Her newest book, On and Off the Beaten Path: The best road trips in twenty years of travel in the U.S. and Canada, is available through Amazon and other online sources.