Herengracht 401 lies at the heart of Amsterdam’s beautiful canal district. For more than 70 years it was home to the artist Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht, known usually just as ‘Gisèle’. During the Second World War it was a place of safety for Jews and others fleeing the Nazis. Today it is home to Castrum Peregrini, originally set by Gisèle in the 1950s as a literary magazine, but which has evolved into a space for exhibitions, discussion and debates, on the relationship between art, morality, freedom and courage.
Gisèle was born in 1912 in the Hague. She studied at the École des Beaux d’Arts in Paris, but had to give up her studies when she ran out of money. In 1940, back in the Netherlands, she moved into an apartment in Herengracht.
Gisèle had become close friends with the German writer Wolfgang Frommel, a fervent humanist, and outspoken critic of the Nazis. Having fled from Germany, he now worked in a Quaker school in Erde, many of whose pupils were German Jews, and others, who had been forced to flee their homeland.
In May 1940, when Germany invaded the Netherlands, those who had fled Nazi persecution were once more in jeopardy. Gisèle turned her Herengracht apartment into a safe house. Three people – Frommel and two of his teenage pupils, Claus Bock and Buri Wongtschowski – hid there for the duration of the war. Others sought refuge for shorter periods. Gisèle’s neighbour Guido Theunissen, a carpenter, had created special hiding places to use during police raids – including a hollowed upright piano, which could continue to be played with someone hidden inside:
There were a number of safe houses in Amsterdam, each known to the resistance by a code name. 401 Herengracht was Castrum Peregrini: Fortress of the Pilgrims.
Locked into the apartment for years, unable to leave for fear of being caught, the small group in Herengracht 401 created their own little world shaped by art: they drew, painted, wrote, read and translated.
After the war, Gisèle, Frommel, Bock and Wongtschowski, together with the wider circle of friends and supporters that had sustained all those hidden from the Nazis, set up first a literary journal, and then a foundation, both named Castrum Peregrini. The aim was to create a space for discussion and debate about art, friendship, freedom and morality.
Gisèle died in 2013, aged 100, still living in Herengracht 401. The aim of Castrum Peregrini today is not just to look back to the past, and commemorate those who resisted the Nazis, but also to ask what friendship and solidarity and civil courage mean today, and what it would be to act as Gisèle had done in contemporary Europe. In particular, it is exploring meanings of diversity and solidarity in Europe today. It was against that background that I recently gave my talk at Castrum Peregrini on ‘Living in Diversity’ and for which I will be continuing working with the foundation.
The house itself is beautiful, with its maze of rooms, corridors and stairways, its collections of art and books, its colours and forms, its darkness and light, and the way that it helps illuminate both the past and the present. So, some photos of Herengracht 401, but do visit if you are able.