Her Towering Bells 

4th June 2023

He buried Titus here, not knowing that, in a year’s time, father would join son. 

By then he was a bankrupt artist, down on his uppers, whose burial went unnoticed and unmarked. Indeed, this very church would exhume and dispose of both van Rijn bodies some twenty years later, as was the 17th century rule, to make way for fresh mourning.

It was only when the old man’s paintings travelled the world that Amsterdam’s Westerkerk, or ‘Western Church’, made his memory permanent. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, master enquirer of the soul by way of portrait and self-portrait, is a son of Westerkerk, this beautiful Renaissance cross-shaped edifice on a beautiful canal bank of Amsterdam. 

I know this church and tower not for its brooding son, but for its famous daughter. I know it not for its nave, but for its neighbour. I know it not for its burials, but for its bells. 

Because under the shadow of this church, less than 50 metres away, a great philosophical diary of hope was written by an adolescent girl in hiding. The caged bird of Prinsengracht wrote her pages in an annex above a warehouse of Opekta, purveyor of jams and jellies. 

Across two years, 1942-1944, Anne Frank wrote to Kitty, her imaginary friend, regarding her evolving understanding of humanity and family, love and division. Her entries are narratives of daily sequestered life, told with intuitive, insightful clarity, while the hounds of misery skulk by the door.

The bells of Westerkerk rang out every 15 minutes, day and night, during those first years of the war, and Kitty heard all the details. The clock tower was one of the few buildings visible from the annex. Though the sound disturbed her parents’ sleep at first, Anne found the tolling a source of comfort through the night. 

Eventually, the Westerkerk was looted by German occupiers, its sacred bells carted off for rather incongruous wartime repurposing. The ensuing silence was a shock for those in the annexe. 

No bells; no tolls; no timekeeping. A layer of life had died. 

The final rupture came in August 1944, her 761st day of hiding, when the Sicherheitsdienst got wind of Jewish secrets hidden above Opekta’s jams and jellies. 


Anne Frank and her family were apprehended, brought first to the Westerbork Transit Camp in northern Holland, and from there to Auschwitz. 

She was 15 years old. 

In the summer of 1945, once Anne’s death from typhoid was confirmed, her grieving father, Otto, found solace in bringing her diaries to the world. Those words to Kitty seemed a counterpoint, both generational and ethical, to the utter savagery of what had taken place. 

I read Anne’s diaries first as a child, and again during Covid. There is something universal in her exceptional story. It leaves its mark on the reader. 

And so it was, that when I received an elegant invite to my friends’ wedding, the venue for their ceremony caught my eye. 

Westerkerk. The only damned church I know in Amsterdam. 

The marriage service was beautifully paced, telling the story of each – from whence they came, how they met, their shared love, and the values for which they stood. 

One being from Leiden and the other a Dubliner, it was a bilingual and bicultural ceremony. Each man expressed, via the celebrant, the importance of family in shaping the person he had become. 

After celebrating Erik’s loving mother who was present, and marking his father’s sad absence due to Alzheimer’s, there came a moment of musical reflection to acknowledge Tom’s beloved, and now deceased, parents.

“Lament”, I heard the celebrant say. In a context of love and marriage, it was a word of immense power. 

The living sound of uilleann pipes emerged from a traditional Irish musician, sitting high within the church, in a solitary place. It was a plaintive air, insistent yet calm, and a language fully familiar to my ears. 

I thought of Tom’s parents, and of mine. And in that Westerkerk moment I had a fleeting suspicion, that love and loss are layers.

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