Artist Gisèle D’Ailly-van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1912-2013) remained a little girl throughout her life, even when she reached 100. She lived surrounded by free spirits, poets and writers, and created her own world.
In December 1940, Gisèle finally realized her childhood dream of living on the Herengracht in Amsterdam, and moved into a pied-à-terre on that Herengracht she had always heard of: number 401, to be precise. When she first saw it, Gisèle immediately fell in love with the view out over the adjacent Leidsegracht, and was not in the least bit bothered by the fact that the former office building didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom, as she didn’t cook and the public baths were just around the corner.
She rented a floor—a space measuring 60 square meters—for eighteen Dutch Guilders a month. During that same period, through Adriaan (with whom she also had a brief affair), she met Wolfgang Frommel, a German poet and writer. He was looking for a place to house a couple of talented young German men whose lives were in danger because they were being forced to leave a boarding school in Ommen in the north-east of the Netherlands. Gisèle didn’t hesitate for a minute, and offered her home as a safe house.
By 1942, she was living there with Wolfgang, 15-year-old Claus Bock, his young teacher Buri (the pseudonym for Adolf Friedrich Wongtschowski) and a few others who came and went. At times, there were as many as seven men living in her home. Some of them were Jewish; others were trying to avoid the concentration camps. During the day, those in hiding stayed out of sight from the nosy neighbors across the street. The neighbors above and below her were the only ones who knew they were there.
The men couldn’t move about freely until the evenings, when the blackout curtains covering the many rooms in the corner apartment were closed. The charismatic Wolfgang kept the young men busy; they read and wrote poetry and worked on translations. They learned that even though their bodies were imprisoned, their minds were free. Through art and culture, they managed to create a bubble of freedom in the small room in Gisèle’s house for three years.
Claus described the feeling later on by saying: “As long as we write stories and poetry, nothing can happen to us.” They named the house Castrum Peregrini, after the pilgrims’ castle near Haifa, Israel, that was never captured. Their motto was freedom, friendship and culture. Years later, Wolfgang’s entourage was described as being slightly sectarian. Gisèle earned a living for the group.
She refused to become a member of the Kultuurkamer, or Chamber of Culture, an institute set up by the Germans which artists were forced to join if they wanted to keep working. She worked as an ‘illegal artist’ for as long as she could, and traveled all over the country to paint portraits on commission. “The war was a tightrope walk for me,” she later said. “Watching every step I took and every word I said. My life was at risk every second I set foot outside of the four walls of my home. I was walking on a wire up in the air; keeping my balance, preserving my mental equilibrium.”
And yet, when she was later asked what the best time of her life was, she responded without hesitation, “The war. That’s when I learned the meaning of friendship.”
- Read the full story ‘Gisèles world’ in Issue 25.
Text Liddie Austin Photography Khara Woods/Unsplash.com