THE NETHERLANDS: The Girls from De Walletjes

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In front of the 14th century Old Church in Amsterdam lies a half-mile-square district of gabled houses, narrow streets and tree-shaded canals known as De Walletjes (little walls). An evening stroller, glancing into ground-floor rooms, sees what appears to be a succession of genre pictures by Vermeer: in each, a glowing, red-shaded lamp throws its light on one or two girls sitting by the window, staring blankly at the street. Their skirts are invariably hiked above their knees; their transparent blouses are pulled low. Occasionally a girl will indolently stretch out her leg, or touch her hair with a slow, formalized gesture. By law, Dutch prostitutes are forbidden to ply their trade on the streets, but there is nothing the police can do to prevent a woman's sitting at her window in De Walletjes.

Lowered Rope. On the floors above live the pimps and madams who control the lives and collect the earnings of the 500 De Walletjes whores. The estimate of daily customers ranges from 7,000 to 10,000. Very often the instant a client has left the stuffy, overheated ground-floor room, the pimp will lower a rope to which the prostitute must fasten the money she has earned. One madam, named Aunt Miep. would get outraged if she heard a girl wasting time talking to a client, and would stamp her crippled leg on the floor and scream: "Get to work!''

The longtime indifference of staidest Dutchmen to one of Europe's worst red-light districts has recently been shaken by a series of brutal murders. On New Year's Eve, 1957, Chinese Annie was strangled, and her killer escaped; in 1958 a drunken Norwegian sailor threw Finnish Hennie out of a window. Early last month Amsterdamers heard unsavory details of life in De Walletjes during the trial of Joop Scheide, a pimp who was~sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for killing a harlot called Lean Jossie. Scheide explained that he had only meant to give the girl a good beating because she had earned less than $20 in one night's work.

Roundup. During Christmas week, police and plainclothesmen swarmed into De Walletjes and rounded up a collection of pimps with such names as Fat Rinus, Piglet and Harry the Greyhound, and madams like Mad Margareta, 58, who employs 30 girls in one house bordering a canal and owns five other brothels. "She is the capitalist of the district," said the police. The pimps and madams were accused of accepting hippen money (hip is Dutch slang for whore).

As other brothel owners warily shut down to avoid arrest, the girls drifted off to their homes in the suburbs, where few of their neighbors know what work they do in De Walletjes. Shrugged one: "They will never get rid of us," and another added the dark threat always heard at such times: "Women will be attacked on the street by our former clients. They simply need us." The public prosecutor insisted that he was closing down Amsterdam's greatest unadvertised tourist attraction for good. But Dutch cynics recalled three other civic attempts to clean up De Walletjes in the past 50 years. The girls always came back.