Like many Jewish grandmothers, Martine and Louise Fokkens enjoy talking about their grandchildren in language laced with Yiddish.
At 71, the twins from Amsterdam also paint, think often about the Holocaust and attend synagogue on Jewish holidays.
But the Fokkens are not like most Jewish grandmothers.
For one thing, they recently retired after 50 years of working as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. For another, they are local celebrities thanks to several autobiographical books and a 2012 documentary carrying the English-language title “Meet the Fokkens.”
In the Netherlands, they are widely known by the Dutch title, which translates to “old whores.”
“The business taught us to get along with everybody, and I do mean everybody,” said Louise Fokkens, who retired in 2010 because of arthritis.
“Everybody” included priests, imams and rabbis, said the twins, who wore matching outfits during an interview last week at a Red Light District cafe.
“One of my Turkish clients shouted about Allah” at the moment of climax, Martine recalls.
“And we both had nice, shy yeshiva boys over more than once,” Louise added. “They’re very introverted.”
Though they speak positively about their years “behind the window” – a reference to the glass booths in which Amsterdam prostitutes attempt to lure customers – their career choice was born out of adversity and came at a price.
Louise entered the business in her early 20s under pressure from her ex-husband.
“He basically beat me into that booth, becoming my pimp, living on my money,” she said.
The couple had four children, but her ex-husband forced her to leave them for a few years at a foster home. Louise was able to visit them only on weekends.
Martine followed her sister into the trade, working first as a cleaning lady at brothels before she began turning tricks herself.
“I was angry at how everybody around us shunned Louise,” Martine said. “I did it out of spite, really.”
Both women eventually divorced their husbands, whom they now describe as “a couple of pimps.” But they continued working in the district “because that had become our lives,” Louise said.
“Our life in the business became a source of pride, a sport of sorts,” Louise added.
In retrospect, both women say they regret becoming prostitutes.
“We didn’t need all the trouble it brought us, the social stigma, the negative people you meet,” Martine said. “But that’s just how things went. Besides, we also met some wonderful people thanks to the business.”
Since retiring, the Fokkens have spent more time with their children – Martine has three – and grandchildren. They also briefly sold their paintings, including scenes of the Red Light District created at a studio near there.
They also receive psychological therapy at the Amsterdam Jewish community’s mental health clinic to deal with family traumas connected to the Holocaust.
“We were too young to experience it, but we were born into a traumatized family because our mother was half Jewish,” Louise said. “Our parents for years were expecting she’d get taken away. We also had Jews hiding in our home. The stress seeped through to us.”
Although the Fokkens’ maternal grandmother was Jewish, they were not brought up Jewish.
“But we remember her praying in the old kitchen and she taught us some Yiddish,” Martine said.
Their parents fiercely objected to their choice of career but eventually learned to live with it.
“Before us, nobody from our family ever went into the business,” Martine said. “I suppose someone had to go first.”
With age, the twins have reconnected to Jewish traditions. Louise now attends services at the Dutch capital’s Reform synagogue.
“When we were still in the business, going to shul didn’t feel right,” Louise said. “How could it? We weren’t unwelcome there, but we felt inadequate ourselves.”
Even today, Louise sits in the back row in synagogue to be as far away from the rabbi as possible.
But the sisters don’t feel excluded from Dutch Jewry. Over the summer they sailed on the Jewish boat in the Amsterdam gay pride parade. Their aim was to protest anti-Semitism, said Louise, who does not wear a Star of David pendant because she fears it would invite an attack.
“Our parents taught us to stand up straight no matter what,” Louise said.
Aboard the ship, they danced on the forward deck in white suits while the announcer touted them as “the old whores.”
But the twins themselves don’t feel like Red Light District symbols. In fact, they no longer even feel completely at home there, Louise confessed.
“The working girls used to be Dutch, now they’re all foreign,” she said. “The clients used to be local, now they’re tourists. And there used to be older girls. But now if you dare be [there] over 25, they stand in front of your window and make fun like you’re some sort of freak.