If you love art or diamonds or both, you’ll love Antwerp, the thriving and architecturally attractive port city on Belgium’s River Scheldt. A proverb says, “Antwerp owes the Scheldt to God and everything else to the Scheldt River.”
Indeed, Antwerp is one of Europe’s important cities. The River Scheldt makes Antwerp the business and commercial capital of Northern Europe and the second largest Belgian city after Brussels. The population of the city, some 50 miles from the sea, is about 520,000.
Antwerp is Antwerp. In Brussels, they speak both French and Flemish. But in Antwerp they speak Flemish, which is basically Dutch, only with fewer guttural sounds than the Dutch spoken in Holland. They also speak Yiddish in Antwerp. More Hassidim live here than in any other city in Europe, from as at least six sects including Belz, Gur, Lubavitch, Satmar, Chortkov and Vizhnitz.
I’m in Antwerp on a Sunday when the city’s population goes outdoors and strolls on the promenade along the Scheldt River. I join them; the floral arrangements are magnificent. I wander over to the Old City and make a stop in a café. Here and in restaurants nearby, I notice locals devouring mussels and frites (French fries).
The city owes much of its cosmopolitan atmosphere to its art, its diamond business and its shipping center. And recently, it has become a fashion center with big-name boutiques, designer consignment shops, as well as flea markets packed into a compact city center. Unlike other European cities, Antwerp still has a skyline of centuries-old buildings.
The Grote Markt, a central market square in the Old Town, is a must on any visit. This is the city’s medieval heart. I admire the voluptuous, baroque Brabo Fountain, depicting Antwerp’s giant killing, hand-throwing legend. The town hall in the square impresses me with its Italian-Flemish Renaissance style. The building is known as “Stadhuis,” completed in 1565. The Cathedral is the largest – and many consider it the most beautiful – Gothic church in Belgium. Its graceful and lofty tower, over 400 feet in height, is seen from afar for a long distance and is a conspicuous landmark in the area’s flat surrounding plain.
Antwerp attained a prominent position in the 15th century when it became a leading port in the Hanseatic League. In the 16th century, it was the richest and most splendid city in the world and the chief money market in Europe. But then it declined and it wasn’t until the 19th century that it experienced rapid growth.
Antwerp is the city of Pieter Paul Rubens. I visit the 17th-century Rubens House. I walk through and gaze at the period rooms that display works by this great Flemish Baroque painter.
Art dazzles this city of Van Dyck, Jordaens, Bruegel and Plantin. Its many museums include the Plantin- Moretus and the Fine Arts Museum.
The Plantin Museum in the Vrijdagmarkt was the home of the great 16th-century painter Moretus and his descendants. In 34 years he published about 1,500 different works, a phenomenal achievement. Included were editions of classical authors, Hebrew Bibles and liturgical pieces. The press room, foundry, proofreaders’ room and bookshop are still in their original state. The museum also contains an exceptional collection of manuscripts, books, wood blocks, copperplates and tapestries, as well as paintings by Rubens.
ANTWERP IS known as a city in which almost the entire Jewish population is Orthodox. Walking along streets named Pelikaanstraat or Hovenierstraat, I discover synagogues, bookstores, restaurants and kosher bakeries.
Indeed, the area looks Jewish. Actually, the Jewish traveler to Antwerp – a world port and a mecca for art lovers – has no problem whatsoever finding Jews. “This is the most luxurious ghetto in the world,” a Jewish man who lives on Belgielei Street told me. He quickly added, “It’s a free-will ghetto of course.”
That is certainly true. The Jews of Antwerp are very tightly-knit. They live together and work together. About 90% of Antwerp’s Jewish population of 15,000 to 18,000 is involved in the diamond industry. Most of the Jews here are of Polish origin. They admit that they just don’t mingle. Ninety percent of the Jewish children of Antwerp go to Jewish day schools, which include yeshivot of various Hassidic dynasties.
Another Jewish leader put it this way: “The non- Jews of Antwerp are so used to living with Jews, they don’t see them as Jews.” Non-Jews know that their Jewish friends like to live alone and that they are not too involved in the city’s political and social life.
Jews, who came to Belgium as traders, accompanied Roman Legions that occupied Belgica after Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 50 CE. They were treated decently during the Roman occupation. Eearly in the 15th century, conversos or “crypto-Jews” from Spain and Portugal, found temporary refuge in Belgium. In fact, for a number of years, Antwerp was the headquarters of an “underground railroad” that enabled hundreds of secret Jews to get out of the Iberian Peninsula.
Russian and Polish Jews began settling in Antwerp after 1880. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, thousands of Jews fled to France and Switzerland. But about 26,000 Jews were deported to German concentration camps. With Belgium liberated, Jewish life began once more in its cities, including Antwerp.
Orthodox Judaism is very well organized in Antwerp. Two large Orthodox groups here, Shomre Hadas and Machssike Hadas, are active in the city. As mentioned, Jewish centers and schools abound, such as The Romi Goldmuntz Center at Nerviërsstraat 10; and the Tachkemoni School, at Lange Leemstraat 313.
Nearly a dozen kosher restaurants and delis exist in Antwerp. One particularly famous one is Hoffy’s, at Lange Kievistraat 52, Tel: 32-3-234-35-35, [email protected]
There are more than 20 synagogues in Antwerp, plus many shtieblach
(prayer halls), including” Bet Yakov Synagogue, Jacob Jacobstraat, 22; Bet Hamidrash Hagadol, Oostenstraat, 43; and Bet Lubavitch, Belgielei 20.
I scamper over to the centuries-old diamond district that houses thousands of diamond traders, cutters and polishers in this, one of the leading world’s main diamond exchanges. The diamond industry is built on everyone knowing everyone else. Reputation and trust are paramount. This breeds a certain amount of introversion, to say the least. They live in a “diamond world.”
Touring the diamond district, I learn that the term “mazel and bracha
” is used by Jews and non-Jews to clinch a sell. One also might add that the popular American song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” is certainly a hit in Antwerp.
The writer is a travel writer, lecturer and author of the just-published 4th edition of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe (Pelican Publishing) and Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press). Follow him on Twitter:@ bengfrank.