The Dutch Jewish community: A look at its ongoing potholed history

There have been plenty of changes across the generations, particularly as a result of the cataclysmic events of World War II.

 THE NATIONAL HOLOCAUST Name monument is a powerfully evocative place. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
THE NATIONAL HOLOCAUST Name monument is a powerfully evocative place.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)

The Netherlands has something of a motley past when it comes to the history of the Jews there over the centuries. There were pogroms, executions, lootings, forced conversions and expulsion; but, in that regard, Holland is no different from much of the rest of Europe.

Then again, as of January last year, there were close to 6,000 Righteous Among the Nations awards made to the Dutch by Yad Vashem, second only to Poland, which had a much larger Jewish community.

There is also the not inconsiderable matter of the mass migration of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, who fled the Inquisition and religious coercion, or death, and eventually found a safe haven in the Netherlands, predominantly in Amsterdam. That began in the late 16th-early 17th century, following the Spanish conquest of Antwerp in Belgium, where many émigré Jews had originally resettled.

The newcomers wasted little time in setting up house – actually prayer house – with three Sephardi congregations formed in double-quick time. Beit Jacob was established in 1602 or 1610, Neveh Salom between 1608 and 1612, and Beit Israel in 1618.

In 1639 the triad merged into the Kahal Kados Talmud Torah Spanish and Portuguese community, aka Esnoga or Snoge.

 THE KAHAL KADOS Talmud Torah Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam was once the largest in the world.  (credit: BARRY DAVIS) THE KAHAL KADOS Talmud Torah Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam was once the largest in the world. (credit: BARRY DAVIS)

The Orthodox Sephardi congregation and its imposing synagogue are still very much a going concern, as I discovered on a recent trip to the Netherlands.

I was told by synagogue employee Bar Vingerling that the building took a while to get its official opening.

“There were a few years of wars and pandemics, so they postponed the inauguration of the synagogue until 1675,” he explained.

“There were a few years of wars and pandemics, so they postponed the inauguration of the synagogue until 1675.”

Bar Vingerling

The expansive sumptuous edifice was opened, amid great pomp and circumstance, and immediately began holding prayer services, rituals and ceremonies.

That was toward the end of the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands enjoyed great prosperity, exercised control over international shipping routes and, naturally, established colonies all over the world.

Dutch Jews gradually rose to prominence in a range of fields. For centuries, the Amsterdam community was the center of the Sephardi world, producing many rabbis, scientists, philosophers, artists, merchants and bankers who made an important contribution to the prosperity of the Netherlands in the Golden Age and beyond.

It was fascinating to note that many of the Jews who relocated to Amsterdam in the 17th century were actually the descendants of Jews who had been forcibly baptized, known as anusim, Marranos or conversos. Allowances were made for the immigrants.

“They were helped by several rabbis, to bring them back to Judaism,” Vingerling notes.

In the early years, parts of the services were conducted in Portuguese, to overcome the language barrier. Eventually the new members achieved a satisfactory command of Hebrew, and the services reverted to the original texts. That initial absorption period has left its mark, and, to this day, service announcements at the synagogue are made in Portuguese.

Vingerling took me on a grand tour of the Esnoga compound which, besides the main synagogue building, features several outbuildings, including a smaller prayer room which accommodates regular Shabbat services, attended by around 20 members.

The Shabbat minyan is often swelled by visitors from Israel and elsewhere around the world, and, naturally holidays bring in greater crowds, when the main, vast synagogue space is pressed into service.

“It is very interesting because people who come here always have a kind of story to tell. They may have a family relationship with the synagogue. There are always interesting people to meet here,” Vingerling says.

The complex also includes a library and a Treasure Room, with a wide range of valuable manuscripts and Judaica artifacts, some centuries old.

Tradition plays a major role in the way the prayer services are conducted, and in the official aesthetics.

“These are the hats we wear during the service,” Vingerling continues, as we pass by a pigeonhole-shaped cabinet, some of the contents of which put one in mind of roaring twenties attire, or possibly a niftily choreographed Fred Astaire movie. “People on the board wear a hat, hazanim wear their own sort of hat, and the hacham (spiritual leader) of the community and people that blow the shofar have a certain hat. Nowadays, the rest wear a top hat.”

The headgear probably have a few tales to tell. “Some of the hats are pretty new, and some are from before the Shoah,” says Vingerling.

The Holocaust in the Netherlands

THE HOLOCAUST decimated the Dutch Jewish community, with only around 5,200 surviving out of a prewar population of 140,000. Somehow the building survived the Nazi occupation.

“A firefighters team took care of the synagogue,” Vingerling says. “I don’t know exactly the story about that.”

Gaby Schrijver-Dreese was certainly able and willing to enlighten me about some of the events that took place both during and following the Holocaust in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, or Jodenbuurt in Dutch.

Schrijver-Dreese is kept pretty busy leading guided tours of some of the main spots around the quarter, including the chillingly impressive Holocaust memorial just across the road from the Esnoga synagogue.

Her outfit is called Jewish Heritage Tours Amsterdam, and she leads tourists, Jews and non-Jews alike, around the area of Amsterdam that was home to Jewish life for over four centuries. Seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a descendant of Portuguese Jews, lived there.

Naturally, there have been plenty of changes across the generations, particularly as a result of the cataclysmic events of World War II.

“There were four synagogues in the Jewish quarter, and they were all destroyed during World War II, and 35 years ago they were rebuilt in the Jewish Museum,” says Schrijver-Dreese.

However, somehow, the Esnoga is still there at its original site.

“There were 25 synagogues in the center of Amsterdam, including some small ones, but the only one that survived was this one,” Schrijver-Dreese explains. “The Germans wanted to use the synagogue as a deportation place. But when they saw the [large] windows, they decided not to.”

The Nazis, it seems, were keen to keep the transports of Jews and others to concentration camps out of the public eye.

Like Vingerling, the tour guide was unable to enlighten me about how the Esnoga escaped the fate of all the other synagogues in Amsterdam.

“The firemen of Amsterdam came and took care of the building. I have no idea why,” she says. Perhaps that will come to light further down the line, as Holocaust research continues.

Not far from the Esnoga, which, at the time, was the largest synagogue in the world, we come across a curious-looking statue called De Dokwerker which commemorates a quite astounding event.

“This is the statue about the strike of ’41,” says Schrijver-Dreese. “In this square there were 500 Jewish men who were beaten up and sent to concentration camps. Then people in the harbor thought, what’s happening here? So they had a strike. It was the only strike in Europe against the Nazi regime.”

That took place on February 25-27, with 300,000 protesters taking part. The show of defiance was quelled by the Nazi after two days, and, naturally, the occupying forces meted out stiff punishment to many of the strikers, who also included tram drivers and workers from other municipal services, several companies such as the De Bijenkorf department store chain and schools.

If that was impressive, our next stop was simply overwhelming. I have seen quite a few Holocaust monuments over the years around the world, but the one in Amsterdam was one of the most emotionally charged. It also comes with a contentious backstory.

“It took 30 years to build, because people in this neighborhood were very difficult,” explains Schrijver-Dreese.

Apparently, the locals were put off by the size of the memorial construction, designed by internationally acclaimed Polish-born Jewish artist and architect Daniel Libeskind.

In fact, from the outside, the Nationaal Holocaust Namenmonument does not seem to overly impose its presence on daily life. It is aesthetically attractive, with clean lines and shades that blend in with the color of the brickwork of the nearby houses.

It is when you make your way inside the rectilinearly shaped installation that you begin to appreciate the immensity of the physical form and the inconceivable tragedy that befell the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The zigzagging labyrinthine monument is shaped to spell out the word “lezecher” from above – “In memoriam” in Hebrew – and comprises sand-colored brick-like plates that show the name, birth date and age at death of each of the victims.

All told, there are some 102,000 nameplates there, including those of Anne Frank – acknowledged by her full name of Annelies Frank – and her sister, Margot, who were murdered in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, at the ages of 15 and 19, respectively.

“They decided to have the names in alphabetical order,” Schrijver-Dreese notes, “so the names of family members are together.”

According to Studio Libeskind, the design affords “a tangible quantification to the many casualties, as well as leaving 1,000 blank bricks that will memorialize the unknown victims.” The latter are slowly filling with personal details, as the names of additional Holocaust victims gradually come to light.

Schrijver-Dreese says the individualized database arrangement offers didactic opportunities, too.

“School students have to choose the name of one person and found out information about them, before the war, so they have a connection with the person. It works.”

Some years ago I met a 12th grade high school student in Vienna who had chosen to investigate people who survived thanks to the Kindertransport rescue operation, for her final paper. She, too, talked about the personal connection she felt with the individuals she researched. As Soviet despot and mass murderer Josef Stalin once reputedly posited: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”

There were some heartwarming tidbits to be had, as the tour progressed toward a typically pleasant Dutch street, complete with waterway, by the name of Nieuwe Keizersgracht. Immediately below the street nameplate there was another sign which read De Schaduwkade – The Shadow Quay – with the explanatory subtitle Monument aan het water, Monument by the Water.

As we approached the canal, we began to see metal nameplates arranged around a sign with an address.

“This is called The Canal of Shade,” my guide notes. “There were 200 Jewish people who lived there [on the street] and, one night in 1943, they were all taken out and sent to concentration camps.”

Fast-forward seven decades, and one of the locals learned of the fate of the former residents. “She said we have to do something,” says Schrijver-Dreese. “There were 200 people who lived here who were killed.”

That “something” involved all the neighbors who got together and bought the opposite bank of the canal and installed metal plates with details of the victims, opposite their wartime addresses.

There is plenty of information about local Holocaust events, and much more about the history of the Dutch Jewish community, over at the Joods Historisch Museum – Jewish Museum – which forms part of Jewish Cultural Quarter.

The museum, which is currently hosting an exhibition by Ramat Aviv resident photographer Iris Hassid called A Place of Our Own, is a mine of textual information and aesthetic artifacts, placed around the restored Great Synagogue.

The exhibits include oil portraits of yesteryear Jewish nobility and some enlightening information.

Who considered, for example, how the existing community in Amsterdam coped with the large influx of Jews from Antwerp in the early 17th century?

One museum item relates that, in a bid to alleviate the financial strain on the congregation, 6,000 underprivileged Sephardi Jews were sent away to Dutch colonies scattered across the globe, during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Caribbean island of Curaçao and Suriname in South America.

While it seems the down-at-the-heels newcomers were happy to leave for hopefully more advantageous foreign climes, they needed assistance with funding their relocation. We are told, for instance, that Ishak Nunes Lopes received the princely sum of 140 guilders – roughly half of a laborer’s annual income at the time – to pay his way to Curaçao, along with his wife and two offspring.

The museum also addresses the challenges faced by Holocaust survivors on their return to the Netherlands – which included antisemitism – and notes that over 10,000 Jews made aliyah between 1948 and 1986.

Today the Jewish community in the Netherlands numbers around 43,000, half of whom reside in Amsterdam. Jewish life goes on. ■

For more information: www.esnoga.com and https://jck.nl/en/node/963