Where Jews once flourished in Amsterdam and Norway

A Jewish glance at Amsterdam and the Fjord towns of Norway.

The Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My first sight in Amsterdam on arriving from Tel Aviv was in the Schiphol Airport restroom, where a woman was methodically picking off lice from the head of a small child. Over the next day and a half of touring in the city of canals and bicycles, I could not get that initial image out of my mind.
On the second half day, we visited the Rijksmuseum, the National Museum of Norway established in 1885 to house, among other things, the great works of art of the Old Masters of the Netherlands, featuring the works of Rembrandt who created his masterpieces in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Our group was mesmerized by the grandeur of his paintings, particularly The Night Watch. After admiring many of the Dutch masters, including Vermeer, I was drawn to a painting that showed a woman with a child. I discovered that the painting titled A Mother’s Duty by Pieter de Hooch, a contemporary of Rembrandt, actually depicted a mother delousing her child’s hair! The image of the woman in the airport came vividly before my eyes. I could not resist telling a museum guide the whole story.
“Some things never change – we have a long history here,” she laughed. That was the seminal moment of my tour – the recognition of the length and cohesiveness of the history of Amsterdam and all of Europe.
Our tour being from Israel, it was natural for us to explore places of Jewish interest. The Anne Frank house was a must; one cannot help being moved by stepping on the very floors that Anne and her small group of hidden Jews walked so softly upon daily. Experiencing the darkness of the rooms behind the always-sealed black shades gave meaning to the years of hiding and dread of exposure this small group felt. Even more haunting was the contrast seen through the windows with people going about their business.
As I looked out I imagined that the view I saw today was the very same one visible during the time the Franks were hidden in the back, and even more riveting was the thought that these same or similar buildings were standing on that spot for centuries before. The words “there is a long history here” came to mind; what also came to mind was that about 77% of the Jews in the Netherlands were murdered during the Holocaust, one of the highest percentages in Western Europe.
When we left the Anne Frank house we saw a long line winding around the entire adjacent block of people waiting for entrance. One woman said that the lines were the same every day, with reservations very hard to come by, but that it was “worth it.” I wondered whether the wait was to feel the Jewish pain of the Holocaust or just to experience what has become a “Dutch” piece of history.
We toured the centuries-old Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, recalling the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. It is preserved in its initial state without electricity but remains in use during the summer months. A more climate-friendly synagogue adjacent is used in the winter. The Holocaust is memorialized in a small exhibition in the Jood Historical Museum (The Jewish Museum) in the same “Jewish Quarter.”
Nonetheless, I had the feeling that the Jewish presence was felt more in a historical than a real sense.
This was true as well in Norway, which our group visited by ship in order to appreciate the natural grandeur and beauty of the fjords, as awe-inspiring and magnificent as they are purported to be. The Norwegian people we met take joy in the natural riches of the country One young guide told us: “When the weather becomes warmer, we hang up our skis and take out our mountain bikes.”
Most of the towns along the fjords, expand in population during the summer months when the cruise ships bring in both the tourists and the summer workers.
During the winter, with the exception of Bergen, the population shrinks to a few thousand at most.
Many live secluded lives higher in the mountains in the winter, but most live along the coast, where villages are connected through a perimeter road. Except for occasional avalanches, which our guide assured us are completely predicable, the roads stay open for the winter.
Children often learn in small local schools until 6th grade when they move on to high school in a more central location, sleeping there during the week and returning to their homes on the weekends.
In Geiranger, for example, there are only 22 children in all of the elementary grades. Education is free through university. There are Lutheran churches in most towns, mandated by the state, but in the smallest villages the clergyman may come only bi-weekly to conduct services. In Bergen, one church was called “The New Church,” although it was built five centuries ago to mark the changeover to Protestantism. In isolated areas, a doctor will come every week, but emergency services are available, including use of a helicopter.
Farming used to be prevalent in the valleys and mountainsides of the fjords, but technological changes in agriculture have made it unfeasible for most farms to continue.
Those few who retain the old farmsteads farm mostly for their own use and to feed their sheep and cattle; it is still possible to see a girl or boy tending animals on the slopes during summer months.
Viking history is part of Norway’s culture. In Stavanger we were saw where after the unification of Norway in 872 CE by King Harald, three major kings are said to plunged their swords face down into the earth to symbolize the coming of peace.
Not so peaceful are the trolls, however – the mythical creatures said to populate the fjords of Norway at night, only retreating at the rise of the sun. Those not fast enough were believed to have turned into the little piles of stones found all over the mountains of the fjords. However these stone formations are also attributed to the means of communication between isolated travelers in previous times and to the fun-loving escapades of modern day tourists.
In Geiranger, we asked our guide about the presence of Jews in the area of the Fjords. She said that perhaps there had been some living there before the Nazi invasion.
When our bus was climbing to forested mountain heights, approaching the snow line, she said, “Maybe some people hid up there…” It was not clear if she was still referring to the time of the Holocaust, but I wondered how anyone could survive even in the summer in the extreme mountain climate in the without outside help.
Most of the original Jews in Norway came from Portugal, and even when Jews were denied entry into Norway, the Portuguese Jews were allowed to stay. Nonetheless, although the Nazis invaded Bergen and damaged it during World War II, there was no mention of the Jews who lived there. We asked whether there was a Jewish community in Bergen, a town of considerable size, and we were told that there was a small community there, but that for major events they all went to the larger communities of Oslo and Trondheim, both of which had synagogues, although only the one in Oslo is active.
About two-thirds of the Jews throughout Norway were saved from the Nazis often with the help of the Norwegian people, escaping to Sweden and to England, where the royal family also spent the war years.
Some of our guides were from Norway, but others were summer recruits, often university students, from other places in Europe, such as Germany and Romania. I was impressed with how easily they orbited into Norwegian life, picking up the language and social scene as they traveled from country to country. This was a sign of the cohesiveness of Europe based on common history and experience.
I did not notice any anti-Jewishness; on the contrary, people were interested in the fact that we came from Israel, although one young guide told me he was puzzled by the fact that we all spoke English and seemed very “American.” What I did feel was a sense of invisibility, of irrelevance – that perhaps after hundreds of years of Jewish life in Europe, Jews have indeed been erased from the “long history” referred to by the guide in the Rijksmuseum But all may not be as it seems.
Back on the ship a Norwegian vendor came aboard with souvenirs.
I spotted a lovely Norwegian doll for my granddaughter, and after choosing among several models, I began to discuss the currency and other facts about Norway with the salesman. After concluding the transaction, I was startled to hear a resounding “layla tov” from the salesman.
On Friday, I signed up for a tour of the ship, including crew living areas and the inner workings of a community that lived at sea for six to nine months a year. A lady from Belgium told me she was taking the tour because she was a social worker and interested in human rights. I invited her to consider a trip to Israel, where she could explore archeological sites, museums and more. She became animated about the possibility and invited me to visit her in Belgium as well. She lived near where the March 22, 2016 terrorist attack on the airport and the metro occurred.
Hearing her refer to the attack with emotion and horror, I felt a bond with her and hopeful for the future of the world, perhaps including the Jewish future in Europe.