Jewish Amsterdam

Despite being Jewish and a passionate Amsterdam blogger it’s taken a while for me to bring these two strands of my life together in a blog post.

Somehow, the more personal the subject matter, the harder it is to sum everything up in a few paragraphs. However Judaism is so central to the story of Amsterdam that I wanted to find a way to do so, not least as my marital family tree stretching back to the Amsterdam of the late 1600’s reflects the highs and very dark lows of Jewish life in this amazing city.

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It is of course the extraordinary and enduring Anne Frank who for many symbolises the story of Jews in Amsterdam, but it would be a mistake to think that the actions of Otto Frank’s employees are representative of the Dutch population as a whole in their selfless endeavor to hide Jews from the Nazis.  Despite the work of many noble members of the Dutch resistance, far too many of Amsterdam’s population turned a blind eye or even collaborated with the dreadful orders of German officers and a staggering 104,000 or 80% of Amsterdam’s Jews (who once represented between 10% and 13% of the city’s population) were deported and wiped out during the war.

The highest percentage of any Jewish community in Europe.

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That said, Anne was not the only child who disappeared into hiding.  Marc’s grandparents were one of a number who took the unimaginable decision to send their young son (Marc’s uncle) away to the countryside, not knowing whether they would ever see each other again.  There, ‘hidden’ with a local family, he avoided the devastation that raged within the city of his birth and to this day, his surrogate Dutch family are honoured by the Abrahams for the extraordinary sacrifice they made – risking their own lives and that of their children to protect a young Jewish boy.

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The Jewish Historical Museum

For visitors keen to understand more about the rich history of Amsterdam’s Jews, the place to start is the Jewish Historical Museum.  Whilst today’s diminished but vibrant Jewish community have moved out to the suburbs of Buitenveldert and Amstelveen, the community of old were based in the beautiful and historic “Jodenbuurt” or Jewish neighbourhood known the Plantage and this is the location of the museum and many other key Jewish sites.

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The museum itself is based within four historic Ashkenazi synagogues.  It offers a range of artifacts that tell the story of Jews in The Netherlands and its former colonies and is also the place to pick up leaflets and self-guided walking tours.  Although the museum is modest in size, those who take the time to interact with the displays will discover the huge influence that Jewish people had in the city and their impact on philosophy, commerce, art, architecture, food and even sport.  There are often temporary exhibits on site in addition to a range of cultural events and guided tours.  It is also the only city -centre location to offer a kosher cafe.

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JHM Children’s Museum

After exploring the artifacts and exhibits in the main building, children can head through a special door into the Children’s Museum which is set up like a family home, giving younger visitors the chance to learn about many cultural aspects of Judaism (with the help of Max the Matzoh).  Most days children are also offered the chance to plait and bake a fresh challah in the kitchen with the museum’s friendly and helpful staff.

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The Portugese Synagogue – Snoge

Entry tickets to the Jewish Museum and Jewish Children’s Museum also grant access to the majestic Sephardi Synagogue; the National Holocaust Memorial and the National Holocaust Museum so be sure to head across the road to the magnificent 17th Century Portuguese Synagogue.

The “Snoge” (from the Portuguese ‘Esnoge’ for synagogue) is open to the public from Sunday to Friday morning before reverting each Shabbat into a fully functioning place of worship.  The whole complex is worth exploring, and also houses the Ets Haim library which has the incredible accolade of being the oldest Jewish library in the world.  The building, which is free-standing, rests on wooden poles that can be viewed by boat from the adjacent canal and the interior has its original wooden ceiling and benches.  The remarkable floor covered in fine sand is one of only five synagogues in the world to retain this feature (and the only one outside of the Caribbean).  Perhaps most  spectacular of all is the fact that there is no electricity in the building – the beautiful interior is lit exclusively by candles.  Once a month visitors can experience this in full effect when the shul runs a series of public concerts covering a range of musical styles.

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The National Holocaust Memorial, Hollandsche Shouwburg

For those interested in the war years, the Hollandsche Shouwburg is a deeply moving memorial that played a terrible role in the history of Amsterdam.  Once a high profile theatre that attracted a vibrant Jewish audience due to its location at the heart of the Plantage, it was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1942 and became an assembly centre for Amsterdam Jews awaiting their fate.  For the majority, this meant deportation to labour camps such as Westerbork before onward transit to the extermination camps of Auchwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Sobibor. In the main memorial hall you will find 6,700 surnames representing over one hundred thousand Jews who were deported and killed.  It is a sobering place in sharp contrast to the richness of life celebrated in both the museum and Portuguese Synagogue nearby.

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The National Holocaust Museum

Afterwards, head over to the National Holocaust Museum which is still ‘work in progress’.  The building is a former teacher training school, where Jewish children, separated from their parents at the Hollandsche Shouwburg were held in the creche and many were smuggled to safety with the help of the Dutch resistance.  Whilst there are further ambitions for this museum, for now you will find a series of art exhibits telling personal accounts of the war.

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Anne Frank House

Finally of course there is the Anne Frank House.  I would strongly recommend visiting the four key sites listed above ahead of a trip to the house (more information on how to get tickets here).  The perspective and context they give brings the wider picture vividly to life and helps paint the background against which Anne’s very personal story played out.

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For those keen to see more, there are ample opportunities to dig a little deeper.

Jewish Walking Tours of Amsterdam

At the Jewish Museum there are fantastically presented and well marked free maps (in English) with self-guided walking tours through the Jewish Cultural Quarter packed with information about Jewish owned buildings, businesses, synagogues and monuments.

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Those who prefer guided tours will find a number on offer in the city.  Whilst I haven’t been on one myself, I have heard that the World War II and Holocaust walk comes highly recommended and Jeanette Loeb’s Jewish History Amsterdam tours get fantastic plaudits on TripAdvisor and can be tailored to your specific interests.

But whether you take a full tour or not, visitors to Amsterdam cannot fail to encounter the impact that Jewish people have had here.

Amsterdam’s Jews and food

Many cafe’s are rich with Jewish history.  The beautiful Ysbreeker Cafe for example used to be the meeting place for the city’s Jewish intellectuals and artists.

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Interested in Dutch street-food?  Pom, a widely available Surinamese specialty made of chicken, citrus juice and pomtajer was in fact introduced by Dutch Jews who emmigrated to Surinam and became plantation owners in the early 17th century. The dish is reminiscent of cholent or kugel – the resourceful immigrants substituting the starchy root of the local tayer plant for potatoes. Pom was subsequently brought back to the Netherlands with Surinamese immigrants in the 1970’s and a ‘broodje pom’ or Pom roll remains one of the city’s most loved ethnic foods.

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Yiddish language in Amsterdam

Linguists might pick up words in the Amsterdam dialect that sound distinctly Yiddish.  Mazel is widely used as the word for luck and an affectionate name for the city is Mokum  which comes from the Yiddish word for ‘place’ or ‘safe haven’ (from Hebrew makom) and can be seen on a number of cafe’s, boats and hotels.

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Amsterdam locations with Jewish associations

Visitors to the wonderful zoo Artis will be amazed to hear that Jews were hidden within the complex during the war, some above or even within the animal enclosures.

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The popular Waterlooplein flea market, again in the centre of the Plantage, came into being when the city government decided that Jewish merchants in nearby streets had to move their stalls to the square. In 1893, the Waterlooplein became a thriving market (6 days a week, closed on Saturdays) full of Jewish traders and in particular clothing merchants.  In 1941 it was ruled that only Jews could shop there.  Unsurprisingly the deportations that followed closely afterwards meant that trading quickly ceased.  Eventually the Waterlooplein was reborn as a general flea market in the 50’s and 60’s.

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Rembrandt and the Jews

Art-lovers will no doubt be aware of the strong links between Rembrandt and Jewish themes.  As well as featuring in some of his most famous works (including The Jewish Bride at the Rijksmuseum), Rembrandt’s home and workplace based in the Plantage, (now transformed into The Rembrandt House Museum) had a small synagogue on the top floor.  Indeed some scholars have even argued that the artist was secretly Jewish although this has been broadly discounted.

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Ajax – “The Jewish Club”

But perhaps one of today’s most high-profile lasting reminders is to be found at the city’s beloved football club Ajax which is known as “The Jewish Club.”  The association began with the former stadium De Meer which was based in the East of the city, a short hop for the Jewish community who became the club’s most fervent supporters.  After the war, Ajax delighted in a couple of much loved Jewish players as well as Jewish managers and board-members.  Die-hard (non-Jewish) fans have historically unveiled huge Israeli flags at matches (a practice that the club is trying to outlaw), they sing Hava Nagila in the stadium and call themselves “Super Jews” which in turn has resulted in disturbing anti-Semitic ripostes from rival fans.  These days much of the practice is considered provocative and there is a desire to diminish these public displays due to the resulting antisemitism that surfaces across social media and in rival football chants.  That said, the stars of David are still very visible on non-Jewish supporters and as Simon Kuper has pointed out in his excellent book: Ajax, The Dutch, The War:

Amsterdam was historically seen as a Jewish city, so Ajax was labelled a Jewish club and became a target for anti-Semitic insults. The Ajax fans responded by wearing the label with pride: if you want to call us Jews, that’s fine with us.

and in some ways, whether through language, food, sport, art or culture – that defiance and pride in the city’s Jewish roots is the marvelous enduring legacy left by those never-forgotten 104,000 thousand former residents.

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