Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Apologies in advance for the marathon post, but it seems fitting to group the Jewish sites together. Together, they tell a story of Jewish prosperity and extermination in Holland. It is not a pretty story, but a story that must be told.
M an I visited a number of important Jewish sites throughout our time in Amsterdam. While some are beautiful, most are sobering, a reminder that Amsterdam’s once prosperous Jewish community came to an abrupt halt on May 10, 1940 when Nazi Germany descended on its neighbors to the west.
We started with a self-tour of the Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) in Amsterdam’s old Jewish center, a stunning historical building that should be on your to-do list.
While many European countries persecuted and evicted the Jews throughout the Middle Ages, Holland’s relative tolerance made it a safe harbor for many Jews, especially Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing devastating pogroms and the infamous Inquisitions.
In 1665, the Jews of Amsterdam built a new synagogue that was, at the time, the largest in the world. Finished in 1675, the synagogue still looks the same as it did more than 300 years ago.
The building itself is huge, so huge I had trouble capturing its size on my camera.
The main sanctuary is beautiful, just beautiful.
We made our way upstairs to the women’s section (men and women sit separately in Orthodox synagogues.)
We made our way back outside to tour the grounds and the library of historical treasures. The below picture is a sukkah – the hut-like structure Jews eat in on the holiday of Sukkot.
A small sampling of the synagogue’s many silver and gold treasures.
Here we are touring the synagogue’s candle room. If you are fortunate to attend services in the main sanctuary, you can see all the candelabras lit up. M and I attended night services, but it was held in the much smaller and newer winter sanctuary (the 300-plus year old sanctuary does not have heat).
Below is an outdoor washing station for the kohanim (priests) to wash their hands during services.
Below is the mourning room for funeral services.
Our last stop was the treasure chambers, where we saw many stunning historical relics, including Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual items.
After our visit to the Portuguese Synagogue, we made a quick stop at the Jewish Museum across the street, which is constructed out of four old Ashkenazi synagogues. We only had an hour, so we did a quick tear through the exhibits, including a history of the Jews in Amsterdam and an array of Jewish relics.
The history of Holland’s Jewish community has a tragic end, like so many other Jewish communities throughout Europe. The exhibit walks you through the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland, and the subsequent annihilation of the Jews.
In the early 1900s, Amsterdam’s Jewish community totaled approximately 60,000. By the start of World War II, it had more than doubled to 140,000 Jews. Six years later, in 1945, only 30,000 traumatized Jews remained.
We caught a glimpse of the main sanctuary of one of the four original synagogues.
In the basement of the museum, there are a handful of intersting artifacts and paintings.
Later in the week, we stopped at Hollandsche Schouwburg (the Holland Theatre), the National Holocaust Museum, and the Anne Frank House, possibly the most popular tourist spot in all of Holland.
The Hollandsche Shouwbrug was a Dutch theater that was turned into a Jewish theater after the Nazi occupation in 1941, and then served as a deportation center. Today, it is a small museum and memorial, worth a bit of time if you are interested in Jewish history.
According to the museum:
Built as a theatre in 1892, the Hollandsche Schouwburg became the main playhouses in the district… In September 1941, as one of the many anti-Jewish measures introduced by the occupying forces, its name was changed to ‘Joodsche Schouwburg’ (Jewish theatre). From then on, only Jewish musicians and other performing artists were permitted to perform here – to an exclusively Jewish audience… On 20 July 1942, the occupying forces seized the Hollandsche Shouwburg as an assembly point for deportations. In total, over 46,000 Jews were imprisoned within the theatre’s walls prior to deportation to the transit camps Westerbork or Vught. From there, they were deported to an almost certain death in the concentration camps and extermination camps in Germany or Occupied Poland.
The National Holocaust Museum is across the street, and still undergoing finishing touches when we visited. The buildings used to house a nursery and a Christian Culture School. During World War II, some of the adults snuck Jewish children out of the nursery when the tram rolled by obscuring the Nazis’ view across the street. According to a plaque at the museum:
Across the street from the Kweekschool is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, where in 1942 and 1943 more than 46,000 Jews were held captive while awaiting deportation. Jewish children were confined to the Creche next door to the Kweekschool, from which they were sent on to Westerbork transit camp and later deported. In January 1943, Johan van Hulst consented to an illegal plan to bring children from the overcrowded Creche into the Kweekschool daily for an afternoon nap. Gradually, the Jewish employees of the Creche and Director Van Hulst established a bond of trust, and they were able, starting in April 1943, to arrange for many Jewish children to escape through the Kweekschool to safety. Some 600 children from the Creche were saved.
The first floor had an array of photos and items from children who perished in the Holocaust.
The downstairs space is reserved for special exhibits. During our visit, we were lucky to catch a exhibit celebrating the recently discovered photographs of the husband and wife team, Annemie Wolff-Koller (1906-1994) and Helmuth Wolff (1895-1940).
Helmuth was Jewish, while Annemie was not. The couple fled Munich for the Netherlands in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power. They built a successful photography business until the fateful day on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland. Five days later, the couple attempted suicide, assuming the end was near. Helmuth died, but Annemie survived, and continued with her photography throughout her life. During the war, she was active in the Resistance, and took many portraits, many of Jews. Some of these portraits were used for forged ID papers or applications for certificates of non-Jewish descent. Annemie printed the latter photographs with blonder coloring to help substantiate her clients’ case.
These photos were thought to be lost for decades. It turns out, all of Annemie’s negatives were saved and recently found. For the first time, they are available for public viewing.
We also toured the famous Anne Frank House, but photos are not allowed. It is a sobering but fascinating exhibit of life for the Franks during Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. If you are planning on visiting, I highly recommend purchasing tickets well in advance, or you will be stuck waiting in this line that wrapped around the block and then around the next block.
M used his press pass to get us press tickets so we were able to skip the line and go right in at our appointed time.
All in all, there are plenty of important and interesting Jewish sites in Holland. As I walked through these sites, it was hard not to ask myself “What if?” What if Hitler never came to power? What if Anne Frank had survived instead of dying a mere couple of weeks before liberation? What if the Portuguese Synagogue had been bombed to smithereens like so many other Jewish synagogues?
There are no answers. There are just the stories of all the people and places that came before us. It is a a story of persistence and struggle, life and death, and the undeniable truth that these stories are part of our stories. History is the preamble to our lives.