Tag Archives: Portuguese Synagogue

The Jewish Window of Amsterdam

Window

The Jewish Window of Amsterdam (street name has been distorted intentionally)

As I wrote this I realized this story is filled with so many of the attributes I believe exist in so much of today’s world, be it Jewish or not.  The 2 most prevalent in what you are about to read are on 2 different sides of the emotional spectrum. The first one is sadness, the second one is hope.  Spoiler alert and good news for those who prefer to feel optimism and inspiration from what they read.  I conclude with hope.

It should be noted as I start this piece that in my recent trip to Holland I spent all but one day in Amsterdam and only prayed in one synagogue, a warm and welcoming one in the Amsterdam suburb of Amstelveen.  So although I believe in the information I am sharing, I acknowledge that it is indeed based mostly on my opinion and on a relatively small sample of experience.  That being said, my feelings are feelings I feel strongly about and are also based on the truth of what Dutch Judaism once was.

It is also important that I mention that in all my interactions with anyone Jewish during my 6 days in Holland I found people to be friendly and agreeable.  Also, although I have heard a lot about European anti-Semitism and do not question the accuracy of the reports, I personally was exposed to no specific evidence of it during my trip. So although it is possible that infighting is still a thing in Dutch Jewry and it is certainly possible or even likely that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Holland as it is in so many parts of Europe, it would be disingenuous on my part to claim a negative experience where one doesn’t exist.

So then from a Jewish standpoint, what was it that pained me most about my recent trip to Holland? It had to do with how little of  Dutch Jewry was left and my perception of what so much of Judaism in Holland has become.  It’s become a tourist attraction.

Part of this is no surprise to anyone reading this piece.  After all, ask anyone about what they know about Amsterdam and they will undoubtedly mention Anne Frank’s house, the Portuguese Synagogue, or both.  Two places that hold different meaning to me than they do to so many others,  be they Jewish or not.  Although I appreciate the attention Anne Frank’s house brings to the history of the Jews in Holland and Europe, and I believe in anything that teaches the world the horrors of Nazi-occupation, having had a mother who hid during those years and survived to tell her story,  Anne Frank’s house is not so much for people like me as it is for people with no personal connection to the history.

The Portuguese Synagogue, a thing of beauty, was the synagogue my mother belonged to as a child.  In my recent visit to the place Dutch refer to as the “Esnoga”, more than half of my time was spent looking through the records to find membership cards of people I descend from.  When I walked into the main sanctuary I felt a connection, knowing that many years back there were many people related to me that called this place home, regardless of how regularly they attended.  As beautiful of a place as it is, and as many pictures as I took,  it was so much more to me than a mere tourist attraction.

The day after the event in which Wim de Haan gave the violin his father protected for my Uncle Bram to me and my siblings, I went on my own private tour of Amsterdam. On the canal ride we passed what the tour operator referred to as the old Jewish section.  When I went back to what was previously the Dutch Jewish Hospital (NIZ) and the Jewish Invalid Hospital (The Joodse Invalide), despite the powerful connections I felt, these institutions were brought down to very little more than a few plaques.

On the way back to the immediate area near the Portuguese Synagogue I found a bank of a canal that had a memorial of 200 residents of the immediate area. The memorial was known as the “Shadow Wall”, plaques put into the ground near the banks of the canal.

When I stood in front of the Esnoga, to the left was an entrance to a side street with a banner that read “the Jewish Quarter” where a Jewish Museum now stands. If  you cross to the right you find yourself on the Rappenburgerstraat, the street my father spoke of often and always represented the heart of my father’s Jewish life and the center of so much of Amsterdam’s Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish world.  I walked up and down the street, a street once filled with synagogues and Jewish schools, only to find another plaque and some buildings with some Hebrew writing.

In conversations I had with non-Jews while in Holland, I found them to be gracious, kind  and compassionate about what once was while also in many instances detached as anyone would be towards something so far removed from their reality.  In my contact with  Jewish people during my trip, as I indicated earlier I found them to be warm and pleasant, including my time praying in the synagogue in Amstelveen.  In my contact with both parties I came to the conclusion that neither the Jewish people in Amsterdam nor the non-Jewish Dutch citizens of Holland are responsible for what Dutch Jewry has become.  That being said, the reality as I saw it was that it is now more a tourist attraction than it is a thriving community.  As I walked through parts of a city that sometimes felt to me like a Jewish graveyard, a city at the very core of my roots, I felt an immense sadness.

But then I saw the window.  Having concluded the final part of my tour of Jewish Amsterdam I began to walk towards Amsterdam’s Central Station.  Walking past the market, numerous shops, bars and restaurants, I came to a corner with a souvenir store, where in the window above this little store I saw the most organic symbol of Judaism I had seen not only in all of Amsterdam, but anywhere in a long time.  The symbol  I would come to see as the faint heartbeat of what once was a city in which 1 in every 10 people were Jews.   In that window I saw a Menorah, 2 Sabbath candle holders, and a spice box used for the Havdalah ceremony on the conclusion of the Sabbath.  Although not something anyone would pay to see, for me personally it was one of the most fascinating images of my entire trip.

The fact that my perception of Judaism in Holland had dwindled down to not much more than a tourist attraction is not meant as an indictment of Dutch Jews or non-Jews, rather another reminder of the evil precision in which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party destroyed a civilization in Europe. That being said, that one small window in the center of Amsterdam felt to me like a flame that was never extinguished and a the hope that Judaism might one day thrive again in Amsterdam.

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Jew Face: An excerpt connecting then and now

What has always been the most remarkable thing about the book Jew Face, in my opinion at least, has nothing to do with how the book was written.  The most remarkable thing has always been that the story is true.   As a writer, I could ask for no greater gift than to have at my disposal a story that is so rich with almost every human emotion imaginable, and of a subject matter not only important in history, but in this particular instance,  inspiring and hopeful.  Whenever possible in this blog I will try to draw the story to a real connection, be it through the date or through people involved in the book and the people close to them.  The following excerpt involves the story of Sam Abram and his sister Nettie.  Sam was a very close friend of my father, and his daughter Chelly recently had her birthday and on Monday will commemorate, according to the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of her father’s passing 14 years ago.   With her permission I am making this mention and posting this excerpt from the book Jew Face.

Saving Nettie

 As the Germans were to come in on various occasions and raid neighborhoods, the Jewish community in Amsterdam became smaller and more dispersed. Those either not willing to accept the evidence or whose innate courage prevented them from leaving their home would ultimately find themselves shipped off to what we now know would ultimately be their cruel treatment in concentration camps, and in most cases, death.

 Throughout 1941, Seys-Innquart, Aus der Funten, and his other henchmen were in the process of determining a location to use as a deportation center for the Jews of Holland. The two most logical places were the Esnoga, the Great Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, and the Hollandse Schouwburg, the great concert hall of Amsterdam. After reviewing it carefully, the Nazis felt that the Schouwburg was the more logical choice. Because of the large amount of Jewish patronage over the years, the proximity to the Jewish ghetto, and the purpose in which it was now going to be used, the Nazis changed its name to the Joodse Schouwburg and prepared it for use as a deportation center.

 The plan had in many ways already been put into action. The concentration camps of Westerbork and Vugt were set up in the north and south, respectively, and beginning in January of 1942, after mass roundups, Jews were no longer allowed to live anywhere in the Netherlands but Amsterdam or the two camps. When arriving in Amsterdam, these people would either live in the homes of others or would reside in public institutions such as schools or hospitals.

 The Schouwburg had been set up and was used for Straf Gevaals (“S Cases”) and for whatever group of random Jews the Nazis chose to keep there until deportation.

 Meanwhile, the death camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor were close to operating at full capacity. The Germans were taking the process of eliminating the Jewish population of Europe to a new level. Once they reached that stage, in July of 1942, the system in which they handled the Jews of Holland was cut and dry. Homes and institutions were raided, and if not emptied out in full, they were left devastated and in shambles. Most of the people picked up in these raids were brought to Westerbork, where they would stay for a short while, days at most, before being transported to the death camps. Those not sent to Westerbork went through Vugt. The majority of the remaining was first processed in the Schouwburg and then went through the same pattern of Auschwitz or Sobibor via Westerbork.

 Even before the mass deportations of July of 1942, the Grune Polizei (“Green Police”), the Nazi police force patrolling Amsterdam, would make regular raids and roundups in Jewish neighborhoods. Many of the Jews who had an understanding of what was taking place went into hiding before they were forced to leave their homes. For many, this was the reason they survived, although, as was the case with everyone who hid, some were more fortunate than others.

 The situation in Amsterdam was worsening from week to week. Thousands of people had already been taken from their homes, and it was becoming more and more clear that this was going to get a lot worse before it got better.

 Most of the people being seized from their homes at this point were individuals. Families and couples appeared to be spared for a large part, but it was a tenuous situation at best, and the future had a very ominous feel to it.

 One day early in 1942, Nardus was approached by one of his good friends, Sam Abram. Sam lived close to Nardus, and they had attended Yeshiva together, frequented the same gatherings, and knew and liked each other very much. Sam had a younger sister, Nettie, and he was concerned that this young, attractive, single woman would be in danger of being sent to one of the camps. And his fears were justified. Many of the women in the neighborhood had disappeared, and with the incidents of brutality leaking out, no one wanted to spend too much time imagining what this meant. They just knew that is wasn’t good. So Sam asked Nardus if he had a way to help Nettie stay out of the camps and remain in Amsterdam.

 There was really only one way Nardus could help her: He had toMore


Esnoga-Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam

The Esnoga, the famous Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, holding a service for survivors of the Holocaust on May 9, 1945.