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Jewish Amsterdam – the old and new

The Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam. ALL PHOTOS BY NANCY WIGSTON

Today’s Amsterdam beckons visitors with a plethora of Jewish historical sights, old and new. In the Jodenbuurt (Jewish district), in the eastern part of the city, a new Holocaust Museum opened in May.

Other projects, including a memorial designed by Daniel Liebeskind, are slated for completion in the next few years. On a sunny September day, we were greeted at the Holocaust Museum in the Plantages, a green, leafy neighbourhood, by Sauci Bosner, a former New Yorker, who offers us her “Twelve Minute” tour, a title that soon resonates with meaning.

“It’s of absolute importance to memorialize and honour the children who were hidden here,” she begins. “This building was a teacher-training college, and next door was a Jewish synagogue. It was looted in 1939 to 1940, and made into a daycare.”

In terrifying night raids, the occupying German army took away Jewish families, imprisoning them across the street in the Hollandsche Schoumburg, formerly a Jewish theatre (now the Holocaust Memorial Centre), the collection point for deportations.     

Infants and children under 12 were taken to the daycare. Walter Suskind, who Bosner calls “the Oskar Schindler of Holland”, ran the Jewish Council from his office in the former college. “[He was] a Jew who spoke beautiful German, looked elegant, and would keep everyone calm. By 1942 everyone knew about the death camps,” says Bosner.

“Dutch students, mostly non-Jews from Utrecht and Amsterdam, came to Suskind with a plan to save the children.”

From his office he could see the Café Linde and the street, where, every 12 minutes, trams crisscrossed, blocking the view from watching soldiers.

The Café Linde.
The Café Linde.

“I like show and tell,” announces Bosner, lifting a young man’s backpack from his shoulders. “At that 12-minute moment, nurses would exit the daycare, carrying backpacks like this one, laundry bags and such, each containing a child. Crossing the street, they passed their bundles to students waiting in that café or another on the corner. The children were taken to assigned homes in the countryside. The Germans never figured it out. Six hundred and fifty children were saved.”

Suskind – who always had cigarettes for the Nazis – made sure the children’s names went unrecorded. For his apparent friendliness, he was considered a collaborator, a “Nazi Jew.”

Suskind’s heroism is news to most of us (a film about him is for sale in the gift shop). Despite the harsh truth – 104,000 Dutch Jews killed by Nazis – this story and the way Bosner presents it casts a brief, buoyant spell. Her dry observation  – after the war “everybody” claimed to have been in the resistance – brings us back to reality.

Tough questions about what most people actually did during the occupation are addressed in the Dutch Resistance Museum, near the Artis Royal Zoo (where dozens of Jews hid above caged animals). “Nazi Germany has just occupied the Netherlands. What do you do? Adapt, collaborate, resist.” Each choice is explored as we walk what appear to be dark wartime streets. At one stop we approach a massive wooden door, seeking help. We press doorbells, and voices respond, most saying, “It’s not my affair.”

Yet even in this densely populated metropolis, by war’s end, 300,000 were in hiding – Jews, former Dutch soldiers, workers refusing forced labour in Germany. Thirteen hundred illegal newspapers were being printed. Twenty thousand resistance workers were arrested, 6,000 were killed, 2,000 died in prison. Interestingly, the Resistance Museum was the longtime home of a Jewish choral society and synagogue; a Magen David graces its exterior.


Across the street from the Holocaust museum, we find the Hollandsche Shoumbourg, where old Jewish theatre walls remain in the garden, along with a moving memorial to the dead, an eternal light, a wall of names, and tulips carrying messages. Inside the building, we gaze at heartrending wartime photographs.

A happy couple gets married; they and their guests are wearing Jewish stars. A girl waves cheerfully to her friend; the waving girl will soon be killed. A woman writes a letter about how “admirably” people are behaving in the face of tragedy, concluding, “if you do not see us again, think back on us with the love you felt as children. Goodbye to all six of you.”

One day of touring the Jewish Cultural Quarter (which got its name in 2012), is followed by a second, then a third. At the magnificent Jewish Historical Museum, created from four synagogues, we absorb  a showcase of history, from the 1590 arrival of Sephardim fleeing Spain – soon followed by Ashkenazim and Jews from Poland – to the flowering of Jewish artistic, philosophical, and political life over 3 1/2 centuries. The light and airy space dazzles us with both holy and secular objects.

From Baruch Spinoza to Charlotte Salomon, from Golden Age paintings to 20th- century cabaret posters, the richness of Jewish life and energy is everywhere. Downstairs in the museum’s kosher restaurant, we enjoy sandwiches, tea, and plum cake. Exiting, we spy the Children’s Museum, a bright and humour-filled space, where kids can create their own works of art – there is even a collection of Amy Winehouse paper dolls – while pondering such questions as “What does it mean to be Jewish?” On a round mirror is written the ironic comment, “But you don’t look Jewish at all” (in English and in Dutch). Gazing in the mirror, we try to determine exactly what that means, if anything.

Crossing the road to the 1675 Portuguese Synagogue, we admire its 17th-century grace, its timeless serenity. The oldest functioning Jewish library in the world is in this complex, as well as a treasure chamber of objects made of silks, brocades, and precious metals. Outside, the Dockworker statue  (people have left flowers at its base)  commemorates the workers’ strike of February 1941, protesting Nazi treatment of Dutch Jews.

During the terrible war years, most of Amsterdam’s Jews were either killed or forced into hiding. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank began her great testament, her diary, while in hiding.  Over one million people a year visit the Anne Frank House and her hopeful message (“I believe, despite everything, that people are really good at heart”) continues to inspire people the world over.

And everyday, it seems, there is more of Jewish Amsterdam to see. A boat tour operator tells us how moved he was by Jewish name plaques on a canal. It took us some time – every street in this city seems to be curved – but finding the Shadow Canal Monument proved a moving way to bid farewell to Jewish Amsterdam. Horrors descended here, where life today seems so serene, yet the stark truth lies in the names of the 200, from toddlers to septuagenarians, whose houses once faced this quiet canal. Impossible to phrase it better than in the words gracing another monument, marking a former home for Jewish orphans: the inscription reads, “No one returned. May their memory be blessed.”

 The Shadow Canal Monument.
The Shadow Canal Monument.

If You Go – The “I Amsterdam” city card (iamsterdam.com) allows instant access to 44 attractions (including the JCQ), free public transport, a canal boat ride and much more. One 15-Euro ticket (for adults) ensures entry to major sites in the Jewish Cultural Quarter  (www.jhm.nl)  for 30 days. The map of the JCQ is invaluable.

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