Despite the devastations of the Second World War and the aesthetic shortcomings of post-war reconstruction, Amsterdam offers the visitor a Jewish patrimony of extraordinary richness that is concentrated, for the most part, in its memorials. The former Jewish quarter, the Jodenbuurt, is yours to discover along the streets and canals in the southeast of the city. It is easy to imagine the period when the area was home to a population that had grown from several hundred inhabitants at the end of the sixteenth century to some 100000 in 1940. Among the attractions are exceptional museums, synagogues, and period homes of famous residents (Rembrandt, de Pinto) preserved in their original state. Diamond-cutting workshops, guild houses, and religious monuments are also among the numerous traces of 350 years of Jewish presence.
If Amsterdam has brought a lot to the Jews, the reverse also holds true. The city has absorbed many typically Jewish characteristics into its language, cuisine, and sense of humor. Hence, mazel (good luck) and meshuga (crazy) can still be heard in the local dialect; likewise, the Netherlands adopted pickled herrings and onions, sausages and fromage blanc.
The Jewish Historical Museum alone requires nearly a half day. Since 1987, the museum has been the heart of a cultural complex made up f four synagogues active until 1943 and subsequently sold to the municipality in 1955. The museum depicts Jewish customs, the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and Zionism, as well as the way of life of Dutch Sephardim and Ashkenazim in past centuries. In 1943 the collection of the synagogue complex was taken to Offenbach in Germany. Less than 20% of the stolen goods were recovered by the Dutch government after the war. With the aid of glass and metal installations, the displays of these four synagogues recall the massacre of the majority of Amsterdam’s Jewish inhabitants, a tragedy not only for the Jews but for the city as well.
The Grand Synagogue was consecrated in March 1671 by the Ashkenazic community, which had renounced the claims f the false Messiah Sabbataï Zevi. Today display cases containing silver ritual objects occupy the former location of the bimah. The ark of the Covenant, made completely of marble, has been restored, as have the galleries reserved for men and women and the mikvah. Space demands led to the construction of the three other synagogues nearby: Obbene Sjoel (1685), Dritt Sjoel (1700), and the New Synagogue (1752). In addition to religious objects and works of art, the museum also displays documents retracing the history of the two Jewish communities and the people who influenced them. One such figure gives the square its name: Jonas Daniel Meijer (1780-1834), a lawyer and highly-ranking civil servant who attempted to improve the welfare of underprivileged Jews in Amsterdam.
After your visit to the museum, explore the ancient Jewish quarter as you read what follows, much of which has been mentioned in connection with the museum. Note that the Museum organizes guided tour of Jewish Amsterdam.
President of the High Court in 1939, Liuis Ernest Visser actively defended the Jews during the Nazi occupation. After you cross the square that bears his name, Mr. Visserplein, you come upon the Moses and Aaron Catholic Church. The tiny statues that once decorated the facade and gave the church its name are presently found on the back wall. On your left, enter Jodenbreestraat. From the eighteenth century to the Second World War, this street was the principal artery in the Jewish quarter. In 1965, the northern part was destroyed and the street rerouted.
At numbers 4-6 Jodenbreestraat stands the house where the famous painter Rembrandt lived and worked from 1639 until 1658. Although not a Jew, he lived in the Jewish quarter. He occupied the first floor of the house with his first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, who died young, and then with Hendrickje Stoffels, his second wife. Rembrandt created the majority of his paintings in the second floor workshop and gave lessons in the attic. Restored between 1907 and 1911 and decorated with furniture and housewares from the seventeenth century, Rembrandt’s house displays numerous drawings and nearly the entire oeuvre of the artist’s etchings (250 of the 300 that he executed). Among these works are self-portraits, nude studies, beggars, and scenes of domestic life.
The influence of Rembrandt’s Jewish environment is visible in his work. Several wealthy Jews commissioned their portraits from the artist, including Menasseh ben Israel, whose likeness is on display in the museum. The rabbi and author lived for many years across the street from Rembrandt and even commissioned him to illustrate several of his books. Likewise, Rembrandt often asked his neighbours to pose for his biblical scenes. Among this group of images on display are engravings such as The Sacrifice of Abraham (1635), Jacob and Benjamin (1637), The Triumph of Mordecai (1641), Abraham and Isaac (1645), and David and Goliath (1655).
The Rijksmuseum (located in another area of the city) displays many of Rembrandt’s paintings. Besides the famous Nightwatch, a number of significant works from the artist’s Jewish period are to be found here, including The Jewish Bride and The Lamentations of Jeremiah. One also finds at the Rijksmuseum The Portuguese Synagogue by Emmanuel de Witte and The Jewish Wedding by Kosf Israels.
Upon leaving the Rembrandt Museum, cross the Saint Antoniebrug, a small bridge accessing Saint Antoniebreestraat and offering a nice view of Ansterdam. You will notice further down the street the ornately carved wooden belfry of Montelbaan Tower. It is said this is where the first Jews coming from Spain and Portugal disembarked.
The house of the wealthy Portuguese Jew Isaac de Pinto, at 69 Antoniebreestraat, was purchased in 1651 for the considerable sum of 30000 florins. De Pinto had the house remodelled in 1680 following the plans of Elias Bourseman. The cream coloured Italian Renaissance-style facade is undeniably one of the loveliest in the neighbourhood. With six imposing pilasters crowned by a blind balustrade concealing the roof, the facade gave rise to the expression “as rich as de Pinto”. Partly destroyed during the Nazi occupation, the majority of the home’s occupants perished in the Shoah. The building was saved from demolition thanks to a preservation campaign that led to its restoration in 1975 and that, in the end, facilitated the revival of the entire district. Still located in a residential neighbourhood, the building now houses a public library. Be sure to go inside to see the birds and cupids that adorn the original paintings on the ceiling.
Returning across the Saint Antoniebrug and turning right just before the Rembrandt Museum will bring you to the Waterlooplein, where a flee market used to take place every day except Saturday (now it is closed on Sunday). This location has served as the marketplace for the Jewish quarter since 1886. The filling of two canals created this large square in the heart of the Jodenbuurt, which occupies the site of an ancient artificial island between the current city hall and the opera house. Because originally Jews did not have the right to own retail businesses, they bought and sol goods in the streets. Much less picturesque today than in the past, the market now attracts primarily people selling used clothes, African batiks, and Indonesian jewelry.
Continuing straight ahead, with the canal on your right-hand side, you will come to a black marble memorial erected in 1988 that commemorates the Jewish resistance during the Second World War.
Turn to your left and follow the Amstel River for 656 ft. Just before the Blauwburg bridge, a glance to the left reveals the outline of a house in front of the Muziektheater. Before World War II, this house was an ashkenazic orphanage for boys established by Megadlei Yetomim in 1738. In March of 1943 the children living in the orphanage were deported to the Sobibor concentration camp.
Cross the street at this point and continue along the river to your right. Turn to the left just before the wooden bridge (Walter Süsskindbrug) to reach Nieuwe Herengracht Street. During the war Walter Süsskind made use of his position as a member of the Jewish Council and saved many Jewish children from deportation. A plaque on the other side of the bridge commemorates Süsskind’s courage.
Walk to the end of Nieuwe Herengracht, inhabited since the nineteenth century by wealthy Jews. Turn to the right and cross the Vaz Diasbrug bridge, which commemorates a Jewish journalist of Portuguese origin. You should now be on Weesperstraat. Some 150 ft ahead there is a small square with a monument to the memory of “those who protected Dutch Jews during the years of occupation”. The memorial, created by the sculptor J. Wertheim, was erected in 1947.
Turning right at the following bridge brings you to Nieuwe Keizersgracht. During the war the Jews named the waterway “the new martyrs’ canal”, since at the time 58 Nieuwe Keizersgracht housed the Jewish Council. As in other occupied countries, highly placed Jews who accepted a role in this organisation imposed by the Nazis believed that their participation would slow the process of the realisation of the Final Solution. Unfortunately, this was rarely the case.
Return to Weesperstraat, turn right, follow this street to Nieuwe Kerkstraat, and turn left. At one time inhabited by Portuguese Jews, Nieuwe Kerkstraat was also known as “Jewish Churchstreet”. Number 127 Nieuwe Kerkstraat, now occupied by a wine and soft drink company, was once the morgue (Metaarhuis) attached to the hospital on Nieuwe Keizersgracht.Bodies were washed and prepared there following Jewish rituals. It was said at the time, “One enters by the Keizersgracht and leaves by the Kerkstraat”. A little further down the street, at number 149, is a synagogue founded by Russian Jews, the Russian shul. On the facade of the building you can make out a round , stained-glass window with a Star of David. Just beside this building is the Sailors’ Synagogue, no doubt so named because of the considerable number of Dutch Jews who had work at sea during the economic recession at the end of the eighteenth century.
Cross the bridge at the end of the Nieuwe Kerkstraat (on the left), which will bring you to the Lau Marzirelburg bridge, named after a lawyer who opposed the registration of Jews during the war and participated in an attack on the offices where the records containing the names of Jews were held.
You now enter the Plantage quarter, which was a detention area outside the city limits. Cafés, tearooms, and theatres proliferated in this area that was home to numerous wealthy Jews. In 1924, nearly half of the inhabitants of the quarter were Jewish.
Walk down Plantage Kerklaan until you come to the traffic light and turn left into the Plantage Middenlaan. Immediately to your left is the former Dutch Theatre, one of the most important memorials consecrated to the victims of the Second World War in Holland.
The Dutch Theatre (Hollandsche Schouwburg), which before the war produced such renowned Dutch actors as Esther de Boer van Rijk, Louis de Vries and his troupe, was requisitioned in 1942 by the Germans. The Jews were detained here before they were taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then transferred to concentration camps. Since 1962 this building has served as a memorial. Engraved here are the names of 7600 families whose relatives are among the 104000 Jews who never returned from the concentration camps. Inside the memorial, documents, photographs and films testify to the gradual isolation of the Jews during the occupation. Policies of discrimination were adopted slowly in an attempt to “gently” lead the Dutch toward considering the Jews as different beings. Such measures went from forbidding Jews to ride bicycles (a typically Dutch means of conveyance) or go fishing to prohibiting them from entering any public space. The Dutch were forced to declare they were pure Aryan, and when such was not the case, were fired from their jobs and forced to send their children to Jewish schools. The first deportations occurred in May 1942 and were masked are departures for “work camps” in eastern Europe. The Jews who has acquiesced to Nazi-enforced registration were summoned alphabetically and assembled in the Dutch Theatre. The Germans also raided areas with a high concentration of Jews in order to round up other members if the community. In the span of a year, more than 60000 Jews were held in this theatre, whose seats has been removed to accommodate them. That, at the beginning of the occupation, the theatre has been reserved for a Jewish public who came to watch Jewish actors forbidden to act on any other stage reveals a tragic irony.
As you exit the theatre, head back toward the traffic light and turn left onto Plantage Kerklaan. The building at number 36 was the location of the city’s population records during the war. The plaque commemorates the attack on the office of 27 March 1943 by a Resistance group attempting to destroy the records. The attack failed because the files were too thick and well bound to burn rapidly. Twelve members of the group, including several Jews, were captured and executed.
A little further on the same street is one of the oldest zoos in the world, the Artis. For 125 years it has delighted the inhabitants of the quarter, notably on the days of Shabbat, because visitors only had to pay the following day if they did not have a membership card. Continuing to number 61, you will find the decorative facade of Plancius, a building dating from 1876 that housed groups of musicians and theatre companies. It was established on the initiative of a Jewish choral society, called Oefening Baart Kunst (“from practice art is born”). A Start of David on the pediment recalls the cultural origins of this edifice. At the end of the nineteenth century, when socialism gained popularity among the Jews, the building also functioned as a meeting hall. This was where the great Jewish leader Henri Polak, founder of the diamond workers’ union, spoke. Since 1999, the first floor of the building has housed the Resistance Museum, a must-see attraction in Amsterdam.
The Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) offers a rich permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions. The displays permit the visitor to consciously analyse the choices and dilemmas that Dutch citizens confronted during Nazi occupation. What did the Resistance really do and how ? The exhibition runs the gamut of the era’s history, from telling the stories of strike and and the clandestine circulation of pamphlets and newspapers to all manner of protest actions, from spying to sabotage. Photos on the walls and objects dating from World War II such as bicycles , radio broadcasts, telephones, and a printing press recreate the atmosphere of the period. Authentic letters and films allow the visitor to follow the daily life of those who were sent to the Westerbork camp. Recorded testimonies give voice to the Dutch men and women who helped the Jews hide themselves , but also to those who who didn’t have the courage to do so. A short film from 1942 depicts life inside the Westerbork transit camp and is particularly chilling since it captures how the camp was administrated by the Jews themselves (work, sports, administration). It shows the departures from the camp en route to Auschwitz, with the prisoners enclosed in train cars on which one can read in large letters “Westerbork-Auschwitz”, as it were a train line providing “regular” service. The museums displays some of these macabre train signs.
Retrace your steps now and turn right on Henri Polaklaan. This street bears the name of the founder of the General Union of Dutch Diamond Workers (ANDB). Across from theANDB at number 6-12 is the former Portuguese-Jewish hospital. Today the only distinguishing sign of the building’s previous function is the small pelican that one can see on the facade nourishing her young, a symbol of the Portuguese-Jewish community.
Take a right at the end of Henri Polaklaan, cross Plantage Parklaan, and follow the path on the left to Anne Frankstraat. Cross Nieuwe Henrengracht and turn left onto Rapenburgerstraat. Number 109 Rapenburgerstraat was the location of the beth hamidrash Etz-Haim, an institution founded, according to an inscription on the facade, in 1883 for the study of the Torah. The building today houses the offices of the Dutch Jewish weekly the NIW.
Before the war, the café de Vlooiemarkt at 169-171 Rapenburgerstraat was an orphanage for young girls looked after by the ashkenazic community. Nearby at number 173 there was a synagogue that later became the offices of the chief rabbi of Holland. You will notice the imprint of the mezuzah at the entrance to this former shul.
At 9 Henri Polaklaan (at the end of the street) is the former union hall. It was constructed in 1900 and designed by the famous pioneer of Dutch modern architecture and ardent socialist Hendrik Petrus Berlage. The building is now the home of the National Museum of Trade Unionism. Founded in 1894, the ANDB was the first workers’ union in the modern Nertherlands. In the past, there were associations of diamond workers, but each unit (cutters, polishers, etc.) had been independent and no group numbered more than 200 members; Jews and non Jews belonged to separate organisations. In 1894 a large strike erupted in the diamond industry, and the leaders of the trade unions, Henri Polak and Jan Van Zutphen, won an impressive victory in obtaining a 35 percent salary increase for union members. From that date, a single union came into being that united the various groups of workers. In 1910, the trade union obtained a week of unpaid vacation; two years later it won paid vacation. In 1911, the ANDB was the first trade union in the world to secure an eight-hour workday. After World War II and inscription was engraved on the right side of the hall: “Remember, visitor, the two million of our members who were deported during the occupation, never to return”.
At the end of Rapenburgerstraat cross Mr. Visserplein Square. The Portuguese Synagogue is on the left. When it was completed in 1675 by Elias Bouman, this synagogue was the largest in the world. On the portico, by adding the value of the letters starred in the text of Psalm 5:8, the date 1672 can be deciphered -the date originally set for the building’s completion. One can also make out the word Aboab (formed by the last two wordsof the Psalm), the name of the rabbi who initiated the building’s construction. Inside and out, the synagogue appearance remains almost unchanged since the time of Spinoza, who lived nearby. The edifice rests in submerged pylons that are regularly checked by boat to verify the level of the water. The surrounding buildings -the secretariat, the archives, the living quarters of the administrators, the office of the rabbi, the morgue, and the world-renowed library Etz-Haim- shelter the the synagogue from the element in winter.
Inspired by the plan of the Temple of Jerusalem, this enormous brick building was miraculously spared from damage by the Nazis and bombing during the war. The eight wooden ceiling vaults of the synagogue’s interior are supported by four monumental ionic columns and illuminated by seventy-two windows. For important ceremonies, 1000 candles in copper chandeliers bring the flickering light to the cavernous space. The ark with its gilt leather interior occupied the southeast corner and is oriented toward Jerusalem, while the Tevah faces it. One can contemplate the monumental heikhal here, as well as a volume of the Holy History by Menasseh ben Israel and illustrated by Rembrandt. One of the Scrolls of the Law was brought here from Emden, Germany, by the Jewish printer Uri Halevi Pheobus in 1602. The synagogue furniture dates from 1639.
A video tells the story of the synagogue and that of the three Sephardic communities of the Netherlands, each of which had its own synagogue before uniting in the Talmud Torah in 1639. Today there are no more than 600 Jews of Sephardic origin living in the Netherlands. A handful still attend services at this synagogue on important religious holidays, but the majority live outside the city center (as do most Ashkenazic Jews).
At the exit of the Portuguese Synagogue on Jonas Daniel Meijerplein is the statue of a robust dockworker. It commemorates the strike led by Amsterdam port workers in February 1941 to oppose the anti-Jewish measures of the Germans. Without equal in the rest of the world, this protest was harshly suppressed by the occupying forces. Every year on 25 February, a memorial service takes place here in honor of the strikers.
Cross Mr. Visserplein Square and once again take Jodenbreestraat. From Jodenbreestraat, turn right onto Uilenburgersteeg and walk until you come to Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat. In an immense brick building at 173-75 Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat is the superb diamond-cutting workshop of Samuel Gassan. The building dates to 1879, at which time the workshop was the largest producer of diamonds in Europe. In 1812 the patriarch of the family, Marcus Abraham Boas, lived on the Rapenburgerstraat and sold used clothing. His son, Juda Boas, became a cobbler and had seven children. Three of Juda Boas’ children went into business together to establish the workshop after having studied the diamond business in Paris. During the war, the Nazis requisitioned the building, forcing Marcus Boas and his family to fle to the United States just in time to escape persecution. Bertha Boas left with her son for England, while Bernard emigrated to Switzerland. Martha, Julius, and Elisabeth Boas died in concentration camps.
Having learned the diamond-cutting trade as a worker in the Boas factory, in october 1945, Samuel Gassan founded Gassan Diamonds. Today the company is run by two of Gassan’s grandsons. It includes several factories in Amsterdam and has numerous salesrooms all over the world. The four-story building you see before you has large windows that permitted the workers to labor using daylight alone, as did the students of the diamond-cutting school, who were housed in the same building. The back of the building faces a canal, making it easy for the tour boats, which makes the workshop one of the stops on their itinerary, to access the building directly. Inside you can see how craftsmen cut and polish the diamonds, learn to recognise the various types and grades of stones, and even buy diamonds that can be set and certified within the hour at factory prices.
Before heading back to the Waterlooplein subway station of walking the short distance to the city centre on foot, be sure to notice the lovely facade of the former synagogue of Uilenburg built in 1724 (on the same side of the street as the Gassan workshop, at number 91). If the metal grille of the door is open, you can enter the sanctuary to admire its completely restored interior.
The Anne Frank House is not in the Jewish quarter but in Jordaan, in northwest Amsterdam not far from Centraal Station. Anne Frank and her family hid in this house from July 1942 until August 1944, when they were discovered and taken away by the Nazis. After the invasion of the German army in May 1940, Otto Frank had the back of his office altered to accommodate a secret annex where his family and Jewish employees (a total of eight people) could live hidden away. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank recorded the details of life in the annex until the day of the group’s discovery. In the ensuing search and seizure, the journal was dropped, its page left scattered about as the Germans looted the house and deported its inhabitants. Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, while the rest of the family was sent to Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived concentration camps. Upon his return to Amsterdam, his assistant gave him the journal written by his daughter Anne.
The visit to the museum begins on the third floor with a video and then leads you to the annex, which was hidden behind a door disguised as a bookshelf. In the various empty rooms, one can still see the map of Normandy on the wall that was used to chart the Allies advance, the pencil lines marking the childrens’ growth, and the magazine clippings of movie stars Anne has pasted to her bedroom wall for decoration.
In 2019, the museum welcomed more than 1,2 million visitors. Proceeds from the tickets sale are used to finance various projects about racism.