The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is located in the midst of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, near the Portuguese Synagogue. This is the historical Jewish quarter; I gather that most of Amsterdam’s Jews live in other parts of the city today.

Here's the wheelchair entrance. Yes, the woman on the scooter is me.
Here’s the wheelchair entrance. 

Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.

The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.

The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)

The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.

There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.

What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.

It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.

I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Whenever Linda or I told anyone we were going to Amsterdam, the first question was usually, “Are you going to get stoned?” (No.) The second question was, “Are you going to the Anne Frank House?”

The Anne Frank Huis (its Dutch name) is the third largest tourist attraction in the city, after the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It is the building where eight Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during WWII, only to be ratted out by an unknown person near the end of the war. Only one of the eight survived, Otto Frank. After the Nazi raid on the house, a friend found a collection of books and papers that she recognized to be the diary of Anne Frank, Otto’s teenaged daughter. The Diary of a Young Girl became a bestseller, a play, and has been made into a movie as well.

To get a sense of the popularity of this museum, look at the photo above. This is the line of people waiting to buy a ticket early on a weekday morning. We’d been told it was best to get tickets online before we even left home, but there were already no tickets available for the dates when we’d be there. At our hotel, we were assured that the best thing to do was get over there and wait in line before the doors opened.

I had visited the “Secret Annexe” in the summer of 1973, and I knew that it was not accessible for a person on wheels. A quick check of the website told me that that was still the case. So that day we split up: Linda went to visit the Anne Frank House and I had other adventures. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the line in the photograph above. I don’t know how long those people had been waiting, but it was a long line even so early.

Linda tells me that the museum and the hiding place itself were very educational and very moving. Certainly the hiding place had made a huge impression on me when I visited there at age 18. Anne’s diary comes to life there, when the reader can feel how cramped the rooms are, and how careful one must be to be utterly quiet when anyone else in on the premises. As an American kid used to moving about at will, I remember marveling that the eight people hiding there for over two years managed to hang onto their sanity. It is unbearably sad to know that they went to the camps, after all they’d been through, so near to the liberation of Holland.

If you wish to get a sense of the Anne Frank House, the museum website has an excellent online exhibit complete with a virtual tour.  I know that Linda’s glad she went; I’m glad I saw it when I could climb all those stairs.

The Jews of Amsterdam

So, as you may have gathered from the First Ever Coffee Shop Rabbi Identification Contest, I just got home from Amsterdam. Linda and I promised each other 10 years ago that we’d return to the city “someday” and I am so glad that we did. The previous visit was rushed and we knew we’d missed a lot.

I have been about to burst with the new ideas and posts the trip inspired, because I’d promised (1) I would not sit at the computer on the trip and (2) I didn’t want social media to advertise that we were away from home. All the posts you’ve seen lately were prepared ahead of time and scheduled using the WordPress software, and I’d pre-scheduled my Twitter presence using Buffer.

So, the broad strokes: Amsterdam is a city that Linda and I had visited before and loved. Since that time I had learned a lot more about its Jewish history, and had that much more reason to love it, so I went armed with better information for a Jewish traveler. The only disappointment was that we were not able to attend services with the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam. That was poor planning on my part: I misjudged my energy and ability (aka my Green Stamps) and had to spend most of Shabbat quietly resting. Still, there was lots to do and see.

First of all there is the city itself. Amsterdam is fairly young by European standards, founded in the 12th c. when someone had the bright idea of damming the Amstel River. Its Jewish history began at the end of the 15th c. with the arrival of the Jews fleeing oppression in Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were newly independent then and took a very dim view of anything Spanish or Catholic. If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then they were willing to see the exiled Jews of Spain as possible friends. The ruling House of Orange welcomed them cautiously and put the Jews under its protection. This was a profitable move, since these Jews were skilled in finance and trade and would play a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age of trade and commerce.

Ashkenazi Jews arrived in great numbers fleeing the pogroms of the Chmielnicki Uprising that began in 1648 in Ukraine. These Jews were distinct from the Sephardic population not only in ethnicity but also economically: they were nearly all quite poor upon arrival. By 1700 there were enough Jews in Amsterdam that there was a Jewish Quarter with an entire complex of synagogues appealing to various flavors of Jews. These communities flourished first as guests of the House of Orange and then later, with Emancipation, as citizens of the Netherlands.

At the time the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 75,000 Jews in the city of Amsterdam. About 10,000 of those were Jews who followed the time-honored custom of seeking refuge in the city, including the German family of Anne Frank. Sadly, this was one time when the city offered no real protection to Jews. By the end of the war, 80% of the prewar Dutch Jewish population had been murdered.

Today Amsterdam is again home to vibrant communities of Jews, although they are much changed by the war and developments since. The Progressive Synagogue has 1700 Jewish households, the Portuguese Synagogue 270 families, and the Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue (Beit HaChidush) 200 member families. Largest of all is the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, an aggregation of several Ashkenazi synagogues ranging from Modern Orthodox to Haredi under the name Nederlands-Israëlietische Hoofdsynagoge or NIHS, which boasts 1,700 affiliate households.

That’s an outline of the rich history of Jews in the city. Check back here over the next few weeks, when I’ll have more posts inspired by the Jews of Amsterdam.