Visit the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

This blog address contains a report and photographs from my 9-day visit to The Netherlands in October 2018 for short spells at Naarden in North Holland’s Gooi region, and at Eibergen in the Achterhoek area on The Netherlands’ eastern border.

I hope you enjoy reading it. I suggest that you start by scrolling to the bottom for the blogpost about old town Naarden, and then read upwards from there, in chronological order.


Early this afternoon, my relatives took me to the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) at Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1 in Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter comprising an area less than 1km2. This area is now a cultural precinct.

This Museum is the largest and most important museum in The Netherlands to focus on Jewish history, religion and culture. It is housed within a group of former Ashkenazi synagogues.

The permanent exhibition covers expected themes – the role of religion and tradition, the links with Israel, the persecution of Jews during the WW2, personal life stories and the mutual influence of Jewish and Dutch culture. There are also two temporary exhibitions on display at any point in time.

We visited the Geschiedenis 1600–1900 (History 1600–1900) galleries and the Geschiedenis 1900–heden (History 1900–present) galleries. Here is a reproduction of the Museum’s interpretive notes at the exhibits on display:

“In the 17th century, the Republic of the United Netherlands – roughly The Netherlands as it is today – became the centre of world trade. Amsterdam developed into a busy transit port where all manner of raw materials and commodities changed hands. Merchants from every continent were greeted warmly, and trading companies sailed their fleets all over the world. Amsterdam had truly become an international city.

The combination of economic success and a relatively tolerant religious environment – unique in Europe [at that time] – made the city attractive to foreigners. This drew not only French and German Protestants to Amsterdam, but also Portuguese ‘New Christians’. They were descendants of Jewish families in Spain and Portugal, who had been forced to abandon their religion under Catholic rule. Jews who had always remained Jewish came to the Republic [of the Netherlands] from the German states and Poland.

Jews had already lived in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages, but they fled due to anti-Jewish actions and persecution. From the early 17th century onwards, Jews were able to practise their religion here [in the Netherlands] in relative freedom, without having to wear distinguishing marks or live in ghettos. This was a new start.

Around 1600 the first New Christians arrived in Amsterdam: merchants who spoke and wrote in Portuguese or Spanish and barely knew any Hebrew. Their ancestors had converted to Christianity at the end of the 15th century, usually under duress. Other immigrants, Jews from Italy, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), made their way here too, some of them descendants from families who had once been expelled from Spain. We now refer to both these groups as Sephardi Jews, after the Hebrew [term] for Spain, Sepharad.

Ashkenazi Jews moved to Amsterdam from the German states, Central Europe and Poland. Ashkenaz was the Hebrew term for the German Rhineland and Northern France. This group had always continued to practise Judaism: they spoke Yiddish (a language that mixes elements of German, Hebrew and local languages) and used Hebrew for prayers and the study of religious texts.

After they arrived in Amsterdam, all these immigrants stayed in close contact with relatives and members of the religious community elsewhere in the world, who in many cases came to join them in this thriving international city.

At the start of the 18th century, Amsterdam had developed into the biggest and most important Jewish city in the world. Despite the declining economy in the Republic, more Jewish immigrants continued to pour in, especially from the German states and Central Europe.

Jewish scholars came to this metropolis from all over the world to have their work published in Amsterdam, the unrivalled centre of Jewish and Yiddish book printing. Renowned rabbis from many countries were all too eager to lead the local Jewish congregations.

Non-Jewish travellers could hardly believe their eyes in Amsterdam. They were deeply impressed by the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue (1671) – the building we are in now – and even more so by the imposing Portuguese Synagogue (1675) opposite. There was no other city in the world where synagogues of this size existed, and which were also clearly recognizable to everyone passing by; they were considered to be the symbols of the liberties enjoyed by the Jews here [in Amsterdam].

In the 18th century, Jews increasingly became part of local society. Jewish pedlars and kosher butchers settled in a growing number of small towns and villages. The pedlars hawked their merchandise and became a familiar sight at markets and fairs. But there were still places where Jews could not settle or trade certain goods.

The arrival of large numbers of Askhenazi migrants to the Republic in the 18th century gave rise to a distinction between ‘our’ Jews – those who had lived here for a longer time – and the newcomers. These foreigners, who had no permanent abode, were usually rejected by the local governors.

The lifestyles of the Askhenazi and Sephardi elites were comparable to those of the non-Jewish upper classes. They maintained good relationships with the House of Orange, leading most Jews to feel more affinity for the ‘Orangists’. At the same time, in a society that became increasingly divided, some Jews also sympathised with the other side, the revolutionary ‘Patriots’.

In 1795, the French revolutionary army conquered the Republic. Following the example set by the French, the ‘Batavian Republic’ was founded on the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ … After the political emancipation of 1796, Jews were recognised as citizens of the Batavian Republic and from 1815 as citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They were now subject to the same laws and enjoyed the same rights as other citizens. The one thing that still set them apart from their non-Jewish neighbours in the eyes of the Dutch government was their religion.

This same government determined that the Jewish religion had to organise itself formally, after the example of the protestant churches. The ‘Israelite Religious Community’ now had a supreme committee, Chief Rabbis in all provinces and government-supervised Jewish education.

Because of this new organisation structure, the traditional Jewish leaders lost a great deal of their power and influence. But as Dutch citizens, every Jew could now actively participate in society, in or outside of their ‘own’ community. New opportunities appeared on the horizon.

In the course of the 19th century the Dutch Jews were transformed from tolerated outsiders into fellow countrymen. The upper classes and a handful of forward-looking people seized at an early stage the opportunities offered by the legal emancipation and soon forged ahead in science and politics. Several Jewish painters were very successful in the art world.

The majority of the Jewish population experienced only slow improvements in terms of income and living conditions. Family trades were not easily relinquished and the old prejudices held by the non-Jewish population persisted, as did poverty.

Despite their economic differences, the vast majority of Jews eventually integrated into society successfully. Dutch replaced Yiddish at home and in school, and Jews of every station in life felt deep affection for their country and the Royal Family. On the brink of the 20th century, most Jews living in the Netherlands considered themselves to be proud and full Dutch citizens.

There was Amsterdam and there was ‘outside’. Before the Second World War, two-thirds of all Dutch Jews lived in Amsterdam. The city was the centre of their universe. Other Jewish communities in the Netherlands were referred to as the Mediene.

Around 1900, the Netherlands had 176 Jewish communities of varying size: The Hague and Rotterdam each had more than 10,000 Jewish townspeople, while some rural Jewish communities consisted of only a dozen families. The industrialization that took place at the end of the nineteenth century prompted many rural Jews to move to the city in search of employment. By 1940 only 139 Jewish communities remained.

Jewish people from the provinces tended to be shopkeepers, travelling salesmen, butchers and livestock traders. A few major Jewish companies were based outside Amsterdam, especially in the textiles and food industries. These had grown from retail stores and local industries in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many Jews develop loose ties with their religion. The rise of liberalism, Zionism and above all socialism, provided alternatives to the Jewish religion. The government and the workers’ movement took over many aspects of social care, making the large group of Jewish poor less dependent on the charity of the Jewish community.

Even so, many Jews held firm to certain religious customs and traditions and confined their social life to their own community. Even non-religious Jews celebrated the beginning of Shabbat on Friday evening with a festive meal and treats. Most Jews continued to observe Yom Kippur. And religious or not, all Jewish men and women considered it important to be buried at a Jewish cemetery.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Dutch society was divided into four ‘pillars’: Catholic, Protestant, socialist and liberal (the latter, in the Dutch context, being primarily concerned with economic liberalism). Each of these pillars consisted of a tightly-knit network of political, economic, social, cultural and religious or ideological organizations. Outside politics, there was little interaction between the pillars. People lived out their lives, from the cradle to the grave, in their own circle.

There was no Jewish pillar in the sense of political parties or radio broadcasting companies; many Jews belonged to the socialist or liberal pillars. Still, separate Jewish schools, newspapers, institutions and clubs did exist. This was partly a matter of choice: since [Jews] wanted care to be attuned to their background, they founded Jewish orphanages and hospitals. On the other hand, the increased pillarization meant that Jews had no option but to set up their own organizations: they could not join Catholic or protestant ones.

On 10 May 1940 German troops marched into the Netherlands. In the autumn, the occupying forces enacted the first measures designed to isolate the Jews from the rest of the population. In 1941 the German authorities ordered that a Jewish Council be set up. Through this organization they maintained contact with the Jewish community and disseminated all the anti-Semitic measures.

By providing it with a measure of autonomy, [the Germans] gave the Jewish Council the impression that it could influence events. The joint chairmen of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council, David Cohen and Abraham Asscher, hoped that their cooperation might help to prevent the situation from deteriorating still further. After the war Asscher and Cohen were fiercely criticized for their role in the Jewish Council and accused of helping the Nazis. The city of Rotterdam also had its own Jewish Council, as did every province. All these councils were subordinate to the one in Amsterdam. In some towns – Enschede for instance – they put up a stronger resistance than in Amsterdam, saving hundreds of Jews from deportation.

Westerbork transit camp, in the province of Drenthe, was set up by the Jewish community in 1939 by order of the Dutch Government, to take in Jewish refugees from Germany. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, more than seven hundred Jews were living in the camp. Westerbork initially remained under the authority of the Dutch. After the Nazis adopted the plan of exterminating all Jews (the ‘Final Solution’) at the beginning of 1942, the former refugee camp was converted into a Judendurchgangslager (a transit camp for Jews) under the German command.

The Jews were transported by train from Westerbork to the death camps in Eastern Europe. Between July 1942 and September 1944 a train left Westerbork every week, generally bound for Auschwitz or Sobibor, sometimes for Bergen-Belsen or Theresienstadt. Almost 107,000 Jews, 245 Roma and Sinti, and a number of resistance fighters went to their deaths in this way. At first sight, everyday life in Westerbork seemed fairly tolerable. The place was partly run by designated Jewish leaders. Internees had access to health care, education and sport, and once a week there was a cabaret. All this was intended to keep the people calm to prevent rioting. But when Tuesday came around there was always the dread of the train, the transports to the east.

Some 25,000 Jews went into hiding during the Second World War. About 18,000 of them survived the war; the rest were discovered [by] or betrayed to the Germans. Those in hiding often received help from non-Jewish acquaintances. Later on, resistance organizations set up a system: besides hiding places, they supplied ration cards and forged identity papers and arranged means of transport.

On average, Jews in hiding had to pay about a hundred guilders a month for these services. Dutch Reformed protestants and communists were particularly active in helping Jews to hide. Those hiding in the provinces had the best chances of survival. In the city there was a greater risk of being given away, and the German and Dutch police were far more active in conducting razzias (hostile raids) to round up Jews. In rural areas, people often had advance warning of razzias. Hiding places ranged from back rooms and converted cupboards to sheds and ditches and carefully concealed holes in the ground. Jewish children were sometimes given new identities and assimilated into non-Jewish foster families.

The Netherlands was liberated in two stages: first the south, in September 1944, and then the north and west, in May 1945. Some 30,000 Jews survived the war, most of them by going into hiding. Only about 5,200 Jews returned from the camps.

Their repatriation to the Netherlands was a laborious process and they met with a cold and bureaucratic reception in their home country. Jews who returned were presented with numerous administrative formalities and scarcely received any support in trying to rebuild their lives. Survivors often had nothing left: their relatives and friends had been murdered and their possessions stolen. The government declined to take any measures to address the specific problems of the Jewish population, arguing that they did not wish to discriminate as the German occupying forces had done. The decades following 1945 witnessed a bitter struggle for redress. There was little interest in or understanding for the plight of survivors among the Dutch population, which was coping with its own poverty and distress.

Of the approximately 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands before the war, a community of about 30,000 remained after 1945. Many of these survivors were traumatized, and all had lost relatives and friends. The support that family life or a circle of friends can provide was largely absent. The survivors had the arduous task of carving out a place for themselves in the dislocated and impoverished society of the Netherlands and of helping to rebuild the country and the Jewish community.

Their traumatic war experiences caused some Jews to turn away from Judaism, whether temporarily or permanently, while others exerted themselves on its behalf. Yet as early as 1945, even before the entire country had been liberated, the Jewish Coordinating Committee for the Southern Netherlands was established, and a start was made on restoring Jewish social and religious life. Jews sought each other out for mutual support and organized activities within their small community: in the synagogue, at sports events such as the maccabiade (Maccabiah Games), and at youth clubs.

Many survivors no longer felt at home in the Netherlands after the Second World War. While those around them were busy tackling the job of restoration and rebuilding the country, Jews were unable to share their experiences with anyone and could not picture their future here. Some Jews lived in fear of a new wave of persecution. They looked with suspicion at Dutch society, from which it had been possible to deport over 100,000 Jews without the state offering them any protection.

So emigration was a possibility that many Jews considered. According to official statistics, 4,450 Jews left the Netherlands between 1946 and 1953, but the numbers were probably higher. After the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, this seemed the ideal place to go: 1,200 Dutch Jews made their homes in this new country. Another 1,400 settled in the United States, and the rest went to Canada or Australia. Between 1950 and 1986, a total of 9,800 Dutch Jews emigrated to Israel. Not only people left the country: the entire interior of the synagogue in Leeuwarden, for instance, was shipped to Israel in 1965.

In the decades that followed the Second World War, many Jews were convinced that there was no future for their people in the Netherlands. Jewish life would never be as it had been before the war. Many Jewish communities vanished, especially in the provinces. Jews in Amsterdam moved to the newly built districts of Buitenveldert and Amstelveen.

Despite this pessimism about the future, Jewish life in the Netherlands was rebuilt. The old religious and social structures were for the most part restored. The three associations of Jewish religious communities – Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Liberal – became active again. Jewish organisations were re-established, such as a hospital, homes for the elderly and a psychiatric clinic. Joods Maatshappelijk Werk (a new organisation for Jewish social work) rose to prominence. Over time, there was growing acknowledgement of the events of the war and their painful impact. That impact was not limited to the generation that had experienced those events first hand. In 1973, an Act of Parliament granted financial support to the victims of wartime persecution. Dutch Jews became increasingly vocal about issues such as the impending release of the ‘Breda Three’, a group of war criminals, and the plight of the oppressed Jews in Russia. Since the 1970s, the Netherlands has once again a strong, multi-faceted Jewish community. Dutch Jews take renewed pride in their own identity.”

Apart from the rich information in the Museum’s narrative, I took an interest in paintings that were exhibited in the Geschiedenis 1600–1900 (History 1600–1900) galleries. I liked Eduard Alexander Hilverdink’s 1889 painting of Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter and Emanuel de Witte’s 1660 painting of tourists visiting the Portuguese Synagogue.

But I was particularly drawn to J van Hien’s circa 1770-1775 portrait of tobacco merchant and financier Benjamin Cohen (1726-1800), because Cohen has a connection to my family forebears.

Cohen became prominent when he managed his father’s tobacco company into one of the most prosperous and influential firms in The Netherlands. He owned tobacco plantations and exported to the Baltic area. His business acumen led him to large-scale financial operations first in Amersfoort where he lived and from 1786 in Amsterdam. In 1788, his firm contracted to import 40,000 carats of diamonds annually from Brazil. It was then possibly the only Jewish firm in Amsterdam to issue loans, and in 1793 made a loan to the Prussian government of five million guilders and another in 1796 of three million guilders.

Cohen was a deeply committed member of the Orangist faction in Dutch politics and acted as financial adviser to Prince Willem V of Orange. The stadthouder and his wife Wilhelmina of Prussia, their children and staff were given refuge at Cohen’s home at Zuidsingel 38 in Amersfoort in 1787 when riots were occurring in The Hague at the end of the Patriotic revolt. A patron of Jewish letters, Cohen sponsored the publication of Hebrew mathematical and philosophical works. As a parnas (chief administrative officer of a Jewish congregation) in Amsterdam’s Ashkenazi community, he was one of the leading Jews in The Netherlands.

My late father wrote in his 2011 memoir that his great, great, great, great grandfather Abraham Hartog Hirschel – who was born in 1717 in Poland before moving with his family to Amersfoort around 1750 – met Cohen and was hired as Cohen’s household manager. Hirschel held that role in 1787 when Prince Willem V and his family found refuge in Cohen’s home. After the revolt was quelled, Willem’s father became the first King of Holland. As a gesture of appreciation, Willem gave Hirschel an engraved silver ink set. Cohen’s home, known as Huis Cohen or the ‘house with the purple windows’, became the property of the Catholic Church during the mid-19th century. In the 1950s, it was the house of the Dutch Cardinal Johannes de Jong (1885-1955). It now contains a museum in honour of Canadian soldiers that liberated The Netherlands from WW2.

This link between Cohen and my family forebears makes a fitting point at which to end this blog, for tomorrow I return home to Sydney, Australia.

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