Long ago, when I was 12 years old, the war in Europe had just come to an end. One day, I read a letter to the editor of our local newspaper It was written by a middle-age Christian school-teacher in Amsterdam the Netherlands. In it, she described the horrors of Nazi occupation, of the mistreatment of Dutch Jews, of the heroism of some Dutch citizens and the betrayal of others. I was a child but I replied to her letter. Thus began the correspondence and friendship between me and Klasien Dornbach that lasted for eleven years. We wrote long letters frequently and often she sent me small gifts from Holland.
During the Nazi occupation, it was forbidden to display photographs of Her Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina, in an effort to discourage Dutch patriotism. To do so, the Germans enacted strict punishment against those who violated their law. The Dutch underground and resistance found a way for men to maintain their loyalty and devotion to their Queen. They took small Dutch coins and welded one larger to one smaller coin attached by a short chain link. These were to become cufflinks for Dutchmen to wear in their shirts, for the coins portrayed the Queen’s image and the inscription, “Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands.”
For my thirteenth birthday, Miss Dornbach sent me a pair of those special cufflinks, small pieces of Dutch coins which kept alive the spirit of Dutch patriotism. I have kept those silver cufflinks for 70 years. Once I was offered a large sum of money to part with them. They had no sentimental significance to me as a Jew, but because they were a gift from my Dutch friend I kept them.
Holland had a special interest for me. It was a country which had always practiced tolerance. Jews were welcomed into the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century following their expulsion from Catholic Spain and Portugal. In Amsterdam they created a vibrant life, these Sephardic Jews. They engaged in commerce and international trade, were active shareholders in the Dutch East India Company, and their connections with Jews in other lands made them an asset to Dutch business.
The Dutch Rabbi Manasseh Ben-Israel had convinced Britain’s Oliver Cromwell to cancel the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from England in the 13th century and Dutch Jews were able to establish trade with English Jews. Holland and England were the two maritime powers of Europe and Holland became enriched through Jewish traders.
Jews were welcomed and tolerated in the Dutch kingdom. Rembrandt van Rijn often used Jews as models for his portraits and he lived among them in the Jewish district of Amsterdam called the Joodenbreestraat, the broad street of the Jews.
On August 2, 1675, the great Spanish-Portugese Synagogue was dedicated by the Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. He had been born in Portugal to a Marrano family who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Upon his arrival in Holland, he reverted to his Jewish faith and became a widely known Jewish scholar. He served as Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community from 1656 until his death in 1693.
It was Rabbi Aboab who officiated at the excommunication of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Benedictus (Baruch) Spinoza in 1656. From the 15th to the late 19th century, all Dutch Jews were descendants of Spanish and Portugese Sephardim. Their language was Judeo-Spanish and Portugese.
Ashkenazi Jews, mainly from Germany, did not settle in Holland until the 19th century. And Yiddish was spoken only by few non-Dutch immigrants. The Sephardic Jews, all who bore Spanish and Portugese family names, prospered in commerce, banking and in the diamond trade.
In 1675, the first Jewish newspaper in the world was printed in Amsterdam in Judeo-Spanish, the weekly Gazeta De Amsterdam. In 1975, the Dutch Jewish weekly Nieuw Israelitisch Weekblad, first published on August 4, 1865, issued a copy of the Gazeta De Amsterdam from its initial publication in 1675, to celebrate 300 years of Jewish newspaper publication in Holland. The NIW has been continually published in Amsterdam for 151 years.
Interestingly, the Dutch national anthem, the “Wilhelmus” is the oldest national anthem in the world, first written and sung in 1574.
In 1951, I placed a telephone call from Israel to Holland to speak with Klasien Dornbach for the first time. The connection between Israel and Holland took six hours. I informed my Dutch pen-pal that I would be arriving in Paris within one week and hoped for the opportunity of traveling to Holland to meet her. Both of us were excited by the prospect of my visit.
From Paris, I took the train by way of Belgium to Holland. At the Amsterdam terminal, Klasien Dornbach was waiting for me on the platform . We recognized one another from photos we had exchanged over many years. We embraced one another and she took me by a commuter train to her home in the neighboring city of Haarlem. After coffee and biscuits we began a tour of Amsterdam.
There were few automobiles on Dutch roads in those years. Millions of Dutch people travel and commute by bicycle. The main Amsterdam train station has parking racks for 5,000 bicycles. We toured the canals by boat, took the ferry to the island communities of Maarken and Volendam where the Dutch still dress in traditional costume. Everyone wears klompen, the famous Dutch wooden shoes. Men wear wide pantaloons in brown or black and caps on their heads. Women and girls wore flowered aprons and white winged bonnets tied under the chin.
We visited Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum where the treasures of Rembrandt and other Dutch painters hang from the walls. We walked endlessly upon the bridges over the grachten (canals) which connect one part of Amsterdam to another. Amsterdam is referred to as the Venice of the North
Everywhere there were stalls selling pickled eels and raw herring which the Dutch swallow with gusto. In the main square, the Damrak, stands the royal palace. When the Dutch flag is flying, it symbolizes that the Queen is in residence. On that day, the flag was not flying.
The Dutch have a proud and popular saying about their country: “Holland is klein maar rein en fijn”… Holland is small but clean and lovely.
Holland’s monarchy is a fascinating one. The last king of Holland, Willem III, reigned from 1849 to 1890. From that time until now, there has been no male heir to the Dutch throne. After the abdication of Queen Beatrix, her son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, became the first king of Holland since 1890.
Following Willem III’s death in 1890, he was replaced on the throne by his 10 year old daughter, Wilhelmina, while her mother Queen Emma served as Regent until 1898. Queen Wilhelmina is regarded by the Dutch people as their most beloved monarch . She was often seen walking on the streets of Amsterdam and shopping at De Bijenkorf department store, Holland’s version of Macy’s which had been Jewish-owned prior to the war.
People greeted her lovingly, and she shook hands and spoke with her subjects pleasantly. There were no security guards and no ceremonious pomp such as with the British monarchy.. The Queen was simply one of her people. She reigned from 1898 until her death in 1962 at age 82 and was succeeded on the throne by her daughter, Queen Juliana. Juliana’s daughter, Beatrix, was the former Queen of the Netherlands.
Klasien knew of my interest in Jewish Amsterdam and so we visited the Sephardic cemetery whose graves are dated from 1496 and then on to the Snoga, the Spanish-Portugese Jewish synagogue which has been in use from 1675 to the present day.
An interesting point of history…. When the Nazis overran the Netherlands, they wanted to make a stable for their horses in the synagogue. But the Dutch government refused to allow it, on the basis that Spain and Portugal were either neutral or allied with Germany and therefore the synagogue could not be violated as it was considered Spanish and Portugese territory. This clever ruse saved the ancient synagogue and all of its sacred scrolls from desecration and destruction.
The famous synagogue has been conducting regular religious services for 340 years. The prayer-books are written in Hebrew and Portugese and the melodies have been preserved since the arrival of the Sephardic Jews following the Inquisition and expulsion from the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
Several years later, in 1956, I received a letter from Klasien Dornbach’s sister in the northern Friesan city of Groningen, sadly informing me of the tragic death of my dear friend. She was killed by an automobile while riding her bicycle to work in a nearby elementary school. I was able to determine from her sister where Klasien had been buried and directions to the Protestant cemetery. In the Spring of 1956, I took the tramway from the center of Amsterdam to the outskirts of the city, located her grave and placed a bouquet of flowers on it. Eleven years of friendship had tragically ended.
While in Amsterdam, I made my lodgings at 99 Leidesekade, adjacent to the Lido, the city’s famous casino and entertainment hall on the banks of the Leidsegracht canal. To support myself I found temporary employment with the Joodse Gemeente, the Jewish communal headquarters, located at Plantage Parklaan near the city’s zoo. It had been a section of the city where well-to-do Jews had lived before the war.
The director of the educational system, Mr. Goudsmit, offered me a position as onderwijs (teacher) of Hebrew in the elementary section. My knowledge of Dutch at that time was limited. Dutch is a very guttural language, in many ways similar to English and German but in a short time I could say proudly, when asked, “Ja, ik spreek Nederlands ook”, Yes, I speak Dutch also.
Jewish marriages in the Spanish-Portugese Synagogue are usually contracted by the wearing at the ceremony of the Jewish communal wedding ring. Ancient traditions are preserved.
In 1992 I returned to Holland at the invitation of the committee of the Liberal Synagogue to conduct Sabbath services and to instruct adult Jews to read Hebrew. That visit was an eye-opener for me. Always believing in Dutch tolerance, I heard horrific tales about the persecution of Jews during and after the war.
In 1939 the Jewish population of the Netherlands was 154,887. As a result of Nazi occupation, most Dutch Jews were sent to Westerbork concentration camp and from there directly to Auschwitz. I learned that many Dutch had collaborated with the Nazis in locating and rounding up Jews in hiding. The life story of Anne Frank and her family is a prominent example
At the end of the war in 1945, only 14,346 Dutch Jews had survived. 75 percent of all the Jews in Holland had been exterminated. More Dutch Jews were killed proportionately in population to any other European country under Nazi occupation. To make matters worse, when the few survivors struggled to return, they found their homes were occupied by Dutch Christians who were unwilling to return Jewish property. Jews had to go through the Dutch courts in order to establish their claim. Some were successful. Most were not
After the war, most Dutch Jews assimilated and intermarried. Most wanted to hide their Jewish identity. One of my Dutch friends who wore a magen david on a chain around her neck went to visit her mother. When the old woman saw what her daughter was wearing she declared, “take that filthy chain off your neck or you cannot ever enter my home”.
Almost no Jewish home bore a mezuzaah on the doorpost, neither on the exterior or interior. Many Dutch Jews changed their Jewish family names and took on Dutch names. Even today, most Jewish survivors and second generation Jews do not want to be known as Jews.
The estimated present Jewish population of the Netherlands is between 41,000 and 45,000. There are 150 synagogues throughout the small country but only 50 are in use.
The Jews whom I served in the Liberal Synagogue were young, university educated and interested in learning their Jewish heritage. The large JoodseMuseum, the Jewish Museum. has great historical collections of Dutch Jewish history from the 15th century to the post-Holocaust years. Chabad is active in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag (The Hague), Leyden and Utrecht, major university centers.
From 1993 to 1998 I served as Rabbi for the Israelitisch Gemeente, the Jewish community on the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, during the summers. Aruba has less than 50 Jewish families but they are very active in synagogue service attendance, lectures on Jewish history and culture, they support a well-attended communal Pesach seder, and have strong ties with the State of Israel. The youth is Zionist minded and there is hope for them and for the historic ancient Jewish community in neighboring Curacao in the Dutch Antilles.
Holland is een belanrijk centrum in de wereld van de Joodse geschiedenes. De Nederlandse overheid is vriendelijk naar Israel. Dus ik sluit met een zegen voor de Nederlandse Koninklijke familie. Lang leve Nederland. Lang leve de Nederlanders.
Holland has been an important center in world Jewish history. The Dutch government is friendly to Israel. So I conclude with a blessing for the Dutch royal family
Long live Holland. Long live the good Dutch people who strive to keep Anne Frank’s memory alive, who make it mandatory for all Dutch pupils to visit the Annex in which she and her family hid until they were betrayed to the Nazis.
Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived and returned to Amsterdam. Anne’s diaries were discovered in their hiding place and with Otto Frank’s approval were published under the title “Het Achterhuis”… the house behind. The Annex is a major site for tourists who wish to pay tribute to the memory of a brave and gifted young Jewish girl. May her memory be for a blessing.