Well it wasn’t quite winter, but it felt like it, when Michal and I visited Amsterdam at the end of November. Having been to Amsterdam about 25 years ago with our young sons, it wasn’t at the top of our wish list, especially since it’s overcrowded with youthful tourists enjoying Amsterdam’s famous, wide-open culture. But since Michal’s first cousin lives there, we decided to go.
We had booked a “Roomy Canal View” (all true) at The Hoxton, on Herengracht Canal. The location was ideally located: central, without being in the middle of all the frenetic tourist traffic. We would stay there again. That night we and the cousins ate at a nice, typical Dutch restaurant in the city center, the first of three nights together.
The next morning, we met our tour leader Alex in Rembrandt Square, a short tram ride away. I can’t help praising the trams, which efficiently crisscross the city with frequent stops along the way. Israel has begun emulating this in Jerusalem. The light rail – as it’s called in Israel – is also under construction in Tel Aviv.
We booked Sandeman’s WWII & the Jewish Quarter tour, which turned out to be excellent. Alex told us that Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village, developed around a dam in the Amstel River, at the end of the 12th century. It was swampy land where nobody was living. Amsterdam’s ethos was based on the idea of religious tolerance, at the time of the Episcopal Inquisition (1184–1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). The Dutch founders didn’t care about the settlers’ religious inclinations; they just wanted to do business.
Alex told us that Amsterdam had always been experimental and innovative. He cited the early, tremendous trade in spices, coffee, and tulips (which ended in a huge bubble). Today Amsterdam is very progressive with a large LGBTQ population, legal euthanasia, legal marijuana, a famous red light district, and a reputation for wild times.
In 1602 the Dutch government granted the Dutch East India Company a trade monopoly in the East Indies, Arabia, India, China, and Japan. In the first half of the 17th century, the company was able to defeat the British fleet and largely displace the Portuguese in the East Indies. As a result, the Dutch were phenomenally successful in bringing the treasures of the East to Europe.
According to Alex, Amsterdam in those days was the epitome of capitalism with people of huge wealth: a city of many “Bill Gates.” He pointed out the extremely narrow houses which the wealthy built for themselves. Why so narrow? Because the rich burghers were charged huge taxes based on the width of the houses. Alex noted that the reputation of Dutch stinginess was well-earned.
From the 13th century, Jews were subject to Church laws of expulsion from many locations. During the 16th century, Catholic/Protestant religious persecution of Jews increased. However, Jews were permitted to settle in Amsterdam at the beginning of the 17th century and peacefully observe their religion, even while subject to many restrictions. In Amsterdam, the boundaries of Jewish life were clearly set out, such as living in a ghetto and restrictions on professions, but not all of the limitations were strictly observed. Although Jews weren’t allowed in guilds, they were tolerated enough to fund and build the massive Portuguese Synagogue (still in wonderful condition), which was the first sighting of Amsterdam that ship captains returning to port encountered. (amsterdam.info/jewish/)
In the 20th century, the slow rise of Nazi Germany was somewhat uneventful in the Netherlands. During WW1 the Dutch remained neutral, greatly profiting by selling supplies to all sides. As the Nazis began to expand German territory, the Dutch were positive that they would again remain neutral, if war broke out. Alex said that the Dutch read about the Nazi menace in the papers, but it was distant – until the very time that the Netherlands were invaded by Germany in May 1940.
At first German rule was relatively benign. The Dutch government relocated to London and Dutch resistance began, albeit not too violently at first. Things were calm enough in Amsterdam that Jews felt free to protest German treatment. But that changed drastically after a Dutch Nazi was killed during a Jewish protest, initiating the start of mass deportations of Jews to concentration camps.
While walking in the vicinity of the former Jewish Quarter, we stopped at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, once a theater, now a Jewish museum. Alex told us the story of a Jew during the Nazi occupation. Because of his skills, he was surprisingly allowed to retain his job as a clerk in the theater, which had been turned into an orphanage. As the keeper of records, he was able to save hundreds of children before he and his family were killed in the camps. Similarly, except that he survived, is the story of the non-Jewish orphanage director who also saved hundreds of children and is recognized as a Righteous Gentile. There is no longer a Jewish Quarter because it was destroyed during the war. Later, urban renewal replaced it.
NOTE: “When Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 60,000 Jews living in Amsterdam – approximately 10% of the city population. Throughout the years of German occupation not many survived. Almost all were deported and exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. Many went into hiding like Anne Frank and her family, who less than a year before the end of the war, was betrayed to the Nazis by an unknown Dutch collaborator. After the war ended only 5,000 Jews returned to Amsterdam and the life of the city changed forever. Today Amsterdam’s Jewish community numbers 20,000 persons, is well organized, has a rich religious and cultural life, nevertheless the old Jewish Amsterdam belongs to history.” (amsterdam.info/jewish/)
In front of the Jewish Museum, we saw a segment of the original rails on which Amsterdam’s Jews were sent by tram to the camps, but only after paying their fares! Nearby, next to the Portuguese Synagogue, is a statue of a burly worker signifying Amsterdam’s first big resistance action against the German occupation, the February Strike of 1941. The streetcar, metal and dock workers, and private workers struck in protest against the German mistreatment of the Jews. However, the strike ended quickly because of the brutal reaction of the Nazis, who had been taken by surprise at the rebellion and reacted with furor.
Despite the illusory belief that the Dutch were very protective of their Jewish citizens, the Netherlands had the largest percentage of Jewish citizens killed in Europe. People were paid to inform on Jews. Betrayal was in the air, as made famous by the story of Anne Frank, Alex informed us.
Michal and I hadn’t planned to go to the Anne Frank House, which we visited decades ago. Since then, the memorial has lost much of its Jewish character, as the Dutch haven’t resisted the European penchant for de-Judaizing the Holocaust.
During our three-day stay, we had time for this interesting tour, as well as visiting the great Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. We also spent most of a day in nearby Haarlem, walking throughout the picturesque town and visiting the very interesting Corrie ten Boom Museum, which is dedicated to the ten Boom family. Corrie, a Dutch watchmaker, worked with her father, her sister and other family members to help many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during the war. Their home was a temporary safe haven for Jews who hid in the small ten Boom house until they could be safely moved. The ten Booms were devout Christians who believed that they would be blessed by devotion to Jews; eventually they were betrayed by neighbors. Later, Corrie became a renowned Holocaust lecturer who lived in the US. We first learned about the family at the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem.
We found that three days in Amsterdam was at least one day short. If we return, we’ll catch up on sites that we didn’t have time to explore.