In the summer of 1951 I arrived from Israel to Europe and I took a train from Paris to Amsterdam for a short visit with a long-time pen-pal, Klasien Dornbach, an elementary school teacher from Haarlem. She was not Jewish but had expressed great sympathy for the tragedy of Dutch Jews who had lived as honored citizens in Holland since the 15th century.
We walked along the city’s grachten (canals) which gives Amsterdam the title of “Venice of the North” and our first stop was at the fabled Rijksmuseum, national home to the great Dutch painters of earlier centuries. She particularly wanted to show me two of Rembrandt’s masterpieces…The Night Watchmen and the Jewish Bride.
Most people think that Rembrandt is his family name. Not so. His correct name was Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt was his first name. And he lived in the section of Amsterdam called the Joodenbreestraat… the Jewish Broadway. Many of his portraits were of Jews whom he saw daily and admired as the people of the Bible. As we walked, my friend told me she had arranged a special surprise for me…. A visit to the Spanish-Portugese Synagogue, called simply the Esnoga.
The Jewish community commissioned it in 1671 and it was opened and formerly dedicated in 1675, at the time, the largest synagogue in Europe. We entered through the main door in the courtyard on Mr. Visserplein and a gentleman was waiting for us to share the history of it. A magnificent 17th century Sephardic synagogue with benches inscribed in Portugese family names. From 1675 until then, nothing had changed.
In the center was a very large exquisitely- carved wooden ark and at the opposite end was the bima from which the ancient Torah scrolls brought from Spain were read. The wooden benches faced one another in two halves and the women sat upstairs which was decorated by twelve marble columns, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
The most impressive sight was two extremely large brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling which light up the synagogue with one thousand candles during holyday services. Except for minor repairs, the interior of the Spanish-Portugese Synagogue remains as it was in 1675. The prayerbooks are in Hebrew with Portugese translation on facing pages.
I was impressed to learn that during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Germans left the synagogue untouched. The reason, I was told, is that both Spain and Portugal were neutral countries and safe havens for Germans. The Dutch government informed the occupying Nazis that the synagogue was the property of both Spain and Portugal (hence its name) and therefore all of the Torah scrolls and furnishings were left in tact and unharmed.
During the occupation, Jews did not worship in the synagogue in order to avoid being taken in a round-up.
My Dutch Christian friend knew very little of the Esnoga’s history and was deeply moved to learn how the Dutch authorities had protected it during the war years. She exclaimed pride in the help offered by the Dutch people at the request via radio broadcasts from Her Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina, who represented the Dutch government in exile in London.
The next day, she had arranged another surprise for me, although it was not one which I could ever have wanted.
We were going to take a short train ride and cross the Dutch-German border at Emmerich on the Rhine. It was, she said, a quaint and charming old town only four kilometers from the Dutch border.
At first, I thanked her for her good intentions but immediately (and impolitely, I’m afraid) I shouted, “Never, never, never. I will never put a foot on German soil. I never buy any German-made products. I detest hearing that language, and you must understand why”.
Of course, Klasien knew that I was a Jew but she did not know that many members of my mother’s family met their deaths at German hands in Poland, first in ghettos, then in concentration camps, and ultimately in gas chambers. A renowned rabbinical family whose dynasty began in 1727.
In 1927 a celebration was held in Lwow to commemorate two hundred years of my family’s rabbinical leadership in the towns of Galicia in Austrian Poland. (My grandchildren represent the eleventh generation in our family tree.)
She was shocked to hear of it. She had seen pictures of human bodies piled on heaps near the crematoria but in 1951, only six years after the war ended, she had not met a Jew nor heard a story from a survivor. The very few Dutch Jews who survived, returned to Holland and hid their Jewishness from their neighbors.
I had always heard stories of the kindness and friendship of the Dutch to their Jewish countrymen but I was not aware that there was a Dutch Nazi party in Holland and that many Dutch turned their backs on the small group of Jewish survivors who returned from the camps in 1945 in search of their lost homes and properties only to be turned away by the Dutch people who now claimed them.
Now, she said, she could understand why I had so vehemently declined the invitation to visit Emmerich and why, when I said “never”, it meant never. For the rest of her life, until her tragic death in a bicycle accident, we never mentioned it again.
Many years later in New York one week before Pesach, my friend and former classmate in Jerusalem, Moshe, who was then the Commercial Attache at the Israeli Consulate in New York invited me to a meeting being held by a group of twenty-five middle-aged German Christian men and women, members of a Gesellschaft, an organization for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Friendship. The members had flown from Germany to New York and were very interested in meeting Jews.
They were knowledgeable about basic Jewish history, were supporters of Israel, many had been more than once on visits to Israel, and none had been supporters of the Nazi regime except for the requirements to join the Hitler Jugend or the Hitler Madchen groups which was mandatory for children above the age of twelve.
After the meeting, Moshe and I chatted among the group and I invited one woman to come with Moshe as our Seder guests. She had never been to a seder and was very impressed with the re-telling of our bondage and oppression in Egypt (which I related to Hitler’s oppression) and we remained in written contact for several years.
Once she wrote to me that her Gesellschaft wanted to invite me to come to Germany as their guest and to deliver a series of informal talks to the larger membership in Bonn. But “never” means never, and I refused the invitation politely.
These were people of goodwill but they were sons and daughters of Nazi party members or sympathizers. I was grateful for their interest in Judaism and their support for Israel but I could not bring myself to accept their invitation. They acknowledged their understanding.
There is a new Germany today with a large Jewish population, mainly of Russians who settled there after leaving the Soviet Union, and large numbers of Israelis who find cheaper food prices in German supermarkets. The German government, since the administration of Konrad Adenauer after the war, and today Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strong support of Israel is highly to be praised.
But my feet have never touched German soil. In all of the forty-five countries I have visited, Germany is not on my map and never, never can it be.