Holland… Jewish Sites and More

Amsterdam is my kind of city. I adore the network of canals lined by 17th century tall, narrow houses and the hundreds of historical monuments placed throughout this Dutch metropolis. It’s funky to see that most of the houses still have immensely useful hitching hooks for hoisting furniture. The forward tilt of some of the buildings has nothing to do with age or deterioration but with clever architecture that reassures what goes up and comes down, doesn’t destroy either the building or the item.

However, on a recent dull, cold, wet day, I left the city for several hours. I knew I should see Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Here on four hectares is the oldest Jewish cemetery in The Netherlands. Beth Haim, which ironically means, The House of Life, dates back to the 17th century. It was established out of necessity, by the Sephardic Jewish community, who had been exited from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. In the centre of this picture-perfect town only 11 miles from Amsterdam, records show that over 27,000 people are buried in Beth Haim including the parents of the famous philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The first burial in 1624 was of a young child. As I walked to a gate near the city’s river, I was told by the caretaker who has brought along her frisky terrier, that it was at this landing platform where boats would bring the bodies – the most convenient means of transport to the cemetery at that time.

There was a definite winter-nearing nip in the air and I could see several warmly bundled men busily placing green plastic covers on many of the head stones. “It’s to preserve the old ones before the first frost,” I was told. Further damage to these richly carved and decorated memorial stones would wipe away more of the Jewish history. However, I’m was still able to see many extremely rare marble tombs. Several have names, dates of birth and death, while the other side of the same stone is blank. The unmarked section was for family members who would have been buried here, had not the Holocaust taken their lives elsewhere. Had that terrible period not happened, it was anticipated that there wouldn’t be any space for burials after 1963. But with the advent of the Second World War and its horrors, sites available for burial are estimated for the next 80 years.

Amsterdam had become the intellectual centre for Sephardic Jews who were grateful for sanctuary from the Inquisition. Once, The Netherlands was home to 150,000 Jews, 60% lived in Amsterdam. After the war, only 30,000 remained alive. It seems there is still the burning question of whether, in fact, the Dutch were as helpful to the persecuted Jewish community as it could have been.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the ground, Beth Haim is sinking into the water and an active fundraising campaign is in progress to curtail the continuing deterioration. I couldn’t wait to get back to cheery Amsterdam and I was in time for Sinterklass’ arrival which is always on the evening of December 5 but celebrated with a grand parade on the second Sunday of November. Legend has it that centuries ago, Sinterklass arrived from Spain.

He was a kind and helpful bishop and the patron saint of seafarers. He first arrived by ship, accompanied by his Moorish helpers, the Black Peters. This is not a religious festival nor does it coincide with Christmas. From the moment Sinterklass enters the country, children put one of their shoes in front of the chimney or door, usually leaving some sugar water and carrots for the horse and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Next morning a small token has been left in their shoe. For polite, usually considerate folks, the Amsterdamers used their elbows with great alacrity. And for good reason, the closer you get to the front of the Schouwburg Theatre on Leidseplein Square, the better the view. To this day, the morning of the parade, he arrives into the harbour by steamship. It may seem politically incorrect in most countries, but here Black Peter is a joy for everyone as the dozens of painted black faced and fanciful dressed ‘Piets’ toss candies and cookies to the wee children in the crowd. One of the stranger sights was the bicycle riding band – drums and bugles on wheels. Stilt walkers so high, they were frighteningly near the overhead wiring. And after the elephant and the camels, the fancy old cars and the organ grinders, finally Sinterklass in his red bishop’s cloak, mitre and staff, arrived on a white horse. I was in the wrong place and old Klass stopped at the entrance of the grand building, dismounted his horse and I only got a glimpse of him when he appeared on the balcony amidst screams of happiness from the patient crowd. It is considered a great honor for one of the locals to be chosen to be Sinterkalss.

Not blessed with a great sense of direction, even in this smallish city, it was easy for me to become disoriented. I blame this on the fact that the canals don’t go in straight lines but curve. Located on Jodenbsreestraat 4-6, as the name suggests, was once the heart of the Jewish quarter. Interestingly, words like Mazal (luck in Hebrew) and meshuga (crazy), are now part of the Dutch vocabulary but with a small change in spelling. Just a block away, is the world’s largest synagogue. The Portuguese Synagogue. The monumental building is almost in the original state as it was when it was built in 1675. Because the municipal authorities declared this a national monument, the Nazi didn’t destroy it. The ark, the Brazilian carved wood bimah and the 12 original stone columns (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) are original as is the lighting which comes from over 600 candles placed in brass candelabra and the floor, still earth.(Mr. Visserplein #3). During the winter, when it’s too cold to be inside the ‘shul’, there is a small heated space, used for prayers.

When I was last in Amsterdam, no matter when I tried, there was always a very long wait in line for Anne Franks House, where she, her family and the Van Daan family hid in the upper two floors during the German occupation (Prinsengracht 263). The typically narrow doorway and the ladderlike stairs made it impossible to linger. Now, a new attached museum is the entrance, allowing easier and less congested access. It is still unimaginable that these eight people could be hidden for two years in these rooms. The chestnut tree still growing tall, which Anne wrote about, is visible from various rooms. Most touching is the original diary on display. Anne’s room eerily, still has the original magazine pictures of her favourite movie idols. They are now being preserved behind plastic panelling. So touched by the story of Anne Frank, that young Japanese girls have taken to called their menstruation time, Anne’s Days. The only time during the year that the house is closed is on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement.

The following morning, I visited the Rijksmuseum, the most visit site in Amsterdam; Anne Frank’s house being second. This museum ranks as one of the most important in the art world and getting close to Rembrandt’s The night Watch, takes patience and perservance, but well worth the jostling.

I could never leave that area of the city without going to the nearby outdoor herring stand. Wolfing down the contents of my plastic container besides the locals is always a tasty treat. From there I walked over to the Jewish Historical Museum, now a complex made up of four Ashkenasi synagogues. Its permanent exhibition focuses on Jewish identity and the 350 years of social history of the Dutch Jews. The original marble bimah is untouched (Jonas Daniel Meijerplein #24)

“Heaven cannot be reflected undamaged,” states the sign in Wertheim Park near the memorial, which in its simplicity, depicts the Holocaust. A series of six panels of cracked and broken mirrors by sculptor Hans Wolkers, has been set into the earth showing the indistinct sky above.

Too bad that when some think of this charming city, the infamous Red Light district with the ‘ladies of the night’ selling their wares behind street store windows, is the immediate image. Amsterdam is one of the world’s great designations with art, history, canals and of course, herring.