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36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling Through Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter

The Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam Hotel is set in the heart of Amsterdam’s historic district, a short walk to the Jewish Quarter, and walking distance to Rijksmuseum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, I pick up a sheet detailing a walking tour through the Jewish Cultural Quarter which features 37 points (Rembrandthuis and the Waterlooplein flea market are included) and 12 museums, monuments and memorials. It is supposed to take about 90 minutes.

I go off to follow much of the list – which is most interesting because you go into this historic neighborhood where you almost hear the voices of the people who lived there, certainly feel their presence. It feels a bit like time travel.

Across the street from the Jewish Museum, which is housed in four former synagogues including the Great Synagogue, is one of the most beautiful and grandest synagogues of the world, the Portuguese Synagogue. Dating from 1675 (just four years after the Great Synagogue which is across the street), this Sephardic synagogue is in fact a whole religious complex with the synagogue, archives, a mortuary, and a library.

Known as The Esnoga, the Portuguese Synagogue was designed by Elias Bouman, who had also helped design the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazim across the road. Elias Bouman later became the city’s chief architect. The colossal building dominated its surroundings then, as it still does today. When finished, it was the largest synagogue in the world. And even centuries ago, was a tourist attraction. (Mr. Visserplein 3, jck.nl/en/longread/portuguese-synagogue

Entrance to the Portuguese Synagogue, the world’s largest and most ornate synagogue and a tourist attraction since it was first built in the 17th century, still conducts religious service so was closed to visitors on Saturday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Portuguese Synagogue is still used for religious services (it’s Saturday so I don’t get to go inside), but on most days you can buy a ticket to see inside. It is renowned for its exquisite 17th century interior.  There are also smaller buildings in the complex where there are “treasure chambers” displaying ceremonial objects of silver, gold, brocade and silk. The synagogue also hosts frequent candlelight concerts. (I experienced an extraordinary concert at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague at the start of my European odyssey.)

The Great Synagogue was destroyed in the Holocaust (it was restored and turned into a museum in 1961), but the Portuguese Synagogue was saved apparently because Hitler wanted to leave a trace of the vanished nation (I was told much the same about how Prague’s Jewish Quarter managed to survive.)

The world’s oldest functioning Jewish library, Ets Haim Livraria Montezinos, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is also here in the Portuguese Synagogue (Mr. Visserplein 3). The library has more than 25.000 books and 560 manuscripts in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Yiddish in its collection. Some of the manuscripts date to13th C. (An appointment is required to visit: for a guided tour phone: +31 20 531 03 80; researchers call +31 20 531 03 98).

Outside the Portuguese Synagogue is the Jonas Daniel Meijerplain, a square named for Jonas Daniel Meijer who in 1796 became the first Dutch Jew to receive a doctoral degree. He was a leader in the Jewish struggle for emancipation and equal rights (which was won in 1796). There are Stolpersteine (small memorial plaques) in front of houses that are along the square (nos. 13, 15, 19) that bear the names of Jews who lived there and were murdered by the Nazis. (I saw these Stolpersteines in Dordrecht, as well.)

In the square is the February Protest Monument commemorating the strike of the Amsterdam dock workers on February 24, 1941, to protest persecution of Jews. The strike has been followed by protest actions all over the city: in public transport, schools and in some companies. Strike actions also took place in several cities around Amsterdam and in Utrecht. Although the Nazi administration, which invaded the Netherlands in 1940, managed to suppress the strike within just a few days, killing nine of the protesters, injuring many and perpetuating several other ruthless actions, the open protest against the Nazis had the symbolic importance for all people in the Netherlands. The monument represents a striking worker called “De Dokwerker”. The sculpture is by Mari Andriessen, a sculptor who during the war refused membership of the Nazi-led artist union and hid Jewish friends at his home to save them from death.

A walking tour through Amsterdam’s Jewish District makes you look closely at structure to see their Jewish origins © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My walking tour takes me to what was the Ashkenazi Jewish Girls Orphanage, which from 1863-1943 was where these orphaned girls received religious education. In the Holocaust, 80 were deported to concentration camps.

The Plancius/Resistance museum, was where the Jewish choral society, Oxfening Baart Kunst (Practice Makes Perfect) was established in 1876; it has been the site of the Dutch Resistance Museum since 1999.

The De Castro Pharmacy is Amsterdam’s oldest apothecary (1832). Daniel Henriques de Castro was not only an apothecary but also an administrator of the Portuguese Synagogue and a glass engraver.

The Pinto House (Sint Antoniebreestraat 69), was built in 1603, bought by the wealthy Jewish merchant Isaac de Pinto in 1651 and rebuilt by his son David Emanuel in 1686 with the broad classical facade. Devastated in 20th C. and saved from a demolition, it is a public library today.

I go to the Walter Suskind Bridge – fairly nondescript – named for Walter Suskind (1906-1945) who was the head of Jewish staff of the Hollandsche Schauwburg and in this capacity saved hundreds of Jewish children from deportation and murder.

(Gassan Diamonds is also here in the Jewish Quarter and had an important role in the Jewish community. I book a free tour for the next morning at its website, https://www.gassan.com/en/tours/gassan-historical-tour)

A walking tour through Amsterdam’s Jewish District makes you look closely at structure to see their Jewish origins © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I visit as many of the sites as I can, and finally come to the National Holocaust Memorial, which only opened in September 2021. It’s the first in the Netherlands to name all 102,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti and Roma who were killed by the Nazis during World War II.  Designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Liebeskind, the 102,000 bricks, each bearing the name of a victim, form the shape of four Hebrew letters meaning “in memory of.” 

The National Holocaust Memorial, Amsterdam, keeps alive the memory of the 102,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti and Roma who were killed by the Nazis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I estimate there are 32 rows of 50 bricks just named DeVries. I note some of the names: Frouwkevn Mandenburg Gosschalk, Rooje van Maagdenburg-Frank, Maas, Magtige, Maij – very Dutch, with some of these families I would bet having lived in Amsterdam for hundreds of years. The name plaques seem to go on forever.

Of the 107,000 deported to concentration camps, only 5200 Jews and 30 Santi and Roma survived.

“A warning for all generations, all over the world and in the future,” a plaque reads.

The National Holocaust Memorial, Amsterdam, keeps alive the memory of the 102,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti and Roma who were killed by the Nazis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to reporting of the event, the memorial was unveiled by King Willem-Alexander and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

“Last year marked the first time an official in the Netherlands publicly apologized on behalf of the government for the war-time persecution of Jews, after Rutte admitted little was done to protect them from the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.” (https://www.dw.com/en/dutch-holocaust-memorial-opens-after-years-long-legal-deadlock/a-59231217)

The National Holocaust Memorial, Amsterdam, keeps alive the memory of the 102,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti and Roma who were killed by the Nazis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Tickets to all the Jewish Cultural Quarter exhibits may be purchased at any of the participating institutions. Adults – € 12 ; young people age 13 -17, students, Stadspas – € 6 ; children age up to 13; free admission is provided with the Amsterdam Holland Pass, iAmsterdam Pass, Museum Card, Friends of The Jewish Historical Museum, ICOM, Rembrandt Association. Tickets to the Jewish Historical Quarter are valid 1 month for a multiple access to all exhibits. Tickets to concerts at the Portuguese Synagogue: € 13.50.

You can also sign up for a walking tour with a knowledgeable, personal guide (see www.amsterdam.info/jewish/).

“Night Watch” at Rijksmuseum

By now, it is time for me to walk over to the Rijksmuseum for my timed ticket, which brings me through more of the neighborhoods that seem so far removed in time and place from what I had just experienced.

Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” can be seen through glass where it is undergoing conservation at the Rijksmuseum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The big attraction at the Rijksmuseum (I only have two hours before closing) is Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” painting (I hadn’t realized it is the size of an entire wall), and you get to see it as it is being conserved, behind a glass-enclosed studio.  A docent is there to answer questions about it.

Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” can be seen through glass where it is undergoing conservation at the Rijksmuseum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Rembrandthuis, I was told that this painting was one of the reasons that Rembrandt went bankrupt – the three benefactors who paid the most for the painting are not shown prominently, and they conveyed their discontent so that Rembrandt lost commissions. The docent disputes this and points out that was a decade between the painting and his bankruptcy.

Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” can be seen through glass where it is undergoing conservation at the Rijksmuseum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, I have to get to my COVID19 test that I scheduled, so I get to discover more neighborhoods. As it turns out, the clinic is across the way from Amsterdam’s science museum, along the boulevard that would go to the Central Station. The process is extremely efficient (shortly after, the United States halted requiring COVID tests within 24 hours of entering the country.)

On the way back to Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam Hotel, I find myself walking through the Red Light District, jam-packed with people. Here you can also visit museums to Erotica, Prostitution, assorted peep shows and museums devoted to  Hash, Marijuana and Hemp . Even the public toilet is titillatingly called the “Sexy Loo.”

Here you find posters on the bridges warning of fines for peeing in the canal or taking alcohol out of the district, and as the evening grows later, more and more police presence.

Amsterdam’s Red Light District is legendary © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Amsterdam’s Red Light District is legendary © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Diamonds!

The next morning, before I have to get to the airport (and after enjoying a terrific breakfast at the Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam Hotel), I tour the Gassan Diamonds, a historic place which had great importance in the Jewish Quarter. 

Gassan Diamonds is housed in a diamond factory that was built in 1879 by the Boas brothers, and at the time was the largest diamond factory in Europe. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

Initially, Jews were not permitted into Amsterdam’s guilds, so the only occupations that were open to them were street trading (hence the giant flea market at Waterlooplein), financing, book printing and diamond cutting. In the 19th century many Jews worked in the flourishing diamond trade and industry.

Amsterdam has been famous for its diamonds since the 16th century, and after 400 years, the city is still regarded as a diamond trading center of the world. The popular brilliant-cut with 57 facets which was developed in Amsterdam is known as the “Amsterdam-cut”.

There are about a dozen diamond factories in Amsterdam left, five which offer guided tours.

Gassan Diamonds has played a pivotal role in Amsterdam’s diamond history, as well as in Jewish life in Amsterdam. The diamond factory was built in 1879 by the Boas brothers, and at the time was the largest diamond factory in Europe. It was shut down during World War II, and resurrected by Samuel Gassan, whose father actually worked there as a diamond cutter.

Samuel Gassan stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war, became a captain in the British Army. Working in the repatriation service, he helped children of diamond workers who had lost their parents and who had been held captive in Bergen-Belsen, return to the Netherlands.

In October 1945, having returned to Amsterdam, Samuel, now 35, opened his own diamond trading company, Firma Gassan, in the Diamond Exchange on the Wesperplein. He traveled all over Europe selling his diamonds. Five years later he owned his own diamond cutting factory on the Zwanenburgerstraat.

You can sign up for a free tour of Gassan Diamonds to see diamond polishers at work © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the tour, we get to see the diamond polishers at their craft, while a guide explains how they turn rough diamonds into dazzling brilliants. And Gassan has taken the “Amsterdam cut” to a new level, patenting the technique of the Gassan 121 diamond – a diamond cut with 121 facets to dazzling effect.

I am taken into a room where, even though it is Sunday morning, there are a couple of people polishing diamonds. My guide explains the three-step process: cutting (phosphorous blade, rotates 6400/min,  coated with olive oil and diamond dust because only a diamond can cut diamond; shaping and elevating sharp edges (not sparkling yet); and third, polishing with olive oil and diamond dust to make facet. Facets are what make the diamond clear and sparkling.

It takes 3 to 4 working days to prepare one diamond.

A brilliant cut has 57 facets (33 on top, 24 on bottom), which originated in Amsterdam and is known as the “Amsterdam cut.” But, she explains, Gassan (pioneered and patented) a 121-facet diamond with exponentially more refraction (no one else can sell 121 facets)

Luna, diamond polisher for three years, is able to work on half-carat diamonds as she works up to becoming a master. It takes 3-4 days to finish a diamond, but you can order one, have it set and have it within 30-60 minutes of your visit to Gassan Diamonds © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Luna, who I watch polishing a diamond, has had 3 years experience (it takes two years to learn basics, 10-20 years to perfect, and by the time you are ready to retire, you are a master). A half carat is the biggest diamond she has worked on, she tells me.

All the rough diamonds that come to the Antwerp bourse must have a certificate that they are not conflict diamonds. Diamonds come from all over the world and are found everywhere but Australia, Canada, India, and China, she tells me.

This 1879 building is long and narrow because it was built before electricity, so the workers were dependent upon natural light, and used steam system (you can see the pipes).

Names of Jewish diamond workers etched with diamond in glass are preserved at Gassan Diamonds © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In a display case are old pieces of glass with names etched with diamond into it. “This was a Jewish neighborhood and a Jewish company,” she tells me. “A lot of Jews worked here. During World War II, most were killed, so we keep the glass with their names. Gassan’s own father was a diamond worker in the factory here. After the war, Samuel acquired the old factory.

My guide takes me into a small room to explains the different elements that go into the quality (and price) of a diamond – carats, colors, clarity, cuts and, of course, the ultimate Gassan 121- and fortunately, you can buy here at factory price (and get the 16% tax refunded at airport). ”You can choose a diamond today, choose setting and it will be ready within 30 to 60 minutes – ring, necklace, earrings.” You can also peruse the jewelry store, filled with luxury items.

Gassan also offers a VIP tour through the diamond factory and the in-house Rolex boutique which includes a glass of champagne, a goodie bag and the chance to chat with a certified Rolex watchmaker. Or you can take a seat behind the grinder yourself with the Diamond Polishing Experience, where you can apply the final facets to your own diamond! 

Gassan Diamonds, Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat 173-175, www.gassan.com/en/tours/gassan-historical-tour

I time it so I get back to the Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam hotel so I can take the tour of this fascinating place that played such an important role in Holland’s history, and still have time for one last walk through the historic district to Amsterdam’s Central Station. It’s a hop-skip-jump on the train to Schiphol Airport (2nd class ticket does just fine), all of about 15 minutes ride.

Amsterdam’s Central Station. It’s just about 15-20 minutes and very inexpensive ticket to get to Schiphol Airport on the train © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pre-purchase the I AmsterdamCity Card, which provides access to the city’s major highlights and more than 70 museums, city-wide public transport, a canal cruise and bicycle rental. You also get discounts at restaurants, attractions and concerts. https://www.iamsterdam.com/en/i-am/i-amsterdam-city-card iamsterdam.com.

Plan your visit at www.iamsterdam.com/en.

See also:

Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam: Historic Hotel that Played Major Role in History

36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling in the Jewish Quarter

36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling Through Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter

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© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to [email protected] Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling in the Jewish Quarter

The Jewish Museum shows how the community lived for 350 years in Amsterdam with very vivid and detailed personal stories that still resonate today © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have cleverly arranged an extra day in Amsterdam after the eight-day BoatBikeTours Bruges-to Amsterdam bike trip, and I can’t afford to miss a minute. So after checking into my five-star luxury historic hotel, Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam Hotel, marveling at my room (actually a suite), and having the concierge help purchase a timed ticket to the Rijksmuseum, I immediately set out.

In fact, I realize too late that it was necessary to pre-purchase timed tickets to major sites in Amsterdam – Anne Frank House is booked (you have to purchase weeks in advance). So I set out myself to see as much as I could – and in the course of the day, wind up exploring on foot just about all Amsterdam’s historic district neighborhoods. And since I can’t get into the Anne Frank House, I head to the Jewish Quarter (the Anne Frank House is not actually in the Jewish Quarter), which proves a wonderful and satisfying adventure in many ways.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s was doing well when he bought this townhouse, which may surprise people to learn is on a street that used to be in the center of Jewish life in Amsterdam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first stop is most remarkable: The Rembrandt House. This is Rembrandt van Rijn’s actual townhouse, which may surprise people to learn is on a street that used to be in the center of Jewish life in Amsterdam. Although Rembrandt was not Jewish, his paintings often reflect his life among the Jews in the city – scenes from the Old Testament and many portraits of the Jewish people who lived around him. But what is most remarkable are the insights into this master’s life and work and even his creative process as you go around the house, essentially restored and furnished in the way it was, when he lived here. The Rembrandthuis presents Rembrandt’s life, his epoch, an interesting collection of paintings by his contemporaries and his prints.

Rembrandt captured scenes of neighborhood life. His townhouse was in the Jewish Quarter © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rembrandt was doing well when he bought this townhouse, but when his fortunes turned and the house was sold, his possessions were inventoried – the museum recreates the house from that inventory as well as Rembrandt’s drawings, so they knew what was in specific rooms; the audio tour notes the objects (and you can get even more detail on many of the objects). 

It is utterly fascinating to be in this space – his bedroom, his printing room (where you can lift leather coverings and see original etchings), his studio, his salon (actually a sales room). I learned that Rembrandt was an art dealer, and would have entertained clients in this parlor where there are a number of paintings on the wall as there would have been.

Rembrandt’s salon where he would have entertained art clients. As an art dealer, he sold works by his pupils, Flemish and Italian artists and Dutch masters © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rembrandt “would receive his clients with a glass of chilled wine from a marble wine cooler. On the walls hung dozens of paintings from which the client could choose. Rembrandt sold his own works and works by his many pupils. He also dealt in paintings by other masters. This was common practice among artists at this time. Rembrandt had Flemish and Italian works in stock, but most of the paintings were by Dutch masters.”

You walk through with your own audio device which gives a really excellent tour (allocate at least an hour), and notes the personal aspects, and you can point the sensor to a number and hear more details, like about the painting of an old man with bears, which was by one of his students).

Rembrandt’s bed chamber. Rembrandt House recreates how he would have lived based on an inventory and his paintings © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“We know from paintings his wife was lying on the bed – she died at 29 giving birth to their son.”

As a display of Rembrandt’s affluence, his townhouse had a stove, which was an innovation of the time © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the kitchen, we see a stove which would have been an innovation in his day.

Rembrandt was “a ground-breaking etcher” as we see in the printing room at Rembrandt House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rembrandt was ‘a ground-breaking etcher” and my favorite room is his print shop where we can see original etchings (they are put under leather covers in a darkened room to best preserve them, and are rotated every three months ). It is absolutely thrilling to see.

Rembrandt was “a ground-breaking etcher” as we see in the printing room at Rembrandt House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We go into a studio where Rembrandt taught art students – you could have been a Rembrandt pupil for 50 guilders a month (he had 40 students). “They would already have had a basis in art.”  

Visit Rembrandt’s studio at the Rembrandt House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rembrandt had two mistresses after his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, died at the age of 29, giving birth to their son.

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait with Saskia,” his wife © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The first was his housekeeper and nanny to his son and they developed an intimate relationship. She wanted to marry; Rembrandt couldn’t because under the terms of his (wealthier, noble) wife’s will, his inheritance would have reverted to her other relatives. So when he couldn’t marry, she sued him for a very large amount of alimony. He had her committed to a madhouse for five years.

Then he met Hendrickje Stoffels, very much younger than Rembrandt. They had a loving relationship, had children, and were together for 15 years until she died at the age of 38.

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rembrandt had 16 children but only three  – a son and two daughters – survived to adulthood. His son became an art dealer, and after Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, rented a house for himself and father and his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels. His son died one year before Rembrandt.

I ask how Rembrandt went bankrupt. “He spent too much. Also, ‘Nightwatch’ – the three people who paid the most for the painting were not well represented in the painting; it went around that Rembrandt wasn’t a good portrait painter and he lost commissions (100G, equivalent to yearly salary). With commissions down, he went bankrupt.” [Later, I get to ask the docent at the Rijksmuseum when I visit “Nightwatch” who disputes this account.]

The Rembrandt House museum has a broad collection of Rembrandt’s works, but only a small portion is on view at any one time (they rotate to preserve the art).

Small Studio, which Rembrandt used as a workplace for his students. There were partitions bere four to five pupils could work with good light © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the modern building that is attached, there are exhibitions of modern artists reinterpreting Rembrandt’s concept of painting people as they are, not idealized. (I don’t care for them at all).

I realize that though I so admired Rembrandt, I actually knew very little about who he was. You come away seeing, understanding Rembrandt in such a different light as you tour his house.

Rembrandt House, Jodenbreestraat 4, 1011 NK Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 520 0400, [email protected], www.rembrandthuis.nl/en/.

It’s Saturday and just near the Rembrandthuis there is a regular – and massive – Waterlooplein (Waterloo square) flea market, started ages ago by Jewish peddlers (one of the few occupations allowed to Jews) and today is the largest flea market in Amsterdam. It’s definitely fun to visit (www.amsterdam.info/markets/waterlooplein/)

Waterlooplein flea market, started ages ago by Jewish peddlers (one of the few occupations allowed to Jews) is the largest flea market in Amsterdam today © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even this early in the tourist season, Amsterdam seems pretty crowded with visitor s (especially in the Red Light District), but I set out to explore more of the historic Jewish Quarter where I find myself on a sort of hunt to locate sites. It seems more the “real Amsterdam” – less impacted by tourists – where I can time travel.

Peering Back at 350 Years in the Jewish Quarter

The Jodenbuurt (Jewish Quarter) was inhabited by the Jewish community for 350 years, from the late 16th century up to the Holocaust.

Jewish people, culture and religion became an important element of life in Amsterdam from the early 1600s. Several countries in Europe guided by the Catholic Church, starting from the 13th C, had laws aimed at expelling Jews. During the counter-reformation in the 16th C, persecutions of Jews increased. While subject to many restrictions, Jews were permitted to settle in Amsterdam and peacefully observe their religion.

In 1593, a century after the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain settled in this neighborhood of Amsterdam. In the course of the 17th century Ashkenazi Jews from Central, Eastern, and parts of Western Europe also moved into the district. By 1602, the Jews started to build their first synagogues. And in the centuries that followed, many more synagogues opened.

The absolutely best place to start my odyssey is the Jewish Museum (previously known as the Jewish Historical Museum) 

The Jewish Museum is the only museum in the Netherlands that focuses on Jewish history, religion and culture. The museum is set in a group of four 17th and 18th century Ashkenazi synagogues at the heart of the former Jewish quarter in the centre of Amsterdam. The permanent exhibition follows several themes: the role of religion and tradition, the links with Israel, the persecution of Jews during the Second World War, personal life stories and the mutual influence of Jewish and Dutch culture.

The main part of the museum is housed in the stunning Great Synagogue, the Ashkenazi “Gathering Place” that dates from 1671. The exhibits here are enlightening and inspiring.

Jewish Museum is more focused on the 350-year long history of Jews in Amsterdam. it’s about their migration and integration into Holland, though the period from 1900 to present is also on display in a very moving way, how they integrated into Dutch society, and how they thrived and contributed to the community when restrictions were lifted.

It’s a museum of stories and surprises – it’s uncanny how much personal information they have to connect with the portraits and personal effects on view – so much more meaningful than looking at paintings and artifacts. I especially loved seeing these gorgeous portraits of Jewish Amsterdamers from the 17th and 18th centuries, – how they looked like any other Amsterdamer of the time, a testament to how secular and assimilated people can come when they are free to interact in the broader society.

Some of Rembrandt’s etchings of his Jewish neighbors are on display at the Jewish Museum with amazing personal detail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here you see Rembrandt etchings of his Jewish neighbors but with canny personal detail. So attached to Rembrandt’s etching of a distinguished looking man, we learn, “This is the Sephardi doctor Ephraim Bueno (1599-1665). When he was a child, he and his parents fled Portugal to Bordeaux where studied medicine, then later settled in Amsterdam. Father and son gained a good reputation as doctors, both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Ephraim Bueno lived near Rembrandt, who etched his likeness.”

“This is the Sephardi doctor Ephraim Bueno (1599-1665). When he was a child, he and his parents fled Portugal to Bordeaux where studied medicine, then later settled in Amsterdam. Father and son gained a good reputation as doctors, both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Ephraim Bueno lived near Rembrandt, who etched his likeness.”

Amsterdam, a legendarily liberal city for sex, drugs (as today), was also comparatively liberal for Jews back in the day. William of Orange fought a revolution for religious freedom from Catholic Spain. Jews won comparative emancipation in the Netherlands in 1796.

The combination of economic success and a relatively tolerant religious environment – unusual in Europe – made Amsterdam attractive to foreigners.

Portuguese “New Christians” – descendents from the Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert but practiced secretly – found that here in Amsterdam, Jews could practice without having to wear distinguishing marks or live in ghetto. We meet several (in portraits) who took up again their Jewish lives once they settled in Amsterdam.

“Sephardi nobility: Antonio Lopes Suasso was one of the Republic’s richest merchants. He was born in Bordeaux and, as a son of New Christians, was baptized a roman Catholic. He moved to Amsterdam in 1654, where he began to live as a Jew. He continued trading with various countries, including with Catholic Spain, and provided important financial services to the Spanish king, Charles II. After the king elevated him to the nobility in 1676, Antonio was awarded the title Baron d’Avernas-le-Gras (c. 1700)”

Amsterdam at the start of 18th C developed into the biggest, most important Jewish city in world. No other city had the synagogues of the size and majesty of the Great Synagogue and Portuguese Synagogue (the largest synagogue in the world) – which served as a symbol of liberation enjoyed by Jews here.

“Two historical synagogues: the Majestic Askenazi Great Synagogue (left) and the Portuguese Synagogue were consecrated in 1671 and 1675 respectively. The two buildings symbolized the permanent establishment of the Jewish communities in Amsterdam. Gerrit Berckheyde (1638-1698), c. 1675-1680.

You walk through to another building, also a former synagogue, where the exhibit basically tells the “modern” story of Jews here, from 1900 to the present, and especially, the horrifying history of what happened to real people before, during and after the Holocaust.

When Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 80,000 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.

When the Nazis came, Jews tried to hide in basements, attics, secret rooms. Anne Frank is best known because of her diary.

Some 25,000 Jews went into hiding, of whom 18,000 survived, the rest were discovered or betrayed. ”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.

Sign: ‘Voor joden verboden’: Almost immediately after the Germans occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, they began taking anti-Jewish measures. Their goal was to isolate the Jewish population. In January 1941, all Jews were required to register. The first razzias (raids) took place soon after and were intended to instill fear. Other measures followed in rapid succession: Jews were barred from many occupations; they had to turn over their savings; Jewish children could no longer attend state schools; Jews were not allowed to make telephone calls, visit non-Jews, drive cars… From 15 September 1941, Jews could no longer enter parks, zoos, cafes, restaurants, hotels, theatres and museums. Signs reading ‘Voor joden verboden’ (No Jews allowed) appeared all over the country., This one was posted in the Haagse Bos, a park in the Hague.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.” Some were successful, most found out, betrayed, or gave up. On average, Jews in hiding paid 100 guilders a month for protection.

Some 30,000 Dutch Jews out of 140,000 survived the war, most of them by going into hiding. After the war ended only 5,200 Jews returned to Amsterdam from the camps, and the life of the city changed forever.

“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… 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…. 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.”

The perspective you get at the Jewish Museum is unusual – to see how the community lived for 350 years in Amsterdam and then the aftermath holds lessons for today. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The perspective you get at the Jewish Museum is unusual – to see how the community lived for 350 years and then the aftermath holds lessons for today.

Today Jewish Amsterdam community numbers 20,000 persons, is well organized, has a rich religious and cultural life, nevertheless the old Jewish Amsterdam belongs to history.

The Jewish Museum also manages the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the Holocaust Memorial. The former theater was used during the Nazi occupation as a deportation center for Jews. Today it is a monument to the memory of those who died, with a special exhibition for school children. (It is being renovated with reopening expected beginning 2023). https://www.amsterdam.info/jewish/hollandsche_schouwburg/

At the Jewish Museum, I pick up a sheet describing a walking tour through the Jewish Cultural Quarter. I go off to follow much of the list. It is like a mystery tour, peeking back in time to people’s lives.

Jewish Museum, Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, www.amsterdam.info/museums/jewish_historical_museum/. More information and to purchase tickets online, at www.jck.nl/en.

See also:

Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam: Historic Hotel that Played Major Role in History

36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling in the Jewish Quarter

36 Hours in Amsterdam: Time-Traveling Through Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter

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