“Dutch Tzedakah” - Stories of righteous ones in the Netherlands - Saving Jews from the Nazis

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Chapter 6

Building a New Life

In this new Jewish environment in Amsterdam, facilities became available at a rapid pace. Kosher food and meats became more, and more available, with the opening of kosher butchers and shops (kosher means clean or fit to eat as commanded in the Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures). Mikvah’s (ritual baths) so vital to the Jewish lifestyle were built. Above all the most vital need was for Synagogues large enough to accommodate this ever-increasing community. The Ashkenazi community had worshipped in private homes or in warehouses around Vlooyenburg. They, and the Sephardic commenced the planning of building their respective Synagogues.

Great Synagogue seen with the Dritt (3rd) Shule on the right with six windows upstairs.

The Obbene (Upper) Shule (Yiddish for Synagogue) is behind the Dritt Shule

First to be opened and dedicated on Passover, 14 Nisan 5431, March 25 1671, was the magnificent “Great Synagogue” for the High German Jewish Community, later to be renamed “the Netherlands Israelite Community.” The master builder of Amsterdam was Elias Bouwman, who built this grand building, who also was involved with the Grand “Portuguese Synagogue” across the road. The Great Synagogue clearly showed the influence of Daniel Stalpaert, one of Amsterdam’s leading architects. The exterior was large, square with grand arched windows and in fact, it would the largest Synagogue anywhere, until the completion of the Portuguese Synagogue in 1675. The block-like exterior translates in the interior into a rectangular layout, with four mighty columns dividing the area in the form of a Greek cross. This design was so original that the Great Synagogue was a wholly new type of building never seen before. The interior was grand in every way with over three stories of open space. The galleries were located on three sides. The splendid white marble “Aron HaKodesh” (Ark of the Law, also known as the “Hechal”) holding the Scrolls of the Law (the Torah, containing the five books of Moses) was a costly gift from Abraham the son of Isaac Auerbach of Coesfield. The words of the Psalmist, “I have set the LORD always before me” (Psalm 16: 18), which were inscribed above the Holy Ark, are still visible today. The huge windows lit the spacious interior allowing the brilliant summer sun to reach the “Bima” (the central rostrum where the Torah is read out loud to the congregation). There was much celebration amongst the community, as all looked forward with great optimism to the future, where Jews could freely study the blessed Scriptures, serve, and worship the LORD their God with all their hearts. One can almost hear the cry of joy, “The LORD is again going to bless His people Israel.” At last, after 1600 years of continued persecution, peace had found its way into Jewish lives. This sense of quiet and freedom translated to the grand houses of worship that were now being built in and around Amsterdam.

Great Synagogue Interior was destroyed by the Nazis

Although Ashkenazi Jews were generally poor, they had a feeling of sufficiency owing to their newfound freedom. Busy markets sprang up everywhere, selling anything saleable. Welcome smells of fried fish, herrings, and sweet and sour gherkins wafted across streets and squares. Markets became the meeting place for Jews and Gentiles alike. The Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Wide Street) was the business centre of the Jewish quarter where street trading as well as wholesale trading was established. The street trading was lively, cheerful, and appealed to the imagination of many. Sani van Bussum portrayed this activity with striking reality in her book, “A Friday in the Breestraat.”

“There is so much to do. The boards must be laid out on the packing cases, all the baskets to be lined with clean newspaper, the fruit beautifully stacked the fragrance of it opens your heart, God be praised! What a display! A work of art! Then passers-by have no choice but to stop, their shopping bags must spring open unasked in their hands, their mouths begin to water and money comes out of their purses. Then, so much is sold that for all it is a blessed Friday with enough at the end of the day to make it a good Sabbath!”

Here in the market place, the Jewish street trader, and the buyer would meet. It was a place of much excitement, noise, bargaining, and entertainment. The true feeling of this part of Amsterdam’s Jewish lifestyle is well described by Joost Mendes in his book, “Memories of the City.”

“There, in the big, little Dutch city on the Dort (Amsterdam), live many Jews. It seemed as if their number was much greater than it was, because they were always so busy. They controlled all street trading. They were raucous, bawling street criers; the lusty, breathless hawkers, who all at once could turn a street into a hive of noisy activity; who banished the modest peace and stillness of quiet quays and canals, and screeching their demands, raw and vehement, made the very houses shake. On the market, the stalls and the people were theirs. They gesticulated, chatted, told tales, sang, and made people laugh all of the market day. They were the most Jewish of the Jews in Dortendam (Amsterdam), the toiling, labouring type of Jew, who grievously offended that in him was all that is hated in Judaism, and seemed as if he wanted to give voice to this offence in his trading.”

On the other hand, some of the Sephardim were wealthy and build grand homes, many of which still remain to this day. Isaac de Pinto was one of these, a Portuguese Jew who in the 17th century fled to Antwerp, and subsequently to the Netherlands, in order to escape the Inquisition, and to practice his beloved faith openly. As a banker, he first settled in Rotterdam, but soon moved to Amsterdam, the centre of world trade at that time. In 1651, he bought a house in Sint Antoniesbreestraat, which had been built at the beginning of the century for Jan Janzoon Carel, one of the founders of the famed “East Indies Shipping Company.” De Pinto had the house radically altered in 1680, the stately facade being remodelled in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Six symmetrical columns now graced the facade with elegant wrought iron trelliswork in front of the windows, and the interior was richly decorated, particularly with panels and ceiling paintings. Today the memory lingers on of those days, for the house still stands intact in all its glory. The wrought iron bearing his initials is intact, as are some of the interior paintings on panels and ceilings. Today the house is a library and is open to the public.

When the first Sephardic Synagogue, 1618, on the Houtgracht became too small, the leaders of the “United Portuguese Congregation, Talmud Torah,” decided to build a new one. Elias Bouman supplied the design. Construction began in 1671, but was stopped soon afterwards, due to the French invasion of the Lowlands in 1672. The Dutch were waging war against the enemy, France, who was an ally of England at the time. There was chaos and confusion, as the French drew close to the gates of Amsterdam. The Dutch economy by now had come to a standstill, as had the construction of all new buildings in the city. Two years later, a treaty was signed with England, and the French retreated from all occupied territory.

Soon, the building of the “Portuguese Synagogue” recommenced, but it suffered further mishaps. On August 1 1674, the great windows of the Synagogue were shattered by a violent hurricane. Several ceiling beams were also destroyed in the storm, causing yet another stagnation in the construction of this, one of the most magnificent Synagogues in all of Europe, if not in the world to this day!

The Temple like Portuguese Synagogue was photographed by the author in 2001

Finally, this fine building was completed in 1675. The following poem was written by Daniel Levi de Barrios on the occasion, of the Synagogue's opening.

“The mist lifted when among the people who glorify the great God, the old love was revived of the sacred Law and their grand temple was erected in this rich city. Sing His praise louder and louder, proclaim His beauty to one and all. It is a ladder for the angels to reach this earth and for Israel a gate to heaven.”

The Jewish poet was most generous in the praises he sang to the Synagogue of the Portuguese Congregation when the building was finally opened on Friday August 2 1675. For the community it would be a day with special significance, as on the Jewish calendar it was one day after the 9th of Av, the day Israel remembers the destruction of the two temples. The month changes its name the next day, becoming the month of Solace, “Menachem.” The opening of this glorious building was, and is a solace to the Jewish community of Amsterdam to this day.

The main building is in the shape of a rectangle and is surrounded on three sides by small buildings forming a courtyard. Notably the courtyard around the Synagogue proper is a reference to the ancient temple of Solomon. The sheer bulk of the building, twice the size of the Great Synagogue completed in 1671, is a symbol of the power and the self-confidence of the Sephardic Jews. The instruction had been given that this house of worship must be higher than any of the surrounding buildings, and thus it was clearly recognisable as the centre were Jews assembled for Prayer and study of the Holy Scriptures.

Main Door with the Hebrew prayer as seen below – photographed by the author in 2005

Above the Synagogue entrance, is prayer in Hebrew and the pious would recite this whenever they entered. In English, the line reads, And I in Thy great love shall enter Thy house.” In Hebrew, the line also contains the name of Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, 1626-1693, on whose initiative the Synagogue was built.

The interior is simply grandiose and it has a seating capacity for a good 1,500 people. The massive space is lit by natural daylight that streams trough the enormous arched windows. Then in the evening hundreds of candles glow from many huge brass chandeliers, as well as from individual candleholders at each place where worshippers are seated.

A bird’s eye view of this superb historic interior with the beautiful Ark containing the Torah Scrolls at the front

Seating is set out along the three walls all facing to the centre and the “Bima” (rostrum). The “Bima” area is separated from the seating by six gigantic columns that support the barrel vaulting of the roof. At the sides, half columns against the walls support the vaulting. The women’s gallery stands on twelve separate columns that symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel. The plan of the Synagogue is largely determined by the position of the “Hechal” (the Holy Ark) in which the Torah scrolls are kept.

It is from this magnificent Bima the Scrolls are opened and the Scriptures are read

The “Bima” is in the centre located directly opposite the Ark, where the Torah is read, causing all attention to be focused on what is essentially the centre, or the heart of the Synagogue, being the Word of God. The material used for the interior is the absolute finest. The gigantic Ark for example is carved out of imported Jacaranda timber.

Portuguese Synagogue Interior – photographed by the author in 2005

1675 was indeed a great year for rejoicing in the Jewish community, for not since Jerusalem had life been so normal, so regular. Some of the Sephardic Jews expanded in trade and prospered whilst others remained poor. However, the community set up a special fund to assist the needy, a practice that continued up to 1942.

Considering Jewish life in Amsterdam, it is not surprising that the very first Jewish settlers to America actually came from Amsterdam. The first Jewish man to settle on Manhattan Island was Jacob Bar Simson who arrived from Amsterdam in August 1654. One month later twenty-three “poor but healthy” Jews landed in what was then designated as “Nieuw (New) Amsterdam” today’s New York. They had sailed with other Dutch men and women from Parnambuco after invasion by the Portuguese, however, en-route at sea their vessel was captured by Spanish pirates. A French man-of-war, the Charles, rescued the passengers and transferred them to New Amsterdam. In the new land, life was difficult for Jews for the Governor, Peter Stuyvesant was a servere anti-Semite, austere, inflexible, and not at all pleased with the arrival of these, “hateful enemies, and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” However, through the power and commitment of the Dutch West India Shipping Company, who did have a number of Jewish shareholders back home, the Jews were allowed to remain with the proviso that “the poor among them should not become a burden to the company or the community.” Not long after, a more cordial reception was accorded to fifteen Jewish families arriving from the Netherlands. Thus in due course, Jewish life became settled.

The Ever Growing Great Synagogue:

Great Synagogue seen with the Dritt (Third) Shule on the right.

The Obbene (Upper) Shule is a half level lower behind the Dritt Shule

Note: Shule is Yiddish for Synagogue. For a full floor plan of the four Synagogues - CLICK HERE!

Amsterdam, rather than New Amsterdam, was the attraction for the Jewish migrants. They came from all their places of persecution. Numbers of Ashkenazi Jews swelled so rapidly, that the Great Synagogue became too small. A second Shule (Synagogue) was rapidly built. This new Synagogue, called the “Obbene Shule” (Upstairs Shule) and it was consecrated in 1686. It was built above the meat market, which itself was built in 1672. Even though it was a small synagogue, it was a fine place of worship. It was graced on one side, by two columns that supported the women's gallery above. “The Ark of the law” was carved from fine timbers, and from the ceiling hung two fine chandeliers.

Amsterdam from the air. The Montelbaans Tower can be seen top-right
Vlooyenburg is bottom-right, just above the bridge. The Moses & Aaron Church seen just above

Fourteen years later, the need was for yet another Synagogue. Thus, the “Dritt Shule” (Third Synagogue) was built next to the Great Synagogue, and was dedicated in 1700. With three Ashkenazi Synagogues side by side, and others nearby, there was yet a shortage of seating for Jews to come and worship the God of Abraham, the Gob of Isaac and the God of Jacob, their fathers.

A Uilenburg courtyard, passage way leads to Uilenburg Street and the Uilenburg Synagogue

Whilst Jewish Amsterdam was growing so rapidly, Jews also settled in Uilenburg, which became an over-crowded Jewish quarter, where families were cramped into small homes. It was common to find a family with as much as many as eleven children living in one room. Even with their hardships, there was the comfort and knowledge that they were safe from anti-Semitism, which was rampant throughout Europe, especially from the Church of Rome and other Orthodox Christian Churches. In Eastern Europe, Jews were treated more like animals than humans. In Poland for example, it was regarded that a Jew was worth less than a horse, for Poles had a saying at the time “You have to feed a horse before sending it to work, but a Jew can work without food.” And that is what Jews were forced to do for their meagre earnings. The Netherlands now had its wealthy and yet also their poor Jews due to the massive number, but all were treated with the same respect, for the Dutch themselves had their rich and poor.

Uilenburg vendors

Jews having suffered much in their past, became experts in the art of survival. They would take every opportunity to make a little money to feed and clothe the family. Most would do so by selling fruit and vegetables, fish, home cooked snacks and other foods, books, second hand clothes and used furniture. Carts would line the streets as well as at the market place. Children, and old men alike, would go and clean shoes. Some were known as great entertainers as they polished shoes accompanied with song, and their much-loved wit. One such man was Isaac on the Dam who became one of Amsterdam's best known and loved characters. After a hard day at work, the family would walk home dreaming of a more prosperous time. Often these words would be heard sung by the children “One day we will be as rich as De Pinto,” whilst their fathers would pray for better things, the coming of the Messiah. “O LORD, may the Messiah come quickly, that next year we may be in Jerusalem. Even though He tarry LORD, we wait daily for his coming.” Jewish Amsterdam was being built, but the dream of all was to rebuild Zion, Jerusalem, the ancient City of God.

“When the LORD shall build Zion, He shall appear in His Glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer” Psalms 102: 16 & 17.


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