Tzedakah” - Stories of righteous ones in the Netherlands - Saving Jews from the
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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
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
from the air. The Montelbaans
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
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
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
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.
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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