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

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Chapter 7

The Emancipation

By choice, the Jewish people always tended to live close together and thus in the same neighbourhood; no one forced them to do so, it was simply convenient. As the Jewish quarter grew, and Amsterdam itself became larger and larger in the second half of the seventeenth century, wealthier Jews moved to what is called the new canal area that had been constructed at the time. At first, due to its position on the far side of the Amstel River, it was not a popular residence among the citizens of Amsterdam. Today however, it is one of the wealthiest addresses in all of the Netherlands. Sadly, not many Jew's live there today.

The eighteenth century commenced with a feeling of hope and a vision of the future. It was a time to reflect on past events. Jewish life continued to flourish throughout the Jewish quarter which was full of atmosphere, and which was known as “Yiddisheheit,” meaning, “Jewishness.”

Amongst the Sephardic Hebrews many were well established in their professions and there was considerable wealth. However the Ashkenazi Jews, being the German and Eastern European Jews were mostly very poor. In-spite of this, more and more arrived as the news spread of the freedoms that w enjoyed in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam, now lovingly called “Mokum.”

The Main entrance and facade of the New Synagogue

The Ashkenazi community had grown so large another Shule was needed to cope with the vast number of Hebrews arriving from the east. This Shule was built into two houses that stood next to the “Great Synagogue.” However, it was decided to build a much larger Synagogue on this site. Completed in 1752, and opened on March 24 the “New Synagogue” was larger and more imposing than the older “Great Synagogue.” A grand entrance was its main feature, with Ionic columns on each side. The inscription above the doors featured verses from two Psalms.

“Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When the LORD bringeth back the captivity of His people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad” Psalm 53: 6.

“This gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter” Psalm 118: 20.

The doo to the Nieuw (New) Synagogue with the inscription above in gold

Huge windows filled the “New Synagogue” with light. The roofline was superbly decorated with a balustrade, and featured an elegant glass dome, which distinguishes this building from all other buildings in the city. One effect of this was to demonstrate that the Jewish people were free and able to build their houses of worship with pride, rather than having to meet in modest homes and warehouses, as they had done when they first arrived, and still do in other parts of Europe.

The Interior seen in 1923

The interior of the “New Synagogue” conformed to the older “Great Synagogue,” with four grand columns, which highlighted the centrally situated “Bima” and Ark of the Law” near, the east wall. There was great jubilation at the official dedication, as a deep feeling of belonging swept throughout the community. Each day presented new and exiting challenges, for a people that for so long were rejected by the world at large. It was during this time, a new and growing tendency towards integration, and assimilation manifested.

In nearby Uilenburg the Ashkenazi Community decided to build the forth major Synagogue in Amsterdam. After commencing, the building took far longer than anticipated. However, it was completed and opened on 29 August 1766. The Uilenburg Synagogue remained in service until 1943. During the war, the Synagogue was sadly plundered, as the poor of Amsterdam needed wood and much of her magnificent fittings were burnt. In 1954 Amsterdam’s city council purchased the building for restoration. Today it is used as a monument restoration studio,

The Uilenburg Synagogue as seen in 1988, but still looking superb


The interior, photographed in 1916

During the war, the Synagogue was sadly plundered, as the poor of Amsterdam needed wood and much of her magnificent fittings were burnt. In 1954 Amsterdam’s city council purchased the building for restoration. Today it is used as a monument restoration studio as can be seen below.

The Uilenburg Synagogue photographed in 1988

It will have been noted in the earlier chapters, that the Jewish people, although free and accepted were looked upon as being different. They were distinguished by their religious precepts, a different language, Yiddish, and Hebrew in prayer, the observance of the Sabbath, the Seven Feast’s of the LORD, and the careful attention to the dietary laws as written in the Torah (the Law). There was also a certain measure of self-government within the community, which followed centuries old traditions. Both communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, had their own religious leaders, Rabbis, Administrators (Parnassim), burial grounds, ritual baths, Synagogues, kosher food outlets, and a number of societies intended for study of the Torah and other social activities.

Standards were based on Scriptural principles, and traditions amplified by the Rabbis in the many volumes of the Talmud (Commentaries by Rabbis of old). Through the centuries, the Talmud had become so extensive, that in the sixteenth century a simplified four-part summary was introduced, called the “Schulchan Aruch” (Code of Hebrew Law). In light of this, the Hebrew community lived as far as possible according to their own principles of justice. This internal organisation was financially independent from the State of the Netherlands. Special taxes contributions and donations achieved this. This also meant that the community was greatly dependent on the well-to-do members. Their contributions and donations to charitable societies benefited non-Jews as well as the Jewish community.

Through the ideology of “enlightenment” which became popular in the eighteenth century, people were regarded as being free and equal, “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” These ideas clashed with the exceptional position, which Jews had until then occupied, yet a tendency towards integration and assimilation nevertheless developed. By integration was meant the taking up of an equal function in the overall society, while retaining a separate identity. On the other hand, assimilation suggested the complete absorption into society, so that the idea of a separate identity no longer existed. Assimilation was therefore strongly disputed and discouraged within Orthodox.

A Painting of faithful Jews in Prayer

The advocates of emancipation concerned themselves particularly with the individual rights of the people, as they saw “Judaism” as being a principle of religious choice, which everyone had to make for themselves. Opponents of the emancipation deplored the undermining of the autonomy, attacking the centuries old structures within the Hebrew communities, who retained their “Jewishness” regardless of where they lived. They felt that these structures would only become redundant when the long awaited Messiah would come.

However, it deplored to be external factors that brought about emancipation in the Netherlands. The invading French army of 1794 brought with them the notion of equality of men. A group of “enlightened” Jews, who had formed themselves into a society named “Felix Liberate,” based on this notion, appealed to the National Assembly, demanding to become recognised as full and equal citizens.

After much discussion, this equality, or emancipation, came about in 1796. This was in opposition to the desires of the majority in Orthodox Jewish circles.

The emancipation of 1796 was a definitive point of change in the history of the Jewish people in the Netherlands, signalling the end of the power of the “Parnassim,” the administrators. In contrast, the authority of the Government was greatly increased. The outcome of this was that the Jewish people, since their emancipation, were free to settle anywhere in the Netherlands, and some, one hundred and sixty-one Jewish settlements, or communities flourished around the Netherlands by the nineteenth century. With this emancipation, they were no longer regarded as “settlers” or “emigrants” but as full and equal citizens with rights to vote and to take a role in government. Orthodox Jews continued to live as they did before, and ignored the liberal masses.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish masses also became involved with the changing face of society. Under Louis Napoleon, who was appointed King by his brother Napoleon, Jewish education was placed under the auspices of the State, and this remained so after the French eventually retreated in 1813. Due to this, the use of the Yiddish language came to be opposed, and the use of Dutch was now promoted, the result being, that Hebrew secular education, outside the religious education system, was sadly lacking. The education law of 1857 terminated the subsidy enjoyed by Hebrew schools, and thus they largely disappeared. Jewish children now generally attended public schools. Principally due to this change, Yiddish declined as an everyday language. Religious education however, continued outside regular school hours. As many Dutch Jews became more, and more emancipated, little interest was shown in religious education. Assimilation led to the deterioration of Hebrew values, the values of their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Dutch are a people of decorum, and even this entered Synagogue services. The Dutch language replaced some of the Hebrew prayers, which had been uttered in Hebrew for thousands of years. Choirs similar to Church choirs were introduced, and many other changes were implemented to “fit-in” with the assimilated picture of a United Netherlands.

Notwithstanding, even these changes could not prevent a steady decline in Synagogue attendance during the course of the nineteenth century. The Sabbath and dietary laws were also less and less observed. All this effected Hebrew life right into the twentieth century. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic leaders would openly encourage Jews to attend services, unite in prayer and called out “Return to God,” but did so with little success. As the Scriptures and history show, only when man is in need, and in dire straights, they tend to cry out in prayer to their Creator and expect immediate help. However, as years passed there were many changes, more than Rabbis had expected.

By 1940, Amsterdam had the Netherland’s largest Hebrew community of around 100,000 Jewish inhabitants. The total Jewish population in the Netherlands was estimated at 140,000, with over 24,000 of these being refugees, who had fled across the border from Germany and Eastern Europe, as there was a new wave of anti-Semitism raging. Refugees firmly believed that the Netherlands would provide them a safe home, as it had done for centuries.

Modern anti-Semitism began its ascent in Germany. It became prominent in 1879 when Bismarck used it to discredit the Jewish leaders of the National Liberation Group, which was calling for constitutional reform. In France modern anti-Semitism surfaced in the infamous Dreyfus case. Napoleon had liberated the Jewish people from the ghettos, and many were now living in the elegant upper class areas. The Dreyfus trial sounded the alarm to all Jews in Europe, rich and poor. Captain Dreyfus was a French Jew who was falsely accused of treason for the mere reason of being a “Jew.” His trial set off new waves of anti- Jewish feeling throughout France, so that when Theodore Hertzl visited Paris, he heard Parisians shouting abuse to Jews in the streets, “death to the Jews, death to the Jews.” He decided that Europe, which for so long persecuted the Jewish community, was no place for a Jew to live, thus they needed to return to the Promised Land “Eretz Yisroel” (the Land of Israel). History proved him right, as the Nazi Holocaust so graphically demonstrated.

Jewish population of the Netherlands 1909 to 1947





North Holland




South Holland
























North Brabant




















The Netherlands did not fare well with the increased numbers of refugees. Already the nation was experiencing a state of economic depression, and poverty was rife, especially in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. The faithful Jew continued to trust the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for their provision and well-being. However, a great number of the Jewish community had slowly drifted from their ways, and their faith. This was due to the rapid rate of assimilation and emancipation. Those refugees who escaped Germany believed they were completely safe in the Netherland’s, for it was here where Jews had assimilated so well. However, there were some who knew in their hearts that what heading their way. For in truth there was a tsunami of hatred that would cover the Netherland’s and it would effect all Jew!.

As a result, Orthodox Hebrews, and Hebrews who at the time did not consider themselves religious, began to pray and cry out unto God, for His mercy and protection.

A sketch of Jewish Amsterdam and the Synagogues by A. van der Laan - 1710

This image reveals the glorious days of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, which was now sadly in decline!

Source - Biblioteek Rosenthaliana

“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the wicked, at the voice of the wicked; as the oppression of the wicked bring suffering upon me and revile me in their anger. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.’” Psalm 55: 1 to 6 - NIV.

“… the voice of the enemy, the oppression of the wicked” - was about to befall on Israel in Holland for; the HUNTER was APPROACHING!


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