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Looking for Mokum

Part 2 of 3: A chilly visit to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue and an awkward one to Anne Frank’s Secret Annex

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(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: cuv59/Flickr)
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Looking for Mokum

Part 1 of 3: Returning to Amsterdam, scene of my post-college-crisis memoir, Everything Is Going To Be Great, to explore its Jewish history

Looking for Mokum

Part 3 of 3: Visiting Amsterdam and learning to love the Jewish version of the Eurovision Song Contest

Rachel Shukert spent several semi-disastrous years living in Amsterdam after college. Recently she returned to her adopted city to explore its Jewish heritage—something she had actively avoided in her post-collegiate days. Read her other installments here and here.

My tour guide, Vera, descends from one of the first Jewish families to come to Amsterdam from Portugal in the early 17th century. In her voluminous fur-trimmed coat and oversized black beret, she bears more than a passing resemblance to those oil paintings of darkly featured merchants and their dramatically attired wives I saw hanging in the Jewish Historical Museum.

“I am a piece of living history,” she tells me solemnly.

Given Vera’s pedigree, she’s the perfect person to lead me on today’s tour of Jewish Amsterdam. But first, she tells me I need a hat.

Obediently, I pull out my crumpled gray knit hat from my pocket.

“And your scarf?” she asks. “Where’s your scarf?”

“I’ll be fine,” I say.

“You can’t go out without a scarf. You’ll freeze to death.” She settles back down onto the sofa in the hotel lobby. “Go back up to your room and get one. I’ll wait.”

The Portuguese Synagogue is startlingly unimpressive from the outside. A long, low, stone building showing every one of its 325 years, it looks like more like some ancient storage facility than a treasured house of worship. Inside, however, it’s a different story—a shockingly preserved portal to another time. The ark and pews are gilded and intricately carved; the dark wood ceiling is vaulted, like the underside of a hull of ship, and hung with elaborate brass chandeliers, each one bearing hundreds of wax tapers. It is also freezing.

“There’s no heating,” Vera explains. “You see now why you need a scarf.”

I look at all the old wood surrounding me. “I guess space heaters would be too dangerous?”

Vera laughs. “Yes, but also, it’s not possible because there is no electricity.”

It seems the candlelit chandeliers are no designer-y affectation.

“They had a chance to wire the building at the beginning of the 20th century,” Vera says. “But they decided against it. The synagogue elders didn’t want to shut down the building for the time they would need to do it, and it was expensive. They felt that this new technology would never last anyway.” Her lined face is shining.

“I grew up in this synagogue,” she says. “My parents were married here, they brought me here for my naming when I was a baby. My ex-husband was the president of the congregation. Anything you want to know about this place, I can tell you.”

I had questions. The fine dusting of sand covering the floor boards? “It’s a tradition. Some people say it is to represent the sands of the deserts, but really it’s to keep people’s muddy shoes from rotting the boards.” The bathrooms? “This is really the problem,” Vera says. Except for the High Holidays and a few other events, the congregation’s regular services are held in a modern building in the city’s southern suburbs (where most of Amsterdam’s Jews currently live). It has heating, electricity, flush toilets, and other amenities that people have come to expect in their houses of worship. She makes a face. “You really should have gone at the hotel.”

I quickly change the subject. “How did the building survive the war?”

Vera shrugs. “Nobody is sure exactly,” she says. “But many people think that the Nazis planned to keep it as a kind of museum. After they have killed all the Jews, you understand.”

Not for the first time, I feel an eerie shudder at the similarity between the Nazis oft-stated plans for postwar museums and the actual Jewish museums of Europe and beyond: the objectification of objects, the display of relics as a way of life, an entire society that no longer exists. Intent, I suppose, is everything.

I try to phrase my next question delicately. In Holland, the memories of the war, for many, are still painful; it’s not unheard of for even the Dutch of my generation to give wrong directions to hapless German tourists in a kind of futile revenge. “And how did your family survive?”

She smiles at me sadly. “I’ll tell you but not here,” she says. “This should be a happy place. We’ll go now to the Hollandse Schouwburg, and there I’ll tell you the story.”

In a former life, Hollandse Schouwburg was a performance hall situated in the heart of Amsterdam’s affluent Jewish neighborhoods around the Nieuwe Herengracht. A major center of vaudeville and theater, it featured acts from all over the world. In 1941, the Nazis renamed it the Joodische Schouwburg, or “Jewish Theater,” forbidding non-Jewish acts and non-Jewish audiences. In 1942, when the first relocation (that is, deportation) notices went out to Amsterdam’s Jews, the theater was transformed into an assembly point.

“You received a notice in the mail, telling you to report to the Schouwburg and what you could bring with you,” Vera explains. “Then you waited.” Whole families might spend weeks, even months, crammed inside until was their turn for transport to Westerbork, the transit camp in northeastern Netherlands, from where they would eventually be deported to the death camps in the East, mainly to Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Today, the Hollandse Schouwburg is a museum dedicated to the memory of Amsterdam’s Jews. On display are deportation notices, like the one famously received by Margot Frank, prompting the Frank family to go into hiding; photographs; special toiletry kits that Jews were advised to buy in preparation for their “relocation.” Most astonishing to me was a TV monitor that played on loop the entire wedding film of Jim de Zwarte to Rosa Wertheim, the flickering bride from the Jewish Historical Museum. In the film, the wedding party files smilingly out of the house and into waiting carriages; enter the synagogue, and come out again. Neighbors cheer and throw flower petals, and the whole thing would be extremely normal were it not for the enormous yellow stars sewn to the tailcoats and cocktail dresses, a terrible talisman of doom.

“My parents once looked at their guest book from their wedding in 1932,” says Vera, peering over my shoulder. “Two hundred people, and all but maybe 10 of them just disappeared. They never said dead, my parents. Just: ‘They never came back.’ ” She sighs, and then she tells me the story of her parents’ survival, which I hope I can relay faithfully here—it seemed a little tacky to take notes.

In early 1940, when the German invasion looked imminent, Vera’s father, a well-off textile merchant (ah, the schmatte business) wanted to go to England or Switzerland, where he had business contacts, but her mother, a nurse, refused to leave Amsterdam and her elderly parents behind. The family was summoned for deportation and went into the Schouwburg. A week or two later, however, Vera’s mother was deemed an essential worker (she was assigned to look after sick children), and she was permitted to return home, along with Vera’s father and older sister, who was a baby at the time. The grandparents were not so lucky.

Given this reprieve, the family went into hiding in a rural village at the home of a colleague of Vera’s father. The baby stayed with the colleague’s single daughter, who claimed the baby was the orphaned child of a friend. “The village didn’t believe it though,” Vera tells me. “They gossiped that she had had a baby with a German soldier.” She looks at her watch. “We have one hour left. Please can we go to the house of Anne Frank? They made me promise I would take you.”

My misadventures involving the Anne Frank House—the only place of Jewish interest in Amsterdam where I have logged quite a bit of time—are exhaustively chronicled in my book, Everything Is Going To Be Great, but if for some reason you have neglected to read it, I will briefly recount them here. I tripped on the stairs and almost sent a group of Belgian children plummeting to their deaths. I got in a screaming fight with my mother in the Frank family’s kitchen, which was only resolved by our sudden and mutual delight in the gorgeousness of the Frank family’s toilet. I worked its exit doors as a street promoter for an American-style comedy club, and I cheerily greeted weeping strangers with the phrase: “Do you like comedy? Do you like to laugh?” and was once berated for this by a particularly offended woman “on behalf of the Jewish people.”

So, I thought I was tapped out when it comes to Anne Frank, but I am pleased to announce that with Vera’s assistance, I was able to add to my legacy of awkwardness in the Secret Annex. We are in the bedroom that Anne had shared with Fritz Pfeffer (or Dr. Dussel the dentist, as he is known in the diary), inspecting the famous collection of pictures of movie stars and babies that she had carefully pasted on the walls. From the next room, the warm voice of Otto Frank reads aloud a section of a diary. Everyone is sniffling, except for Vera, who leans towards me to whisper loudly: “You know, my cousin was in the same class with Anne Frank.”

“Really?” I whisper back.

“They walked together to school every day.” Vera pauses. “She never liked her. She said Anne Frank was a bit—trutig. You know trutig?”

“Bitchy?” I whisper, half-expecting to be shot.

Ja. Anne Frank was a bit bitchy.”

We laugh like maniacs. You have to when things are sad.

TOMORROW: The Jewish answer to Eurovision.

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I enjoyed your first two installments and look forward to part 3! Good that you started at the JHM – this museum is anything but stuffy; I’ve been there literally dozens of times over the past 15 years, and I always see something new and relevant. The Portuguese Synagogue is indeed monumental and gorgeous, and the Hollandsche Schouwburg is also not to be missed.

Did you get to see the JHM’s Children’s Museum? It is also a treasure trove of objects, activities, and information – they pose questions about easy things (matzah) and hard things (shoah) and give answers in a way that every level can appreciate – it takes kids seriously and is still a lot of fun… another article series, maybe?

One little point of criticism: check your Dutch spelling! (Joodische => Joodsche ; trutig => truttig). But then I’m being truttig, aren’t I?

I’ve visited Amsterdam twice and, with the exception of the Anne Frank house, have never seen any of these treasures. Shame on me.

Rachel says:

You’re right, I did misspell truttig!!! Shame on me. If it’s any consolation, my spelling in English is nothing to write home about either. (But I have English spellcheck.) Joodische, however, I think was just a typo. Thanks!!!–Rachel

Rachel says:

BTW Ken–I had a fabulous time at the IJMF. It’ll be covered in the next installment; hope you enjoy. : )

Good point about Hitler’s ‘museums to the lost race’ functioning precisely as Hitler intended. That’s the problem with Europe for me. Despite the Nazis losing the war, they basically won their crusade to rid Europe of Jewry, and that is because they received nearly universal cooperation from every nation they occupied, a little fact that gets conveniently overlooked.
For Jews, Europe is first and foremost a graveyard. Too often the Holocaust and WW2 are conflated into one event. But in reality, a critical mass of Europeans were all too happy to cooperate with the Final Solution even if they weren’t happy with the idea of living under German occupation.
European exceptionalism–its unique culture, history, art, architecture, and ethnography–is what draws tourists and admirers year after year. And yet, this exceptional Europe that everyone admires is a bas-relief, defined as much by what is cut out as what is left in.
The Dutch have adopted Anne Frank as a mascot; they have honored the Dutch family who hid the Franks (as part of an economic arrangement); but the Dutchman who turned the Franks in is conveniently forgotten to history, even though he is far more representative of the typical European of his time.

Great to read your perspective on Jewish Amsterdam. I was in Amsterdam a couple of years back and had a sort of “slap in the face” experience with the Portuguese Synagogue. When we landed on Friday, me and a couple of friends ran to it for services but were greeted by a suspicious groundskeeper who didn’t understand how we would imagine that services would be going on so late. We noticed a small group eating dinner from some lit windows and just walked away, resolving to come back for a tour.

We came back for a tour and I was struck by how large the place was, and upon questioning, discovering that there were only about 300 families that belonged to the synagogue’s community, I didn’t understand why so few families needed a place that large.

Maybe I was slow, maybe I just never allowed myself, during any of my visits to Europe, to consider the city from a Jewish perspective. Whatever the case, a few days later, I passed the Synagogue in the middle of the night, on my way back to the hotel. Again I wondered about how eerie it looked, this large building in such a prominent spot, with a near non-existent congregation. And only then it struck me, the reason why the congregation was so small.

In any case, during our tour of the synagogue, a friend of mine who studied opera, belted out a melody, and for that moment when he was singing, it felt like the place was filled with the faces of people listening.

After reading this I am going to have to get your book. Thank you for doing this. It takes much to be able to back and see what you missed and then re-tell the tale.

I visited Amsterdam on my way back from Israel in 1983.Besides the Jewish sites,there was also the vanGogh Museum,the concert hall(Contzertgebau),the canal boat rides, at least 2or3 good seafood restaurants,and an interesting group of local citizens.

I’ve said that least 4481708 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Of course, what a great website and educative posts, I surely will bookmark your blog.Have an awsome day!


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Looking for Mokum

Part 2 of 3: A chilly visit to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue and an awkward one to Anne Frank’s Secret Annex

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