Arts & Culture

Amsterdam Dispatch

Well, I’m here again, heading up Jewcy’s Amsterdam bureau, and figured I’d give you a nice old fashioned dispatch. Perhaps in all of Western Europe, Amsterdam is the most Jewish of cities.  Any local will tell you as much, in … Read More

By / November 14, 2008

Well, I’m here again, heading up Jewcy’s Amsterdam bureau, and figured I’d give you a nice old fashioned dispatch. Perhaps in all of Western Europe, Amsterdam is the most Jewish of cities.  Any local will tell you as much, in the amused, slightly ironic tone we in the States use to say things like: “You know, the high school gym was built above an old Indian burial ground.”   You wouldn’t know it from benign army of George Plimpton look-alikes whistling merrily atop their old-fashioned bicycles, seemingly unperturbed by Semitic worries like allergies, or digestive troubles, or genocide, but there are still a few real live Jews tucked away in Northern Holland.  I’ve even met five or six of them, which about as many as we had at my high school in Omaha.  What we didn’t have in Omaha, however, is the shadowy imprint of a once large and influential Jewish presence living in street names, history, and monuments throughout the city my magical, mystical tour of Forgotten Jewish Amsterdam. If the lines snaking outside the Anne Frank House at Prinsengracht 267 are any indication, the famous Secret Annex and adjoining museum (and café—it wouldn’t be Holland without an attached café, serving sensible luncheon dishes of tomato soup, open-faced cheese sandwiches, and apple cake) are the still the first things people think of when they think of Jewish Amsterdam.  Tucked away around the corner is the little statue of Anne herself, looking for all the world the Degas sculpture La petite danseuse de quatorze ans in the Metropolitan Musuem of Art in New York (Anne herself was about fourteen when she was deported, so that’s a fun fact to know and tell.)  Just next to Anne’s statue is the famous Homomonument, Amsterdam’s tribute to all homosexuals that have been persecuted (especially by the Nazis) so if you’re Jewish and gay, that little stretch of the Rozengracht is really one-stop shopping (or sobbing) before you hit the sex clubs for the night.   Far lesser known than the house where Anne Frank hid, however, is the house where Anne Frank lived, a nondescript apartment house on the Merwedeplein in the Riverienbuurt (in translation, River Neighborhood), which in the 20’s and 30’s was an overwhelmingly middle-class Jewish neighborhood—sort of the Skokie or Brookline of Amsterdam.  Today, it remains a middle-class neighborhood of comfortable WWI-era apartment houses and retains its Jewish heritage with the presence of an Orthodox synagogue and a small yeshiva alongside kebab shops and supermarkets. Across town is the more historic Jewish section, surrounding the main drag of the Jodenbreestraat (which according to my handy online translator, translates literally as “Jews Cooked to Mush Street”; while tantalizingly poetic, I’m almost sure this can’t be right).  On this street is the famous Rembrandthuis the residence and studio of the great master Rembrandt van Rijn, who legendarily inspiration in the faces of his Jewish neighbors, many of whom he used as models for his work.  Nearby, taking up nearly the entirety of the Nieuwe Amstelstraat, is the Jewish Historical Museum, housed in four former synagogues, including the former Great Synagogue, once the largest synagogue in Amsterdam and founded in the 1671 by Ashkenazi Jews fleeing from the Chmielnicki massacres in Ukraine.  Next to the museum is the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, a square named for the first Jewish lawyer in the Netherlands (but rest assured, not the last) who fought for full Jewish emancipation under the law.  The square also bears yet another monument, this one to the dockworkers who briefly went on strike to protest 425 Jewish men and boys being sent to Mauthausen in 1941.  I’m sure it would have made Jonas Daniel Meijer proud.   There are many, many monuments in Amsterdam; it’s a very old city and a lot of terrible things have happened here.  But my favorite, for sentimental reasons, is the Holocaust Memorial on the Max Euweplein, situated (appropriately, I’m sure you’ll agree) in front of the Hard Rock Café.  It’s a block of marble roughly the shape of a face that reaches to about eye-level, and the site of one of my personal Great Moments in Jewish History: we were returning from a free vodka tasting in a nearby gallery, completely off our faces, and my friend Maarten was amusing himself by drunkenly recounting Nazi jokes.  Sadly, he scarcely had time to crack himself up before he walked face first into the Holocaust Memorial, immediately breaking his nose and thus mingling his literal Aryan blood with the symbolic blood of my own anguished people.  I never laughed so hard in my life (but then I tried to take him to the emergency room, like a nice girl.  He wouldn’t go.) Further south, behind the Heineken brewery, is a trendy area called the Pijp, and in the center is the beautiful Sarphatipark.  It’s prettier (I think) and more peaceful than the larger (and more famous) Vondelpark nearby, and in the middle is yet another monument (but this one is a fountain) to Samuel Sarphati, the Jewish physician and city planner who dedicated his life and work to improving living conditions for the poor.  The park was planned as a tribute after his death in 1866, and remains named for him to this day—apart from a brief interruption during the Nazi occupation when it was temporarily renamed.   The Amsterdam ArenA is home of the Amsterdam football team Ajax, colloquially known as “the Jews” (you know, like “the Yankees.”)  I’ve written about Ajax here before, so I won’t go into it all again, but…until you see a giant blond Eindhoven fan screaming “Up with Hamas” to a defiant Moroccan youth in baggy pants and draped in a sheet covered with Stars of David…well, welcome to New Europe, ladies and gentleman.  (Who thought it would sometimes seem so much like Old Europe?)  Often forgotten in Dutch athletic history, however, is the 1928 Dutch Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Team, who won the first gold medal given in women’s gymnastics at the Olympische Stadium in their home town of Amsterdam.  Nearly all of the team was Jewish, including their coach; only one would survive the Holocaust.   And on that happy note, you can celebrate the fact that you are still alive by engaging in what is possibly the most preferred Jewish pastime of the postwar era—grab a seat at one of the many, many “coffee shops” in Amsterdam and spark up a big fat joint. Goed zo!  Dat is het!  Dank u well, dames en heren, en tot ziens!