In the late 19th century, two Jewish teens fleeing Russian pogroms fell in love, married, and immigrated to Montreal. On Canada’s east coast, Max ran a candy store while Alta kept the home fires burning. Together they raised six kids, including my late mother Maleen, the fourth child of the middle-class brood that would eventually immigrate to America, one after another.
My Canadian mother met my American father on a blind date in Southern California, shortly after World War II ended. In an old photo, I see them romping in the waves in the cold Pacific—in modest swimwear, of course. A later family portrait captures the domestic bliss of my childhood.
In the post-war domestic bliss of the 1950s, my parents instilled pride in our Jewish heritage in me and my younger brother.
A hard-working product of the Depression who supported his mom and three siblings from age 10, my dad was a dashing veteran back then. He’d served abroad in the US Army, but had slugged an officer who called him a “dirty Jew,” thereby stalling his military career.
My parents settled in a Jewish suburb of Los Angeles, where they raised me and my brother in the post-war euphoria of the 1950s. While not particularly religious, they spoke Yiddish to each other when they wanted to keep secrets from us. Although Dad balked at the cost of joining a temple, he passed on an ample dose of pride in our Jewish heritage to me and my younger sibling.
Growing up, I never experienced persecution like my ancestors. Yet their stories fuel my pride in living in a city that’s been a sanctuary for Jews since the 16th century. The first influx came from Spain and Portugal, when those fleeing inquisitions found refuge in Amsterdam. The city’s Portuguese Synagogue, modeled after the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, was the largest of its time and one of Amsterdam’s biggest buildings when built in 1675. It remains as evidence of the city’s religious tolerance in an era when Catholics were forbidden to worship. Miraculously undamaged by the war, it’s still a place where you can hear the Torah read at candlelit services.
Miraculously spared by World War II, Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue still hosts candlelight services.
A Flood of Jewish Refugees
My maternal grandparents, Max and Alta, were among the flood of Jews pushed out of Germany, Poland and Russia by antisemitic regimes. In Amsterdam, these Ashkenazi Jews soon outnumbered Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.
Regardless of origin, most of these immigrants settled in the city’s thriving Jewish Quarter around Waterlooplein, where Rembrandt lived at the height of his fame. While not Jewish himself, many of the iconic artist’s paintings reflect Jewish life, from Old Testament scenes to portraits of locals. Today his house on Jodenbreestraat is a museum replete with furniture, 17th-century objects and etchings.
Rembrandt’s neighbors included Jewish bankers and merchants whose talents helped transform Amsterdam into Europe’s most important port during Holland’s Golden Age. Called Mokum by its early inhabitants—the Yiddish word for “place” or “safe haven”—it was a city where Jews thrived through the 19th century.
The sentimental nickname persists, harking back to pre-World War II times, when Jews built synagogues and established successful businesses. Their impact remains in landmarks like Amsterdam’s posh Hotel Amstel, upscale department store De Bijenkorf, Gassan Diamonds, and the Art Deco Tuschinski Theater built by Abraham Tuschinski, a Jewish immigrant from Poland.
When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, 60,000+ Jews lived in Amsterdam—about 10% of the population. During World War II, the Jewish Quarter became a ghetto after the Germans raised bridges and built fencing that cut access to the rest of the city.
The Nazis put limits on daily life, rationed food and arrested Jews in the streets. Most were taken to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, Amsterdam’s municipal theater building, which became an assembly point for mass deportation to extermination camps in occupied Poland. Less than a year before the war ended, the city’s most famous diarist went into hiding with her family at Prinsengracht 263, now a museum where tourists pay homage to Anne Frank.
The Frank family was among some 25,000 Dutch and German Jews who hid to evade deportation, most unsuccessfully. Despite efforts of the Dutch Resistance Movement, including a dockworkers strike in February 1941 to protest persecution of the Jews, the majority died in Nazi concentration camps. A handful are remembered in Stumble Stones behind the Portuguese Synagogue, a worldwide Holocaust memorial project initiated by Gunter Demnig, a non-Jew from Germany, in 1994. Each brass plaque indicates a Holocaust victim’s name, birth and arrest dates, camp deported to and fate.
After the war ended, some 5,000 Jews returned to Amsterdam. Today a small community centered around the southern suburbs has grown to around 15,000, a small fraction of the pre-war Jewish population. Waterlooplein, once the central market for the 19th-century Jewish community, is now better known as a source for old military gear, bike parts and trinkets.
Remembering the Past
While the thriving Jewish Quarter around Waterlooplein is now consigned to history, a new Jewish Cultural Quarter preserves past and present Jewish life, culture and religion. Along with the Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam Resistance Museum and Holocaust Memorial at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the Jewish Historical Museum is its most important monument. Comprised of four restored 17th– and 18th-century Ashkenazi synagogues (plus a kosher café accessible without a museum ticket), the museum traces the history of the Jews in Holland. A special wing houses exhibits for children.
Tickets to all Jewish Cultural Quarter exhibits can be purchased at any of the participating institutions. Tickets are valid for one month and can be used for multiple access to all monuments.