The 2021 Addition to Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter Gives Nazi Victims Their Names Back
Stroll along Amsterdam’s Weesperstraat and you’ll find yourself on a wide, two-lane thoroughfare lined with modern buildings, contemporary work spaces, a four-star hotel, and a sprinkling of stores and restaurants. Traffic lights, street markings and bike lanes efficiently manage the flow of cars, trams, bikes and pedestrians on the 20th-century boulevard just east of the Amstel River, on the edge of Amsterdam’s multicultural Plantage and Weesper districts.
Rewind the clock nearly a century and an entirely different picture emerges. Prior to World War II, Weesperstraat was a bustling, messy residential and shopping artery in the heart of the Dutch capital’s thriving Jewish Quarter. Nearly everyone who lived on the cobblestoned street was Jewish, including merchants and bankers who haggled at nearby Waterlooplein and worshiped at the local Portuguese Synagogue.
Their neighbors included Rembrandt, who resided on Jodenbreestraat at the height of his fame. In the heart of the old Jewish Quarter he observed scenes of Jewish life that would infuse some of his work. The iconic artist’s house is now a museum replete with 17th-century furniture, objects and etchings in Amsterdam’s new Jewish Cultural Quarter.
Stumble Stones behind Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue commemorate a handful of Holocaust victims. Gunter Demnig, a German non-Jew, initiated the worldwide memorial project in 1994. Each brass plaque indicates a victim’s name, birth and arrest dates, camp deported to, and date of death.
Mass Murder by the Nazis
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, 60,000+ Jews lived in Amsterdam—about 10% of the population. During World War II, the Jewish Quarter became a ghetto after German troops gutted bridges and built fences that cut access to other parts 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 Franks were among some 25,000 Dutch and German Jews who hid to evade deportation, most unsuccessfully.
Many tourists come to Amsterdam intent on visiting the Anne Frank House. Fewer head for the street art museum at NDSM Wharf, where a giant mural by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra features a colorful visage of the town’s most famous Holocaust victim.
From 1933-1945, the Nazis murdered an estimated six million Jews, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma ethnic minority gypsies. Of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands in 1940, 102,000 did not survive World War II. Despite efforts of the Dutch Resistance Movement, the majority died in Nazi concentration camps. Others were murdered in mass executions or succumbed to sickness, hunger or exhaustion.
The Holocaust Names Memorial Takes Shape
After Amsterdam was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1945, once prosperous Weesperstraat was in ruins. To revive it, City Council demolished what was left of the houses, built contemporary office structures, and developed the efficient, well-groomed artery that exists today.
In the once chaotic heart of Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter, city planners left a green strip undeveloped between Nieuwe Herengracht and Nieuwe Keizersgracht. Given the neighborhood’s close bond with Jewish Amsterdam, it was an ideal spot for a monument dedicated to all Dutch victims of the Holocaust who died without a proper burial or grave.
The Dutch Holocaust Names Memorial is the only monument in the Netherlands that commemorates 102,000 Jews and 220 Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust, both individually and collectively.
Decades passed before planning began for a memorial commemorating all Dutch and ethnic-minority victims of Nazi terror, both collectively and individually. While providing survivors with a place to honor family members, a national monument would be a tangible reminder for current and future generations about the dangers of racism and discrimination. From a local perspective, it would transform Weesperstraat from an anonymous, tree-lined thoroughfare into a modern boulevard laden with historic significance.
In 2013, the Dutch Auschwitz Committee took initiative for constructing a Dutch Holocaust Names Memorial. To design it, the committee named American architect Daniel Libeskind, the son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, renowned for designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the reconstructed World Trade Center in New York City.
A long legal battle ensued involving protests from neighbors concerned about security and an influx of visitors to the area. In 2019, the Netherlands’ highest court green-lit the project, ruling that significance of the monument outweighed local objections.
Reclaiming the Names of Holocaust Victims
During the Holocaust, Jews were stripped of their human dignity and identities in Nazi concentration camps. Names were replaced with numbers tattooed on malnourished arms–inky reminders of the horrors victims endured. To give them and their surviving family members their names back, Libeskind designed a monument comprised of bricks, each inscribed with an individual victim’s name, date of birth, and age of death. Each represents a Dutch Jew or ethnic-minority gypsy killed by the Nazis in World War II.
On close examination, each brick in the memorial reveals a victim’s name, date of birth and age at death. Collectively and individually, the monument commemorates those who never received a proper burial after being killed at the hands of the Nazis.
Funded mainly through donations, the Holocaust Names Memorial features a maze of passageways flanked by two-meter-high brick walls. As you walk through it, look closely to see the names and life details of victims, inscribed on bricks you can reach out and touch.
While placement of the walls forming the labyrinth might seem random, they collectively form four Hebrew letters that convey the message, “In memory of.” Crafted of reflective steel, the letters appear as angular geometric forms that mirror ever-changing Amsterdam, bringing victims’ memories into the present and symbolically connecting past with future.
To the casual observer, the memorial’s design might seem random, but it’s anything but. The brick walls are placed to support four steel Hebrew letters, forming a word that translates as, “In memory of.”
King Willem Unveils The Holocaust Names Memorial
On September 19, 2021, after 15 years of legal haggling and nearly a century after World War II ended, King Willem-Alexander and Jacques Grishaver, chairman of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, unveiled the Holocaust Names Memorial off Weesperstraat in Amsterdam, in the presence of numerous survivors and descendants.
“This monument gives the victims back their names 76 years after the end of the war and proves they lived,” Grishaver said at the opening ceremony. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte added, “‘No, we will not forget you. No, we will not allow your names to be erased. No, evil does not have the last word.’”
If you can read Hebrew, you might be able to decipher the word the stainless steel letters spell out on the memorial. Bring a drone to capture the image from above!
While Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter around Waterlooplein may have lost its soul, a new Jewish Cultural Quarter now preserves Jewish life, culture and religion. The Dutch Holocaust Names Memorial joins the city’s Portuguese Synagogue, Resistance Museum, Holocaust Memorial at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, and Jewish Historical Museum as its most important monuments.
The Dutch Holocaust Names Memorial unveiled in September 2021 is one of the most important monuments of Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter.
To support ongoing maintenance, as well as educational projects at the Dutch Holocaust Names Memorial, you can adopt one or more names for €50 per name. The memorial’s website enables you to search for family members or to adopt a name chosen at random by the computer. Whichever option you choose, you’ll receive a certificate as a keepsake of your adoption.