On Choices and Voices
Poland is a very particular type of Holocaust experience. Don’t get me wrong - I love Poland. I think it’s a beautiful country, with so much to offer beyond the Holocaust context. I think some amazing, inventive and important things are being done there in terms of Jewish education and Jewish community development. I had a really meaningful time there last month on my trip with my Scottish teens, exploring the legacy of the Holocaust and our Jewish connections.
Amsterdam was something totally different. It’s not a destination that necessarily comes to mind when thinking about Holocaust education. Beyond Anne Frank, I think a lot of people don’t even know about what happened in Amsterdam during the War. Part of that is because it’s so close. Poland seems far, distant, removed. Amsterdam is right here (coming from the UK).
Contemporary Amsterdam is full of British teenagers on weekend getaways with their mates and Israelis stocking up on Chanukah shopping. People speak English very well. The streets in the city centre are lined with kitschy waffle shops and tourist chains. If you walk a few streets out it becomes all tree-lined canals and bicycles propped against picturesque bridges.
The house where Anne Frank spent two years in hiding is not visible from the canal-side street. After making your way up though the factory her father ran before the War, you climb back through a low stoop hidden behind a swinging bookshelf into the Annexe where Anne, along with her mother, father, sister, and four others hid from the Nazis. They spent two years there, in absolute silence during the day to avoid revealing themselves to the factory workers below. Shortly before the end of the War, they were betrayed, arrested, and deported to the Westerbork Transit Camp northeast of Amsterdam. All eight were sent to Auschwitz. Anne and her sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one of the eight to survive the Shoah.
Amsterdam is a city where people make their own choices. Our tour guide spoke about the drug culture there, how children are educated about drugs and their effects from a young age, and how even though it’s legal, many locals choose not to engage in the drug scene. I was surprised by the bicycle culture, how the locals have taken the circumstance of the city’s historical design and instead of clogging the narrow roads with traffic, have crafted an intentional and sustainable response. The approach of being honest and direct in terms of freedom of choice and personal responsibility really stood out to me as being quite different from other places.
This honest approach to personal responsibility is blatantly apparent in the story of Anne Frank. Hiding eight people for such a long time during World War II was a huge expense, risk, and undertaking. The families in hiding were aided by a dedicated group of non-Jewish supporters who made huge personal sacrifices to ensure the safety and success of the operation. Miep Gies, one of the helpers, would often visit the families, even celebrating her birthday in the Annexe with them. She gave her own food rations to support them. After they were deported, she saved Anne’s diary from her room, and gave it to Otto when he returned from Auschwitz in 1945.
Miep and the rest of the team who hid the Franks showed incredible integrity and dedication as they made their choices. At great personal risk and expense they worked tirelessly to help other people. It makes me think about the choices that I make - what do I risk? What do I give?
On the other side of the city centre from Anne Frank House lies the old Jewish quarter - the Jodenbuurt. The Portuguese Synagogue is a massive standalone building in its centre, surrounded by a courtyard and series of smaller rooms. Built in 1675, it was the home of the New Christians - Murano Jews who had been forcibly converted in Spain in 1492, and then fled persecution for continuing to follow their religion in secret. When they arrived to the safety of Amsterdam, 100 years later, their religious knowledge had been greatly reduced. They worked with the local Ashkenazi Rabbis from Germany and Eastern Europe who helped them recover their Jewish traditions. Those Rabbis also made their choices. The Jews fleeing Spain made very difficult choices in the face of very difficult circumstances.
The Portuguese Synagogue was scheduled to be used as a deportation centre to the Westerbork Transit Camp during the Holocaust, but because of its huge and unsecured windows was spared the destruction. It lay empty, until the remains of the shattered community returned in 1945. Many didn’t. Their possessions - their talleisim, siddurim and tefillin remained locked in the boxes under their seats - the keys long lost amidst the refuse of the Shoah, and their owners murdered in the gas chambers of Sobibor and Treblinka. Even throughout the community's rebirth process, the possessions lay hidden in the seat boxes, a secret testimony to the suffering of the community and the sanctity of the lives they led.
I visited the Portuguese Synagogue earlier in the week as part of a visit to Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter - a new Poland-esque concept incorporating the Portuguese Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, the Jewish Children’s Museum, the National Holocaust Museum, the Hollandsche Schouwburg and a variety of other memorials. The whole thing is quite nicely put together, and comes with a map with a self-guided walking tour. But what was most exciting for me was the Portuguese Synagogue, because apart from being a museum with an audio guide, it’s also a live functioning synagogue.
Each door is marked with whether visitors can enter as an exhibit, or whether it’s a private room used for synagogue offices. There’s a historical mikvah that visitors can see and learn about, and there’s a functioning mikvah which is used by community members. There’s a sukkah at the back of the shul, and while you can learn about the function of a sukkah, you can also hear about the modern youth programmes run in the community, and how the community uses the very same sukkah today.
Friday night, my friends and I turned up at the smaller Portuguese Winter Synagogue - the main shul in the complex remains unheated and without electricity as it was when it was built. We attended the Kabbalat Shabbat service with the community members who welcomed us graciously into their midst. After the service they generously invited us to eat with them in the historic board room, which I had seen on my tour on Monday from behind a rope. The rope was cleared away, and we spent the evening schmoozing with our Jewish peers from Amsterdam, eating the same Shabbat food we eat back home. It made the whole experience come alive. It wasn’t just a museum, as I had seen earlier, but a living testimony to the story of Jewish life, both in Europe and around the world.
I had attended the Shabbat dinner with two of my friends - both Jewish community professionals I had worked with in Mumbai. At the dinner we were seated next to one of the Jewish community professionals from Amsterdam - all people who are working tirelessly to ensure the continuation of Jewish life in small communities around the world.
Perhaps the choices we’re making today are not the choices of Miep Gies, or of the Murano Jews fleeing Spain, but they are still important choices. Anne Frank House and the Holocaust memorials are important, but just as important is the Jewish community work being done today, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that work.
Anne Frank House is important and meaningful, but has also become a tourist machine. Book a month in advance if you’re visiting on the weekend, and a few weeks before for a weekday visit. Tickets are only available online, and come with a time slot to show up. You’re then shuffled through a coat and bag check, and the free audio guide walks you through the building. It takes about an hour, although I spent a bit more.
The weekend crowds were a lot, even in late November. Hostel prices skyrocket (think 6 times more expensive on a Saturday night than a Monday night, even for a dirty hostel bed), and the crowds are a lot. I enjoyed my two weekdays far more than my 2 weekend days. The further out you go from the centre, the less touristy and better the food and shopping options get - in the Jordaan area to the West of the centre (but still very walkable), the canal-side cafes are a nice alternative to the standing-room-only crush of the centre.
The Jewish Cultural Quarter is quite interesting. The highlight for me was the Portuguese Synagogue, which opens earlier than the other museums. Most of the sites had free audio guides, and with more time you can follow the self-guided walking tour to several other memorials and monuments nearby. I spent 5 hours there, and could have spent more, but I had a reservation for Anne Frank House to get to. The ticket is 17 Euros, but is good for a month, so you can split the sights over several days if you want to. The museum is concise and selective, and offers some interesting narratives. I would recommend it.