The neighbourhood just east of the centre, near Waterlooplein is called Plantage or the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter (Jodenbuurt). In 1700 there were 10.000 Jews living in Amsterdam, the biggest Jewish community of Western-Europe. Many arrived from wealthy Spain and Portugal in Amsterdam and brought important trade contracts, thereby boosting the Amsterdam economy of the Golden Age. The Second World War ended the Jewish history of Amsterdam, as only 28.000 Amsterdam Jews out of 120.000 survived the Second World War. The few buildings in the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter that they left behind: the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holland Theatre and the Jewish Museum, tell the Jewish history of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam Jewish Quarter
The first big group of Jewish people came to the Netherlands around the beginning of the 17th century. They were Sephardic Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition from Spain and Portugal. The Spanish King forced them to convert to Christianity or leave. A part of these refugees ended up in Amsterdam.
The Jewish people were allowed to live here by the Amsterdam protestant council, as long as they practiced their religion quietly. They were not allowed to marry anyone of Christian religion. Around the year 1700, around 10.000 Jews lived in Amsterdam. Most lived in the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter, the area from Waterloo Square to Artis Zoo.
View Amsterdam Jewish Quarter in a larger map
Portuguese Synagoge Amsterdam
The Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue was built in 1675. The Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam was the biggest Synagogue in the world at the time: a sober structure, almost protestant looking, as was fashion at the time. There is no electricity and no heating in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. A thousand candles light up the ‘Esnoga’. Just like it’s always been.
The floors are covered with fine sand to keep moist from penetrating and destroying the (original!) wooden floorboards, a technique commonly used in the 17th century in The Netherlands.
Visiting the Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue
You can visit the Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue every day from 10.00 till 16.00, except Saturday. On Jewish holidays (Sabbath, Saturdays) there are Jewish services. The Portuguese Synagogue is part of the Jewish-orthodox community. This means that during services, women and men sit separate and prayers are in Hebrew. Women need to wear long sleeved shirts. Men are to wear a kippah (they can borrow one).
Jewish Library inside the synagogue
Inside the Portuguese Synagogue a rich library is housed. The Ets Haim collection was founded in 1616, which makes it the oldest functioning Jewish Library in the world. The library can be visited by appointment only.
Many of the Jews who came from the South of Europe brought along interesting trade contracts and contacts with the Mediterranean. Eventually even financing the Dutch East Indies Company, the arrival of the Sephardic Jews instigated the famous Dutch ‘Golden Century’, a period of great wealth and power for Amsterdam.
Jews were not allowed to enter any existing professions so they entered into new professions such as bank and diamond cutting and specialized themselves in these businesses.
In 1933 the Nazi’s took power in Germany and many Jews fled to The Netherlands. The German troops occupied The Netherlands in 1940. The Jews were prohibited more and more things: going to the park, taking the bus, going to school and so on. From August 1942 to November 1943, Jews from Amsterdam were taken off the streets and out of their houses during ‘razzias’ and imprisoned at the Holland Theatre. In unhygienic and inhumane conditions they waited days and even weeks to be deported to Camp Westerbork in East-Netherlands. From there, most were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
Of about 140.000 Jews that were living in The Netherlands in May 1940, about 101.800 were murdered either by gas, torture, starvation or illness in concentration camps. That is 87 % of the Jewish population, one of the highest percentages of Europe.
Amsterdam Jewish History Museum
The Amsterdam Jewish Historical Museum was founded before the Second World War, in 1932 and reopened after the war in 1955. Since 1985 it is located in the four former Synagogues in the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter.
On show is only a small part of the grand collection: art made by Jewish artists, Jewish religious art, ceremonial objects and war documents. The Amsterdam Jewish History Museum is worth a visit mostly because of its large collection of books, brochures, magazines, jewish magazines and films (documentaries), photography and musical collection.
Kids play in a typical 3-storey large Jewish house and playfully learn more about Jewish life and traditions at the Children’s Museum at the Jewish History Museum in the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter.