18 May 2011
Jodenbreestraat in the 1940s, with the Rembrandt's house at the right corner
You can stroll through the old center of Amsterdam this very evening, and realise somewhere along the way that you might just as well be strolling through 17th or 18th century Amsterdam. Unless you are strolling through the area of the old Jewish district, that is: on Waterlooplein, in the Jodenbreestraat or on Nieuwmarkt.
Let's say you are.
The year is 1930. The old Jewish district has over centuries past developed a special and distinct atmosphere. The inhabitants are extremely poor here, but the street life is all the more colourful for that. Jews are everywhere. They represent about 13 per cent of the Amsterdam population, and many of them live in this very area. By now, Jews have been living in Amsterdam for over 400 years and as much as 90 per cent of the population in this area are Jewish. The wealthy Jews live along the nearby canals and in the Plantage neighbourhood, but they are really all over the city. After all, half of the stalls on the Albert Cuypmarkt are Jewish. As are all the big department stores: the Bijenkorf, Metz & Co, Maison De Bonneterie..., and the atmospheric Tuschinski movie theatre.
You are therefore strolling through the heart of Mokum: for the year is 1930 and the city is still Jewish. This is the Jerusalem of the West. It is here that the main European synagogues were built. And above all, this is where there has always been a large open-air market with stalls. That's why you are here, and you are here every weekend. You know that in the old days the fish market was held along the Houtgracht canal, the vegetable market beside the Mozes and Aaron Church, and the hay market along the Leprozengracht: the canal of the lepers.
Leprozengracht canal with view of the Mozes and Aaron Church, prior to the creation of the Waterlooplein square
In 1882, however, both canals were filled up and turned into a huge windy Waterlooplein square. At the time of your stroll, there is no opera house on the square yet. It's just a large, open square full of stalls. You were also strolling here two days ago, on Friday morning, when the stalls were only being prepared. It really looked exactly like Sani van Bossum vividly described:
“Friday morning in the wee small hours, people are putting up stalls… there’s so much to be done. The boards must be laid out across the packing cases, and the baskets must be lined with clean newspaper, the fruit must be arranged attractively, so that the oranges whose scent wafting towards you makes your heart lift, stand out among the luxuriant bunches of grapes and the soft blushing peaches. Glory be, what a display! It’s a work of art! The passers-by have to stop and gaze and their shopping baskets open of their own accord and their mouths begin to water and out comes their money. Then they buy this and that and the stallholders have a blessed Friday with enough money earned by the end of the day to make a good Shabbat!”
2011 Exhibition on Waterlooplein of the former Jewish market at Waterlooplein
Now let's go back to 2011. Where in 1930 there was a huge Jewish bazaar, there is now no bazaar and there are no Jews. Even the large market square is gone.
“I see my shadow dancing on the stalls,” Ed Hoornik, a Dutch poet, prophetically wrote in 1938. “The train to Berlin only takes ten hours.”
Only four years later, the train with number 11537 began regularly transporting Jews to Westerbork, from where they were taken on to the extermination camps. Abram Icek Tuschinski was one of them.
The demarcation of the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam in the 1940s, at Nieuwmarkt
This regular train line was cancelled in September 1943. It was no longer needed.
For nearly a year, the old Jewish district lay dormant and silent, a ghostly city within a city. Finally, in the hungry and cold winter of 1944/45, Amsterdammers looted the district in droves and destroyed even what little there was left of it.
So the 5,000 surviving Jewish Amsterdammers (out of 80,000), in 1945, had no home whatsoever to return to.
In the absence of Jews who co-created this city over the centuries, their shadows are everywhere. Many streets still bear Jewish names. The particular slang of Amsterdammers still uses Yiddish words. Amsterdammers still refer to Amsterdam as Mokum. Mokum... the Yiddish name that was lovingly given to the city by the Jewish Amsterdammers: 'the place'.