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Amsterdam, one of the hippest capitals in one of the most liberal countries in Europe, is nevertheless immersed in tradition if you know where to look. Home to perhaps one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust – the house where Anne Frank lived while hiding from the Nazis — Amsterdam is still working out how best to deal with its history, which included the murder of 85% of its Jews in the Holocaust. Suspended halfway between mourning the losses of the past and celebrating the revitalization of the present, Amsterdam is one place where the contradictions and challenges of the last century are keenly felt and understood.
Perhaps the best place to start exploring Jewish Amsterdam is the lively and colorful Jewish Historical Museum. The first room is the former Great Synagogue (Ashkenazi) in which some guests are inspired to prayer because the original interior has been so carefully reconstructed. An exhibition entitled “Friday Night” tells the story of the pre-war Jewish community with the help of film, artifacts, and paintings. But the crowning achievement of the museum is the children’s section, which feels like a Jewish Community Center. Children bake miniature Challah in a hands-on kitchen. There are musical instruments to try out and a dream tent-like space just for kids. A “talking” brick wall with lips that move and speak, tells the harsh reality of what happened to Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
The nearby Portuguese Synagogue, built in 1672, is definitely a highlight of Jewish Europe. Its high wooden arched roof is reminiscent of all the vanished wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe, and a larger-than-life size statue of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish descent can be found next to a large black marble stela remembering the Jewish citizens killed between 1940 and 1945.
In the former Jewish quarter you can spot the date on Rembrandt’s house written as 5648! There is a memorial to the dock workers’ uprising against the Nazis. Marking many of the places where people were deported to Westerbork transit camp en route to Auschwitz, there are innovative memorials, and the main one is the Schouwburg or theatre, which the Nazis used as a deportation prison after first considering the synagogue. Today its exterior still resembles a 19th century theatre, but inside it is a powerful place of remembrance, where one does not think of the dead passively, but for a moment communicates with them by thought and feeling.
And where is today’s community? It can be found, 15,000 strong, in the modern neighborhood of Amstelveen, where many of the kosher services, such as bakeries, butchers, supermarkets, and restaurants, are provided along with a Jewish home for the elderly. Although the quarter now consists of mostly post-war row apartment blocks, there is still clear evidence of Jewish life there today. Grab a kosher lunch in Amstelveen, where young Jewish teens chat on their phones, where the men walk openly with their Kippas, and where you truly feel that modern-day Judaism is alive and well in the Dutch capital.
Amsterdam is also one of our many port destinations. If you plan to come to your guided tour(s) by cruise ship, we would be more than happy to arrange for your transfer and arrival!
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