From the settlement of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam to Anne Frank’s poignant story, the rich and sometimes tragic Jewish history of Amsterdam is integral to the city’s development and existence today. At various spots around the city, this story is etched into the urban landscape – if you know how to look for it. We dive into the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam with some of the local experts who lead our Amsterdam walking tours, and learn what to see and where to find it.
One of the most-visited historical sites in the world, the Anne Frank House allows visitors to step into the secret annex of the 17th-century canal house where Anne and her family hid from deportation from 1942 until 1944. There, you experience first-hand the confined hiding space she shared with several others and, through exhibitions and manuscripts, Anne’s prevailing hope during these fearful times. Anne Frank’s story of the Nazi Germany occupation documented in her famous diary has touched hearts around the world and is an important individual voice for a collective people. The remarkable efforts made to save the canal house, preserve and retain artifacts from Frank’s life emphasize the power of memory and the incredible effect of personal storytelling. Throughout the city, there are also a number of monuments and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust and the memory of those who suffered and perished.
Across town from the Anne Frank House is the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam, where a stroll through the neighborhood takes visitors deep into the history of the Jewish people in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Our Jewish history expert, Sabry Amroussi provides insight that many of the buildings with Jewish heritage, including the Portuguese synagogue complex, reflect the community’s sense of social cohesion and the purpose of serving the greater Jewish community.
The Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam
The first Jewish people came to Amsterdam as religious refugees from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. These refugees, often traders, were integral to the development of commerce and trade in the Netherlands. The beautiful Portuguese Synagogue was originally completed in 1675 and went on to survive the Second World War unharmed. This fascinating complex hosts the main synagogue, a winter synagogue, offices, a library, and ritual baths, and is a major cultural center in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. Sabry advises, “The whole complex breathes the spirit of the Dutch 17th century, and is like a time warp 350 years back in time. A little-known fact is that the synagogue houses the oldest functioning Jewish library in the world, in a truly beautiful space. It is even on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”
The Jewish Historical Museum was constructed from four adjacent synagogues in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter. It contains a permanent collection featuring the history of Jews in the Netherlands, as well as many rotating or visiting exhibitions, and serves as a cultural center for the Jewish community today. The Jewish Children’s Museum is located within the Jewish Historical Museum and provides an interactive display for children of all ages.
The Hollandsche Schouwburg (National Holocaust Memorial) was originally a Dutch theater in the Jewish quarterof Amsterdam, which was subsequently used as a holding area for Jews awaiting deportation during the Second World War and today is the National Holocaust Memorial for the Netherlands. Take note: of all the tram lines running through this well-connected city, the number 8, which once transported Jews from Hollandsche Schouwburg to the Central Station for deportation, is no longer in use.
For a more off-the beaten path site, the Tuschinski Theater is a stunning example of Art Deco architecture with Jewish roots. Constructed in 1921 under the direction of Abraham Icek Tuschinski, originally a Polish Jew, this was once Amsterdam’s largest theater. Tuschinski perished at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The theater was also forced to change its name to ‘Tivoli’ during the Second World War, but the rightful name was reinstated post-war. Today, the Tuschinski Theater operates as a modern-day cinema, but the name and beautiful architecture live on in memory of Tuschinski. From the Bijenkorf department store to the Burcht, there are numerous additional examples of buildings in Amsterdam that have important ties to Jewish history and influence and often boast impressive architectural styling.
Today, much of modern everyday Jewish life in Amsterdam is centered in Buitenveldert, a suburb of the city, but by peeling back the layers of the city in the Jewish cultural quarter and surrounding area, visitors discover the beginnings and development of the Jewish community that continues to be inherent to Amsterdam’s city history and culture today.
To learn more about Amsterdam’s Jewish history and culture on your next visit, book our Jewish Amsterdam tour, which visits many of these sites and is led by Sabry or one of our other Amsterdam experts.