Jewish area
Jew History

Let’s attack ;-) another interesting area of Amsterdam: the heart of the former Jewish district. Amsterdam’s pragmatic tolerance in religious matters made it a magnet for the Sephardic Jews who fled persecution in Spain and Portugal from the beginning of the 17th century, and soon after, the Ashkenazi Jews, fleeing intolerance in Eastern Europe. While many of the Sephardic Jews were prosperous traders, the Ashkenazi refugees, often penniless, found it harder to gain a foothold in commercial life. But the Jews had no full citizenship and were not admitted in the corporations.

They could freely practise their religion, but at the condition to stay discreet and not interfere with the Dutch laws. That’s why they want mostly in textile and diamonds where there was no corporation. Rembrandt, who was not a Jew but a non-conformist decided to settle down in this Jewish quarter. He lived for more than 20 years in his atelier-house in the Jodenbreestraat. A lot of Jews living around him became his friend and certain even served as model for his sketches and biblical inspired paintings. Until the 19th century, when their position began to improve, most Amsterdam Jews lived in the eastern part of the old city, where grand synagogues and the homes of the wealthy merchants contrasted with the cramped apartment dwellings of poorer working people.

Under the German occupation, between 1940 and 1945, about 80% of the Amsterdam Jews (120,000) were arrested, deported and murdered in the death camps (Sobibor, Auschwitz). After the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, this old quarter was only a ghost-populated area: empty houses, looted synagogues. Albert Camus puts these words in the mouth of one of his personages in “La Chute”:”I live on the spot of one of the most hideous crimes of human history”.

Especially since Amsterdam’s Jewish community played a role in the city’s history out of all proportion to their numbers. Old Amsterdam dialect is studded with Jewish words borrowed from Hebrew and Yiddish, and lots of popular Amsterdam delicacies—including such favourites as soused herring and pickled gherkins --- originated with Jewish immigrants.

Let’s start our walk from the NIEUWMARKT. This square and the streets surrounding it were the scene in the mid 80’s of one of the set piece clashed between Amsterdam’s standing army of socially conscious protesters and the municipality over planes for the Metro. The local residents resisted large-scaling levelling of inner city housing in the name of development. We heard that story elsewhere since quite often, isn’t it? I sympathize, like most visitors I presume, with the protesters. Inner Amsterdam is livelier and safer than the centres of most big cities precisely because it has not been turned into a ghetto of office blocks.

The battle of the Nieuwmarkt ended in a draw. The district is no longer the quiet neighbourhood of cheap working-class accommodation it once was, but neither has the arrival of the metro turned it into a yuppie heaven where accommodation would be too expensive for ordinary Amsterdammers.

When there is no market in progress the Nieuwmarkt square is unexciting, but the stout-castle like building close to its northern corner is worth a look. The Sint-Antonie’spoort (St.Anthony Gate) also known as “De Waag” (the weigh gate). The red brick tower built in 1488 is among the few remnants of the early city fortifications. Later, the redundant gate-tower was turned into a weighing place for products for the nearby foundry, which cast cannons and anchors for the ever-expanding Dutch fleet. It was also the headquarters of the city guilds as well as a courtroom and place of execution. Today it’s not at use.


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