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Looking for Mokum

Part 2 of 3: A chilly visit to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue and an awkward one to Anne Frank’s Secret Annex

Rachel Shukert
December 15, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: cuv59/Flickr)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: cuv59/Flickr)

Rachel Shukert spent several semi-disastrous years living in Amsterdam after college. Recently she returned to her adopted city to explore its Jewish heritage—something she had actively avoided in her post-collegiate days. Read her other installments here and here.

My tour guide, Vera, descends from one of the first Jewish families to come to Amsterdam from Portugal in the early 17th century. In her voluminous fur-trimmed coat and oversized black beret, she bears more than a passing resemblance to those oil paintings of darkly featured merchants and their dramatically attired wives I saw hanging in the Jewish Historical Museum.

“I am a piece of living history,” she tells me solemnly.

Given Vera’s pedigree, she’s the perfect person to lead me on today’s tour of Jewish Amsterdam. But first, she tells me I need a hat.

Obediently, I pull out my crumpled gray knit hat from my pocket.

“And your scarf?” she asks. “Where’s your scarf?”

“I’ll be fine,” I say.

“You can’t go out without a scarf. You’ll freeze to death.” She settles back down onto the sofa in the hotel lobby. “Go back up to your room and get one. I’ll wait.”

The Portuguese Synagogue is startlingly unimpressive from the outside. A long, low, stone building showing every one of its 325 years, it looks like more like some ancient storage facility than a treasured house of worship. Inside, however, it’s a different story—a shockingly preserved portal to another time. The ark and pews are gilded and intricately carved; the dark wood ceiling is vaulted, like the underside of a hull of ship, and hung with elaborate brass chandeliers, each one bearing hundreds of wax tapers. It is also freezing.

“There’s no heating,” Vera explains. “You see now why you need a scarf.”

I look at all the old wood surrounding me. “I guess space heaters would be too dangerous?”

Vera laughs. “Yes, but also, it’s not possible because there is no electricity.”

It seems the candlelit chandeliers are no designer-y affectation.

“They had a chance to wire the building at the beginning of the 20th century,” Vera says. “But they decided against it. The synagogue elders didn’t want to shut down the building for the time they would need to do it, and it was expensive. They felt that this new technology would never last anyway.” Her lined face is shining.

“I grew up in this synagogue,” she says. “My parents were married here, they brought me here for my naming when I was a baby. My ex-husband was the president of the congregation. Anything you want to know about this place, I can tell you.”

I had questions. The fine dusting of sand covering the floor boards? “It’s a tradition. Some people say it is to represent the sands of the deserts, but really it’s to keep people’s muddy shoes from rotting the boards.” The bathrooms? “This is really the problem,” Vera says. Except for the High Holidays and a few other events, the congregation’s regular services are held in a modern building in the city’s southern suburbs (where most of Amsterdam’s Jews currently live). It has heating, electricity, flush toilets, and other amenities that people have come to expect in their houses of worship. She makes a face. “You really should have gone at the hotel.”

I quickly change the subject. “How did the building survive the war?”

Vera shrugs. “Nobody is sure exactly,” she says. “But many people think that the Nazis planned to keep it as a kind of museum. After they have killed all the Jews, you understand.”

Not for the first time, I feel an eerie shudder at the similarity between the Nazis oft-stated plans for postwar museums and the actual Jewish museums of Europe and beyond: the objectification of objects, the display of relics as a way of life, an entire society that no longer exists. Intent, I suppose, is everything.

I try to phrase my next question delicately. In Holland, the memories of the war, for many, are still painful; it’s not unheard of for even the Dutch of my generation to give wrong directions to hapless German tourists in a kind of futile revenge. “And how did your family survive?”

She smiles at me sadly. “I’ll tell you but not here,” she says. “This should be a happy place. We’ll go now to the Hollandse Schouwburg, and there I’ll tell you the story.”

In a former life, Hollandse Schouwburg was a performance hall situated in the heart of Amsterdam’s affluent Jewish neighborhoods around the Nieuwe Herengracht. A major center of vaudeville and theater, it featured acts from all over the world. In 1941, the Nazis renamed it the Joodische Schouwburg, or “Jewish Theater,” forbidding non-Jewish acts and non-Jewish audiences. In 1942, when the first relocation (that is, deportation) notices went out to Amsterdam’s Jews, the theater was transformed into an assembly point.

“You received a notice in the mail, telling you to report to the Schouwburg and what you could bring with you,” Vera explains. “Then you waited.” Whole families might spend weeks, even months, crammed inside until was their turn for transport to Westerbork, the transit camp in northeastern Netherlands, from where they would eventually be deported to the death camps in the East, mainly to Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Today, the Hollandse Schouwburg is a museum dedicated to the memory of Amsterdam’s Jews. On display are deportation notices, like the one famously received by Margot Frank, prompting the Frank family to go into hiding; photographs; special toiletry kits that Jews were advised to buy in preparation for their “relocation.” Most astonishing to me was a TV monitor that played on loop the entire wedding film of Jim de Zwarte to Rosa Wertheim, the flickering bride from the Jewish Historical Museum. In the film, the wedding party files smilingly out of the house and into waiting carriages; enter the synagogue, and come out again. Neighbors cheer and throw flower petals, and the whole thing would be extremely normal were it not for the enormous yellow stars sewn to the tailcoats and cocktail dresses, a terrible talisman of doom.

“My parents once looked at their guest book from their wedding in 1932,” says Vera, peering over my shoulder. “Two hundred people, and all but maybe 10 of them just disappeared. They never said dead, my parents. Just: ‘They never came back.’ ” She sighs, and then she tells me the story of her parents’ survival, which I hope I can relay faithfully here—it seemed a little tacky to take notes.

In early 1940, when the German invasion looked imminent, Vera’s father, a well-off textile merchant (ah, the schmatte business) wanted to go to England or Switzerland, where he had business contacts, but her mother, a nurse, refused to leave Amsterdam and her elderly parents behind. The family was summoned for deportation and went into the Schouwburg. A week or two later, however, Vera’s mother was deemed an essential worker (she was assigned to look after sick children), and she was permitted to return home, along with Vera’s father and older sister, who was a baby at the time. The grandparents were not so lucky.

Given this reprieve, the family went into hiding in a rural village at the home of a colleague of Vera’s father. The baby stayed with the colleague’s single daughter, who claimed the baby was the orphaned child of a friend. “The village didn’t believe it though,” Vera tells me. “They gossiped that she had had a baby with a German soldier.” She looks at her watch. “We have one hour left. Please can we go to the house of Anne Frank? They made me promise I would take you.”

My misadventures involving the Anne Frank House—the only place of Jewish interest in Amsterdam where I have logged quite a bit of time—are exhaustively chronicled in my book, Everything Is Going To Be Great, but if for some reason you have neglected to read it, I will briefly recount them here. I tripped on the stairs and almost sent a group of Belgian children plummeting to their deaths. I got in a screaming fight with my mother in the Frank family’s kitchen, which was only resolved by our sudden and mutual delight in the gorgeousness of the Frank family’s toilet. I worked its exit doors as a street promoter for an American-style comedy club, and I cheerily greeted weeping strangers with the phrase: “Do you like comedy? Do you like to laugh?” and was once berated for this by a particularly offended woman “on behalf of the Jewish people.”

So, I thought I was tapped out when it comes to Anne Frank, but I am pleased to announce that with Vera’s assistance, I was able to add to my legacy of awkwardness in the Secret Annex. We are in the bedroom that Anne had shared with Fritz Pfeffer (or Dr. Dussel the dentist, as he is known in the diary), inspecting the famous collection of pictures of movie stars and babies that she had carefully pasted on the walls. From the next room, the warm voice of Otto Frank reads aloud a section of a diary. Everyone is sniffling, except for Vera, who leans towards me to whisper loudly: “You know, my cousin was in the same class with Anne Frank.”

“Really?” I whisper back.

“They walked together to school every day.” Vera pauses. “She never liked her. She said Anne Frank was a bit—trutig. You know trutig?”

“Bitchy?” I whisper, half-expecting to be shot.

Ja. Anne Frank was a bit bitchy.”

We laugh like maniacs. You have to when things are sad.

TOMORROW: The Jewish answer to Eurovision.

Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.