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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam

What is the Joods Historisch Museum?

The Joods Historisch Museum, or Jewish History Museum, is an impressive museum housed within four synagogues, which comprehensively illustrates what life was like for Amsterdam’s Jewish population through the ages.

Joods Historisch Museum in winter

Bart Molendijk / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Joods Historisch Museum History

As you walk around Amsterdam’s tranquil and leafy Plantage neighbourhood, it can be difficult to comprehend that this was the site of the terrible suffering endured by Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. In fact, more than 46,000 of them were detained here in the Jodenbuurt (or Jewish neighbourhood), which as you’ll notice, is on the other side of the city from the Anne Frank House.

The Jews detained here during the Second World War awaited transportation to the Dutch Westerbork and Vught transit camps, and from there to concentration and death camps in Germany. Thousands of Jewish children were separated from their parents here while awaiting deportation. The story of the fate of the Jewish population of Amsterdam is comprehensively told at the Jewish Historical Museum, which is the only one in the Netherlands dedicated to Jewish history. It’s set within four beautiful Ashkenazic synagogues that date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Nearby are a number of other historically important Jewish buildings and memorials, such as the Portuguese Synagogue, the Hollandsche Schouwburg (the 19th-century theatre used as a detention centre for Jewish people during the Second World War), and the National Holocaust Museum, collectively managed as the Jewish Cultural Centre.

The museum’s taped interviews with those who lived through this time bring to life the horror of how 25,000 Dutch Jews went into hiding (of whom 18,000 managed to survive), and what Amsterdam was like after the war for those who sought to be repatriated. The museum also covers many other aspects of Jewish life and Judaism, with both temporary and permanent exhibitions. The history of Judaism in the Netherlands is traced from when Jews first emigrated to the country as the Inquisition was launched on the Iberian Peninsula, as are Jewish traditions, customs and ceremonies. Even in the earliest years Jewish settlers encountered prejudice: during the Golden Age there were separate laws for them, and they were excluded from many trade guilds.

The rise of Jewish enterprise and its role in the Dutch economy is illustrated using films, photographs, paintings, 3D presentations and old domestic items, to make the experience vivid and memorable. The museum conserves more than 11,000 artefacts, although just a fraction of these can be displayed at any one time.

The museum originally opened in 1932 and was initially located at the Waag (or Weigh House) on Nieuwmarkt Square. It was forced to close following the Nazi occupation, and much of the collection was destroyed. After reopening in the 1950s, it was eventually moved to its present location in 1987.

There’s also a junior museum specifically for children, which recreates a Jewish home and hosts regular activities, such as making music, learning Hebrew, and baking challah bread. If that stimulates your tastebuds, there’s a lovely café serving Dutch-Jewish dishes, such as bolus (a ginger-filled doughnut) and cod cakes.

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