Jewish Rotterdam

Small European countries are known for their stability. For a great deal, a small European country looks and sounds the same as a few decades ago – the trams, universities, cafe’s, parliaments, all were there a century ago, are still around and will probably be there in another 100 years. There is, however, a major “ingredient” that is virtually absent from modern small European countries. Its the Jews. Just 75 years ago, most countries in Europe had a significant Jewish community. Then… well, I guess you know the history.

After WWII and the Holocaust, the little Jewish presence remaining in Europe dwindled further due to immigration to Israel and the USA. Nowadays, the only countries in Europe with a sizable Jewish community are France, UK, Russia and Germany – all large countries. Only 3000 Jews live in Poland, that before WWII was home to more than 3 million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world. But although there are Jewish lawyers, comedians and politicians, Jewish communities are just too small to be a factor in the daily life of any small European countries.

The Jews may be largely gone but their presence is not entirely erased even if it is sometimes not tangible. A good example of hidden Jewish presence are Hebrew words integrated into European languages like “mazzel” or “lef” in Dutch, meaning “luck” and “courage” (“lev” actually means “heart” in Hebrew). Actually, all European languages use “amen” and “hallelujah”, words that come from Hebrew.

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Even though Amsterdam was synonymous with Jewish life in the Netherlands, Rotterdam has a long history of Jewish presence, too. And I’d like to contribute to preserving this history by proposing you a tour of Jewish Rotterdam. Rotterdam had a Jewish community from the early 1600’s. In the 1930’s Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria came to Rotterdam as to the rest of the Netherlands, Anne Frank of course being the most famous of those. In Rotterdam some refugees were hosted in the Quarantine on Heijplaat. During WWII Rotterdam’s Jewish community was hit double hard. The centre of the city, where most Jews lived and that contained the historical Jewish buildings like most synagogues was bombed by the Luftwaffe on 14th of May 1940. Then the Rotterdam Jews were gathered at the infamous Loods 24 and deported to the extermination camps, from where almost none returned. A small number of Jews still live in Rotterdam, like myself or these guys. But as elsewhere in Europe, most Jews in Rotterdam are dead Jews. Jewish cemeteries are not emptied, but remain sacred ground forever (or, at least, until Judgement Day). So the Jewish graves are still there at several locations around town. Right next door to me, for example, are the oldest Jews of Rotterdam, buried at Bet Hagajiem cemetery. Another one is not too far away at the Oostzeedijk. As you can see, there’s not much left of Jewish Rotterdam. But this just means there’s even more reason to preserve what remains.

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