Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein
15 June 2019
Herefordshire Jewish Community
There are many sights worth seeing in Amsterdam but, if you are there on a Shabbat I do recommend you go to the Amsterdam Liberal Synagogue. I think it is the most beautiful modern synagogue building in Europe. It was dedicated in 2007 and fittingly it is surrounded by a moat so that you cross a small canal to get to it. Sharon and I were at the dedication service and I recall sitting near and being introduced to the Crown Prince of the Netherlands, not knowing that soon afterwards his mother the Queen would abdicate (though she is 20 years younger than our monarch) and so he would become King.
Anyway, the modern building contains an ingenious sanctuary with two levels of galleries and yet each seat has a perfect view of the bimah. Of course, the galleries are not reserved for women, because it’s a Liberal community… but they are there in order to accommodate a large congregation on important festivals… and this fact is part of the story I wish to tell.
The community was founded in 1931 largely by German Jewish refugees fleeing the rising Nazi threat in their homeland. Germany had been the birthplace of Liberal Judaism which was founded in 1810. And so it was, that the refugees brought with them this modern form of Judaism to an otherwise Orthodox Amsterdam community. Amongst the refugees was, of course, the Frank family and another individual I will recall later on. By 1940 the Amsterdam Liberal community had 900 members, and its size was a reflection of the number of German Jews seeking refuge in Holland. Of course, it was scant refuge because by the end of the War maybe 95% of Jews living in Holland had been sent to the concentration camps.
A small community was re-established in 1946 but by 1954 it had only 50 members… it shows how the Holocaust had devastated Dutch Jewry. But then a charismatic rabbi who had miraculously survived the Shoah with all his family, took over and the congregation began to flourish. Rabbi Jacob Soetendorp had a unique modern synagogue built. It used burnt bricks that had been rejected by the makers… a powerful symbol of the Holocaust, but also of the building by a scarred people… and they were bereft and scarred. Difficult for us who lived in relative safety in this country during the Second World War, free from Nazi persecution to understand the trauma of the survivors. We used to take our Kabbalat Torah students there once a year and had to realise that almost every member of the community was a survivor, surviving in hiding or surviving the concentration camp… every member thereon at a Friday night service having lost one or more relatives. But the congregation grew, and the architecturally wonderful building that could seat 400 people was becoming too small. Then the Amsterdam City Council announced the site was needed for expansion of an exhibition ground and a deal was done and thus this iconic and historic building less than fifty years old was demolished and the new one was dedicated in 2007 on a nearby site. Today the congregation has 1800 members and is thriving. What better response is there to Hitler, his Nazi party and ideology than a thriving community in the very place where they nearly wiped out this historic community.
But this isn’t the end of my story. Because in 2003/4, I went to Amsterdam for the day for a meeting with the then Rabbi David Liliental… and it happened to be the last day in the old building… the next day demolition was due to start. He took me there and it was so sad to see the sanctuary, I loved, empty and just waiting for the bulldozers… But then he took me to a building the community would use for over three years before the new synagogue would be ready. It too had an intriguing story. For in 1928, the Olympic Games were held in Amsterdam and a new stadium was built and a new district of residential apartments for the athletes. Included in it was a cinema… which like the rest of the development was in an attractive modernist style. Sometime after the Games finished it was turned into a Church but by 2000 it was redundant, empty. The estate agent dealing with its future was a member of the Amsterdam Liberal Synagogue… and so it was taken over as the temporary home for the community. It needed some refurbishment including to a few steep stairs up from the entrance. When these were demolished they found a secret hiding place under the stairs with evidence that it had been used by Jews trying to escape the Nazis in 1942.
A coincidental connection between one synagogue and the next. And a graphic reminder that it was not just the Frank family who had to endure such terrifying times, but scores of others in Amsterdam and the rest of the country and, in fact, all over mainland Europe. And though the well-known story of Anne Frank could leave you with a feeling that the Dutch people were most heroic in trying to save their Jews… the truth is, that amongst all occupied countries, the Dutch had almost the worst record for handing Jews over to the Nazis and to their deaths. We remember the beauty of Anne’s Diary and her optimism, and the courage of the four gentiles who tried to protect the family… but we must also remember that, in the end they were betrayed, like thousands of others, and only Anne’s father survived.
And finally, one more story… this time about Heinz Hirschberg who was also born in Germany and had his Bar Mitzvah in Berlin in 1938, 18 days before the synagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht. Three months later, Heinz was lucky in that an uncle in Amsterdam agreed to be his guarantor and so Heinz, alone of his family, moved there and was put up in an orphanage run by a Christian woman. Then on 10th May 1940 the Germans invaded, and this woman Truss Wijmuller-Meiyer hired a bus and took all of her Jewish children to the port and put them on the last boat to leave Holland. Despite attacks by German fighter planes, the ship made it to England and Heinz was saved… becoming a car mechanic, then an English soldier, and in time… changing his name, he became Rabbi Harry Jacobi who died only two months ago aged 93, having loyally served Liberal Judaism for the rest of his life. Truss Wijmuller-Meiyer was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Gentiles” as indeed she certainly was. You recall the rabbinic statement “The person who saves one life is as if they saved a whole world”. Rabbi Jacobi had three children and two of them are Liberal rabbis: Margaret your nearest neighbour in Birmingham and Richard in East London.
Today we will later rededicate a tree in memory of Anne Frank, Wednesday would have been her 90th birthday. Harry Jacobi in his life brought Judaism to several generations. He married Sharon and me. And in his recent years worked tirelessly for refugees, particularly child refugees. Anne Frank, through her book has likewise inspired two or three generations worldwide with her message of hope, tolerance, courage and good humour. As she sought to bring peace and harmony into her fractured world, let her memory inspire us too, we who live in freedom and plenty… to do what we can to bring, maybe just a little, Shalom… peace and wellbeing to our needful would.
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