10 May 2008

Amsterdam's Jewish history by bike

Amsterdamn's Jewish Historical Museum, the Amsterdam City Archive and the bike rental company MacBike have collaborated on mapping out a special bike route leading visitors through the "Hidden Treasures of Jewish Amsterdam."

Read "A bike trip through Mokum" by Michael Blass and Klaas den Tek here.

Amsterdam's deeply-rooted Jewish history is revealed in the city's popular nickname, Mokum. The word is a corruption of the Hebrew word makom, which means simply 'place.' Jews began settling in the city from the end of the 16th century, and despite the ravages of the Holocaust there is still much to be seen of the Jewish presence in Amsterdam.

Waterlooplein in Amsterdam is now dominated by the Stopera, a building that houses both the town hall and the Muziektheater. Only a line of stones set into the ground marks the place where the Jewish orphanage stood. It was once the district of Vlooienburg, home to 80 percent of Amsterdam's Jews.

"This used to be the heart of the Jewish neighbourhood," explains Daniël Bouw.

"The conditions were extremely bad, so many people chose to move to the Transvaal neighbourhood. But this still a very important district, because of its strong connections with the Jewish past."

The story covers Amsterdam's significant population since the 16th century, with the arrival of the first Jews from Spain and Portugal. The first Jew was registered as a citizen of the city in 1595. The city was a haven for persecuted Sephardim, who often returned to public Judaism on their arrival from countries where they had been forced to convert. They were welcomed for the business links, culture and science.

Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the 17th century. According to the story, if a Portuguese Jew married a German Jew, people called it a mixed marriage.

The Jewish presence in Amsterdam still has a clear voice in the city's everyday slang. Words with Jewish origins include mazzel (meaning good luck, but also used as a farewell), gabber (mate or pal - but in recent years also the name of a house music subculture), bajes (jail), and the nickname for Amsterdam itself, Mokum.

City buildings in a former Jewish area carry coats of arms of wealthy Sephardic families.

The bicycle tour was organized to inform visitors and tourists that there is much more to see in Amsterdam than the red light district, shopping streets and Dam Square.

Before the war, Amsterdam was home to 80,000 Jews; today the number is 20,000. The Holocaust figures in such monuments as the Dockworker on Jonas Daniël Meijerplein and the Auschwitz memorial in Wertheimpark.

Read the complete article here.

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