Tag Archives: Portuguese Synagogue

Vincent van Gogh’s 400 Days in Amsterdam

If you want a glimpse of Vincent van Gogh while he was still a theology student, and of Amsterdam in the 1870s, this exhibit at the City Archives will enlighten you. The delight of exploring the Eastern Docks where van Gogh lived with his uncle in the Navy is portrayed in some of Vincent’s letters to his faithful brother Theo.  Vincent is a vivid writer who gives a real sense of the bustle on the docks, especially when the floods of workers left the yards for the day, and of the smells and sights of great vessels being built and repaired.

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Photograph of Docks from Amsterdam City Archive

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Admiral de Ruyter from Amsterdam City Archive

Indoors, van Gogh was exposed mostly to naval heroes and religious art, some of which he loved and writes movingly about.  He bought many prints cheaply from his favorite Jewish bookseller, and spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter, as well as visiting the nearby Rijksmuseum, then located in the Trippenhuis.  These artistic interests were in addition to his making the tour of the major churches in Amsterdam, and contrasting the styles of various Protestant preachers.

To pursue his studies, Van Gogh was tutored in Latin and Greek by Dr. M.B. Mendes da Costa, a Portuguese Jewish scholar who lived next to the great synagogue. He wrote about seeing the future painter crossing the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, sometimes with a little bouquet of snowdrops he had picked at a graveyard where he often walked. “These are for you,” van Gogh said, “because you do so much for me.”  After van Gogh’s death, Dr. da Costa wrote a moving reminiscence here.  For me as a student of Jewish Amsterdam, it was especially fascinating to see stereoscopic views of the fishmonger, the Waterlooplein market, and the old market as they were, and to be shown again how integral the Jewish community was to the city.

Back to Amsterdam After Heartbreak   

After a misbegotten love affair with a woman who refused to marry him, van Gogh left Amsterdam for good — except for a return to view the newly built Rijksmuseum.  He went with a friend who left him in front of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride for several hours, then returned to find the painter in exactly the same position, reporting that he’d give ten years of his life to stay right there for a fortnight with a crust of bread.

 

The Portuguese Synagogue Lit by Candles

Last night, the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue was lit only by candles for a brilliant concert by the Frans Hals Kwartet, four gifted musicians who met recently at the conservatory.  The Synagogue is a huge subject which I’ll address one day, but for now let’s just stick to the magic of last evening.  There is neither electricity nor heat in the Synagogue, so the woman who sold me the tickets warned me to “dress really warmly, and then add something else after that.”  I wrapped up in a down coat, polarfleece and a turtleneck, wore my hat and gloves and was reasonably comfortable.  These photographs are a very pale imitation of the beauty we saw.

IMG_2406Just like 1675  The Synagogue is enclosed in an outer square of one-storey buildings which house its precious library and exhibits, with small paved courtyard separating the Synagogue from the rest.  We crossed this in a fine rain or thick fog (depending on the moment), and pulled open the high wooden door to enter the immense worship space — perhaps three stories tall, with balconies on either side, the central space held up by immense columns.  Almost all the restoration done since builders finished the Synagogue in 1675 has been maintenance, so the place looks and feels as it did more than 300 years ago.

Brass chandeliers beyond any others   First, I smelled the candles burning, then saw the whole space radiant with a soft light that I’d only sipped at in home environments.

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This was candlelight so pervasive, so bright, that you could read by it, see every nuance of the architecture around you.  And raising your eyes to see the candles themselves was another revelation.  The Synagogue’s glory to the Gentile viewer is the 17th century brass chandeliers, the model for others around the world.  They are endlessly elaborate, immense in size (at least 10 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet in diameter at the bottom) and hold 30 candles each.  Because the brass has been polished within an inch of its life, there are hundreds of brilliant surfaces which can reflect the candles when they are lit.  Four of these chandeliers hang in the central part of the Synagogue, plus countless smaller ones everywhere else.  There are even holders for single candles on the columns, standing candelabras here and there, small sets in windows, plus smaller versions of the huge chandeliers under the balconies.

There literally was not a single dark corner in any part of that huge space.  For the hour that the musicians played Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor and then Ravel’s in F Major, we were transfixed — not only by the music itself and its wending path through the range of human feeling, but also by being saturated, probably the first time in our lives, by candlelight.  We all know what a difference a single candle makes.  I can say that when there are hundreds (we stopped calculating at 500), the difference is multiplied by thousands.

If you go    You won’t find these concerts listed in the usual places.  Look here and hope for the best; they only happen about once a month.  Come early to see the candles lit.  We were 15 minutes ahead and it wasn’t enough.  Don’t bother getting tickets in advance; the place is huge.

 
 

Amsterdam Remembers the Holocaust

The route had already been blocked off. Efficient, tall Dutch police of both genders were turning away cars by the time we walked over in the chilly late morning to join the walk from the Stopera (city hall and opera house) to the Auschwitz memorial for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  More than 100,000 of 140,000 Dutch Jews were murdered.  A saxophone and a few other instruments played haunting pieces as we walked by the park where we’d gather later. As usual in January, cold rain was threatening, but fortunately none actually fell.

From a distance, we spotted one hundred or so people waiting near a door of the huge City Hall/Opera House complex, built atop a former Jewish neighborhood after the Holocaust. Although most people were over forty, others were sprinkled in as well, and only one person was truly old.

Marchers of All Generations

Marchers of All Generations

In a very few moments, at exactly eleven o’clock, we heard the feet of the marchers coming from the other side of the building, and joined about a thousand people in a quiet walk. On either side of the group, a few tall men in dark clothes walked a few feet from the edge, and their presence created a straight line on both sides.

A Quiet Crowd    Although some people spoke quietly to each other, overall the crowd kept silence and moved along swiftly: many men in yarmulkes, parents holding the hands of their children, a scattering of brown people among the white. Most people wore dark coats, a few with bright red scarves, reminiscent of the strong socialist and communist ideals of the Jewish workers around the turn of the last century. When we passed the Portuguese Synagogue (opened in 1675), the most direct way to our destination was along the edge of the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, where the Nazis carried out the first roundup of 425 young Jewish men.

Marchers by Portuguese Synagogue

Marchers by Portuguese Synagogue

Instead, we diverted to the middle of the Meijerplein to pass by the statue of the Dockworker, the symbolic figure of the February Strike in which 300,000 Amsterdammers turned out to protest that first roundup.

Marchers by Dockworker

Marchers by Dockworker

The Essential Words  A few more blocks, and we arrived at the Wertheim Park, much of which was covered with plywood flooring to protect the grass, with a small stage erected beside the 1993 memorial by Jan Wokers: broken mirrors on the ground, surmounted by a sign, No More Auschwitz. We didn’t understand most of the Dutch words, but that didn’t matter. We knew the important ones: mother, father, children, Auschwitz, never, concentration camp, Holocaust, remembrance.

A very few elderly people could be spotted in wheelchairs or otherwise, and we calculated that they would have been small children in 1940. They knew people who died at Auschwitz personally. They miss them. However we feel the loss, for us it is abstract; for them it is intimate and real.

Flowers with Note

Flowers with Note

Roma/Sinti Music and Flowers    The speeches continued, including the Mayor of Amsterdam and a few other dignitaries, punctuated with a song, then moving instrumental music by the Tata Mirando Band, who represented the Roma and Sinti people who were also exterminated. The kaddish was said, and then a moment of silence. Finally, it was time for the flowers, an indispensable part of any Dutch memorial occasion. First children brought the official bouquets forward, and the dignitaries from that country or organization, who then placed the flowers on the memorial and stood in silence for a few moments. Every color was represented, and every flower obtainable in Holland, the world center of the cut flower trade.

Flowers from Everywhere

Flowers from Everywhere

 

 

When all the spectacular official wreaths and arrangements were in place, we joined the crowd of everyday people who filed by to add to the mounds of gold, white, yellow, orange (the national color), red and blue. Armloads of white carnations were being given out one at a time to anyone who didn’t bring flowers themselves. How wonderful that people still remember this as the flower of the resistance!

Everyone waited patiently until it was their turn to put their flower wherever they wanted to, and to walk around the whole memorial.

DIGNITY is the word that came to us as we walked home, the dignity of the participants as they paid tribute to those who died and were humiliated. The occasion was in no way stuffy. It honored life as well as death, brought children together as well as adults. It gave dignity back to the people from whom everything was taken away, except this: that we remember them year after year, even if we didn’t know them one by one.

A woman places flowers for an older man, perhaps her father

A woman places flowers for an older man, perhaps her father