The Sephardic heritage of the Iberian Peninsula has traveled far and wide, far beyond the confines of the nations that are now known as Portugal and Spain. Our Douro Kosher cruises always seek to rediscover the legacy that these Sephardic jews left behind, a legacy that had enmeshed itself deep within Iberia’s culture in spite of persecution. However, while some Jewish communities stayed in hiding despite the Alhambra Decree (a declaration by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that exiled the Jews of Spain) and the subsequent Portuguese expulsion, many Sephardic Jews decided to leave the peninsula altogether, bringing their skills and labor to other lands. Figures like Isaac Abravanel continued their work in their new patron nations, while others made a living by harrying the Spanish, such was the case with Jewish privateers. Among the different places that Sephardic Jews migrated to, Amsterdam bears the distinction for being one of the more welcoming cities of the age.
A Refuge Far From Spain
The first group of Jews that emigrated to Amsterdam were Sephardic conversos, and their numbers included merchants and traders that greatly benefited the Dutch capital. Because of the less oppressive environment (owing to Article XIII of the Union of Utrecht, which forbids the persecution of peoples for religious reasons), many conversos began to practice their Jewish faith more openly, to the point that synagogues, such as the Great Synagogue of Esnoga, were being opened freely.
In the 17th Century, the Sephardic Jewish population of Amsterdam was prospering, with a hold on the silk trade and a successful printing press. Pogroms in Europe resulted in a huge influx of Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam, seeking to flee further persecution. While the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews were initially quite different from each other, the latter group gradually integrated and found received the same amount of progress and prosperity as their Iberian kin. Jewish culture flourished, contributing to Amsterdam’s Golden Age. The Yiddish nickname for Amsterdam was “Mokum”, meaning “Safe haven.”
An End and a Beginning
Amsterdam saw yet another influx of Jewish refugees, this time from Jews fleeing the Nazis. However, the Netherlands was later occupied by Nazi Germany, and countless Jews living there were sent to concentration camps, including Anne Frank. The Great Synagogue of Amsterdam might have become a deportation center that facilitated these vile sentences, but a troop of firefighters managed to discourage Nazi officials from distorting the sanctity and heritage of that Sephardic building.
Today, Amsterdam is a bustling capital, and the Jewish identity of its occupants is preserved in the Jewish Historical Museum. A statue of Ann Frank stands in front of the Westerkerk church, a reminder of how many innocent lives were lost. One of our future Jewish tours through Europe will take us to Holland, where we will reconnect with a legacy that has persisted for centuries.