Jewish culture is everywhere in Rotterdam, but hardly visible

But to date there is not a single place where Rotterdammers can become acquainted with the Jewish contribution to the city. An exhibition has only been held once before. It was in 1968. Then the Rotterdam City Archives opened the exhibition ‘350 Years of the Jewish Community in Rotterdam’. Here, attention was paid, albeit very modestly, to the arrival of Portuguese Jews and later also German and Polish Jews. The visitor got a picture of the poverty of the Jewish population, the street trade, but also of the synagogue at Boompjes, Jewish schools and hospitals, which were destroyed in the German bombardment. Daily newspaper The Free People called the exhibition a ‘fascinating part of Rotterdam’s history’. That story came to a brutal end in 1940. After that, only memorial culture remained.

“It’s good that we remember,” says Van Gelderen, “but I also want to show Jewish culture as a living culture. To that end, it’s important to tell who we are. Materially, only the cemeteries have survived . Well, there are monuments, street names and plaques in places where synagogues once stood, but very little is visible in Rotterdam with four hundred years of Jewish past”. He points to the old Zandstraat area where poor Jews struggled for a living as fruit traders, skin sellers and butchers.He also mentions the importance of Jewish entrepreneurs in the film and entertainment industry, of Jewish family businesses such as Gerzon and Bijenkorf or Van den Berghs and Jürgens margarine factory.

Van Gelderen dreams of a place where Jewish heritage can be displayed, and the story of the Jews in Rotterdam can be told to the city’s inhabitants: “How do we make it visible that in the 1640s the first Dutch yeshiva opened in Rotterdam – the place where Torah being studied? Can Rotterdam’s Jewish heritage, now in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, also be displayed in Rotterdam? What is the use of Jewish heritage for Rotterdam City Archives? What ancient writings and documents are in the library to dust that can be shown to the public? What do we do with old Rotterdam prayer books – machzo belt – which the Loods 24 Foundation receives on an ongoing basis? The list of possibilities is endless.” He also has a name for his dream museum space: Mokum journeyRotterdam in Hebrew.

‘Inclusion’ has now become a key concept, but Jews are usually forgotten in this discourse. In 2019, author Gideon Querido blamed Frank i Free Netherlands the inclusion movement to be selective by ignoring Jews. Jews are not seen as a vulnerable minority, but as ‘white’ and therefore part of a privileged majority. But ‘Jews have never been white’, writes Querido van Frank. “Jews have never been the norm, never the majority. For most of history, Jews as an ethnic minority have been excluded, persecuted and massacred. There’s a damn bit of white on it.’

Frank van Gelderen refrains from making too strong statements about inclusion and anti-Semitism. “Let’s start by telling who we are and what role Jews played in Rotterdam,” he says. He looks positively on the future. In the coming months, talks will be held with the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and Verhalenhuis Belvédère, which has a floor in the depot of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and where presentations can be practiced.

He is hopeful about the new Stichting Joods Leven Rotterdam. This foundation, headed by the former professor and politician Uri Rosenthal, receives a contribution from the municipality of Rotterdam to the Jewish community in connection with the ‘moral restoration of rights’. After the war, returning Rotterdam Jews were not only treated extremely coldly, they were also disadvantaged financially, for example through municipal exploitation of expropriated housing. Part of the two million euros will be paid out by Stichting Joods Leven Rotterdam in annual donations to the Dutch-Israeli Municipality of Rotterdam and the Rotterdam Liberal Municipality. Another part will be managed by the Foundation for initiatives promoting ‘the preservation of four hundred years of Rotterdam’s Jewish cultural heritage and the safeguarding of Jewish life in Rotterdam’.

“I would also like to claim this with my plan regarding Jewish heritage,” says Van Gelderen. “I think we can tell a story that is worthwhile for all Rotterdammers”.

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