Manfred Gerstenfeld Netherlands


This interview was published on Israel National News, it is a unique memorial for a murdered community. Published here with the author’s consent.



A picture of Wim Willems and Hanneke Verbeek

The Jewish History of a Street in the Netherlands

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Professor Wim Willems

Dr.Manfred GerstenfeldBy investigating microcosms, one often starts to see the emergence of bigger patterns. Relatively little has been written about the Jewish history of The Hague, of which the bathing resort Scheveningen is part. Together with Hanneke Verbeek, I have used Harstenhoekweg as a starting point for our research on the subject. It was a street where many Jews, most of which with eastern European origins, have lived, almost since the street was first built in the beginning of the previous century. 1

Professor Wim Willems teaches history at the University of Leiden, and his research focuses on the history of The Hague.

During the First World War, many Jewish refugees fled from Belgium to the Netherlands, which remained a neutral country. This immigration led to an increase in the Jewish population of Scheveningen. The immigrants were mainly eastern European Jews from Antwerp, many of which were involved in the diamond profession. After the war, a number of them returned to Belgium, but some remained and requested to be naturalized as Dutch citizens.

A local Jewish social and religious infrastructure was slowly created. This community is a very interesting example of the successful integration of immigrants into Dutch society. I then wondered whether one could map the creation and development of this community.

This eastern-European Jewish community in Scheveningen was sociologically very different from the small eastern-European Jewish community of Rotterdam, for example. The community of Rotterdam consisted of Jews who had arrived in the harbor town on the way to the United States, but had finally decided to stay. They created an eastern-European Jewish community next to the much larger and older Dutch Jewish community in Rotterdam.

Our research focused on all Jews which had ever lived on Harstenhoekweg throughout the years until 1941. That is the last year that one can still see who lived there from information found in the municipal archives. It turns out that 455 Jewish families lived or had lived on this particular street, a total of approximately 1,400 people.

After the Holocaust, only a decimated Jewish community remained in Scheveningen. During the summer it would experience a temporary surge from the many Belgian Jewish tourists who came to the bathing resort for relaxation. For many years there was still a kosher restaurant on the first floor of the eastern-European Jewish synagogue on Harstenhoekweg. This synagogue, founded in 1926, was established in a building which had previously been a dance hall. Thus, a permanent Jewish religious infrastructure was created in Scheveningen.

The Jewish community slowly developed after the turn of the 20th century. Many organizations were established, including those for music and entertainment. Youth movements, such as scouts, a theatre club, Zionist and religious organizations were all founded. Kosher shops opened in the neighborhood.

A very important facet which I wished to investigate was that of social interaction between the community and others. Many concentrated on family life because they had to work so hard. Some went on weekdays by train to the diamond exchange in Amsterdam. Before the Second World War, the exchange was Jewish to a large extent. Membership cards of some of Scheveningen’s Jews were found in Amsterdam. Others worked in the money exchange in Rotterdam.

We found that immigrants who came, for instance, from Cracow or Lviv interacted for the most part with people from the same town or region. As far as we could verify, they spoke Yiddish or German among themselves or at home. Many of those who remained in Scheveningen after the First World War also spoke Dutch.

We travelled to places in Poland and the Ukraine, former Galicia, where many families came from. We did not find any of their belongings, but at least became familiar with their original environment. With the exception of Cracow, hardly anything has been researched or done regarding the reconstruction of the history of the Jews in former Galicia.

We also spoke to a number of Holocaust survivors in the Netherlands, England, Israel and Belgium. They told us that in their non-Jewish school, on Friday afternoons, a bell would ring – the so-called Jewish bell. The Jewish pupils would then know that they were allowed to leave school early and go home in time for the Sabbath.

Another example of religious pluralism was the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas. All children would receive chocolate in the form of the alphabet- typically receiving the initial of their first name – and the Jewish children received kosher chocolate letters. On Christmas, Dutch children would typically get fancy sweet pastries and the Jewish children were given kosher sweet pastries.”

Professor Willems summarizes: “We found much more information than first expected when we began researching the history of this Jewish community. We would like to see to it that historical material that is currently in private possession will not be lost. There is not a single street in Scheveningen which has been named after a Jewish individual. There is no monument to respect the memory of the many murdered Jews which lived in the area. If more consciousness about the history of the Jewish community of Scheveningen is created, such things might become possible.”

1 Before the end of 2015, the publisher Bert Bakker will publish their book: Wim Willems and Hanneke Verbeek, ‘Hier woonden wij’. Hoe een stad zijn Joodse verleden herontdekt.

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