Part I: Medina
At the end of the Folkingestraat in Groningen, a group of children are trying to open an unopenable door. The kids run their hands along its cool bronze surface, embedded into the wall of a coffee shop, as bikes and pedestrians make their way up and down the bustling shopping street.
“What is missing from this door?”, a nearby tour guide asks the children.
“It doesn’t have a handle”, one of them observes.
The door leads to nowhere: it is a work of art named “Portal”, created by Gert Sinnema and unveiled on the Folkingestraat in 1997. Behind the door lies the history of the street, which was the beating heart of the Jewish quarter of Groningen for hundreds of years prior to World War II.
Dutch for generations
By the 20th century, the Jewish community of the Netherlands had been living in the country for many generations. In Amsterdam and the wider Randstad, hundreds of Sephardic Jewish people had come from Spain and Portugal in the 1400s to escape the inquisition – one of the most famous Dutch philosophers, Baruch Spinoza, was of Portuguese Sephardi descent – and there was an influx of Ashkenazi Jews from central Europe during the Thirty Years War in the 1600s.
University of Groningen assistant history professor Stefan van der Poel describes Amsterdam as “Mokum” – the capital – and Groningen as “Medina” – the countryside – for Jewish people in the Netherlands. The terms originally entered the Dutch vocabulary through the Iberian Jewish community: “Medina” means “government” in Aramaic, and “Mokum” means “safe place” in Yiddish.
In the north, the ancestors of most of the Jewish population originally came to the region from Germany and Poland. The city of Groningen’s proximity to the German border – 50 kilometres – made it an increasingly popular destination for Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe, primarily Poland and Germany, in the 18th century. Many of the German immigrants came from the harbour city of Emden, which had a sizable Jewish community dating back to the Middle Ages. In the province of Groningen, there were also Jewish enclaves in Appingedam, Nieuweschans, Warffum, and Winsum.
Leeuwarden had its own synagogue for its Jewish community over 40 years before the city of Groningen. Jewish history was formally documented in Leeuwarden beginning in 1710, which is the year that the synagogue is believed to have been built. The first building was a small structure behind the Amelandspijp, but by the mid-1700s, a larger building on the Sacramentstraat came into use as the city’s synagogue.
Newcomers were primarily drawn to the biggest cities in the north and then onward toward the west due to the prospect of better job opportunities. In Friesland, most Jewish people settled in Leeuwarden, but there was also a Portuguese Jewish community in Workum dating all the way back to 1635, and Gorredijk, Harlingen, Bolsward and Sneek all had their own synagogues at some point in time. There were also small congregations in Lemmer, Dokkum, Heerenveen, Noordwolde and Hindeloopen.
Through the end of the 18th century, the Jewish quarters in the north grew and remained fairly insular: most inhabitants primarily spoke Yiddish in their homes and were very observant of Jewish tradition in terms of their clothing and kitchens. In Leeuwarden, kosher butchers were so common that there were even a handful that were run by non-Jews.
The beginnings of a Jewish quarter in Groningen were documented in 1744, and by the end of the 18th century, there were about 400 Jewish people living in the area around the Folkingestraat: the rough borders are the Zuiderdiep, Schoolholm, Vismarkt and the Haddingestraat.
The city of Groningen’s first synagogue was built in 1756 at the same address where the current temple stands: Folkingestraat 60. After it was completed, a Jewish neighbourhood gradually developed around it, along with a number of other Jewish religious institutions in the area: a Jewish school on the Haddingestraat; the rabbinical residency on the Folkingestraat; a hospice on the Schoolholm; and two other smaller temples on the Zuiderdiep and the Folkingedwaarsstraat. “Although the Jewish population was never a true majority in the area, it still came to be known as the Jewish quarter,” Van Der Poel says.
Although the area became known as the Jewish quarter, even at its peak, only 50% of the people living there were Jews themselves. Most of the residents of the neighbourhood either worked as wholesalers in textiles or manufacturing, or in the meat industry, and there was a fledgling “Jewish intelligentsia” thanks to the presence of the University of Groningen.
Leeuwarden’s Jewish quarter also thrived throughout the 18th and much of the 19th century. There were 2,203 Jewish residents at the neighbourhood’s peak in 1879. The quarter in Leeuwarden was also centred around the synagogue, which was built in 1710. The main streets where most Jewish inhabitants of Leeuwarden lived and worked were Bij de Put, Sacramentstraat (where the synagogue is located), Slotmakerstraat, Speelmanstraat, Breedstraat, Nieuweburen, and Groeneweg.
The Jewish enclaves in the north and across the wider Netherlands long had their own distinctive culture and character, but over the course of the centuries, Dutch Jewish people slowly but surely grew closer to Dutch traditions and lifestyles. In 1796, a national decree from the Dutch government officially recognised Jewish people in the Netherlands as full-fledged Dutch citizens. The decree meant that many local limitations placed on Jews in terms of professional opportunities and social club members were done away with.
No longer a separate “nation”
“Prior to 1796, Judaism and Jewish were the same thing,” according to “Jewish life in Groningen” by Wout van Bekkum and Stefan van der Poel. “As of 1796, the Dutch government no longer considered Jewish people as part of a separate ‘nation’, but rather merely as belonging to a different religion, like Catholics and protestants.” Van Der Poel says, “From the end of the 18th century, they could rely on Dutch government. They had equal rights, and this was never doubted from then onward.”
|Prominent Jewish residents of the north
Many Jewish men and women born in Groningen and Drenthe who left a lasting impact on Dutch history, be it through their art, their writing, their music or their medical or academic contributions.
Jozef Israels: painter (born in Groningen in 1824)
Joseph Ascher: composer, pianist (born in Groningen in 1829)
Henry J. Duveen: art dealer (born in Meppel in 1854)
Aletta Jacobs: physician, feminist, suffragette (born in Sappemeer in 1854)
Eduard Salomon Frankfort: painter (born in Meppel in 1864)
Salomon de Wolff: economist, politician (born in Sneek in 1878)
Carry van Bruggen: writer (born in Smilde in Drenthe in 1881)
Elie Aron Cohen: doctor (born in Groningen in 1909)
Jacob Willem “Wim” Cohen: Mathematician (born in Leeuwarden in 1923)
Ida Vos: author (born in Groningen in 1931)
The decree was a formal acknowledgement of the extent to which many Jewish people had assimilated into Dutch society, and prompted many to even more firmly embrace aspects of Dutch culture and leave more and more traditions of Jewish life – particularly Ashkenazi – behind. Some Leeuwarders felt so much a part of Frisian society that the Leeuwarden synagogue had to instate a dress code banning temple goers from wearing the quintessentially Dutch klompen– wooden clogs – in the main section of the synagogue.
From Yiddish to Dutch
The decree also impacted the language spoken by many Jewish people, both publicly and privately: there was a shift from Yiddish to Dutch in public, and in the religious domain, Hebrew and Aramaic use were pared back in favour of Dutch. By 1890, the Leeuwarder dialect had become common in most Jewish homes, and as a sign of the extent to which the city had accepted its Jewish community, Yiddish terms began popping up in Liwadders around that time as well.
By the end of the 19th century, many Jewish individuals started leaving the more rural regions of the country, including the northern provinces, and heading to the west for better economic opportunities. Part of the reason was due to an agricultural crisis between the 1870s and 1890s, but the Jewish population in the city of Groningen continued to grow until around 1911 when there were 2,729 known Jewish inhabitants.
Even though the Jewish neighbourhoods were becoming less insular and their inhabitants were leading increasingly secular lives, Groningen still recognised that its Jewish population was growing and decided that the city needed a larger synagogue to accommodate them. In 1905, Tjeerd Kuipers, a reformed Christian and locally renowned church architect, was asked to build the synagogue which is still standing at the Folkingestraat to this day.
But Kuipers had never built a synagogue before. Van Der Poel says that when Kuipers travelled to Germany to draw inspiration from the synagogues there, he encountered many Eastern-influenced designs from the Romantic movement in the 1800s. The ultimate result was a stately brick building with such a strong Asian influence that it could almost be mistaken for a mosque, albeit with a distinctly Christian design element: a cross-shaped floor plan. The new synagogue had room for 600 worshipers, including a separate section for women upstairs in keeping with orthodox tradition.
In the early 1930s, the lines between Jewish culture and Dutch culture were becoming ever more difficult to pin down. “You could argue that the notion of Jewish identity was actually quite a complicated puzzle,” Van Der Poel says. “It’s even hard to talk about a Jewish community because it was fragmented in different portions.”
In the second instalment of this series on Jewish history of the Northern Netherlands, The Northern Times focuses on the gradual isolation of the Jewish community following occupation by Germany during World War II and Drenthe’s tragic role in the fate of thousands of Dutch Jews.
Photos by Traci White