Part III: Liberation and life after the war
When Canadian forces liberated the north in the spring of 1945, there were still 900 people being held prisoner in Westerbork. Many of the Jews were told to remain in the camp for their own safety: even though the occupation was officially declared over on 5 May, there were still some German soldiers in the Netherlands. In the weeks after liberation, there was a transitional period where members of the Dutch National Socialist Movement – fascists and supporters of the Nazis – lived in the camp alongside the remaining Jewish prisoners.
On 15 April 1945, Leeuwarden was liberated, and after a days-long battle which left much of the city centre destroyed, Groningen was liberated on 18 April. Jews from across the Netherlands who had hidden in the north, many of whom fled to Friesland from the Randstad, emerged from their hiding places.
|Torah scrolls in hay bales and box beds
In “The Jews of Leeuwarden”, Hartog Beem writes that many of the Jewish municipalities in Friesland managed to protect their Torah scrolls and silver during the war by hiding them across the province and beyond. Beem himself helped to sneak several of the Leeuwarden scrolls into the depot at De Kanselerij among Hebrew manuscripts from the former University of Franeker, and a reformed Christian resistance member in the Frisian town of Berlikum hid several other scrolls by sewing them into jute bags and placing them inside a box bed. The synagogue’s ceremonial silver artefacts, including the menorah, were stored in a vault in a bank in Amsterdam.
The Harlingen synagogue was destroyed by a bomb, but they managed to save their ceremonial silver by entrusting it to the municipality and their eight Torah scrolls were hidden in a haystack at a livery stable. The synagogue in Sneek was also damaged and the Germans were thought to have taken the ceremonial silver from the temple, but it was later found in the basement. At the end of the war, the synagogue in Gorredijk emerged unscathed, as did their Torah scrolls, which remained inside the building throughout the war.
Professor Stefan van der Poel writes in “Jewish life in Groningen” that the synagogue on the Folkingestraat was used as storage for confiscated radios during the war and was in bad shape by 1945. But two weeks after the nation was liberated, services resumed under the leadership of a Canadian rabbi, and on the 23 of August 1945, a marriage ceremony was held. But the decimated Jewish community of Groningen soon relocated to the smaller youth synagogue on the Folkingedwarsstraat, and in 1951, they decided to divest from the synagogue: it was sold for 100,000 guldens (roughly 45,000 euros) to Astra, a dry cleaning company, which turned it into a laundromat. But 30 years later, Herman Verbeek, a Roman Catholic priest, led a campaign to restore the building to its purpose as a house of worship. Since 1981, the synagogue has held bi-weekly religious services for the small Jewish community in the city.
The first service at the Leeuwarden synagogue after the war was a memorial to the hundreds of members of the Jewish quarter who had died. Holiday and ceremonial services were more or less back to normal in Leeuwarden by 1947 at the synagogue, even though it was still far too large with its room for 700 worshippers. The remaining Jewish enclaves in Friesland were too small to continue holding their own services, and the surviving members often travelled to the Leeuwarden synagogue in the post-war years. But membership numbers remained low, and in 1964, Hartog Beem, then the honorary chair of the Leeuwarden Jewish community, officially closed the synagogue and arranged for the Holy Ark, most of the Torah scrolls, the Bima and two stained glass windows to be transferred to Kfar Batja, a youth village (a cross between a boarding school and a kibbutz, created for Jews fleeing Europe during WWII) in Israel.
|Current use of the synagogues
Many of the synagogues in the north were either destroyed during the war or abandoned thereafter due to having too few attendees, but several of the buildings are still standing and have different uses, ranging from churches to arts centres to private homes.
Three still serve as Jewish houses of worship to this day: services are held for the small Jewish congregation at the Groningen synagogue, as well as in Zuidlaren and Emmen. The Leeuwarden synagogue is now home to dance school Saco Velt.
Coevorden: Educational institution
Delfzijl: Office building
Emmen: Still in use as a synagogue
Groningen: Still in use as a synagogue
Leeuwarden: Dance school
Nieuweschans: Arts center
Winsum: Cultural center
Zuidlaren: Still in use as a synagogue
The rusted railroad tracks at former Camp Westerbork now aim for the heavens. They are a national icon in the Netherlands synonymous with World War II and the deportation of more than 100,000 Jewish Dutch citizens. Wreaths and bouquets adorn the twisted metal tracks every year on Dutch Remembrance Day on 4 May. The former camp is now a memorial centre in recognition of the history of the grounds, from refugee camp to deportation camp to detention camp for NSB members and, after the war, Molukkan refugees camp.
The rail lines from Westerbork have been permanently severed, but new light is being shed on the role of the Dutch national rail company NS in the deportation campaign: the rail company earned money from transporting thousands of Jewish people in cattle cars to their deaths. In February of 2019, the company agreed to provide financial compensation for the surviving family members of the Dutch victims who were taken to the extermination camps by train.
Professor Van Der Poel is currently working to have memorial plaques in honour of the Jewish victims added to the rail station in Groningen, acknowledging the last place in the city they saw before being taken away to Westerbork. Groningen and Leeuwarden both currently have memorials for NS staff who died during the war, but there is no mention of the Jewish men, women and children who left from there.
He says that one person has reached out to him to ask to include the names of the resistance members from Groningen and Leeuwarden who died in any changes to the memorials. “That’s a point of course, but I do think this is something different”, he says. “Being Jewish, whether you were a child or in your old age, everyone had to be deported. Being a resistance fighter was more or less a choice.” Professor Van Der Poel says that he worries that the approach of including every single group who was impacted by the war would ultimately generalise the loss in such a way that no individual group is actually being remembered.
There are 651 monuments across Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland commemorating the Second World War. Stones, walls, statues, columns, headstones and stained glass are spread across the north in remembrance of Dutch soldiers, allied troops, resistance members, civilian casualties and persecuted individuals, including 139 memorials for Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This interactive map includes the location and description of each known Jewish monument in the three northern provinces.
There were hundreds of years of Jewish history in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland before the Holocaust, but after 1945, there was very little Jewish presence in the north. Traces remained in the memories of the survivors, but many of them found that living in their now empty neighbourhoods and trying to restore them to their former glory was too much to bear.
“Rebuilding and truly getting back to a sense of normalcy in life was very difficult – the memories of the neighbourhood in Leeuwarden were too painful for many who returned, and they eventually moved away”, Beem writes. The same sentiment hung over the diminished Jewish quarter in Groningen, according to Van Der Poel: “There was little hope that the community would bloom back to life. The future was elsewhere for most of them – in Israel (Palestine), the United States or Canada – but not here. The past weighed too heavily on them.”
For many Jewish people, the Second World War has become the sharp dividing line in modern Jewish history: according to Van Der Poel, contemporary Judaism is frequently defined by how irrevocably one’s family was harmed by the camps. “In a way, you could say that Jewish identity became more clear than it was before the Second World War.” says professor Van Der Poel. “But Jewish life is not only about the Second World War. For 150 years, there was already Jewish life [in the north]. So you should not narrow it down to these five years.”
The Folkingestraat in the city of Groningen is still home to a synagogue, but subtle works of art along the entire length of the street allude to its past as the heart of the Jewish quarter.
Embedded in the yellow bricks of the street itself, the phases of the moon are rendered in bronze, referring to the use in Judaism of a lunar calendar, upon which many festivals’ timing is reliant (“Galgal Hamazalot” by Jospeh Semah).
At the corner of the Folkingestraat and the Gedempte Zuiderdiep, a bronze door without a handle is built into a brick wall. The piece is named “Portal”, created by Gert Sinnema, and symbolises how the history of the Jewish neighbourhood was closed forever by World War II.
Between two former kosher butcher shops, “The pre-cut parade horse” by Marijke Gemessy depicts the hind quarters of a horse in ceramic tiles.
At Folkingestraat 9b, the word “weggehaald” (taken away) is embedded in the bricks above a narrow alley. The piece is called “Also Here” and was created by Peter de Kan.
Check out the other instalments of this three part series:
Photos by Traci White / additional research contributed by Thomas Ansell