History of Jews in Holland

By Elijah McGuire-Berk

Elm Staff Writer

On April 15, the Department of Philosophy and Religion held a presentation titled “In Search of Dutch Jewry,” hosted by Dr. Gary Schiff. Dr. Schiff is an adjunct professor of history here at Washington College and has previously taught with the department sof Philosophy and History. He’s given guest talks all around Europe in countries such as Spain, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, and England.  He is also the author of “In Search of Poland: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Modern Day Poland,” published in 2012.

Dr. Schiff began by thanking the crowd as well as explaining where Holland is. He then described the modern influences of Jewish culture that are still present there. He said, “’mokum’ as it’s pronounced in Holland is the Yiddish form of the word ‘machum’ which means ‘place.’ For many centuries, Amsterdam was dubbed “The Jerusalem of the West,” the place for Jews to be, not only Dutch and Western European Jews, but Jews from Eastern Europe who were trying to escape persecution, so it was a very trendy place. The word stuck in Dutch, and it’s still a common denominator for the city even though few people know what its origin is.” He continued to talk about the influence that this word has had over modern Dutch culture.   


“Pre-War Amsterdam was such a Jewish city that 75,000 Jews lived there, 10 percent of the entire population,” he said. He talked about the history of Jews in Holland saying, “Jews first appeared in Holland in the 1200s in Medina, very much like other Ashkenazi Jews, who are descendants of German-West European origin.”  He talked about how, due to the legal restrictions, they could only take small time jobs as peddlers or money lenders. They were then expelled in 1348-49 due to being blamed for causing the Black Death, but they eventually came back. “Beginning in the 1590s, Jews began to settle in a few Dutch ports,” he said, and were allowed to stay due to their experience and connections with international sea trade.

Dr. Schiff also talked about The Dutch West India Company, and he explained how the early Dutch colonies in the Americas were home to the continents’ first Jewish settlers. He said, “Jews were among the first settlers of the Dutch island of Curacao, a central for international trade with the oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.”

Dr. Schiff talked about Holland under Nazi Germany occupation, showing images of the Anne Frank House as well as other Dutch memorials to the Holocaust.  He said, “75 percent, or 105,000 Jews were killed.” He said, “In dealing with such historic moral questions, I’d like to avoid simplistic answers.” He credited the high rate of those who were killed in Holland compared to neighboring nations not a result of geographic factors but rather human factors. He cited the Dutch Jews’ overall trust in the government compared to neighboring nations, and that there were more Nazi troops placed in Holland because Germany saw it as a good platform for which to invade England.

He ended by saying that modern Holland no longer has the same Jewish population that it once did. “Dutch Jewry is a shadow of its former self.”

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