On Sunday November 28, the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam officially opened the exhibition, “Out of the Shadows; Jews in the Netherlands after 1945.” (The Dutch title is, “Wie niet weg is, is gezien; Joods Nederland na 1945.” ) The launching of this exhibition is an important cultural event. Hetty Berg, the curator of this exhibition, explained that she and her colleagues were shocked to discover that they had little knowledge of the postwar era, a period of sixty-five years of history. As the history of Dutch Jewry in modern times is comprised of a span of roughly four centuries, from the Resettlement in the seventeenth century to the postwar era, which dates from the liberation in 1944/1945 to the present, the fact that one sixth of this history was missing from the public domain represented a big blind spot and a challenge for the curators at the Museum.
The postwar era in the Netherlands began with General Montgomery’s unsuccessful Market Garden campaign which in 1944 first liberated some of the Southern provinces. In May 1945, the Allies completed the liberation of the Northern provinces including Amsterdam. At the conclusion of the war, the Netherlands was left in ruins. Its entire population had suffered terribly during the Hunger Winter of 1945-46, but the situation for Jews was even worse. The Germans murdered nearly 105,000 Jews of the prewar population which had numbered close to 140,000. With the liberation, the surviving Jews came out of hiding and returned from the death camps. Although it is not generally known, the Dutch gentile population, which was occupied with its own survival, neither treated the returning Jews well nor showed much understanding for their greater losses and suffering. For Dutch Jews it was a time of personal and collective struggle for the reunification of families; recovery of the orphan children; finding homes, and reclamation of the assets which the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators seized, as well as property and assets which Jews had entrusted to their friends and neighbors. Later, identified Jewish communal leaders would be obliged to wage struggles for the legal reinstatement of the Jewish community, its property and even the Jewish orphans. This was a bleak period which some remember as a time of emptiness, loneliness, and sleep interrupted by horrible memories. During this era, some took the view that there was no future for Jews in the Netherlands. In fact, relatively large numbers emigrated, and many Dutch Jews left for Israel between 1945 and 1950.
Despite this difficult beginning, a thriving and enormously diverse community has emerged. According to the most recent census figures, it numbers 52,000 who are Jews or call themselves Jewish. Of these, there are 37,000 halachic Jews and 8,000 Israelis. Nonetheless, this number reflects the great loss and demographic shock of the Holocaust. The fact that there is a new and diverse community represents a cultural and religious development of the highest importance. Dutch Jewry is entering the fourth generation after the Holocaust and is doing well.
The Jewish Historical Museum has successfully documented this evolution using a creative multidisciplinary approach. Hetty Berg assembled nearly one hundred interviews with Dutch Jews of different backgrounds. And, the Museum has made use of all manner of visual materials which include newsreels, photos, advertising and such artifacts as a machine for warming peanuts at a famous kosher grocery.
In addition to the actual exhibition, the Museum has published two volumes: one a richly illustrated collection of historical essays and the other, a retrospective of the photography of Boris Kowadlo, a Dutch photographer who was born in Poland and chronicled some of the most dramatic moments of the postwar era, particularly the historical first postwar service held at the Sephardic Esnoga synagogue in Amsterdam immediately after the liberation. Indeed, the work of Boris Kowadlo, is a wonderful discovery. It represents world class documentary photography. Kowadlo worked mainly with a Rolleiflex which produced rich 6x 6 cm. negatives. It is noteworthy that in this digital age the quality of this black and white work remains unsurpassed. To date, the work of this talented photographer has not been recognized, so this retrospective exhibition of his work is all the more original and significant.
With the launching of its exhibition, “Out of the Shadows,” the Jewish Historical Museum has cast light on an important aspect of Jewish and European Jewish history. The exhibition demonstrates that under inspired leadership, a museum can make a significant contribution to a field where the university professors lacked imagination and courage. In fact, by taking the initiative, the Jewish Historical Museum has successfully shown a new and creative way that a museum can serve society, preserve historical memory and encourage collective pride. The diversity of sources, their comprehensiveness and quality are impressive. Curator, Hetty Berg, explained. “It is the museum’s purpose in our generation to make Jewish history and culture accessible to a broader public. The museum provides the medium to bridge this gap.”
Dr. Joel Fishman is a Member of the Board of the Center for Research on Dutch Jewish History in Jerusalem. Dr. Fishman also serves as Book Review Editor for the SPME Faculty Forum