AMSTERDAM — A former teachers’ college where more than 500 Jewish children were saved during the Holocaust is being transformed into the Netherlands’ first full-fledged Shoah museum.
Already operating since last May without a website or much publicity, the emerging National Holocaust Museum will fill a three-story brick building in Amsterdam’s former Jewish neighborhood, close to other sites tied to the Shoah. For now, only parts of the ground-level are open, including a small auditorium and reading room. According to plans, the museum will be completed by 2020 at a cost of $24 million.
“We aim to forge connections between people from different backgrounds by presenting our collective history as a pillar of today’s democratic society and our sense of justice,” according to a statement posted inside the entrance.
More than 102,000 Dutch Jews were killed by the Nazis, with 30,000 Jews living in the Netherlands today. The ease with which Dutch Jews were isolated and deported during the war continues to haunt witnesses, and the Dutch lost a larger percentage of their Jewish population than any country apart from Poland.
“In the years ahead, a permanent exhibition will be developed that tells the story of the persecution and genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the events leading up to it, and the complex consequences,” according to the museum.
Those “complex consequences” could include the treatment of Jews who returned from Nazi camps. Notoriously, government and church authorities were often unwilling to reunite hidden Jewish children with their parents. In those early post-war years, the first edifice that survivors felt compelled to build in Amsterdam was a literal expression of “gratitude” toward Dutch society, as opposed to a memorial for murdered loved ones.
So far, the Holocaust museum steers clear of politics by focusing on personal stories. In one room, photographs of children are paired with objects they once enjoyed, including a violin, diary and table games. The floor and podiums are made of unfinished wood, evoking young lives cut short.
Few artifacts tell as compelling a story as the ordinary-looking building itself, where Dutch and Jewish resisters operated a bold rescue scheme beneath the gaze of their oppressors.
When 500 children ‘disappeared’
The location of the teacher training college made the rescue operation possible. Now home to the National Holocaust Museum, the college was directly across the street from the Hollandsche Schouwburg, once a popular Yiddish theater. Two years into their occupation of Amsterdam, the Nazis converted the theater into a holding pen for Jews en route to deportation.
Beginning in July of 1942, thousands of Dutch Jews were incarcerated in the gutted theater on their way to the transit camp Westerbork. Because the Nazis could not tolerate the crying of infants and children, the decision was made to house young ones across the street in a creche, or nursery, that — fortuitously — shared a courtyard with the teacher training college.
The covert operation was directed by Walter Süskind, a German Jew appointed by the Jewish Council to run operations at the facility. As the list master, Süskind recorded the name of every Jew brought into the theater, including the deportees’ children taken across the street.
After confirming that a particular child’s parents were willing to send him or her into hiding, Süskind eliminated that child’s name from Nazi records. Next, staff of the nursery took these “disappeared” children through a courtyard and into the Reformed Teacher Training College. Inside the school, heroic director Johan van Hulst and student volunteers smuggled the children into hiding with Dutch families.
According to survivors, the “forgotten hero” Süskind managed to befriend the SS officer in charge of deportations, whom Süskind kept supplied with schnapps and cigars. Also known as “the Dutch Schindler,” Süskind was eventually deported along with his family, and he perished during a death march in Poland. However, the rescue operation he led — through which 500 adults were also sent into hiding — was never uncovered by the Nazis.
In addition to the courtyard route, older escapees made clever use of the street tram as it stopped between the theater and college. With trolley cars blocking their view, German sentries at the theater were unable to see the college entrance, allowing people to exit and follow alongside the tram.
The former Jewish district will also soon witness ground-breaking on a long-anticipated Memorial of Names. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the edifice will include the names of 102,000 Dutch Jews murdered in the Shoah, as well as 220 Roma and Sinti victims. Names will be laser-etched onto bricks along with dates of birth and death. From above, the structure will spell the Hebrew word Lizkor, “in memory of.”
Both the National Holocaust Museum and planned Memorial of Names are part of the 2013-inaugurated Jewish Cultural Quarter, where visitors can purchase one ticket to tour sites including the Jewish Historical Museum, Portuguese Synagogue, and Hollandsche Schouwburg, now a memorial with a small but impressive exhibit on the fate of Amsterdam’s Jews.
Whereas the Jewish cultural quarter’s restored synagogues shed light on the heyday of Jewish Amsterdam, the beta-version Holocaust museum and adjacent Hollandsche Schouwburg recall the near-elimination of Dutch Jewry, still a polarizing topic in the Netherlands.
“The two locations together represent the story of the Holocaust: the [former theater] is a place of deportation, collaboration and remembrance of the dead, [and] the college is a place where authentic human courage and selflessness were reflected,” according to the museum, which hopes to be “a beacon for the future.”