Amsterdam mayor attempted to purchase the shul for a museum

How a volunteer Jewish fire brigade saved the Dutch Portuguese Synagogue in WWII

16-year-old with chutzpah convinced Nazis not to use Amsterdam’s Esnoga as a collection point for deportation as his comrades helped rescue building from plunder — and a bomb plot

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Famous photograph of services at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam on May 9, 1945, with Holocaust survivors in attendance (public domain)
Famous photograph of services at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam on May 9, 1945, with Holocaust survivors in attendance (public domain)

AMSTERDAM — When asked why the Nazis did not destroy his family’s cherished Portuguese Synagogue, Bram Palache called the decision “a bit of a mystery.”

In the opinion of Dutch Holocaust historians, however, Palache’s own father — the late Leo Palache — was a guiding force behind helping the landmark synagogue make it through World War II intact.

Although Leo Palache was only 14 when the German occupation began, he helped dissuade the Nazis from turning the “Esnoga” — synagogue in Portuguese — into a Jewish deportation center. The adolescent also guarded the complex until 1944, when he and other volunteer firefighters concealed ritual items between the sanctuary ceiling and attic floor.

“During the war my father was a member of the fire brigade to protect the building, if there was anything to protect,” said Bram Palache, today a biochemist renowned for his influenza research.

At the end of November, this reporter and Palache were given special access to the Esnoga’s attic and vaulted cellar, both of which are off limits to tourists. Obscured by wooden beams, the attic crawlspace where Palache’s father hid religious objects and Esnoga membership lists was uncovered for us by a security guard.

Bram Palache in the attic of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, looking into the space where his father — volunteer ‘firekeeper’ Leo Palache — hid congregational treasures from the Nazis, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

As with the sanctuary below, there has never been electricity in the attic. Since the brick building’s erection during the Golden Age, chandeliers holding 1,000 candles still provide light in the sanctuary when needed.

The Esnoga complex is based loosely on the design of Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple complex, with a frame of buildings surrounding a courtyard and imposing central sanctuary. In the years after the Portuguese Synagogue’s 1675 consecration, the design was copied around the world.

‘My father liked these stories’

On the eve of Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands, the Esnoga received special historical status from the Dutch government.

The status came with funding for renovations to protect the building from fires expected during air raids, including the addition of emergency water pipes and fire escapes. The attic was covered in thick rockwool blankets and the elaborate heichal — Torah ark — was shielded with a protective casing and sandbags.

Interior of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue during the 1920s (public domain)

Another fateful decision taken in 1939 was when the synagogue’s leaders agreed to provide for “surveillance” during wartime. By 1940, at least 40 Jewish men — including Leo Palache — were patrolling the complex as volunteer firemen.

The Palache family traces their Dutch roots to before the synagogue’s founding. Of Spanish and Moroccan origin, some of Bram Palache’s ancestors were diplomats to Morocco’s kings, he said.

During the years leading up to the war, Palache’s grandfather — Judah Lion Palache — was a professor of Semitic languages and leader of the Portuguese Jewish community.

Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue complex, with the central sanctuary building surrounded by a frame of smaller structures used for various purposes, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

In terms of what Leo Palache told his family about guarding the Esnoga, there seemed to be a lot of playing board games and eating roasted potatoes. During half a decade of Nazi occupation, no bombs fell on the synagogue or immediate vicinity, and the Nazis left the complex unmolested.

“My father liked these stories about being a firekeeper,” said Palache. “It never sounded very dark.”

‘Barbaric cultural destroyers’

In July of 1942, Nazi administrator Ferdinand Hugo aus der Funten — known as Funten, for short — made a pivotal visit to the Portuguese Synagogue.

In February of 1941 outside Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, the Nazis arrest hundred of Jews for ‘forced labor’ (public domain)

As head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Amsterdam, Funten bore responsibility for deporting the Netherlands’ Jewish population to transit camps. From there, most Dutch Jews — more than 100,000 people — were taken to death camps and murdered.

As the Nazis systematized the “Final Solution,” Funten searched for a pre-deportation Jewish “holding pen.” The building had to be centrally located, close to a tram line, and large enough to cram many hundreds of victims.

The monumental Esnoga was in the most densely populated Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam, close to major tram lines and not far from Central Station. From there, deportation trains left for the transit camps.

A map of Amsterdam prepared in 1941 by the city’s administrators. Each dot represents a cluster of 10 Jews. (public domain)

Enter volunteer firefighter Leo Palache, son of the congregation’s leader. As one of several Jews questioned by Funten during his visit to the Esnoga, Palache declared the synagogue would be “very unsuitable” as a deportation center, according to Bram Palache.

Specifically, Leo Palache informed Funten the building had no electricity. And even if the sanctuary had lights, explained the 16-year-old to the Nazi functionary, the many large windows were not easily covered for air raid blackouts.

“Leo Palache preserved the Esnoga from not being used as an Umschlagplatz [a collection point for deportation],” said historian Annemiek Gringold in an  interview at the synagogue.

At the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, historian Annemiek Gringold and biochemist Bram Palache review the ‘Jewish Council’ record of Leo Palache, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Along with Bram Palache, Gringold and I sat at a kitchen table not far from where Leo Palache and the other firefighters stationed themselves during the war.

According to Gringold, who serves as Holocaust curator for the Jewish Cultural Quarter, Leo Palache played an “essential” role in convincing Funten to pass over the Portuguese Synagogue as a deportation center.

“The Nazis did not want to be known as barbaric cultural destroyers among the Dutch,” said Gringold. “They ordered the synagogue to be preserved, possibly for a museum,” she said.

‘Not a single Hebrew inscription’

Even before Funten’s fateful visit to the Portuguese Synagogue, the building escaped an attempt on its life.

In February of 1941, rumors spread the Weerafdeling — or WA — planned to blow up the Esnoga. As the paramilitary arm of the Dutch National Socialist Movement, WA gangs were surrounding Jewish neighborhoods to attack victims with impunity that winter.

According to historians David Cohen Paraira and Jos Smit, the fire brigades responded to WA attack rumors by preventing access to the Esnoga’s vaulted cellar. Fearing dynamite would be placed there to bring down the building, they nailed shut the trapdoor.

At the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, a trapdoor leading to the vaulted, water-filled cellar is removed, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Between the end of 1943 and February 2, 1944, Leo Palache and the other firefighters were deported — but not before they stashed the remaining congregational treasures and membership lists between the sanctuary ceiling and attic floor. Immediately, a non-Jewish municipal fire brigade took over for them.

After the Portuguese Synagogue was cleared of Jews, Amsterdam mayor E.J. Voute visited the complex in the company of two directors of prominent Dutch museums. The men were “deeply impressed” and asked German authorities if the city could buy the synagogue and its contents for use as a museum.

The water-filled vaulted cellar of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

In his February 1944 letter to the Nazi occupiers, Voute praised the “Aryan” architects of the synagogue. Additionally, he wrote, “there is not a single Hebrew inscription” on the copper chandeliers or benches, which were among the finest from the Golden Age still in existence.

It’s unclear how German authorities responded to the purchase request, but the Esnoga continued to be guarded. Even during the “Hunger Winter” famine in the Netherlands, when the homes of Jewish victims and synagogues were dismantled for use as fuel, Dutch fire brigades kept the complex intact.

Front of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

According to historians Cohen Paraira and Smit, the Esnoga’s benches, balconies and other wooden features would have vanished without the firefighters’ uninterrupted presence.

‘Her whole past was actively missed’

Thanks to Gringold’s access to Dutch wartime archives, the historian was able to show Bram Palache an important piece of his father’s past for the first time. After Palache and I toured the Esnoga’s attic and cellar, Gringold arrived with a copy of Leo Palache’s wartime record as kept by the Jewish Council, or Joodse Raad.

Appointed by the Nazis to carry out their orders, the council prepared cards with every Jew’s name, family members, and home address. The records were used to keep track of people and correspond about possible temporary exemptions from deportation. The Germans and Amsterdam municipality each maintained a similar set of records, and those were the ones used to prepare deportation lists.

Historian Annemiek Gringold reviews the ‘Jewish Council’ card of Leo Palache at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

The enlarged Joodse Raad card of Leo Palache is a minefield of signatures, red stamps, and hand-written ID numbers. One marking indicates his deportation to Westerbork, explained Gringold. Another one, from the Red Cross, indicates his liberation from Buchenwald.

Soon after gaining freedom, Palache learned his entire family had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered. The family’s status on the so-called “Portuguese List” had kept them safe for two years, during which time the Nazis deployed a cat-and-mouse game while dividing the Jewish population among itself.

After completing his studies and starting a new family, Palache led the Esnoga like his father before him. He was a key fundraiser for badly needed renovations, an ardent Zionist, and founder of an institute in his father’s name at the University of Amsterdam.

On the roof of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Bram Palache (center) learns about the role his father Leo Palache and other volunteer firekeepers played during the Nazi occupation, November 25, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

For Bram Palache, the Esnoga was the setting of his childhood and bar mitzvah, a second home where the floor is covered with sand — Dutch-style — so clunky shoes don’t make too much noise.

In addition to happy memories, Palache recalled his mother Lea sitting alone in the women’s balcony. From there, she looked down on empty benches where loved ones once sat and looked up at her.

“Her whole past was actively missed if she was upstairs,” said Palache, whose family and the Esnoga share centuries of history.

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