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Posts Tagged ‘Dutch’

Hidden In Plain Sight: The (Jewish) Hague

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Beneath Baruch Spinoza’s smiling bust on his tombstone on the grounds of the Nieuwe Kerk in the Hague is an inscription of his famous motto, “caute” (written cavte on the stone, see image one), or “cautiously” in Latin. Between that admonition and the dates of his life – 1632 to 1677, cut short by an illness whose identity is hotly debated – is the Hebrew word “amcha” or “amach”, Hebrew for “your people” or “your nation.”

 

The word, which appears on a stone which was provided by David Ben Gurion, a groupie, is ambiguous, to say the least. Is the word’s subject God – meaning, “[Spinoza is one of] Your nation” – in which case the word evokes the declaration of 1 Chronicles 17: 21, “And who is like Your nation (k’amcha) Israel, a single nation in the land?”

 

 

Spinoza’s Tombstone

All photos courtesy of the author

 

 

Or is Spinoza the subject? Perhaps the church and its community were the true people of the philosopher excommunicated by the rabbis for heresy. If that were the intention, it would be doubly tragic, as Spinoza’s bones were discarded in the church’s yard after his friends and family stopped paying rent for his tomb. The inscription “amcha” defiantly and ironically marks the tomb commemorating a man who had no people and who, even in death, could not seem to rest in peace.

 

My first of several walks through the downtown area of The Hague occurred somewhat in a jet-lagged daze. Still, that alone does not explain the many Jewish monuments and buildings I walked right past without appreciating their significance. Even after he had shown me hidden Stars of David, former synagogues and a matzoh factory, it caught me completely off guard when Jewish tour guide Remco Dorr led me to Spinoza’s grave on the grounds of the church right across the street from my hotel.

 

Whether he was discussing the temporary posts and chains rabbis set up beside canal drawbridges to allow residents to carry outside the ritual boundary (t’chum) on the Sabbath or the cultural and economic gulfs between Sephardic (Portuguese) and Ashkenazi Jews in the 17th century, one cannot say too much about Dorr’s breadth of knowledge except that it was rivaled only by his enthusiasm for his city’s history.

 

From its start, Dorr’s two-hour tour reflected the Jewish crisis in the city which is the seat of the Dutch government. Before World War II, 17,000 Jews lived in The Hague. The Jewish population of The Hague today is about 2,000. The former shtetl is now Chinatown, and walking along Wagenstraat, strung with hanging red lanterns, one reaches a mini supermarket called U-Shop with a fa?ade of two ram’s heads and two lambs still intact, betraying the storefront’s prior identity as a Jewish butcher’s shop (image two).

 

 

Synagogue-turned-mosque

 

 

The next stop on Wagenstraat was a 19th century synagogue and mikveh (used from 1844 to 1974), now a mosque (since 1979). According to Dorr, the only aspect of the synagogue (image three) that remains is balcony that was the women’s section. An inscription on a cornerstone close to the ground, far beneath the minarets, still attests (in Hebrew and Dutch) to the building’s origins: “The first stone of the construction of the sanctuary of God, this Ashkenazi congregation Yeshurun , the holy congregation of The Hague, may God defend it, which was placed on Tuesday, the 25th of Nissan, 5603 [1843].”

 

Walking from the synagogue-turned-mosque to Spinoza’s former attic apartment (17th century rent, 50 guilders per year), Dorr explained that Jewish scavenger hunting in The Hague is different from say Germany.

 

Whereas stone doorframes in Germany still divulge the locations of mezuzahs past, Dutch frames were made of wood, which has long been replaced. There are some inscriptions – Dorr noted one, “H. G. Klausmeyer, 1922″ in particular – that remain, but many landmarks, like the Jewish orphanage on the Paviljoensgracht, which was a holding place for Jews before they were deported during the Second World War, were destroyed and rebuilt.

 

A monument on the Rabbijn Maarsenplein square (named for the former chief rabbi of The Hague, Isaac Maarsen, and just steps from Spinoza’s grave at the first Protestant church in The Hague) is particularly poignant.

 

The square is the grounds of an old playground at a Jewish school where 1,700 children were rounded up before being deported to concentration camps. The sculpture, created by Sara Benhamou and Eric de Vries, consists of six empty chairs (inscribed with the names and ages of martyred children) arranged in a manner that conveys ladders leading upward toward the heavens. The chairs are surrounded by Hebrew and Dutch texts identifying the subject of the memorial. According to Dorr, there used to be seven chairs (an understandable number for a Jewish memorial), but one was stolen.

 

 

Storefront, previously Jewish butcher

 

 

The remainder of our tour addressed laws preventing Jews from being buried in the city limits, a former Jewish department store De Bijenkorf (which Dorr’s mother remembers being barred from as a Jew during World War II) and a former synagogue turned into a department store, which still has its foundation stone intact, and where rabbis insisted that no bathroom be placed on the site of the former ark. It also included a Holocaust memorial (image four), which bears the biblical quotation, “Remember what Amalek did to you Don’t forget,” and which Dorr said he was displeased to see so haphazardly placed so close to a restaurant.

 

In some senses, one would have hoped that there would be more spotlights and attention showered on the Jewish memorials and former synagogues in The Hague. Perhaps if they were more conspicuous, I wouldn’t have walked right past them the first and second and third times. But somewhere along the way, dazzled by Dorr’s engrossing woven narratives, it struck me that the hunt for The Jewish Hague required no reconfiguring or modification.

 

 

Holocaust Memorial

 

 

The Stars of David and former synagogues need not hit every pedestrian over the head. It is enough that they can be teased out and revived in the hands of someone like Dorr (though one fears he is irreplaceable and hard to imitate). Maybe there is no better metaphor for the Jewish life that was and is (albeit downsized significantly) in The Hague than a series of inscriptions and works of art hidden in plain sight.

 

“We have no idea where he is,” Dorr said solemnly, looking at Spinoza’s tomb stone in that church backyard. “He’s scattered around the church somewhere.” Can one imagine much more pitiful than that?

 

              Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

 

This article is the second in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

The Hidden Letters: A Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The idyllic countryside of Sobibor bears no resemblance to the large, efficient extermination camp once located in that remote corner of eastern Poland. Among the 250,000 Jews murdered during its 18 months of operation were the members of my mother’s family. I didn’t learn the details of their deaths until I was an adult, but I understood at a very young age that I had no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins because someone called Hitler had killed them.

Sobibor is also the final resting place of 34,000 Dutch Jews. The Germans tried to hide their heinous crimes by plowing under the secret killing fields of Sobibor. Sixty years later, however, the letters of a Dutch teenager have surfaced to bear witness and to warn us to stay vigilant. Found by a workman demolishing a house in Amsterdam in 1995, the 86 letters were written by Philip Slier to his parents, Seline and Leender, between April and September 1942, while he was in the Molengoot labor camp.

The workman who discovered the letters, hidden in the third floor bathroom ceiling of 128 Vrolik Street, immediately recognized their significance but didn’t know what to do with them. Two years later, as if by divine providence, he was hired to work for the Dutch Institute of War Documentation, the organization that had researched Anne Frank’s diary.

Deborah Slier, founder of Star Bright Books in New York, vividly recalls the fax she received from her sister informing her that “a bundle of letters, written by a cousin during the war, had been found in Amsterdam. We were asked if we would agree to have them published in Dutch. My initial reaction was surprise.”

Deborah’s father and Philip’s father were brothers but the cousins never met since she was born and raised in South Africa where her father had immigrated in search of work. As Deborah writes, “I could not avoid thinking that had my father not had the good fortune to be unemployed in 1922, it would be my eyes and my brother’s, mother’s, father’s and sisters’ eyes that would be gazing out of this book alongside Flip’s.”

The book is Hidden Letters, the remarkable culmination of her eight-year odyssey to uncover her cousin’s past. Annotated by Deborah and her husband, Dr. Ian Shine, the impressive book is a carefully researched work that contains the letters of Philip Slier (translated by Marion Pritchard) in addition to photographs and biographies of his family and friends.

The portrait that emerges of Philip, who signs his letters Flip, is of an endearing young man who played the flute and the mandolin, liked singing and was an avid photographer. Many of his pictures appear in this book. Like his cousin Deborah, we also come to “appreciate his optimism, his compassion, his humor, his lack of hatred and his affection for family and friends.”

By sharing the story of Flip and his family, Deborah Slier tells the wider story of the Jewish community of the Netherlands and explores the tragic events leading up to its extinction. Although they initially believed the German occupation was only a temporary nuisance, the book documents how the Jews of Holland were slowly robbed of their jobs, their homes, their identities and ultimately their lives.

Flip was seventeen when the Germans invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Almost immediately anti-Jewish decrees were enacted, beginning with seemingly small humiliations. “Jew” and “Jewish” were always spelled with an upper case “J” until the German occupation when the lower case was declared the standard form in newspapers, documents, dictionaries and on the newly issued Jewish identity cards.

So intent were the Germans on eradicating Jews and Jewish culture from Dutch society that they even Aryanized Jewish Street names – Lazarus Lane, for example, was renamed Leprozen (Leprosy) Lane.

The German decrees escalated and soon Jews were banned from hotels, restaurants, theaters, libraries, museums and public parks. Jewish doctors, dentists, attorneys and pharmacists were no longer allowed to treat or work for gentiles. “No entry for Jews” signs were posted everywhere including many streets.

Since Jews were forbidden from dealing directly with German authorities, the Jewish Council was formed to act as a buffer between Germans and Jews. Abraham Asscher, the director of a diamond company, and David Cohen, professor of Ancient History at the University of Amsterdam, were joint chairmen of the council. Prominent Jews from professional and religious organizations, trusted and revered by community members who looked to them for guidance, also served on the board.

When the Germans canceled most work permits for Jews, the only alternative was the labor camp, initially operated for unemployed Dutchmen. In contrast to the Dutch workers, the Jews were paid lower wages, given less food, and allowed no leave.

Because we know the final outcome of the Nazis’ agenda, it is chilling to read this excerpt from a letter the Jewish Council sent to young men like Flip.

 One Last Warning: You have been selected by the Municipal Labor Office to go to work in one of the Dutch Labor camps in the province of Drent under the direction of the Dutch Labor Council. You must therefore leave by train on Saturday morning. We give you again, for the last time, urgent advice to immediately follow this order. If you do not do this, the most severe punishment will occur. We repeat again, that you must give this – for your own good – your most urgent priority to be present at the indicated time. We repeat, that this is about normal work provision in normal Dutch Labor camps under normal Dutch supervision.

The Chairmen of the Jewish Council

A. Asscher

Prof. Dr. C. (D) Cohen

A loyal citizen who had lost his job as an apprentice typesetter and believed the council had his best interests at heart, Flip obeyed the “request” and was sent to Molengoot, one of fifty labor camps. He was eighteen years old.

One of the most painful photographs in Hidden Letters is the group portrait of the well-groomed, elegantly dressed members of the Jewish Council. Chairman Abraham Asscher sits with his arms crossed conspicuously in front of him so that he manages to hide the yellow star affixed to his finely tailored suit. Other members aren’t so successful. The discomfort on the faces of these prominent Jewish citizens, who have been reduced to apologists for the Nazi regime, is palpable.

From the time of his arrival in Molengoot in April 1942 until his escape in September, Flip wrote to his family almost every day. This excerpt from his first letter, dated April 24th, sounds eerily like a letter sent from summer camp:

“Dear Father and Mother – Have arrived in the camp. Fairly comfortable. Reasonable bed, 3 blankets. Clean. Good atmosphere, decent people … send me a windbreaker as soon as possible … the camp leader made a speech, not encouraging, but he hopes to see us back in Amsterdam soon.”

Still in his teens, Flip can be forgiven his youthful naivet?. But what about the adults? These excerpts from a letter written on April 29, 1942, by the head of the secret police to the commissioner for justice and administration regarding the introduction of the Jewish star reveal the mindset of the Jewish Council members who were clearly in a state of denial:

 The Jewish Council was notified today that within three days all Jews in this country must be identifiable by the Jewish star. Upon hearing this news, Asscher and Cohen were speechless. They apparently had not expected this measure. Then they declared that they, namely Asscher and Cohen, did not find this a pleasant measure to relay to the Jewish people, but that they personally would be proud to wear the Jewish star . Thus 569,355 stars were to be placed at the disposal of the Jewish Council. Asscher said, literally: “It will not last long, one to two months, until the war is over, and we are free!”

The stars cost 16 cents and one clothing coupon. Failure to wear a star was initially punished by a fine of 1,000 guilders and later deportation. Forced to sew a star on their chests, they neglected to see the target on their backs.

In sharp contrast to the submissive members of the Jewish Council were men like Lodewijk Ernst Visser, president of the Dutch Supreme Court, who refused to accept an ID stamped with a “j.” He opposed cooperation with the Germans and recommended “defiance, not compliance.” He denounced the opening of separate Jewish schools and wrote articles for the resistance newspaper. He accused the Jewish Council of “being craven in their attitude to oblige the occupier and obey orders.”

The Jewish Council sent this honorable and courageous man a letter threatening him with deportation if he continued to protest. Three days later he died of a heart attack.

* * *

Deborah Slier reminds us that “The Netherlands is the only country in Europe that has never expelled, ghettoized, nor legally discriminated against Jews, thus Dutch Jews felt as Dutch as non-Jews did.” How then did the Jews come to be identified as “the other,” separated, isolated and betrayed by their fellow citizens?

The book offers several answers. The key to controlling the masses was control of the media and Adolph Hitler brilliantly utilized this powerful tool. His charismatic voice and dazzling showmanship seduced adoring audiences into believing he could solve all their problems, which always stemmed from the Jews. In the case of the Netherlands this mythical threat amounted to one percent of the population.

Dutch Jews were robbed of all access to the media when their radios and telephones were confiscated. The only newspaper they were allowed to read was The Jewish Weekly, sanctioned and censored by the Nazis, leaving them increasingly cut off from vital information about their fate.

The matter of the Pigeon Brigade is another example of how methodical the Nazis were in their efforts to control information. In June 1940 they counted 32,709 pigeons in Amsterdam, grounded them and put them under surveillance. Any that were caught had to be turned over to the mayor’s office in an effort to prevent their handlers from using them to leak information.

Complacency on the part of the civilized West toward the plight of the Jews was another factor that contributed to Hitler’s success. Slier notes that when Polish diplomat Jan Karski described the atrocities he had personally witnessed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the latter’s response was, “I don’t believe you.” When Karski asked him if he thought he was lying, Frankfurter said, “No, but I simply cannot believe you.”

The groundwork for genocide was laid when good men could be counted on to do nothing.

We learn about Flip’s growing awareness of the fate of Dutch Jews in this excerpt dated June 13, 1942: “I hear the food situation in Amsterdam is still terrible. Are Jews no longer allowed to buy meat and vegetables in Christian shops? I heard something like that here.”

On July 11, 1942 ten Christian churches sent a joint telegram expressing outrage at the deportation of Jews and urgently requesting that they not proceed. The telegram was read from the pulpit of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches on July 26. According to Slier, “Analyses showed that areas that had a higher percentage of Catholics had a higher percentage of Jews hidden and saved.”

For example, in the village of Nieuwland, the Reverend Fritz Slomp inspired almost every family to hide Jews in their homes. The entire village was awarded the Yad Vashem medal in 1985 for saving 300 Jews.

Hitler recognized that National Socialism and Christian beliefs were irreconcilable so the Nazis began replacing any manifestations of Christianity with the National Reich Church. Publishing and disseminating the Bible were outlawed while the swastika replaced the cross in all churches, cathedrals and chapels throughout the country.

Flip wrote in a letter dated July 18, 1942: “The Christians are also getting more and more afraid. This afternoon I went again to the village to pick up photos. I also did other shopping, and then went to the barber to get a haircut. He said he was sorry, but he didn’t dare cut my hair while I was wearing a star. So I took it off and got a nice cut.”

As conditions in the Molengoot camp became more brutal, Flip wrote on August 3: “This morning the new men went to work. Pa and Ma, it broke my heart to see these oldsters plodding along. Some of them have heart trouble . there is no light work on the moor, and they get no time to catch their breath. We have already decided that tomorrow we will dig a ditch for them.”

Flip’s last letter, dated September 14, gives no clue as to what finally compelled him to escape from the Molengoot camp and make his way to Amsterdam, where he was provided with several hiding places.

The Nazis arrested him on March 31 at Amsterdam Central Station when he tried to flee to Switzerland. The file card, reprinted in the book, gives the reason for his arrest as “Ohme Stern” (without a star). After a three-day tortuous journey, locked inside a cattle car, Flip Slier arrived in Sobibor on April 9, 1943. He was nineteen years old.

While Hidden Letters provides an illuminating window into the fate of Dutch Jews, this is also a cautionary tale. The complacency of world leaders, the compliance of misguided Jewish leaders and the control and manipulation of the media contributed to making Europe Judenrein.

The nations preferred to look the other way as the Jews were offered as the korban – the sacrificial lamb – they hoped would satisfy the Nazi bloodlust.

The letters of Philip Slier appear now as a timely warning that we risk being in denial – again.

Helen Zegerman Schwimmer, a veteran journalist and author of “Like The Stars of the Heavens,” was born in the St. Ottilien Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. For more information visit her website, helenschwimmer.com.

Pieter Lastman’s David And Uriah Paintings

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker

March 15 – August 02, 2009

The Jewish Museum

1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York

www.thejewishmuseum.org  

 

 

In one of the most complex and controversial of biblical narratives, the book of 2 Samuel recounts an almost operatic moment in which Uriah the Hittite, husband of Batsheva, was instructed by King David to unknowingly carry his own death sentence to the Jewish general Yoav (Joab). Had Uriah betrayed his king’s confidence and opened the letter, he could have surely have escaped death.

 

One can almost sense this nuance in a painting by the 16th-17th century Dutch painter (and Rembrandt’s and Jan Lievens’ teacher) Pieter Pietersz Lastman titled “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” The painting is part of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum of works by many artists once owned by Dutch, Jewish collector Jacques Goudstikker, whose works were looted by the Nazis.

 

 

Pieter Pietersz Lastman (ca. 1583-1633). “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” 1619.

Oil on panel. Private collection. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, N.Y.

 

 

Lastman portrays David sitting on his throne clad in a blue-purple robe and red cape and bearing a golden scepter. Like many 17th century Dutch paintings, Lastman’s work should not be “read” simply on a surface level. Ironically, a dog, the symbol of fidelity in art, stands between David and Uriah, and two pillars, typically symbolic of fortitude, flank the anything-but-confident David on both sides. Additionally, a young boy, who seems most interested in the scepter, stands on the king’s left, and might represent Absalom, who later rebelled against his father, seeking to steal the kingdom from Solomon. Uriah kneels before David with his helmet at his feet, and about a dozen soldiers appear in the background, which contains a Christian propagandist element: a depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica, rumored to contain pillars from Solomon’s Temple. By casting an Old Testament scene in Vatican City (which of course did not exist in David’s era), the Catholic Lastman was suggesting that the episode from the Jewish bible also bore significance to Catholics.

 

 

Pieter Pietersz Lastman. “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah.” 1611. Oil on oak panel. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

 

The letter David holds in his right hand – in a pouch bound with the king’s seal – is exactly the same sort Lastman had depicted eight years earlier in “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit version includes writing on the outside of the letter (presumably by David’s hand), which the later version lacks. (Incidentally, a letter written and sealed by a royal hand might be relevant in interpreting verses like Esther 3:12, 8:8, and 8:10, and 1 Kings 21:8, and Daniel 6:18). The boy who sits on the king’s right in the Detroit version might be the same one on his left in the later version, though he looks at David’s crown rather than his scepter. Though he wears armor, Uriah is dressed in the contemporary Dutch fashion (with a feathered hat replacing the helmet) in the Detroit version, while the later Uriah looks to be dressed in a more “biblical” fashion, though both in fact wear the same tan robe with brown stripes at the hem. St. Peter’s also appears in the Detroit painting, but it is accompanied by a fountain with a pagan river god pouring water. Another difference is that the Detroit David is a much older man than his peer in the other work. 

 

It is difficult to locate Lastman’s two depictions of David and Uriah in a larger artistic tradition, because there was not much of a precedent for the scene. Jean Colombe’s “David entrusts a letter to Uriah” from the “Tr?s Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1485-9) shows an entirely different composition: David in gold sitting in the foreground, Uriah, clad in blue, kneeling behind, in what appears to be a medieval castle, and two court advisors. The illumination accompanies the text of Psalm 50 (in the Greek numbering, 51 in Jewish counts), which begins, “A song to David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, when he went to Bathsheba.” On the throne, Colombe painted a jester carrying a stick and wearing animal ears, perhaps a reference to 1 Samuel 21, where David impersonated an insane person to evade capture at Gath.

 

 

French Gothic. Detail: “David and Bathsheba.” C. 1250. Pierpont Morgan Library.

 

 

The 1490 “David, accompanied by Bathsheba, gives Uriah a letter for Joab” by the Master of Cornelis Croesinck, also known as the “Master of the Dark Eyes,” also does not seem to have captured Lastman’s attention. The work, which is at the Hague, mysteriously adds Bathsheba to the scene standing behind David as he hands the letter to Uriah. This bold interpretive move, which makes little sense in the context of the larger story, is also unprecedented. Other depictions of Uriah that would have been available to Lastman feature Uriah’s death rather than his receiving of the letter (a 1511 “Killing of Uriah” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and a c. 1430 “Uriah is killed in the battle before the city of Rabbah” by Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, also in the Hague).

 

For the most part, other depictions feature a medieval knight kneeling before David , some include a letter, which often looks more like a loaf of bread than a letter (most notably a c. 1500 illumination from a Book of Hours and a 13th century illumination from “Image du Monde”), but most do not. “A 13th century illumination from a Psalter and Book of Hours” is the only one to show a letter bearing a dangling seal that resembles Lastman’s works, and might have served as a model for the piece. A supposed “David and Uriah” is attributed to Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage dated 1665, but the Hermitage calls the scene “Haman Recognizes His Fate,” and even though Rembrandt studied with Lastman, he does not seem to have copied Lastman’s motif.

 

 

Psalter and Book of Hours. Ms. 730, fol. 109v. Detail: “David sends Uriah to Joab.”

13th century. Pierpont Morgan Library.

 

 

But where Lastman’s predecessors tended not to show the Uriah scene altogether and when they did depict David and Uriah, they tended to opt for stylized portraits, Lastman’s David looks worried or morally torn, in short, more human. This is surely a mode of biblical interpretation that Lastman passed along to Rembrandt, evidenced by the latter’s many naturalistic depictions of biblical characters.

 

Many viewers will surely find the Jewish Museum show fascinating for historical reasons, and will be interested in the back-story of the return of looted art. But examining the larger context of even one of the works shows what a tragedy it would be for the public to not have access to viewing them.

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Pieter Lastman’s David And Uriah Paintings

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker


March 15 – August 02, 2009


The Jewish Museum


1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York



 

 


In one of the most complex and controversial of biblical narratives, the book of 2 Samuel recounts an almost operatic moment in which Uriah the Hittite, husband of Batsheva, was instructed by King David to unknowingly carry his own death sentence to the Jewish general Yoav (Joab). Had Uriah betrayed his king’s confidence and opened the letter, he could have surely have escaped death.

 

One can almost sense this nuance in a painting by the 16th-17th century Dutch painter (and Rembrandt’s and Jan Lievens’ teacher) Pieter Pietersz Lastman titled “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” The painting is part of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum of works by many artists once owned by Dutch, Jewish collector Jacques Goudstikker, whose works were looted by the Nazis.

 

 


Pieter Pietersz Lastman (ca. 1583-1633). “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” 1619.

Oil on panel. Private collection. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, N.Y.

 

 

Lastman portrays David sitting on his throne clad in a blue-purple robe and red cape and bearing a golden scepter. Like many 17th century Dutch paintings, Lastman’s work should not be “read” simply on a surface level. Ironically, a dog, the symbol of fidelity in art, stands between David and Uriah, and two pillars, typically symbolic of fortitude, flank the anything-but-confident David on both sides. Additionally, a young boy, who seems most interested in the scepter, stands on the king’s left, and might represent Absalom, who later rebelled against his father, seeking to steal the kingdom from Solomon. Uriah kneels before David with his helmet at his feet, and about a dozen soldiers appear in the background, which contains a Christian propagandist element: a depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica, rumored to contain pillars from Solomon’s Temple. By casting an Old Testament scene in Vatican City (which of course did not exist in David’s era), the Catholic Lastman was suggesting that the episode from the Jewish bible also bore significance to Catholics.

 

 


Pieter Pietersz Lastman. “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah.” 1611. Oil on oak panel. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

 

The letter David holds in his right hand – in a pouch bound with the king’s seal – is exactly the same sort Lastman had depicted eight years earlier in “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit version includes writing on the outside of the letter (presumably by David’s hand), which the later version lacks. (Incidentally, a letter written and sealed by a royal hand might be relevant in interpreting verses like Esther 3:12, 8:8, and 8:10, and 1 Kings 21:8, and Daniel 6:18). The boy who sits on the king’s right in the Detroit version might be the same one on his left in the later version, though he looks at David’s crown rather than his scepter. Though he wears armor, Uriah is dressed in the contemporary Dutch fashion (with a feathered hat replacing the helmet) in the Detroit version, while the later Uriah looks to be dressed in a more “biblical” fashion, though both in fact wear the same tan robe with brown stripes at the hem. St. Peter’s also appears in the Detroit painting, but it is accompanied by a fountain with a pagan river god pouring water. Another difference is that the Detroit David is a much older man than his peer in the other work. 

 

It is difficult to locate Lastman’s two depictions of David and Uriah in a larger artistic tradition, because there was not much of a precedent for the scene. Jean Colombe’s “David entrusts a letter to Uriah” from the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1485-9) shows an entirely different composition: David in gold sitting in the foreground, Uriah, clad in blue, kneeling behind, in what appears to be a medieval castle, and two court advisors. The illumination accompanies the text of Psalm 50 (in the Greek numbering, 51 in Jewish counts), which begins, “A song to David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, when he went to Bathsheba.” On the throne, Colombe painted a jester carrying a stick and wearing animal ears, perhaps a reference to 1 Samuel 21, where David impersonated an insane person to evade capture at Gath.

 

 


French Gothic. Detail: “David and Bathsheba.” C. 1250. Pierpont Morgan Library.

 

 

The 1490 “David, accompanied by Bathsheba, gives Uriah a letter for Joab” by the Master of Cornelis Croesinck, also known as the “Master of the Dark Eyes,” also does not seem to have captured Lastman’s attention. The work, which is at the Hague, mysteriously adds Bathsheba to the scene standing behind David as he hands the letter to Uriah. This bold interpretive move, which makes little sense in the context of the larger story, is also unprecedented. Other depictions of Uriah that would have been available to Lastman feature Uriah’s death rather than his receiving of the letter (a 1511 “Killing of Uriah” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and a c. 1430 “Uriah is killed in the battle before the city of Rabbah” by Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, also in the Hague).

 

For the most part, other depictions feature a medieval knight kneeling before David , some include a letter, which often looks more like a loaf of bread than a letter (most notably a c. 1500 illumination from a Book of Hours and a 13th century illumination from “Image du Monde”), but most do not. “A 13th century illumination from a Psalter and Book of Hours” is the only one to show a letter bearing a dangling seal that resembles Lastman’s works, and might have served as a model for the piece. A supposed “David and Uriah” is attributed to Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage dated 1665, but the Hermitage calls the scene “Haman Recognizes His Fate,” and even though Rembrandt studied with Lastman, he does not seem to have copied Lastman’s motif.

 

 


Psalter and Book of Hours. Ms. 730, fol. 109v. Detail: “David sends Uriah to Joab.”

13th century. Pierpont Morgan Library.

 

 

But where Lastman’s predecessors tended not to show the Uriah scene altogether and when they did depict David and Uriah, they tended to opt for stylized portraits, Lastman’s David looks worried or morally torn, in short, more human. This is surely a mode of biblical interpretation that Lastman passed along to Rembrandt, evidenced by the latter’s many naturalistic depictions of biblical characters.

 

Many viewers will surely find the Jewish Museum show fascinating for historical reasons, and will be interested in the back-story of the return of looted art. But examining the larger context of even one of the works shows what a tragedy it would be for the public to not have access to viewing them.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

50,000 Tulip Bulbs From Holland Donated To Jerusalem

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

 The city of Jerusalem recently was the recipient of a magnanimous donation  of 50,000 tulip bulbs from the Netherlands as representatives of the Dutch chapter of Christians For Israel made their presentation at the Hineni Center in Zion Square.

  Benjamin Phillips, director of Hineni in Jerusalem – the Torah outreach organization founded by  Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis  – and is of Dutch descent, was asked by the municipality of Jerusalem to host this special event at the Center in honor of the longstanding friendship between Christian Zionists from Holland and  the State of Israel.

 

 

Mayor Uri Lopianski, Mr. Dick Schutte

 

 Phillips expressed his appreciation to the Dutch contingent for the “donation of the tulip bulbs for the beautification of Jerusalem.”

 Mr. Dick Schutte, chairman of the Board of Christians For Israel in Holland, told attendees that the giving of tulips is a sign of friendship and encouragement in Holland, and spoke of the “unbreakable bond” of friendship that exists between Christians who support Israel and the Jewish people.

 “As Christians, we know that the Bible tells us that whoever blesses the Jewish people shall be blessed and as such we are cognizant of the fact that the Jewish nation is indeed God’s  chosen people, so it is  our honor and privilege to donate these tulip bulbs  to Jerusalem.”

  The event’s featured speaker was outgoing mayor of Jerusalem, Uri  Lopianski who expressed gratitude and appreciation to CFI on behalf of the city of Jerusalem.

 Lopianski also recalled that he began his term as mayor at the opening ceremony of the Hineni Center and “now I am back here at the end of my term for another special dedication.”

The Jewish Community Of St. Eustatius

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

      (Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from “The Honen Dalim Congregation of St. Eustatius” by J. Hartog, American Jewish Archives (Cincinnati), 19 (1967), pages 60-77.)
 

      The small island of St. Eustatius [in Dutch: Sint Eustatius, and now named simply Statia] is one of the Netherlands Antilles islands, along with St Maarten, Saba, Cura?ao, and Bonaire. The Netherlands Antilles are located in the northern reaches of the Caribbean Sea.

 

      The island enjoys a certain fame in the United States, because in 1776 the cannon of Statia’s Fort Orange fired off a salute to the Great Union Flag, the predecessor of the Stars and Stripes. It was the second time that the fort of a foreign power had saluted the flag of the new North American nation; a few weeks before Governor Johannes de Graaff of St. Eustatius ordered the Great Union Flag to be greeted, a similar salute took place on the island of St. Croix, which was then a Danish dependency. There was, however, a difference, for it was a merchantman flying the Great Union Flag that the Danes had saluted, while the Dutch on St. Eustatius greeted a vessel belonging to the navy of the new United States.

 

      There is no Jewish community left in St. Eustatius today. During the years of the American Revolution, however, the island was the home of a flourishing Jewish congregation named Honen Dalim (The One Who is merciful to the poor). It is not known precisely when Jews first settled on this island. However, we do know that many of the Jews who left Recife in 1654 as a result of the Portuguese reconquest of Brazil went to Amsterdam and then later came to the Caribbean.

 

      Some probably settled on St. Eustatius, and there are records which indicate that the Amsterdam Jew Jacob Loew had relatives on the island. Later, in 1711, two Jewish merchants, Juda Obediente and Salomon Nunez Netto, visited “Statia,” though they did not live there. The registrar’s lists and the parish registers suggest that, in 1722, St. Eustatius had 1,204 inhabitants, of which four families – twenty-two persons – were Jewish. Six of the Jews were adult men, five were adult women, and there were five boys and six girls.

 

      There were several periods of immigration after 1730. Most Jews came from Amsterdam, and many were descended from distinguished Sephardic families. In 1737 the Jews of Statia sought permission to build a synagogue, but it was not until two years later that their petition was granted. Even so, the Dutch authorities saw to it that the synagogue would be situated so that “the divine service of the Jews would not hinder the one of the Christians.”

 

      The synagogue was constructed on the site where present-day visitors still find the ruins of the house of prayer in the center of Oranjestad, the capital of St. Eustatius. Built of yellow bricks, the building measures 12.75 meters by 8.50 meters and is situated on a street known to this day as “Synagogue Pad” – Synagogue Path. The walls of the synagogue are about 6o centimeters thick and some 7 meters high; the floor and roof have disappeared, but a flight of stairs leads one to conclude that the synagogue was a two-storied building. Elsewhere on the island is the Jewish cemetery, in which sixteen beautifully carved tombstones have been preserved.

 

      We do not know the exact year the synagogue was built. However, “the archives of Curacao’s Congregation Mikve Israel indicate that, in 1738, a certain Salomon de Leon, acting in the name of the Statian congregation, appealed to the Curacaons for help in building the synagogue. A collection was held in the Curacaon community for that purpose, and money was sent to St. Eustatius.” The Jews of Statia were not particularly well off, and there still exist several letters that show that the Jews of Curacao financially assisted the Jews of Statia.
 
      The Jews of St. Eustatius were primarily Sephardim, but there were also a goodly number of Ashkenazim. “Indeed, there were enough Ashkenazim on ‘Statia’ for conflicts to trouble the relations between the two groups. The friction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim came repeatedly to a boiling point, and it happened more than once that the government had to be called in to help settle disputes. The social status of the Statian Jews was, it appears, not on a par with that of their Curacaon coreligionists. On Curacao, the Jews formed a separate corps of the Civil Guard, whereas on St. Eustatius, they were not allowed to be members of the Guard. On the other hand, the Statian Jews did take part in elections for members of the Council.”
 

Barbaric Treatment

 

      Obtaining and maintaining a flow of military equipment and supplies was crucial to the success of the American Revolution. Many times the victorious conclusion of a battle hung precariously on the availability of munitions and ordnance. From the outset of American resistance to British rule, St. Eustatius played a pivotal role in providing the means by which the American patriots ultimately won victory. Indeed, the success of the Revolution can largely be attributed to the activity of the traders of this tiny island.
 
      The British already harbored a seething resentment toward the Dutch, because Statia had given recognition to the fledgling American flag. Added to this was the fact that in 1781 Britain realized that the only way to win the war against the revolutionaries was by severing the supply lifeline from St. Eustatius to America.
 

      Two of Britain’s most redoubtable military figures, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney and Major-General Sir John Vaughan, were dispatched with a formidable fleet to raid and occupy the island. Rodney’s name “ranked with the names of the Royal navy’s most illustrious figures, Nelson, Blake and Hawke and it is honoured in St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

 

      The lone Dutch frigate defending Statia could not even consider taking on the fifteen great British warships. Nor could a token garrison of sixty soldiers consider resisting the massive British force that debarked onto Statia.
 
      Rodney confiscated all the merchandise stuffing the warehouses, valued at three to four million pounds sterling. Vaughan wrote that “150 Sail of Ships and Vessels of all Sorts” in the harbor were likewise seized along with their cargos.
 
      The Jews were isolated, brutally beaten, and robbed of everything they had. “Rodney singled out the Jews… and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one day’s notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes.”
 

      Thirty Jewish men were deported to the island of St Kitts. “The rest were locked in a weighing house for three days when they were released just in time to witness the auction of their properties.”[i]

 

      Rodney’s behavior indicates he was an anti-Semite. In Jamaica he had lashed out against the Jews who conducted a “Pernicious and Contraband Trade.” At Kingston he insisted that “particularly the Jews” traded illegally with the Spaniards. His hatred for Jews found expression in his letters.

 

      So heinous was Rodney’s treatment of the Jews that he came under fire in Britain’s Parliament by the most prestigious voice of the Opposition, Edmund Burke. After denouncing his plundering of Statia’s citizens of various nationalities, Burke focused on the egregious manner in which Jews were separated and brutalized.[ii]

 

The End Of The Jewish Community

 

      The congregation had no qualified rabbi and was served by a chazzan, Jacob Robles. It is not known who succeeded Robles or even if he had a successor. Starting in 1795 Statia underwent a period of utter confusion due to French and English occupation.
 
      The situation on the island deteriorated to such an extent that most of the Statian Jews left. A census taken in 1818 showed there were only five Jews left on St. Eustatius. Mrs. Anna Vieira de Molina, a widow of Surinamese birth, was the last Jew to live on Statia. Her death in 1846 marked the end of Jewish history on St. Eustatius.
 

      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

 



[ii]Ibid.

Early Caribbean Jewish Communities (Part II)

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

The Jewish Community Of Curacao

 

      In 1527 the Spanish took possession of Curacao. By the early 16th century they had determined that the island had little gold and not enough fresh water for the establishment of large farms; hence, they essentially abandoned it. It was therefore relatively easy for a Dutch fleet under the command of Johan van Walbeeck to conquer the island in 1634 for the Dutch West India Company, a quasi-private, government-backed company. Since Samuel Coheno served as an interpreter for van Walbeeck, he was most probably the first Jew in Curacao.
 
      In 1651, Joao d’Ylan brought no more than 12 Jewish families from the Amsterdam Portuguese community to Curacao. Most of these settlers were originally from Spain and Portugal. They formed the initial nucleus of the Jewish community of Curacao. On February 22, 1652, the Dutch West India Company granted a considerable tract of land to Joseph Nunez da Fonseca, otherwise called David Nassi. As a result, the Jews lived on Plantation De Hoop (The Hope) and worked the land. This endeavor, however, was abandoned due to Curacao’s arid soil, and the Jews concentrated on trade.
 
      It was only a matter of time before the Jewish community became so prosperous that almost the entire commerce of the island was in their hands.
 
      When, in 1654, the Portuguese reconquered Brazil from the Dutch, all of those who openly practiced Judaism there left, fearing they would be persecuted by the Inquisition. Many of these refugees first returned to Amsterdam. In 1659 more than 70 of them[i]sailed for the New World to settle in Curacao. They brought with them considerable wealth. In addition, they brought with them a spiritual treasure – a sefer Torah from the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish Community.
 
      In 1651 an improvised synagogue, named Congregation Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel), was set up in a small house. This first house of worship probably stood in the fields where the colonists had originally toiled. In 1692 the Jews were allowed to build a new synagogue. Thus, the Jews of Curacao were treated somewhat more liberally than the Jews residing in Curacao’s sister colony of New Netherland (New York). Services were held there in rented quarters until 1730, when Shearith Israel consecrated its first synagogue building on Mill Street in Lower Manhattan.
 
      The first haham of this community was probably Rabbi Yeosiahu Pardo, son of David Pardo, haham of Amsterdam. Yeosiahu Pardo was a pupil of the famous Saul Levi Morteira, whose daughter he had married. In 1667 the younger Pardo became the first religious leader of the holy brotherhood Honen Dalim in Amsterdam. In (about) 1669 he became head of Yeshiva de Los Pinto, which had been founded in Rotterdam before being relocated to Amsterdam. In (about) 1674 he assumed leadership of Yeshiva Gemilut Hassadim, also located in the Amsterdam. That same year he was appointed haham of Curacao, remaining there until 1684 when he left to become haham of Jamaica.
 

Jewish Education In Curacao

 

      Given that Haham Pardo had been educated at Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Amsterdam, it was not surprising that the yeshiva he oversaw in Curacao was conducted more or less along the lines of Etz Chaim. Both institutions stressed the teaching of halacha. There were six levels of classes, which in addition to Jewish law concentrated on the following subjects:
 

      1. Introduction to reading (in Hebrew and Ladino) and berachot (benedictions);

      2. Prayers with their respective melodies;
 
      3. Parsha of the week with its translation into Ladino;
 
      4. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), and Neviim (Prophets). These subjects were all translated into Ladino;
 
      5. Rashi and writing;
 
      6. Grammar, Gemara (Talmud)) and talmudic commentaries).
 
      The Haham taught highest class. It’s noteworthy that students who came from poor homes received stipends from the community.
 

Religious Instruction Compulsory

 

      The leaders of the Jewish community were strongly committed to making sure every Jewish boy received a Jewish education. As a result, in 1711 a regulation (haskamah) was passed requiring attendance at the medras, as the yeshiva classes were called, until age 16. Nonetheless, a number of parents decided to privately educate their sons. On the 21st of Sivan 5476 (1716) the executive committee of the congregation and its council attempted to put a stop to this practice by prohibiting members from conducting a private school during the hours the medras met. Anyone who did not follow this directive was to be punished by a minor form of excommunication and a fine of fifty pesos.
 
      In 1716, when Joseph Abudiente neglected sending his son Yehudah to the medras, the haskamah of 1711 was invoked, with the result that both father and son were prohibited entry into the synagogue. Since Abudiente stubbornly refused to submit, he was dropped from the community rolls. But when this action did not bring about Abudiente’s compliance, community leaders went so far as to urge the governor of the island, Jonathan van Beuningen, to compel Yehudah’s attendance at the medras.
 

Duties And Obligations Of The Rubissim And Haham

 
      The ruby, as a teacher in the medras was called, was required to regularly attend the medras. If a ruby was tardy, he had to pay a fine fixed at the discretion of thedirectors of the Talmud Torah which was deducted from his salary. Frequent absence on the part of a ruby could lead to his dismissal. The ruby accompanied his pupils to the tikun (the religious service conducted when a family moved into a new home), and he also was responsible for watching the boys in the synagogue.
 
      In 5510 (1749-1750), during the rabbinate of Haham Samuel Mendes de Solas, there were at least five rubissim teaching in the yeshiva: Jeoshuah Touro, Guidon Mendes, Eliau Lopes, Jeoshua Hisquiao de Cordova, and Ishac, son of Haham de Solas. It is interesting to contrast the stress the Jewish community put on education with that of the gentile population. During 1762-1763 the Dutch West Indies Company maintained only one teacher in its service for the entire white non-Jewish population of the island.
 
      Despite the tropical climate, the medras was in session year round. There was time off only on Fridays, Shabbosim, fast days, and for two or three days before each Yom Tov. No classes were held on Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed.
 
      Girls received no formal instruction. Some wealthy families did hire tutors to teach their daughters reading, writing, arithmetic, and some religious subjects in their homes. Since these tutors were almost always men, instruction was given in the presence of a girl’s mother.
 

Adult Learning Organizations

 

      Torah study did not end at 16 when a young man completed his course of instruction in medras. Following the example of their mother community in Amsterdam, the leaders of the Curacao Jewish community founded fraternal organizations known as hermandades. The members of these organizations regularly met, with the haham, on certain fixed days for Torah study. As a result, the hermandades were also referred to as “yeshibot.”
 
      Records show that there were at least thirteen such yeshibot functioning at one time on the island. The hermandades were also involved in doing chesed work and they raised funds to assist the unfortunate and the poor. The community’s peak seems to have been reached in around 1800, when more than 2,000 Jews lived on the island.
 
      It’s clear that the Jews who settled on this Caribbean island created a community that was committed to Torah, avodah, and gemilat chassadim.
 
      This article is based in part on:
 
      1) Notes on the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the United States, Guiana, and the Dutch and British West Indies During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Cardozo De Bethencourt, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1925.
 
      2) The Jews in Curacao by G. Herbert Cone, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1902.
 
      3) Jewish Education in Curacao (1692-1802) by Isaac Samuel Emmanuel, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1955.
 

      These articles are available at http://ajhs.org/references/adaje.cfm.

 

 

      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/early-caribbean-jewish-communities-part-ii/2006/11/01/

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