The leafy quarter of Amsterdam with a new museum, art and space for reflection

You could almost be forgiven for walking past the Netherlands’ new National Holocaust Museum without noticing it was there. Amid the leafy, elegant streets and canals of the De Plantage district, some 15 minutes by tram from the city’s tourist-clogged Canal Ring, the sober, 19th-century brick façade of the museum – which was formally opened by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on Monday – gives little clue to the immense power of the displays inside.

While other Holocaust remembrance sites focus on either the Second World War, or individual stories such as Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House – which received more than 1.3 million visitors in 2019 – this new museum is the first to tell the broader story of the persecution of Jews in the Netherlands.

The museum is one of many places to visit in the quarter

At first glance the seemingly unconnected objects on display might seem almost random – leather suitcases, brass candelabras, silver powder compacts and porcelain soup tureens. Gradually, however, the details behind them bring the stories of their owners to life, unfolding their power and their impact all the more intensely.

A pair of small, white leather gloves sits alongside a photo of a smiling, eight-year-old girl – Mary de Jong. Once Mary knew she was being sent away to a camp, she gave her gloves to the mother of a friend for safe keeping, clearly assuming she would return to collect them. She didn’t.

Prior to Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the Netherlands was home to some 140,000 Jews. By 1945 the Nazis had deported and murdered 102,000 of them – the highest proportion in Western Europe.

The objects bring the stories of their owners to life

But beyond individual stories, the museum also aims to show how the Nazis created a legal framework for which they could carry this out. The walls of several rooms are lined with “wallpaper” filled with 10,000 words of laws and bureaucratic decrees detailing the slow-drip erosion of Jews’ freedom.

“We wanted to show how every day, life became a little bit more difficult [for the Jews]”, the museum’s director, Professor Dr Emile Schrijver, told me. “We wanted to show complexity in an approachable way.”

The building, meanwhile, harbours its own Holocaust story. In the heart of what was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood prior to the Second World War, it was originally a teacher training college, with a Jewish kindergarten next door and a theatre opposite.

Both the theatre and the kindergarten were commandeered by the Nazis as deportation centres. Gradually, thanks to the director of the college, who was not Jewish, some 600 children were smuggled out to safety, often in baskets or boxes, using the fleeting passing of trams outside to shield them from view of the guards across the road.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 29, 2016: Historic traditional greenhouse of the Hortus botanicus in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Amsterdam in retro look
The historic greenhouse in the botanical gardens in the leafy De Plantage district (Photo: CreativeNature_nl/Getty/iStockphoto)

As I walked through the “escape corridor”, lined with its original dark yellow ceramic wall tiles, quotes from survivors were projected on the walls as the tram bells sounded in the street outside.

De Plantage is billed as the city’s “cultural garden”, a leafy and spacious contrast to the busy Canal Ring, where you’ll find botanical gardens, parks, theatres and concert venues. Historically known as Jodenbuurt, this part of it is now the Jewish Cultural District. Leaving the museum, it felt good to be under the blue sky and sunshine of a crisp Amsterdam early spring day.

I walked along a nearby canal to the glass conservatory style Dignita all-day brunch café, in the small Hoftuin park. Dignita is part of a non-profit organisation helping people who have survived human trafficking rebuild their lives.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - 2021/11/02: Local people visiting the Holocaust memorial. Seventy years after the Second World War, more than 102,000 victims of the Holocaust finally have their own memorial. This national memorial is located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. The memorial consists of a labyrinth of passageways flanked by two-metre-tall brick walls that convey the message In memory of. Inscribed on each of the bricks is the name of each victim of the Holocaust. Most of the people visiting the memorial, are holding papers with the names of their loved ones that they lost during WWII, in order to find the bricks with their names at the memorial to pay tribute to them. (Photo by Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
National Holocaust Name Monument (Photo: Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Just a few feet away sits Daniel Libeskind’s National Holocaust Name Monument. The maze-like series of walls, topped with jagged, mirrored steel is made up of 102,000 bricks, each bearing the name and birth dates of the Dutch Jews who died in the Holocaust, as well as 200 Roma and Sinti.

At the opposite end of the park, I could have explored the excellent art collections at the H’ART Museum overlooking the banks of the River Amstel but I had arranged to meet local guide Hannah Oldenburger, for a walking tour of the neighbourhood.

Two vast, magnificent 16th-century synagogues – one Portuguese, one Ashkenazi, stand within yards of one another. The Ashkenazi building now houses the fascinating Jewish Museum (and children’s museum), exploring the history of the Jewish community in the Netherlands.

Nearby, the small, 19th-century Wertheim Park is home to another memorial – Dutch artist Jan Wolkers’ Auschwitz Monument – a large square of broken mirrors laid in the ground, reflecting the “broken” sky overhead.

Once my tour had ended, I couldn’t resist a brief visit to Amsterdam’s oldest flea market on the neighbouring Waterlooplein. Nearby stands a statue, De Dokwerker, which stands in memory of a strike in February 1941 in protest against Nazi persecution after 425 Jewish men and boys had been rounded up.

Wandering among the old books and bric a brac, my fellow browsers were chatting in a melée of languages from Dutch to Spanish, French and Danish. I remembered something Dr Schrijver had said to me.

“This museum is about what can happen,” he told me, “and what has happened, in a society where we’re no longer willing to acknowledge the true humanity of the other. This is what happens when we forget about the other being human.”

Getting there

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is served by flights from a range of UK airports. Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal.

Staying there

Inntel Hotels Amsterdam Centre has double rooms from £124,

Dignita Hoftuin,

Further information

National Holocaust Museum, admission €20, Combined tickets for other venues in the Jewish Cultural Quarter also available.