/ The Amsterdam Guide
Amsterdam — By Marianne on January 2, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Mokum: Amsterdam’s Jewish Name

Many people refer to Amsterdam as the Venice of the North, a pertinent name for a city with two hundred canals. Few people know Amsterdam’s second name, Mokum, Yiddish for place or town. Mokum is an appropriate name, because the city has welcomed Jews ever since the 16th century. Yet, life was not always easy for new immigrants who had to buy citizenship. They were not allowed to marry outside their circle because Jewish-Christian marriages were illegal in Protestant Amsterdam, nor did they have religious freedom. The reformation forced Jews, but also Catholics, to practise their religion only in secret.

The 16th century saw an influx of Sephardic Jews, refugees from Spain, the Middle East and North Africa. The 17th century brought the Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland. Unlike in other European cities, Jews in Amsterdam did not live in ghettos. The majority of them settled in and around what is now Waterlooplein and spread out to the Nieuwmarkt area. The two groups did not mix and still worship in separate synagogues.

jewish menorah

Although relatively free from persecution, life was not easy in Amsterdam. Trade guilds controlled most commercial activities and Jews were not allowed to become members. Sephardics were fortunate. Many of them were diamond cutters for which there was no guild. That’s why today, Amsterdam is still an important diamond centre. Others worked in retail on the streets, finance, medicine and the clothing industry; all trades without guilds. However, the majority was less successful, yet managed to scrape by on little money.

In Napoleonic times, discriminatory restrictions on Jews and Catholics were abolished. Jews, Catholics and Protestants lived peacefully together until the beginning of World War II. In 1940, most of the approximately 130,000 Jews living in the Netherlands were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Sobibor. On 9th October, 1942 Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “The British radio speaks of their being gassed.” Only 5,500 survived the war, a tragedy whose effect can still be felt today. Presently, around 20,000 Jews live in the city, many of them in the Buitenveldert region and in the neighbouring town of Amstelveen.

When you walk through Amsterdam, the Jewish heritage is apparent. Bijenkorf, De Bonnetrie and Metz department stores all had Jewish founders. So did the Tuschinsky cinema. The Diamond Exchange and the Gassan Diamond Factory are examples of continued Jewish involvement in the diamond industry. Three museums in Amsterdam reveal Jewish history and culture:

1. The Jewish Historical Museum housed in Europe’s largest synagogue complex displays examples of religious objects. Temporary exhibitions and the Museum for Children show the many aspects of Jewish life.

2. Anne Frank House, the canal house museum where the Frank family was in hiding for two years and where Anne Frank wrote her diary.

3. Portuguese-Israelite Synagogue, Europe’s largest synagogue when built in the 17th century. The soaring interior with massive pillars cannot but help impress.

Although nowhere near their pre-World War II numbers the Jewish population in Amsterdam is still an important part of the city’s culture. The Holocaust deeply affected the community, but they have managed to rebuild their lives. The current Mayor of Amsterdam is Job Cohen, which shows that the Jewish community is not merely tolerated but a thriving part of Amsterdam’s cultural and business life.


Joods Historisch Museum
Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1
Opening hours: daily from 11 am – 5 pm
Admission fee: €9, free for Iamsterdam Card and Museum Card holders.

Anne Frankhuis
Prinsengracht 267
Opening hours: daily from 9 am – 7 pm
Admission fee: €8,50 

Portuguese-Israelite Synagogue
Mr Visserplein 3
Opening hours: Sunday – Friday 10 am – 4 pm
Admission fee: €8


Photo credit: bkwdayton @flickr

3 places are mentioned in this post!
  1. (Local Name: Anne Frank Huis) In this house on the Prinsengracht the Frank
Click on the place name to learn more

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