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Netherlands’ first Holocaust museum opens

More than 1,000 protesters opposed to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza demonstrated outside a ceremony to mark the opening of the Netherlands’ first Holocaust museum on Sunday, citing the presence of Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The protesters came from the Dutch Palestinian community, Socialists International and Erev Rav, a local Jewish anti-Zionist group.

The museum, housed in a cluster of historic buildings in Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, opened to the public on March 10. That evening, Herzog attended the ceremony at the nearby Portuguese Synagogue with Dutch Holocaust survivors and leaders of the country’s Jewish community of about 30,000 who marked the launch of a museum that was 20 years in the making.

Whereas other sites in the Netherlands have excellent museums related to the Holocaust — such as the Anne Frank House across town, or the transit camp Westerbork — no centralized site was dedicated to documenting the Dutch Holocaust in its entirety. Likewise, only in 2021 was a monument with the names of Holocaust victims built, against intense opposition from citizens who didn’t want the edifice in their own (formerly Jewish) backyards.

The much-anticipated opening of what some observers call Western Europe’s first modern Holocaust museum was marred by a groundswell of anti-Israel protests.

The Jewish Cultural Quarter, which initiated and operates the new museum, said in a statement that it was “bitter” to open the National Holocaust Museum during the Israel-Hamas war. It said that it supports “a just and secure resolution for all those directly involved,” including Israel’s right to exist and Palestinians’ right to autonomy.

An alliance of more than 200 Dutch mosques petitioned King Willem-Alexander not to attend the opening, and the Rights Forum, a Dutch Palestinian rights group, called Herzog’s attendance and meeting with the king a “slap in the face for Palestinians who are watching helplessly as Israel murders their loved ones and destroys their country.”

Willem-Alexander did attend the ceremony, and neither he nor Herzog directly addressed the protests, which have for months accompanied prominent Israelis in their appearances around the world.

Both Herzog and the anti-Zionist protesters invoked the phrase “Never again is now,” a refrain widely used in connection to the Holocaust. Herzog was referring to a global surge in antisemitism since Hamas brutally murdered 1,200 people and abducted 253 in southern Israel on October 7, while protesters used the phrase to imply that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is akin to the Holocaust.

Activists with the human rights group Amnesty International installed “detour” signs around the museum that purported to direct Herzog to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which is considering a genocide charge brought by South Africa against Israel.

Better late than never

Before Germany’s occupation, some 140,000 Jews called the Netherlands home. More than three-quarters of Dutch Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

“I’m comforted with how we have succeeded in giving dignity back to the victims,” Annemiek Gringold, the museum’s chief curator, told The Times of Israel in a guided tour of the museum before opening.

Two decades ago, Gringold proposed the creation of what she called the country’s first “inclusive” national Holocaust museum.

In the years after Gringold proposed a museum, the country has increasingly reckoned with Dutch civil society’s decisive role in isolating and deporting the majority of Dutch Jews to the death camps.

For example, the phenomenon of “bounty hunters” — unique to the Netherlands — saw Dutch civilians paid by the Germans to hunt down Jews in hiding.

“The bounty hunters are there, all of it is there,” said Gringold, referring to the permanent exhibition.

For three centuries, said Gringold, Dutch Jews considered themselves loyal residents of the Netherlands. Most Jews were poor or working class, but a few families played an outsized role in trade and Jews were permitted to build huge synagogues during an era when Catholics were forced to worship in secret.

By the time of the German attack on the Netherlands in 1941, most Dutch Jews considered themselves more Dutch than Jewish, historians agree.

“Protect your democracy,” said Gringold at several points while guiding visitors across the permanent exhibition.

The museum is housed on two floors of a former Protestant teaching college. During the Holocaust, the college’s director helped enact a bold rescue plan in which some 600 Jewish children were smuggled to freedom through a courtyard connecting a kindergarten for Jewish deportee children to the teaching college.

“From there, they stepped out of the schoolyard as if given a second chance at life,” said Gringold.

The 600 Jewish children were overlooked by the Germans only because so many thousands of Jewish children had been successfully captured and deported, added Gringold.

Inside the teaching college, rescued children were quickly turned around by student volunteers who spirited them out of the city on bicycles. Each child was destined for a hiding place in rural areas.

“It is not neutral ground you are on,” said Gringold of the museum. The complex comprises the former teaching college and adjacent buildings, as well as the so-called Dutch Theater across the street. “This is a site of persecution, but it’s also a site of humanity.”

Whereas Germany’s occupation of — for example — Polish and Russian territories was military in nature, in the Netherlands Hitler kept the Dutch civil service in place. This isolated Jews without the need for SS men or German troops in what Berlin intended to be a friendly occupation.

The Dutch bureaucratic system’s efficiency and extensive civilian collaboration ensured a larger portion of the country’s Jews were murdered — more than 100,000 people — than in any country in Western Europe.

Holocaust memory work has always been an uphill battle in the Netherlands, where the remnant of Dutch Jewry erected a “Gratitude” memorial for the Dutch almost immediately after the war. When Jews returned from the death camps, they were charged back taxes by the city of Amsterdam and in many cases denied custody of their own children.

Some Dutch organizations and companies researched their own wartime collaboration with the Nazis and have attempted to make amends.

Recent developments include discovering that the country’s tram company billed Berlin for costs associated with transferring most of Amsterdam’s Jews — including Anne Frank — from deportation points including the Dutch Theater to the city’s Central Station.


Unlike most Holocaust museums, the narrative of the genocide of Dutch Jewry is not told from the perspective of historians, bystanders, or perpetrators at the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

Instead, Gringold led the curation of a collection that allows survivors and victims to speak for themselves.

With audio guides and focused videos, the museum helps visitors comprehend what took place through the eyes of victims. Within the shell of the former Dutch Theater, where 46,000 Jews were held on the way to transit camps, visitors must tap their audio guides onto the faces of victims in order to learn what took place there.

Opening with an introductory video at the Dutch Theater, the museum does not use boxcars, barracks, or other familiar Holocaust tropes. Instead, the process of isolating and persecuting Jews in the Netherlands is told by — for example — diary entries, artwork, and objects once used by victims.

Instead of evoking the perpetrators by using their language and symbols, the museum recaptures the individual identities of people who went from being Dutch citizens to ashes at Sobibor and Auschwitz in less than two years.

The museum’s signature “Forget-me-not” installations, 19 in total, depict individual victims and their unique Holocaust journeys. Looking into the tall, glass boxes, visitors connect the face of a victim to his or her own words and belongings.

“We wanted to restore the identity and the humanity of each of the victims,” said Gringold.

In recent years, Gringold made significant discoveries and acquisitions. Findings include original artwork made by victims and survivors, as well as artifacts from archaeological excavations at Sobibor, the death camp where 33,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in gas chambers.

The Sobibor artifacts were unearthed by an Israeli-Polish archaeology team that also helped remap destroyed camp structures and features. More than 10,000 artifacts related to the genocide were excavated over numerous seasons, culminating in the opening of a museum on-site in 2021.

The most stunning artifacts excavated at Sobibor were the nametags of Dutch Jewish children who were murdered in the gas chambers. One of the nametags — belonging to eight-year-old David (Deddie) Zak — is replicated at the museum, alongside his photo.

Zak’s wide smile is memorable, and his face changes from the original black-and-white image into color as visitors approach the image. This and other effects help visitors interact with and even alter primary source images throughout the museum.

Polish authorities allowed Gringold to bring back from the Sobibor excavations a collection of 10 colorful shirt buttons and a pair of scissors of the kind that would have cut fabric.

“I told the designers of the museum that I wanted these buttons to be placed like the most valuable jewels in the world,” said Gringold.

“These buttons are a piece of the identity of the people who were murdered,” said Gringold.

“They put on a shirt in the morning and touched those buttons. Then they were forced to take off the shirt and they were murdered,” Gringold said.

Even when depicting processes at the death camp Sobibor, artifacts allow victims and survivors to speak for themselves at the museum. A prominent example is a famous model of the Sobibor death camp layout made by a survivor after the war.

When presenting the perpetrators who operated Sobibor and Auschwitz, the museum purposely used photos that humanize the men. At leisure with their families or drinking alongside local Polish women, the German SS men who ran the camps could be anyone’s uncle or brother.

Gringold and museum designers made evocative use of photos and film footage recovered in recent years, including images from the Sobibor Perpetrator Album. The roundup and deportation of Jews was extensively photographed through Dutch windows, with some images later taking on lives of their own.

‘I had to make choices’

Amsterdam’s leafy Plantage Middlelan neighborhood, home to the new museum as well as the world’s oldest botanical garden, also hosted one of Western Europe’s most vibrant Jewish cultural scenes.

“Before the war, this was a neighborhood that was 80% Jewish,” Gringold said.

The Dutch Theater was one of four theaters in this one area of the city, a relatively new neighborhood built just outside the main canal ring. Some photographs of Dutch Holocaust victims were taken by their non-Jewish neighbors, including a series of historically important images captured from a balcony in the courtyard behind the theater.

The museum did not purchase the former teacher college building from the city until 2021, said Gringold. Before then, the building had been vacant for some years but long housed an exterior plaque about the rescue operation that took place there.

“The process of making the museum is also about involving the community in the process itself,” said Gringold. The historian spoke about ways in which people who helped build the museum were woven into the process.

Construction workers, landscapers, designers, and contractors who worked on the museum are featured in the temporary exhibition about the site’s creation during a global pandemic. Each of these people learned about aspects of the Dutch Holocaust while creating the museum with their own hands, Gringold said.

Throughout the museum and across the street at the Dutch Theater, some details speak to through-lines between pre-Holocaust Jewish life and the community’s modest postwar renewal. For example, trees were planted in the courtyard by some of the Jews rescued from the college as children, and their descendants.

Israeli architect Daniel Libeskind’s original model for the Names Monument is featured near the end of the permanent exhibition, alongside a photo of child survivor Jacque Grishaver, who worked for decades to bring the Namenmoniment to fruition. The meta approach to Dutch Holocaust memory is refreshing and helps center victims and survivors.

The original Names Monument would have been too sprawling for Wertheim Park, alleged the park’s neighbors. So instead, after years of legal wrangling and fundraising, the so-called Holocaust Namenmonument was opened next to the Hermitage in 2021, within sight of the Portuguese Synagogue.

The museum makes commendable efforts to explain and evoke what took place during the intricate rescue operation on both sides of the tram-lined street.

Through models, audio guides, and testimony, the rescue trail was shown to have taken hundreds of children from their parents’ arms at the Dutch Theater onto a path leading to relative freedom in the Dutch countryside. Where these events took place, the museum subtly deploys sound and light features.

The permanent exhibition does not exclude the European context of the genocide. Visitors are shown how local collaborators across the continent helped with the “special handling” of Jews.

The genocide during the so-called “Holocaust by Bullets” in Eastern Europe, for example, is shown to transition into death camps with fixed gas chambers. Jews were deported to these industrialized killing facilities from sites including the Dutch transit camp Westerbork.

The Dutch people did not collaborate to perpetrate massacres as took place in Ukraine and Baltic lands, among other places. No Holocaust massacres took place in Western Europe. Instead, individual Dutch men and women, as well as organizations, made choices regarding how closely to collaborate with Germany’s anti-Jewish policies.

The museum makes space for other groups targeted by the Germans to enact their genocidal worldview, including Romani victims represented through their music. To encourage visitors to be upstanders, places of honor are given to the Dutch men and women — and an entire village — who helped rescue Jews.

“I had to make choices because there are 6,000 Dutch people who Yad Vashem has recognized for rescuing Jews,” said Gringold.

The first Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust were 400 young men arrested and sent to Mauthausen in 1941. Those brutal arrests were extensively photographed around the corner from the museum, in front of the Portuguese Synagogue. Many of the men were later worked to death in Mauthausen’s notorious rock quarry.

In a tactile way of telling stories through artifacts, Gringold curated a stone from Mauthausen for the museum.

“The stone is also something that people who are vision-impaired can touch and feel,” said Gringold.

Yet another distinguishing feature of the museum’s aesthetics is the so-called Wallpaper of Crime.

Because the Holocaust in the Netherlands was so closely tied to Dutch civil servants relaying orders to Dutch Jews, Gringold and the designers used hundreds of original ordinance texts to create the permanent exhibition wallpaper.

“You see as you go through the museum how the world becomes ever smaller and smaller for the Jews,” said Gringold.

In the museum’s closing room, the bespoke wallpaper of anti-Jewish measures continues through 1945, months after the Allied invasion of neighboring France in June 1944. By then, Berlin had declared the Netherlands “free of Jews” and only some functionaries and Jews in hiding remained.

Within two years, Dutch civil servants implemented German-enacted laws in the Netherlands that transformed a centuries-old Jewish community into weekly “transports” of 1,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz and Sobibor.

“Protect your democracy,” again repeated Gringold.

Matt Lebovic