I know so very little about her, my great-grandmother, Vrouwtje Schaap-Calo. During this trip to The Netherlands, I discover from my cousin that she preferred to go by the name Flora. In fact, my cousin’s mother shared this name, likely inheriting it from her. Another inheritance from Flora, which was hidden from us by well-meaning grandparents and parents and discovered by me and my cousins only recently, is our Jewish heritage.
I also discover on this trip that Flora and her husband Emanuel had identified as members of the Portuguese Israeli community, perhaps even descending from the Sephardim, the Jews who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 and founded communities elsewhere in Europe, including religiously-tolerant Amsterdam. In the late 1600’s the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam built a new synagogue, a large square building harkening back to the Temple of Solomon. A few years after her husband’s death in 1916 in Nijmegen, Flora eventually came to live nearby in the Plantage district, less than a 10-minute walk away from this historic religious site. Would Flora have been drawn to the synagogue? It was a place I had to see.
The building is indeed large and imposing on the outside but yields to an interior that feels spacious yet paradoxically close and communal. Natural light pours in through huge windows to illuminate dark wooden fixtures such as the Torah Ark and the rows of benches.
As I explore the hushed building, I ponder if Flora truly ever came here.
Did she walk through the ladies’ entry at the back, climb the stairs as I do now, and take a seat in the upper gallery? Women did not sit with the men folk but viewed the proceedings from above.
Did she watch the men shuffle quietly along the main floor below, which is still spread with a fine coating of sand to muffle footsteps, finding their place along the hard wooden benches?
Did she watch as they perhaps produce a key and unlock the compartment underneath their portion of bench to take out a prayer shawl or fancy top hat, something special to wear on Yom Kippur? Eighty years later, I stand in front of those same benches and hear on the audio guide how the synagogue had to force open many of those locked compartments after the war and empty the contents. So many of the owners had never returned from Sobibor or Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Did she come here in the winter months, with the days that are short and dark, the interior solely lit by candles, even as it is now on such evenings. Did she silently contemplate her life in the quiet and beauty of the darkness? Did she ponder the meaning of a world in which her children and grandchildren were cut off from her for their own protection? Did she have any idea how it would all end….for her, for her family, for humanity…
I walk around the entire complex, for it is not just the synagogue but also includes a bathing chamber, a sukkah, a treasury, council offices and other historical and contemporary offices. Somehow, I do get the sense that she was here. Perhaps it is just an overactive imagination and the proximity of her residence to this place. On the face of it, it seems an obvious connection. But none of our remaining family knows. Perhaps we will never know.
In the gift shop I struggle to decide what I could take away to remind me of this place and the connection to my Jewish heritage. Picture books or postcards do not really do justice to the sense of the place or the connection to my past. I think back to my sense of reverence at the Kwakkenberg Cemetery in Nijmegen just a few days earlier, and the need I felt to follow the tradition of wearing a head covering on the holy ground as I visited the grave of my great-grandfather, Emanuel. I buy a simple sand-colored kippa, for his memory and for Flora’s…and for mine.