Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue

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.

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Vrouwtje “Flora” Calo ca. 1920

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.

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Main entrance to the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam- photo by the author

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.

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Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue- photo by author

As I explore the hushed building, I ponder if Flora truly ever came here.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Photo of the candlelit interior of the Esnoga by Massimo Catarinella

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.

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12 Responses to Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue

  1. carlabeardsell says:

    Nicely done. It is true, there is so much we’ll never know.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Amy says:

    This is so beautiful, Ian. And a kippah is such a wonderful souvenir and perhaps one you will find yourself using more than you anticipate. I visited the synagogue back in 2013, also wondering whether my Cohen ancestors had prayed there back in the 1700s.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ian says:

      Thanks, Amy. Indeed, I am thinking if I keep going to these Jewish holy sites, I will be properly apported. Were your Cohens actually Sephardic? It seems to be hard to prove and all the DNA sites just say I’m Ashkenazi…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Amy says:

        I also get only Ashkenazi results, and I have some evidence that the family had come to Amsterdam from Germany at some point, so I don’t think so, but you never know…

        Liked by 2 people

      • grahamsharpe says:

        Hi Ian
        I’ve spent the last hour reading your blogs. I dont know the best way of contacting you, so i hope this is ok. My great grandfather was Levi Elias Schaap, elder brother of your great grandfather, Emanuel Elias Schaap. Levi Elias came to England from Holland in the 1860s and changed his name to Louis Edward. He died in 1897. In the first world war my grandfather changed the family surname to Sharpe, as German sounding names weren’t a good idea. Our Royal family did the same!
        My father, Arthur, always wanted to trace the Dutch Schaaps, but it was only in 1987 he found out they were Jewish; I was 28 at the time. Following my father’s death, I took on the mantle of family historian, and can very well remember the sickening feeling as i started researching Holocaust records and found the murders of Maurits, Rachel and Alfred. I was overcome with outrage – its strange how emotional you can feel about your family, when you didnt even know them.
        So i was so excited to see your blogs and see some fantastic pics that i never thought i would find; particularly poignant was baby Alfred.
        I’m trying to trace living Dutch Schaaps, and know of Gilberte, daughter of Emanuel Maurits, but havent been able to find her.
        I have Schaap family back to your great great great grandfather (Levie David Schaap) but guess you probably have too. Do you know any thing about the English Schaaps?
        You’re welcome to contact me on graham90729@gmail.com
        Regards Graham

        Liked by 2 people

      • Ian says:

        My goodness! This is a wonderful happenstance! I had only recently found out on Ancestry about your great-grandfather with much surprise to see that Levi Elias (Louis) Schaap was Emanuel’s elder brother who had emigrated to Leeds. Literally just a couple of months ago. I too have had trouble contacting any surviving Schaaps on the Dutch side, but I’m not sure I can blame them after their terrible sufferings.
        I will definitely be in touch with you at the above email soon!
        Cheers,
        Ian

        Liked by 2 people

  3. carlamcgill says:

    What a beautiful place! Thanks for the wonderful photos. Wishing you well on your journey of discovery.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. helen murphy says:

    U SURE KNOW YOUR HISTORY GREAT INSITES any body know any thing of my grand parents, anna haas [ schulz with husband emil schulz they were sent to sobibor died feb 7 1943

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Marjolein says:

    @Ian @ Graham: Did some research with cousin Claire (who I’ve found while making the familytree and after discovering the hidden truth about our family history) in the Royal Library. We traced all Schaaps in a book about the Jews of Kampen and it seems the ancestor of the Schaaps did come from Germany. Had no time to process all information, keep you posted!

    Liked by 2 people

    • johnstonnewing says:

      Hi Marjolein

      I have just recently discovered you via Ian’s blog . My wife Debbie is a cousin of Graham’s. I’m getting the family tree up to date and wondered firstly where you fit in the family tree and secondly what progress you have made since this post in 2019. Would be pleased to hear from you. Kind Regards Malcolm Newing. My wife is Debbie Johnston daughter of Dick Johnston and Grandaughter of Clare Regina Schaap.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marjolein Hasenbos says:

        Hello Johnstonnewing, I am a great-granddaughter of Vrouwtje (Flora) Schaap-Calo. My grandmother was Regina Schaap. I can send you a gedcom file of my familytree, but don’t know yet how to make contact with you without leaving my personal data here. Had no time to verify the information about Jewish ancestors in de family tree that I made on Myheritage.com. Cousin Claire and I followed a short course in Jewish ancestry at he Amsterdam Archives.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Unknown Connections | ReSearching MySelf

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