Amsterdam’s Split Personality

Anne Frank’s house, a fabulous 17th century synagogue and an excellent heritage museum give Amsterdam special appeal for Jewish visitors. But they are all sites whose very existence reflect the city’s incurable split personality, making for a sightseeing experience that constantly provides food for thought.

Jews were victims of Amsterdam’s schizophrenia from the mid-1600s, when they first came from Portugal disguised as Catholic converts, to the mid-1900s, when the horror of the Holocaust provoked serious atonement for a level of duplicity that helped the community to virtual annihilation 60 years ago.

At first, Jews were tolerated yet barred from all but the brokers’, printers’ and surgeons’ guilds and were later emancipated by Napoleon, only to be left to a terrible fate under the Nazis. It is surprising, given how little help was given to the few wartime survivors, that a modern community exists at all.

Yet, this beautiful city has done more than any in Europe to acknowledge the contribution of its late, great Jewish citizens.

Amsterdam has much else to recommend it — beautiful canals, buzzy cafes, world-class art and architecture and eclectic shopping — plus discomfiting contrasts that give it a certain edge. Elegant canalside neighborhoods sit only minutes away from a raucous Red Light District, while a rip-off taxi-driver element preys on tourists who shun the fast and frequent trams.

However, for those sufficiently fit to get around by tram, boat and on foot, dodging the bicycles, Amsterdam makes for a rewarding weekend. The city looks utterly unique, thanks to its legacy of distinctive 17th century buildings, and also feels unique, thanks to the cultural sea change of the hippie era in which it remains charmingly stuck. There’s a hallucination round every corner, whether it’s a five-story gingerbread house leaning at a precarious 20-degree angle into the canal, or a rescue barge fishing drowned bicycles out of the water by the truckload — not to mention those ladies of the night in their neon-framed windows.

Anne Frank’s house, the saddest canalside mansion of all, is the first place of pilgrimage for virtually all cultural tourists. Despite the queues and the controversy (some feel it whitewashes wartime facts), it is impossible not to be moved by the sight of her bare room decorated with pictures from the cinema magazines smuggled in every week, not to mention the original diary pages in which she recorded every agony of her interrupted adolescence and longing for a future in which it would be OK to be Jewish.

Far less well-known than the diary, but an equally powerful testament of a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, are the 769 vivid comic-strip tableaus by Charlotte Salomon, who also died in the camps. Salomon was a Berliner, but her illustrated autobiography is a jewel in the crown of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, which attempts to explore all Jewish identity — as well as the sad tale of the Dutch experience — within a complex of 17th and 18th century shuls.

You don’t, however, need to enter a museum to trace the history of Amsterdam’s community, thanks to an excellent self-guided walking tour around the old Jewish quarter, whose most poignant site is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a music-hall grotesquely turned into a Jewish theater by the Nazis and shortly thereafter a collection point for Amsterdam’s Jews sent from bound for death in the camps.

Almost equally chilling to behold is the handsome canalside Jewish Council building, whose members so efficiently carried out the orders of their new Nazi masters in the vain hope of not making things worse. Like the Amsterdammers at large who went on strike to protest the occupation long after the event, they realized the truth too late. It is a wonder that the magnificent Portuguese synagogue completed in 1675 survived the war, unlike its community, and that it continues to open for services today without the benefit of electric light. one of the most breathtaking aspects of a Shabbat visit is to experiencing davening by candlelight, but a visit is possible at any time without special arrangement.

Across the road lies Waterlooplein, a big waterside market square once the main trading venue for Jewish peddlers barred from owning shops, now a Mecca of ’70s-style tat. Nearby — and thus perfectly placed for touring Amsterdam’s Jewish sites, as well as the canal belt, which is a living legacy to the city’s golden age — is the Hotel de l’Europe, one of Amsterdam’s three five-star deluxe hotels and by far the most conveniently situated. Worth the price for its luxury as well as location, it is just a couple of doors down from the city’s best cafe, Cafe de Jaren, a brilliant waterside rendezvous for anything from a late breakfast to a late drink. Less posh than the l’Europe, but very acceptable, is the Hotel Estherea, offering a canalside view of Amsterdam life. There is a Waterlooplein stop for the excellent Museum Boat that goes one step further than other canal cruises by linking all sites of interest, including Anne Frank’s House and the Jewish Museum, and permits a start-stop cruise as often as you want within the scope of a day ticket.

A large part of the day will doubtless be spent on land, in the art gallery belt at the southern end of town, where the Rembrandts, Vermeers and still-life masters of the Rijksmusum compete with the Van Goghs at the modern museum dedicated to the work of the mad Vincent — including several incarnations of his sunflower paintings.

Next door, the Stedilijk Museum promises world-class modern art, but out of season it displays disappointingly few of its Mondrians, Maleviches and other Post-Impressionists. Before leaving the museum belt, do wander down to the lively Leidseplein, which, although rather gaudy, is distinguished by the turn-of-the-century Cafe Americain, another Amsterdam institution. Each city center meeting point seems to have its signature cafe. In the Leidestraat shopping area, it’s the top floor of Metz, Amsterdam’s answer to Harvey Nichols, with a fantastic view of canalside rooftops, while on Spui Square, aficionados divide themselves between the Dante and the Luxembourg. Negotiating Amsterdam life depends on knowing the difference between a grand cafe (all the aforementioned — large and glamorous), a brown cafe (smaller and more traditional) and a coffee shop — which legally dispenses cannabis, with or without a shot of caffeine. Scary as they sound, these law-abiding establishments are safe, no one pushes customers to smoke, and the odd one, like the Jolly Joker, where a tiny hive of left-wing Jewish intellectual debate on the Nieuwmarkt, is an absolute gem. This former brown cafe, with its fabulous art nouveau light fittings, serves the best cappuccino in town against a suitably laid-back musical backdrop — everything from the Mamas and the Papas to modern Chill. Traditionalists may prefer the equally exquisite and tiny Papenisland, Amsterdam’s oldest brown cafe, named for the secret tunnel under the canal that Catholics used to reach their clandestine church in the days when their own religion was outlawed.

Visiting this fantastically lit watering hole for a nightcap would be reason enough to head for Jordaan, Amsterdam’s loveliest and also funkiest residential neighborhood, but although the nearby Brauwersgracht canal and its elegant homes and bridges are enchanting by night, its shops are equally worth a poke around during the day. A good bistro hereabouts is Lorrainen, but the gastronomic gem likely to be of greatest interest to Jewish visitors is the delightfully decorated Lucius fish restaurant, back in the town center on Spuistraat.