Nina Sie­gal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Ams­ter­dam, the Nether­lands, where she works as an author and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Inter­na­tion­al New York Times. Her most recent nov­el, The Anato­my Les­son, is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Recent­ly, a jour­nal­ist who was inter­view­ing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jew­ish New York­er liv­ing in Ams­ter­dam. She put it this way: Is it okay for you there?” As it hap­pens, the inter­view­er was a Dutch Jew­ish woman who had moved to New York, where, she con­fessed to me, she felt a lot more at home.” It’s hard to be Jew­ish in Ams­ter­dam,” she said.

It was inter­est­ing to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch peo­ple I’ve met here are always say­ing what an open, tol­er­ant, inter­na­tion­al city Ams­ter­dam is, and how Jews have always been so wel­come here. But the truth is, I’ve nev­er been able to say that I’ve felt at home” as a Jew­ish per­son in Ams­ter­dam, though I have been liv­ing here for the last eight years and in many oth­er ways I do feel at home. 

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my sec­ond nov­el, The Anato­my Les­son (Nan A. Talese/​Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imag­ined sto­ry behind Rembrandt’s first mas­ter­piece. I rent­ed my first apart­ment in the part of the city where Rem­brandt used to live, which is known as the Joden­bu­urt, or Jew­ish quar­ter. The Rem­brandt House Muse­um, in Rembrandt’s for­mer home, is on the Joden­breestraat, or Jew­ish Broadway. 

Ever since the six­teenth cen­tu­ry this quar­ter of the city, out­side of the Cen­trum, had been a sanc­tu­ary for Jews flee­ing per­se­cu­tion first from Por­tu­gal and Spain, and lat­er from Cen­tral and East­ern Europe. For a long time, schol­ars used to insist that Rem­brandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neigh­bor­hood and paint­ed por­traits of a famous Ams­ter­dam rab­bi and sev­er­al Old Tes­ta­ment scenes here, but more recent­ly that his­to­ry has been called into question.

This is the neigh­bor­hood where Baruch Spin­oza lived and worked. There are five syn­a­gogues in that neigh­bor­hood on a sin­gle block, includ­ing the awe-inspir­ing sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue, and four oth­er syn­a­gogues that now com­prise the Ams­ter­dam Jew­ish Muse­um, a tem­ple to a trag­ic history. 

Ams­ter­dam was indeed once known as city that was wel­com­ing to Jews, who were grant­ed cit­i­zen­ship as ear­ly as 1616; for years the city was known as Mokum” the Hebrew word for place.” And of course every­one knows the sto­ry of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a Ger­man Jew whose fam­i­ly moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuc­cess­ful­ly, of course. 

Some peo­ple still call it Mokum, and the Dutch nation­al soc­cer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 per­cent of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of the Nether­lands per­ished in WWII, the high­est per­cent­age loss of a nation­al pop­u­la­tion in all of Europe, accord­ing to the Colum­bia Guide to the Holo­caust.

The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, such as it is, is now cen­tered in the south­ern part of the city, and walk­ing through Rembrandt’s old neigh­bor­hood feels like walk­ing through a ghost town, with many of the Jew­ish build­ings denud­ed of their for­mer cul­tur­al pur­pose, or turned to memo­ri­als. Lots of the build­ings in the dis­trict are new, too, and that’s because after the Jew­ish fam­i­lies were round­ed up here, their homes were loot­ed and ran­sacked to the extent that even the lum­ber was stripped from their walls and floors by des­per­ate Ams­ter­dammers dur­ing the Hunger Win­ter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strange­ly, the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing and work­ing in that neigh­bor­hood made me feel more Jew­ish than I had ever felt grow­ing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, sur­round­ed by Jews. I have always called myself a sec­u­lar, cul­tur­al Jew,” who feels con­nect­ed to Jew­ish life, but doesn’t prac­tice any form of obser­vance. I have no Dutch ances­try, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the fam­i­ly was from Hun­gary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s rel­a­tives in Hun­gary died in Auschwitz; my grand­fa­ther sur­vived three con­cen­tra­tion camps, and was lib­er­at­ed from Mau­thausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well. 

Sur­round­ed by a com­plete­ly destroyed Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, I start­ed to feel the pow­er and weight of an absence I had only ever imag­ined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty hold­ing ser­vices in the beau­ti­ful local tem­ples, there were his­tor­i­cal arti­facts doc­u­ment­ing those dis­ap­peared cus­toms and peo­ple. Where there used to be a live­ly Jew­ish the­ater, filled with actors, musi­cians and laugh­ter, there is now an emp­ty shell of a build­ing filled with a memo­r­i­al wall and a sin­gle burn­ing flame.

Over time, being in the Joden­bu­urt engen­dered in me a deep sense of long­ing for a com­mu­ni­ty I nev­er knew. It made me long, too, for the com­mu­ni­ty of easy Jew­ish­ness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still peo­ple sim­ply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s ques­tion, I had to con­fess that some­how being here in Ams­ter­dam helped me con­nect with some part of the real­i­ty of being a Jew­ish per­son. Not to con­nect to the cul­ture that I had come to know as Jew­ish cul­ture, but to come into con­tact with the ele­ment of our his­to­ry that is absence, dis­ap­pear­ance, and dev­as­ta­tion. That is still very real here in Ams­ter­dam, as it is in oth­er parts of Europe, too, even if there are few peo­ple who want to talk about it any­more today. 

None of that made it into the Rem­brandt nov­el, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m begin­ning to embark on now. 

Nina Sie­gal got her B.A. at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and her M.F.A. in Fic­tion at the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop. Although she has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about women in US pris­ons, hous­ing and home­less­ness, and all sorts of urban cul­tur­al issues, Sie­gal late­ly focus­es on the inter­sec­tion of art and soci­ety, which is also the theme of both her nov­els. Read more about her here.

Relat­ed Content:

Nina Sie­gal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Ams­ter­dam, the Nether­lands, where she works as an author and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Inter­na­tion­al New York Times. She got her B.A. at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and her M.F.A. in Fic­tion at the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop. Although she has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about women in US pris­ons, hous­ing and home­less­ness, and all sorts of urban cul­tur­al issues, Sie­gal late­ly focus­es on the inter­sec­tion of art and soci­ety, which is also the theme of both her novels.