Centuries of Jewish European History

Beth Haim, founded 1614, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Photo: TES.

Cemeteries are like an open history book. One of the oldest cemeteries in The Netherlands, leaving aside churches as places of burial, is the Portuguese Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, a village close to Amsterdam. The cemetery dates from 1614, when two Jewish communities from Amsterdam purchased a farmstead on which stood a stone house. The cemetery was destined to become the final resting place of Jewish Sephardi exiles, who had sought refuge in Amsterdam. The cemetery gradually replaced the Jewish cemetery in Groet, in the present-day province of North-Holland. The cemetery in Ouderkerk was called Beth Haim, House of Life. The cemetery is a cemetery for Sephardi  Jews only and still in use today. The parents of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Menasseh ben Israel, Dr. Orobio de Castro, Dr. Montalto and many other famous exiles, but also contemporary Sephardi Jews are buried here. There are numerous family coats of arms and sculptural masterpieces from the seventeenth century onwards.

The cemetery miraculously survived German barbarism in 1940-1945 and its most hazardous year was undoubtedly 1672, when French troops had been plundering villages in Amstelland and had been ransacking and torching villages in this region. The beleaguered city of Amsterdam sent troops to defend Ouderkerk, but it was actually these soldiers and not the French who jeopardised the cemetery and its splendid tombs, often true monuments of art. It was not just vandalism, but also the need of stone materials and earth to construct defensive walls. The municipality of Amsterdam honoured its duty of protector of the cemetery and ordered that any fortifications that may be required must be constructed with earth and materials other than that from this cemetery.

There are similar Jewish cemeteries across Europa. Beth Olam or House of Eternity in Alsbach is even the largest country cemetery in Hesse, Germany. For four hundred years Jews from thirty two local communities have been buried here. Alsbach was the burial place of the famous Rabbi Samuel Bacharach (1575-1615) in 1615. Since then its has been an honour for (orthodox) Jews to be buried in Alsbach. There have been well over 2000 burials in this cemetery, the last was in 1941. The orthodox orientation of this cemetery forbade any sort of decoration of the graves, in contrast to the Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk. Decorated or not, the stones speak of a history of centuries during which Jewish communities lived and worked in Europe.