Dutch cemetery spared by Nazis is ravaged by time

AMSTERDAM — Some five miles outside of Amsterdam is a site where a miracle took place during the Holocaust.

Here, in this tiny town of Ouderkerk Aan De Amstel with its quaint houses and narrow streets, the Nazis allowed Jewish history to survive. At a time when they were desecrating Jewish burial sites all over Europe, the Nazis left this one alone.

"No, the Germans didn't destroy the Beth Haim Cemetery. Jews who were already dead were of no use to them," said Rabbi Rodrigues Pereira, administrator of Beth Haim for the past decade.

"What they did do was reduce the 5,000-strong Portuguese Jewish community to several families who were, of course, unable to meet the financial burden of preserving the cemetery," said Pereira. The maintenance costs alone are more than $75,000 each year, he added.

Now, however, what the Nazis did not destroy is being ravaged by time and neglect, and the cemetery administrator is trying to raise the money to restore it.

A fund bearing the name of David Henriques de Castro has been set up to restore and preserve the cemetery, with the goal of raising $3.5 million.

The Portuguese Jewish community, which settled in Amsterdam in 1590, purchased an estate to bury their dead. The first burial at Beth Haim took place April 11, 1614, of a child named Joseph, son of David Senior. The memorial stone is inscribed with a still-legible poem in Hebrew.

In 1616, the cemetery was in official use and could be accessed by road as well as by boat via a nearby river. The cemetery was extended in 1663 — and twice more over the years.

It was originally estimated that the space would be depleted by 1963, but the ravages of World War II ensured it will last for another 80 years. Eight hundred spaces are still available.

But time has taken its toll. Many of its stones are damaged or missing. Thanks to the diligent work in 1866 of de Castro, much is known about stones that had, for instance, sunk into the marshy ground. Those of special historical or artistic merit were raised on brick bases to prevent further submersion, while the remaining ones were covered with earth.

Many famous people were buried in Beth Haim. Perhaps the most famous is Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, a friend of artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who, apart from making etchings of his friend, also illustrated many of his books. Menashe, together with Rabbi Jacob Sasportes — renowned in his time for battling false messiahs — were able to persuade Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to resettle in England in the 17th century, said Pereira.

Other well-known Jews reposed here include Dr. Eliahu Montalto, Maria de Medici's personal physician, as well as the parents of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Indeed, the grounds provide a fascinating look at the culture of the day.

Engraved upon some of the stones is art that is at once macabre, whimsical and poignant. This is in stark contrast to the latter-day section, featuring bleak, modern stones for deceased Jews such as Salomon Nunes Nabarro, son of Rebecca and Jacob Nabarro. It is inscribed "in Auschwitz did the Nazis murder [his parents]."

The Holocaust is recalled in a small memorial area, commemorating the thousands of community members who perished at the Westerbork camp or were murdered elsewhere during World War II.

"Beth Haim must not be allowed to just fade away," Pereira said. "Even if it is just to give those people who lost parents and grandparents during the war a place where they can find their ancestral roots."