With New Holocaust Museum, the Netherlands Reckons With Its Past

The venue, which opens this week, memorializes the Dutch Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis

Row of buildings
The museum is located inside a former teacher's college that played a vital role in the Dutch resistance. National Holocaust Museum

During World War II, the Nazis murdered 75 percent of all Dutch Jews, the highest proportion of any country in Western Europe. And yet, for decades, many in the Netherlands were reluctant to acknowledge this dark period in the nation’s history.

Now, the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam aims to change that. The new museum, which opened to the public on Sunday, is the “first institution devoted to telling the full story” of the 102,000 Dutch Jews and 220 Romani victims of the Nazis, reports the New York Times’ Claire Moses. 

“Knowing about the Holocaust is not optional,” said the Dutch King Willem-Alexander at the opening ceremony, per the Guardian’s Senay Boztas. “This museum shows us what happened. And not so very long ago.”

Using roughly 2,500 documents, photographs, films, sound recordings and other artifacts, the museum explores what life was like for Dutch Jews before, during and after the war. Some of the objects were donated by victims, survivors and relatives, while others came from museum collections around the world.

In one room, laws that stripped Dutch Jews of their freedom are printed all over the walls, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. (For example, on June 12, 1942, Jews were ordered to turn in their bikes. By September 14, 1942, Jews were barred from universities.) This area shows “how the Nazi regime, assisted by Dutch civil servants, dehumanized Jews ahead of operations to round them up,” writes the Associated Press (AP).

“You feel the oppression and the dismantling of the rule of law and freedom for every Jew,” Annemiek Gringold, the museum’s head curator, tells the Times. “That crime, no matter how neatly captured in judicial text, is always present.”

Other rooms display everyday items that belonged to Dutch Jews, including suitcases, clothing, jewelry and children’s toys. Curators hope these humanizing objects will help visitors see the victims as people, rather than statistics.

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“Perhaps this is the closest I can come to the thousands and thousands of anonymous people that were rushed into the gas chamber,” Gringold tells the AP. “This is something that they chose to wear, and it is one of the last items that they touched.”

Roosje Steenhart-Drukker, an 82-year-old survivor, donated the shoes she was wearing as a toddler on the day her Jewish parents left her in hopes she would be found and saved.

“I am extremely happy that our history is not lost after all the tragedy, all the sadness,” she tells Richard Carter of Agence France-Presse (AFP). “But we’re still here.”

The idea for the museum was first proposed in 2005. But the vision has taken nearly 20 years to come to fruition, in part because of a “long-felt discomfort in the Netherlands with taking ownership of what happened,” says Emile Schrijver, the museum’s general director, to the Times. The facility’s opening is “a kind of closure to a process of acceptance,” adds Schrijver.

The building itself, which used to be a teacher training college, played a vital role in the Dutch resistance. In 1943, Jewish children from a nearby daycare center were brought to the college and sent to various hideouts. Ultimately, these efforts helped save the lives of some 600 children, according to the museum.

Museumgoers can step into the “escape corridor” to see for themselves where children were ushered into the building, per AFP.

In the museum’s final rooms, the focus turns toward the 30,000 Jews who remained in the Netherlands by the end of the war. These areas feature video interviews with survivors, who speak about how they “tried to regain their dignity and restart their lives,” per a statement from the museum.

The venue is located in Amsterdam’s historic Jewish Quarter, not far from a Holocaust memorial that opened in September 2021. The monument, designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, is made of bricks inscribed with the names, birth dates and ages of all the Dutch Jews and Romani people who were killed by the Nazis.

One of the most well-known was Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager immortalized in the pages of her diary. Since 1957, Amsterdam has had a biographical museum dedicated to Frank in the house where she and her family spent two years in hiding.

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