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A History of the Jews in the Netherlands

The first Jews began coming to the Amsterdam in the late 1500s; they were Portuguese merchants who were conversos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Because they were a boon to commerce, these Jewish merchants were welcomed by the Dutch authorities. In the atmosphere of tolerance that they enjoyed in Amsterdam, many conversos reverted to their Jewish faith, and beginning in the sixteenth century there was a strong presence of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain and the Iberian Peninsula) in Amsterdam. Later there was an influx of Ashkenazi Jews, who were driven out from the rest of Europe by persecution. Sephardim and Ashkenazim intermingled freely in Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and most mercantile cities of Holland.

From 1795 to 1813, Holland was under French rule. Thus in 1796 Jews were granted civil rights per French law. Once freed from French rule, Holland became a constitutional monarchy and, in 1917, enfranchised all adult males. Jews in Holland owned thriving businesses and some had prestigious posts and leadership positions in Dutch politics.

To research your Jewish-Dutch ancestors, one of the most valuable resources is civil registration. Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths was instituted in 1811 under Napoleon. With the advent of civil registration, Jews were required to adopt fixed surnames instead of using the patronymic surname system; they had to appear before a civil register and designate what surname they would adopt. Thus there are surname registry books that you can search.

Another resource for family researchers is the Bevolkingsregister, a population register that was essentially like the census. It recorded the name, date and place of birth, religion, marital status, and occupation of every individual living within a house. In addition, the Bevolkingsregister records the movements of individuals and families: when they moved into a particular house, when they moved out, etc. At the turn of the 20th century, the system was tightened up and instead of enumerating people in books, each individual was required to have a registration card. Each time someone moved, a new card was generated for them and kept in a central registry. (see footnote 1)

Beginning in 1940, Germany took over and occupied the Netherlands. Since part of Hitler's agenda was to round up all the Jews there, the Nazis used Holland's card registration system to locate Jewish families and deport them to death camps in Poland. Some registration cards in Amsterdam and The Hague were destroyed by the Dutch resistance-because of this, some Dutch Jews were able to slip through the cracks, go into hiding, and survive the German occupation. Out of Holland's Jewish population of 140,000, only 40,000 survived. (see footnote 2)

The large Jewish communities in Holland kept records of their own; these records have been preserved in the municipal archives of Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Rotterdam. They include records of membership, marriage, and burial, but not circumcision registers, since the mohel (ritual circumciser) typically kept his own records. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews appear equally in these valuable records, as well as in civil registration, surname registry books, and population registers.

Footnote 1 - Odette Vlessing, "The Netherlands," Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, ed. Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2004), 438.

Footnote 2 - Odette Vlessing, "The Netherlands," Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, ed. Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2004), 437.

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