Some five miles outside of Amsterdam, there is a site where a miracle took place during the Holocaust.
Here, in this tiny town with quaint, pretty houses and narrow streets, the Nazis allowed Jewish history to survive. At a time when they were desecrating Jewish burial places all over Europe, they 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.
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 poem in Hebrew and is still quite legible.
Two years later, 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.
Beth Haim, however, is a victim of time. Many of its stones are damaged or missing. Thanks to the diligent work in 1866 of David Henriques 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. De Castro’s findings were published in his 1883 book, “Keur van Grafsteenen, A Selection of Gravestones,” which is being reissued.
Many famous people have been 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. Rabbi Menashe, together with Rabbi Jacob Sasportes, was 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.
Many visitors to Beth Haim leave notes on the tomb of Rabbi Sasportes, renowned in his time for battling false messiahs. 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 like Salomon Nunes Nabarro, son of Rebecca and Jacob Nabarro, 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.
A fund bearing the name of David Henriques de Castro has been set up to restore and preserve the cemetery. They’re looking to raise $3.5 million.
“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.
Inquiries or donations may be made to the David Henriques de Castrofonds Foundation, Kerkstraat 7, 1191 JB Ouderkerk a/d Amstel, or e-mail email@example.com.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.