The Mystery of Amsterdam's Jewish Community

The discovery of two rare 18th-century books from Amsterdam's Jewish community has left archivist Stefan Litt looking for answers.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Friday June 3, 1768, was an exciting day in the sizable Jewish community of Amsterdam. That day, the Stadtholder (chief executive) of Holland, William V of the House of Orange, arrived for a rare visit to the Jewish quarter and the synagogue, accompanied by his wife, Wilhelmina of Prussia. "Their Highnesses sat on the bench of the community elders, the other ministers and dignitaries were seated on two velvet benches on the north and south sides of the synagogue. As they entered the synagogue, the Holy Ark was opened, the cantors and vocalists had begun to sing 'Baruch Haba' [Welcome]" - this is how the event was described in the community registry.

Stefan Litt, an archivist at the National Library in Jerusalem, found this description in the course of his research into the registries of the Ashkenazi communities (pinkassei kahal ) in the 17th and 18th centuries. The registry goes on to note that a community elder, Gumpel Klev, bestowed on the royal couple a keepsake from the community: "Two books printed on white satin, the cover pages beautifully ornamented with their insignia."

Stefan Litt holding copies of psalms books he is researching, at the National Library in Jerusalem.Credit: Gil Cohen Magan

Two weeks ago, Litt located one of these two books, which were printed on cloth nearly 250 years ago, in the storerooms of the National Library in Jerusalem. Did the Stadtholder leave the book on his seat when he got up to leave? What was scribbled in Dutch on the last page? And why was this scribble erased? Why are there traces of one of the pages being singed? How did the book make its way to the National Library? All of these matters are still shrouded in mystery.

Litt, a tall man of German descent who married an Israeli woman and lives in Israel, has dedicated the past few years to searching through the archives of the National Library and researching the registries of the communities. He has found in the registries the early buds of the great movements that would entirely change the face of Judaism: Haskalah (Enlightenment ), secularism and Zionism. "The registries are the witnesses to a process in which the communities are transformed from a group of people to institutions with numerous secular dealings. They include a lot of matters that are unrelated to prayers, such as monetary issues, punishments assigned to individuals who transgressed the community bylaws, and relations with Christians," says Litt.

The large communities, such as that of Amsterdam, maintained several registries. The most important of them is the registry of the community elders, which includes protocols and decisions reached by the leadership. The original Dutch registry is found in the Amsterdam City Archive, but the National Library has copies of it. It is written in a mixture of Yiddish and Hebrew, with Dutch influences.

Litt was especially interested in links between the community and the Christian world and the authorities, and has compiled stories from the registry referring to lobbying and diplomacy efforts. "The Jews always sought proximity to the royal court," he says. "In advance of the visit, there are texts about negotiations with the court and with the municipality, which had to arrange security for the event. There is also a document referring to the concern that there would be too many people in the synagogue and it would be too hot."

The registry relates that the community prepared a series of Book of Psalms in honor of the Stadtholder. Some 500 copies in Hebrew were printed on ordinary paper, and 50 copies were printed in Hebrew and Dutch on paper with a lavish satin binding. These were intended for the heads of the community and the entourage of the royal family. Only two copies, for the Stadtholder and his wife, were printed on gleaming white satin.

Paper trail

Litt thought he might find a paper copy of the book. To his surprise, in the library's storerooms he found two of the 50 copies bound in cloth and the two cloth books. "I thought there was a chance that I would find one of the 500 books. I searched in the catalog prior to the year 1768 and based on the place of printing; I found two compositions. I asked the librarian for one copy and, based on the shape, I understood right away that it was one of the 50. I studied it, and asked the librarian what the second copy was. He said it was a very unusual book printed on cloth. That is how I realized we had one of the two copies."

The copy found by Litt is apparently the only one of the two that survived. There is no trace of the book in the only other library where the second copy of the book would be likely to exist - the library of the royal house of Holland.

Over time, the book was rebound with an ordinary binding of paper pages, one of which is singed along the edge, for unclear reasons. However, the cloth pages are gleaming and elegant even now, 250 years after they were printed. The first page is ornamented with the insignia of the royal house, as mentioned in the community registry - the symbol of the House of Orange alongside the Prussian eagle, and above them the words: "Hurrah and joy to the Jews, a voice of joy and thanks is raised in our holy house ... on the day that His Exalted Highness, our Lord the Officer, Chief Minister of the Armies came to this city with his wife, the scion of the royal house of Prussia, the Prince and Princess of Orange and Nassau." Appearing at the bottom of the page is a large credit to the printing house of Proops, the famous family of printers, which prepared the books.

Several seals can be found on the book that decode at least part of the mystery of how the book made its way to the library in Jerusalem. The blue seals note that the book came from the library of Dr. Joseph Chazanovich. The doctor, who died in Poland in 1919, was a physician, Zionist activist and enthusiastic collector of books. He was among the founders of the National Library in Jerusalem. His immense book collection became the first cornerstone of the library. How did the book make its way from the possession of the Stadtholder in Amsterdam (or his wife ) to Chazanovich in Poland? There is no answer to that question.

The second book, bound in cloth, arrived at the National Library as part of the collection of another collector, Sigmund Seeligmann of Amsterdam. This collection was confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, and following the war made its way to the National Library in Jerusalem. According to the catalogs, another one of the 50 satin-bound psalm books found its way to a library in Berlin, but it was evidently lost or burned during the war.

Appearing on one of the last pages of the clothbound book is a handwritten sentence, apparently in Dutch. The writer studiously erased the words, so much so that Litt is unable to decipher them. "Perhaps the Stadtholder wrote his wife something like: 'It is so boring here,'" he suggests.



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