Explore the story of Amsterdam through the amazing history of its streets.
Heading south from the Nieuwmarkt to the Mr Visserplein, the St Antoniesbreestraat (St Antonie’s Broad Street) is recognisable by its garish colours and cubist buildings, standing in stark contrast to the medieval square it adjoins. Despite the seemingly modern exterior, however, the street has had a tumultuous history as the centre of Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter, ranging from the dizzying heights of the Golden Age to the unspeakable horror and violence of Nazi occupation.
St. Antoniesbreestraat was originally a dyke and border of the city until 16th century expansion when it became a residential street. Throughout the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), the United Provinces of the Netherlands fought a war of independence against the Spanish Habsburg Empire. When Antwerp fell to the Spanish in 1585, non-Catholics who refused to convert were forced to leave the city. As a result, many Protestant skilled labourers and artisans fled north and came to Amsterdam, sparking the city’s Golden Age.
With them, however, came others who had already escaped persecution from the Spanish, including Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. Many of these people settled in the area around St Antoniesbreestraat and by the mid seventeenth century, the southern part of the street came to be known as Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Broad Street). The Sephardic Jews were rich, influential and staunchly supportive of the House of Orange. Eventually, they were allowed to practice their religion openly, with the beautiful Portuguese Synagogue (Mr Visserplein 3) built in 1675 and still standing as a testament to those times.
Despite being the centre of the Jewish quarter in a Protestant city, the street was not a ghetto and was never exclusively Jewish. Perhaps its most famous resident was Rembrandt van Rijn, who lived there between 1639 and 1658. Able to afford a grand new home after being commissioned to paint The Night Watch, Rembrandt bought the house on Jodenbreestraat 4. There he found inspiration from the Jewish people who lived in the area around his home, using them as models for his religious scenes. His house is today preserved as a museum, Het Rembrandthuis, providing a highly underrated look into the life and times of the iconic Dutch master.
In the latter half of the seventeenth century, a second wave of Jewish immigration arrived in Amsterdam from Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazi. They were poorer than the Sephardic Jews and were allowed into the city because of financial aid promised by the Sephardic community. The Ashkenazi primarily spoke Yiddish and their influence can be seen in Amsterdam’s nickname “Mokum”; a Yiddish word meaning “the place”. Amsterdam was thought to be “the place” for Jewish people in Europe, the Jerusalem of the West.
By the time the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Jewish population is estimated to have grown to about 80,000 people. During the occupation the Breestraat and the Jewish quarter became the site of skirmishes between Dutch Nazi groups and the Jewish residents. On February 22 and 23, 1941, the area was sealed off by barbed wire and razor wire fences, non-Jews were forbidden to enter and 425 Jewish people were arrested and sent to Westerbork for deportation. In response, the socialist and communist parties organised a general strike demanding the release of the Jews. The strike was brutally put down after 2 days, but is known today as the Febuary Strike and commemorated by the Dock Worker statue on Mr Visserplein.
By the end of the Second World War, the Breestraat was a ghost town, with most of the city’s Jewish population having been deported. The final winter of the war, known as the Hunger Winter, was extremely cold. With the city cut off from its supply lines, desperate and starving Amsterdammers turned on the houses in the Jewish neighbourhood in their search for fuel to stay warm. Entire houses were dismantled in this scramble for wood and by the end of the war the street had been destroyed.
After the war, the abandoned houses and decrepit ruins of the Breestraat were torn down by the city government in the pursuit of modernisation. Plans were drawn up to demolish the remaining buildings and turn St Antoniesbreestraat into a highway which would run to Centraal Station, as well as the creation of a new metro line. These plans, however, were met by fierce protests, riots and large-scale community pressure. A community group was created to save the house of a Sephardic Jewish family, the Pintohuis from 1680 (St Antoniesbreestraat 69). These pressures resulted in the abandonment of the highway plans and the Pintohuis is now a public library.
Today, a walk down the Breestraat offers the chance to submerge oneself in a truly local Amsterdam area with cafes, bars and specialty shops in abundance. The famous Waterlooplein market is also in very close vicinity.
It is a street that has experienced firsthand the highs and lows which have marked the turbulent history of this city. So when you walk past the many shades of yellow on the newer buildings on the street, remember that it was here that Mokum first truly came to life.
Julian Smith, Professional Amsterdam Tour Guide &
Local originally hailing from Canberra, Australia