Dutch Jews acquired full citizenship rights in 1796. Overnight the “Jewish Nation” as a legal corporation was transformed into a community of individual “Jewish Netherlanders.” In the nineteenth and twentieth century they had to secure a place for themselves in a society which sometimes welcomed them but which was nevertheless permeated with anti-Jewish sentiments and prejudices. Consequently, even fully integrated, “modern” Jews retained an ambivalent relationship with mainstream Dutch-Christian culture. Until 1940 the majority of the Jews lived in Amsterdam, with smaller concentrations in other cities. There were also numerous Jewish communities in smaller towns and villages throughout the country—the so-called Mediene. In 1941 the total Jewish (non-refugee) population was 131,543, of whom only twenty-five percent survived World War II. The war thus constitutes a cultural and demographic caesura in the history of Dutch Jewry. It was not until the very late 1960s and after a further steep decline caused by migration that the Jewish community was restored to such an extent as to constitute an extended social and cultural network for either women or men.
Until 1994 the idea of a separate history for Jewish women in the Netherlands had never been contemplated. Women seem to have been historically forgotten, without ever having achieved an identifiable position for themselves as Jews within Dutch society. Within the last decade, attention began to be paid to this oversight. Many well-known women writers, political activists and feminists prove to have been Jewish, while new interest has arisen in Jewish women’s organizations. The women writers are suddenly perceived by the general public as Jewish women writers, although the description may be truly applicable only to those who presented themselves as such or who wrote, as Jews, about the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet the Netherlands is the country of Anne Frank, the girl who became the model of the victim in dozens of languages. Perhaps she received so much attention that little remained for other Jewish girls and women, at least, not as Jewish women.
After World War II both politicians and historians hesitated to designate Jews as a separate group. Such a designation seemed unthinkable and inappropriate. It was important that Jews be perceived as ordinary Dutch people. During and after the German occupation, this view became the dominant ideology. But even earlier, the debate about separate status had been a theme within political movements, with desire for total integration setting the tone. Various writers sought in their writings to deny the differences between Dutch citizens, but history was against them. This led to a climax in the late 1930s, when Jews, as a result of the rise of Fascism, inevitably became more visible. Organizations in which Jews occupied leading positions began to regard the Jewishness of these members as a general problem, but one that could not be discussed openly. There was a great fear of being seen as a “Jewish organization,” a fear which was simultaneously denied, at least in progressive political circles that did not admit differences between population groups.
To understand the full complexity of the Dutch post-war silence we must look at historical facts that are little known outside the country itself. The statistics of the Holocaust in the Netherlands are shocking: the proportion of Jews murdered, seventy-five percent, is unequalled anywhere outside Eastern Europe. The explanation for this is still the subject of debate. According to the collective national memory, the Dutch were always on “the right side” and resisted the deportation of Jews. To support this impression, the fundamentally tolerant character of the population has been emphasized again and again, the Jews being presented as fully integrated and thus fellow citizens. Since the 1980s, however, this view has been questioned and it has become possible to investigate the separate position occupied by Jews, and thus also by Jewish women, in Dutch history.
One result of the Holocaust was stagnation in the Jewish cultural tradition, leaving the field open for inaccurate nostalgia and distortion. The Jewish woman survived in popular memory only in caricatures as the Jewish mother or the sentimental drudge of the old Jewish neighborhoods. These and other images do not, of course, let us see the real women they seemingly celebrate. In eye-witness reports and contemporary literary observations, on the other hand, Jewish women come across as uninhibited, sexual and slovenly, reflecting general prejudice and the extreme poverty of the Jewish proletariat. With the disappearance of the Jewish legacy, it was impossible to correct these impressions without new research. Although it was accepted that they did not reflect the life of real Jewish women, nothing was done to change matters.
There is every reason to assume that the assimilation of Jews in the Netherlands followed the pattern described by Paula Hyman in her chapters on Western Europe in Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (1995). Jewish men received the right to full citizenship in the Batavian Revolution in 1796. As elsewhere, the Modernists believed in full equality and embraced the liberal ideas of their time concerning politics and domestic virtue. In a world of change we can trace the emergence of a modernized vision of Jewish family life. The idea of the haven and privacy of the Jewish home, and in particular the myth of the special quality of Jewish motherhood, were rearticulated within the discursive framework of the newly acquired “liberal” middle-class values. In this new family life, women were called upon to play a more significant role than they had hitherto been assigned. Assimilation thus introduced new patterns of behavior for women, and expectations regarding “the Jewish woman” also changed within the Jewish community itself. This affected the education of Jewish girls, their role in philanthropic institutions and their own life expectations. But new boundaries also developed. Women were not admitted into the world of men, and Jews were not fully admitted into the gentile world.
The upward social mobility that became increasingly general amongst Jews resulted in a new position for women. These changes also influenced patterns within the large group of the Jewish working class. There too, if only in the twentieth century, the privacy of the nuclear family became more important. The idea of “the home” acquired a new meaning, even among the poor who lagged behind in other areas of social development. It should also be remembered that in the Netherlands the emancipation of women in general was played out against a background which differed in three important respects from that which governed the traditional roles and emancipation of women (and often of Jewish women) in other Western European countries.
First, until as late as 1987–88, Dutch women (especially married women) were marked by a lower level of participation in the labor market than elsewhere. On average, less than twenty percent of the female population was gainfully employed. This had major consequences for the value placed upon women’s labor and ensured that facilities for working mothers were totally inadequate. For Jewish women to adapt to the dominant Dutch pattern of femininity, they too had to be housewives. In proletarian Jewish circles, however, women often continued to work, a practice regarded as natural and desirable even after marriage (although confined to a limited number of sectors). Even in more middle class milieus such as petty retailing and shopkeeping, it was assumed that women would help their husbands. Only when people were rich could they afford to allow themselves genteel indulgences. Not surprisingly, then, women did not aspire to stop working. On the contrary, they found it entirely respectable to provide their families with a little extra comfort. This gave them a different moral position from that prescribed by the dominant ideology. Even socialists and progressive liberals felt that a woman should work only out of necessity. The interviewees in We Lived with Dignity, The Jewish Proletariat of Amsterdam (1994) repeatedly insisted that one must learn a trade. Those who chose to become homemakers (the “respectable” option) became, in the words of one mother, the slaves of their husbands and family. The message of mothers to their daughters was that there was no dignity in staying at home.
Secondly, the Netherlands was a so-called “pillarized” society, in which each religious-ideological grouping had its own social, cultural and political network. There were separate Protestant and Catholic pillars, in both of which the ideal of motherhood and the undesirability of female labor were accepted values. This attitude was expressed both in political decision-making, such as labor legislation, and in social policy, such as repeated attempts to restrict female employment. Jews did not of course belong to the Catholic or Protestant pillars, but even outside them the social field was dominated by the majority’s shared image of women. Necessity was the only socially acceptable reason for going out to work, which made the assimilation of working Jewish women problematic, since they worked as a result of a traditional pattern, not always out of necessity.
Finally, in so far as Jewish women did work, they took jobs within the “Jewish labor market.” This was clearly evident, certainly in the proletarian milieu and in business. Jews worked in the diamond industry, in the textile and clothing industries, and above all in retail trade. In good times, women worked in the tobacco trade (although this was usually the preserve of the men) and towards the end of the period, Jewish men worked in the shoe industry. Working in these sectors was seen as part of the Jewish sphere of life.
Feminism, socialism and the trade union movement can be seen as routes through which Jewish women explored their new role and gave form to new patterns of assimilation. This did not occur through separate Jewish organizations, but rather by joining “general” social movements.
The first of these movements, feminism, began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century. Initially Jewish women from the prosperous bourgeoisie involved themselves in philanthropic work predominantly through Jewish institutions, but from the 1870s such women could find an outlet in the suffrage movement. The nature of the movement, which explicitly raised the question of traditional women’s roles and challenged patriarchy, which is at the heart of Jewish culture, made the break with Jewish culture appear all the greater. Non-Jewish terminology was employed, and while Jews did not speak Yiddish, they had preserved their own idiom. The later socialist movement merged this idiom with its own terminology. Thus Jewish women who took the path of women’s emancipation seemed more assimilated than the socialists. Their political orientation was usually progressive liberal. Yet a closer historical examination of feminists and their trajectories shows that many of them were interested in “Jewish” themes, were influenced by their Jewish background, and followed a course which remained strongly linked to their Jewish tradition and culture.
The best known of them, Aletta Jacobs, became the first female student in the Netherlands, thanks to the progressive Jewish network which had developed at the University of Groningen. She opted for her father’s profession, medicine, which made it possible to argue that if a Jewish woman were to study, she could stay in the Jewish world by choosing medicine. For her, as for others like her in Europe, feminism, and above all the struggle for women’s suffrage, was a way to live up to a new image of an assimilated Jewish woman. In her memoirs, she explicitly calls herself a “citizen of the world.” This is usually interpreted as a conscious laying aside of her Jewishness. Yet in her letters (for example to her friend Rosika Schwimmer, the well-known Hungarian feminist) she exhibits a special interest in Jewish women, and her universalist stance can equally be seen as that of a woman who knew very well that she would always be perceived as a Jew. It is also an almost obvious position for a member of a minority group to take. Thus the conventional view of Aletta Jacobs as assimilated might simply be an expression of that collective amnesia which ignored the existence of a visible and separate Jewish culture and was unable to decode Jacobs’ universalism as a modernist transfiguration of Jewish identity.
For the Jews, the longing for social equality ran parallel with women’s longing for political equality. The one was a striving vis-à-vis the gentile world, the other a striving vis-à-vis the world of men. Jewish women were engaged in both worlds. The image of “the Jewish woman” was therefore disputed terrain, a struggle between two extremes, with large gray areas between.
The visibility of their Jewish origins was a factor for other well-known feminists, who found meaningful roles in the movement. In the case of Rosa Manus, this was especially so in the 1930s. Another example is Anna Polak, at one time director of the National Bureau for Women’s Labor. Their feminism was grafted on to specific aspects of Jewish culture such as paid labor, education and social conscience. For women like these, family life was not enough.
Like many other Jewish women, Aletta Jacobs and Rosa Manus were passionate pacifists. The Jewish press reported extensively on the threat of war and on what was happening to Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. For the intelligentsia at least, German was the first foreign language and Dutch Jewry was therefore well informed about the link between war, social unrest and the possible persecution of Jews. The subject was much discussed in Jewish circles and certainly within the immediate family. For Rosa Manus and many other Jewish women, it became important to support refugees from Fascism. In the pacifist movement too, Jewish women primarily attached themselves to non-Jewish organizations.
The large Jewish working class, which in the Netherlands, unlike other countries, was not an immigrant community but indigenous, did not organize itself in separate Jewish trade unions. The same later applied to the entire political field, where Jews took part in secular social movements. The core of their political organization derived from the special position of Jews in the thriving diamond industry, where they were in the majority. This made it almost inevitable that the General Dutch Diamond Workers Union (ANDB), founded in 1894, was the joint creation of Jews and their non-Jewish colleagues. The union also accepted women employed in the diamond industry as members. This pattern was adopted elsewhere, with Jews and non-Jews organizing together rather than separately. In so far as there were distinct Jewish bodies, these tended to be traditionalist, culturally conservative and aimed at preserving the cultural homogeneity of the Jewish community. They usually carried a religious stamp, like Betsalel in the diamond industry. Apart from the Dutch National Council of Jewish Women in the 1930s, which briefly grew in response to the rise of Nazism, separate Jewish organizations remained marginal.
Women, however, did organize themselves separately from men. Alongside the general union for diamond workers, there was a separate organization (dating from 1888) for Roosjessnijdsters (the highly-skilled female cutters of “old-mine” diamonds), the impulse for establishing which stemmed from the extremely poor labor relations in the home industry system that prevailed in this sector of the industry, where working from home was the norm. In the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), founded in 1894, women (including Jewish women) organized themselves apart from the men. In the textile and clothing industries, where dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish women worked together in huge workshops, women were organized separately alongside the men’s union. In these sectors, in which many Jewish women earned their living, we also find some important female Jewish leaders. The best-known of these are Roosje Vos, an orphan who became a home-based seamstress, Sanie Prijes (1876–1933), who later became known for describing Jewish domestic life under the pseudonym Sanie van Bussum, and Alida de Jong (1885–1943). Roosje Vos in particular, one of the founders of the seamstresses union Allen Een (All United), is a true legend, not only for her incredible ability to defend the seamstresses, but also for her articles in the union newspaper De Naaistersbode (The Seamstresses’ Messenger) and as the writer of short plays. She also gained prominence through her role in the National Exhibition of Women’s Labor (1898), whose class-biased character she challenged by confronting the women with the reality of exploitation in the sweatshops. Roosje Vos, Sanie Prijes and Alida de Jong were all self-made women who learned to use their pens for union goals. Although it is repeatedly suggested that when women opted for socialism, they broke with their Jewish origins and traditions, there is in fact good reason to assume that the participation of Jewish women in such general organizations was not seen as a rupture with Jewish tradition. Rather, this tradition was being advanced in another form, where alignment with more general organizations was appropriate. Socialism and trade unions, with their strong ideal of justice, belonged to the Jewish sphere of life, including that of Orthodox Jews. For the latter, too, separate organizations for Jews were not an option.
After World War I the Jewish population suffered poverty on a large scale due to the decline of Jewish sectors of industry, which were particularly sensitive to economic fluctuations. That this poverty stemmed from informal divisions in the labor market was not generally perceived. One who did recognize this fact was Anna Polak, who reacted to what she saw as the main cause of unemployment amongst Jewish girls—namely, that they were refusing to accept alternative forms of manual labor. She opined that unemployed diamond and textile workers should not feel themselves above working in sectors alien to Jews, such as agriculture. After all, the only position to which they could not aspire was that of a minister in a Christian church. In some ways Polak’s argument derived from Enlightenment debates about reshaping Jews’ participation in the economy was also akin to Zionism, which openly advocated manual labor for both sexes. However, Zionists in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, comprised a small radical group (including a small number of women) which did not succeed in attracting large numbers until after the Holocaust. Anna Polak continued to see work as the source of all happiness throughout her life and continued to fight for new opportunities for women in the work force. In the process, she clashed with the government, dominated as it was by Christian parties that were trying to restrict work for married women. It has been suggested that antisemitic pressure aimed at this prominent campaigner may have contributed to the psychological crisis at the end of her life. This led to her being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, from which she was deported directly to Auschwitz.
One can argue that all these feminists may be seen as extreme examples of a liminal exploration of the boundaries of Jewish femininity. They remained within the tradition that women should work, but tried to live in a gentile world. “You don’t know how terrible it is to be born a Jew,” said Rosa Manus in tears to a feminist friend with whom she had just been to the theater in London. The play had referred to “The Jewish Question,” and she had been deeply upset by it. Being Jewish was so often distressing because one was constantly being confronted by one’s Jewishness even when one functioned in a non-Jewish context.
The Dutch Women’s Council evolved out of the National Exhibition of Women’s Labor (1898) and affiliated itself with the International Council of Women (founded in 1888). The Dutch section had a dominant Christian orientation but was also supported by Jewish women. Although there was criticism of the exclusive character both of the International Council and of its Dutch branch, their orientation did not change. From the outset there were internal tensions between the Jewish women and a number of non-Jewish women over the Sabbath, which even assimilated Jewish women wished to preserve for their domestic lives.
As in many other countries, Jewish women founded their own organization. Following the establishment of the American National Council of Jewish Women in 1929, a number of local groups combined to form the Dutch National Council of Jewish Women. Its magazine Ha’ischa was published until 1940. One of the explicit aims of the Jewish Women’s Council was to preserve knowledge of the past and present of Dutch Jewry. Another aim was to support the work of establishing a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. The Council was intended to be open to all social and political persuasions, but it was chiefly concerned with preserving Jewish cultural cohesion. This led it towards Zionism, to which it grew closer than many other Jewish organizations. However, real sympathy for Zionism was confined to a part of the radical leadership. The rank and file were less enthusiastic and, after repeated debate, the Council decided to focus on promoting the interests of Jewish working women. During the 1930s the pro-Zionist voice gradually declined and the Council became known for its work in aiding refugees, to which almost all its attention was turned after 1933. From this time the Jewish Women’s Council was represented in the National Women’s Committee for Refugees and worked alongside other feminist organizations, while also being affiliated with most general women’s umbrella organizations. Their best-known leader was Adolphine Schwimmer Vigiveno.
The Jewish Women’s Council was involved in social work and in projects such as the “cheap cooking scheme,” a response to the 1935 economic crisis. It thereby continued the Jewish tradition of good works. Jewish women had always expressed their allegiance to the traditional duty of zedakah through countless charitable institutions, in which they began to play leading roles from the middle of the nineteenth century. A comprehensive list of these institutions compiled for the German authorities during the Occupation reveals just how far their interests extended. They covered not only women’s projects, such as girls’ orphanages and the provision of diapers to poor mothers, but also more general forms of charity. The Jewish Women’s Council was re-established after 1945, but merged with to the Dutch branch of WIZO in 1949. The Jewish community had become too small to constitute a goal in itself and Israel offered hope and a positive identification.
Jewish women became prominent in various areas of social and cultural life. Emmy J. Belinfante (1875–1944), for example, was one of the best-known women journalists of her day. Before the German occupation there were many successful Jewish women writers. A good example is Carry van Bruggen (born Caroline Lea de Haan), who wrote more than twenty novels and novellas, four under the pseudonym Justine Abbing. In Het huisje aan de sloot (The Cottage by the Creek, 1921), she describes the wretched state of Jewish life in the so-called Mediene (Dutch Jewry outside the main urban centers like Amsterdam) and the hostility of non-Jews towards people they saw as foreigners. She did not endorse the idea of equal rights for both sexes and was explicitly not a feminist. In her view, at stake were the psychological and emotional autonomy of the individual. She therefore explored the boundaries of her own existence and the fate of others in philosophical and literary works. Between the wars this more individualistic approach was adopted by other Jewish women.
A good example can be found in the work of Etty Hillesum who (like Anne Frank, but later in time) became known through her description of events leading up to the Holocaust. The work of both women, both of whom used the diary form, now belongs to world literature. Both have been published to an unprecedented extent and are read primarily for their reflections on the horror they saw unfolding around them. Whether they are read simply because they were young female victims of evil remains an open question. Neither offers any political analysis of antisemitism or fascism.
Much more has been written about the gendered experiences of Jewish women in hiding and in the camps. In the Netherlands, Marga Minco is one of the most widely read women writers, who in Het Bittere Kruid (The Bitter Herb) gave literary expression to the emptiness felt on return from the camps. For many years, the book was compulsory reading in the Netherlands after a special campaign in 1957 had seen it widely distributed. The Bitter Herb deals with the grief and loneliness of those who watched events unfolding. Jewish citizens walk through streets from which other Jews have been deported. The streets are bleak and lonely. The gaps can never be filled. This same feeling, in a more religious context, is expressed by Clara Asscher Pinkhof, the wife of a rabbi. In Sterrenkinderen (Star Children) she describes the poor children whom she had known, with whom she had worked and whom, above all, had loved. There are also numerous documentary films on these themes.
The massive scale of the deportations constituted a major demographic break. All Jewish life was disrupted, including the cultural life of Jewish women. It was a long time before the voices of Jewish women were heard again. And yet paradoxically it was only after the war that the real breakthrough of Jewish women into Dutch cultural life came, when the tiny surviving Jewish community integrated into Dutch society in a unique way.
The war and migration to Israel decimated Dutch Jewry. The few remaining Jewish women adopted patterns that ranged from fundamental adaptation to general Dutch society to total integration with it. The number of mixed marriages increased, continuing a trend that was already emerging before the war. Being a Jew and Jewishness took on a wide variety of forms; an apparently assimilated life-style does not have to mean the end of Jewish identity. This is partly because the Holocaust plays such a defining role. Nobody can avoid the shocking statistics and in many cases this has led to great moral awareness. Jewish involvement in the social movements that arose in the late 1960s was strikingly high.
In the later phase of the second wave of feminism successful women in politics explicitly stressed their Jewish background and the additional meaning this had acquired as a result of the Holocaust, which has proved an enduring source of inspiration. It lies concealed at the heart of the work of Jewish women writers like Andreas Burnier (b. 1931) or, more openly, in the work of others such as Judith Herzberg, who linked the theme to her enthusiasm for Zionism.
Another extension of the new social movements saw women organizing themselves within the Jewish religious community and striving with mixed success for greater female participation in the running of synagogues. They also sought a greater role in religious practice, demanding a female hazan and the right to be called to the Torah. Tension exists between the Orthodox and Liberal ideals, but even in Orthodox circles the female voice is increasingly heard.
Jewish women have also revived an old pattern in social work and the public sphere. They are again visible on the committees and in the everyday work of Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. Even more interesting is the fact, revealed by demographic research, that Jewish women continue to exhibit a divergent pattern from other Dutch women: a greater proportion are engaged in paid work, on average they have higher status professions, and more of them hold a university degree. Their average educational attainments are only slightly lower than those of Jewish men. Jewish women also marry later than their non-Jewish compatriots.
In short, although the Holocaust has had many consequences for Jewish women and the way they are seen in the Netherlands, long-term trends suggest that it constituted less of a rupture than might be expected. Gradual integration into Dutch society has proceeded and is constantly expressing itself in new forms. In some periods Jewish women have been more visible than in others and have spoken more openly about their background.
There have long been hope and expectation that equality would come but, also there have been places and times when such an outcome no longer seemed possible. Change, when it has come, has been expressed through the different and variable forms which equality has taken and, on an individual level, in changing attitudes to one’s own Jewish background. The Holocaust has not only been the most important rupture in this respect, but also the root of the obstacles women have faced in developing female Jewish identities in a land visited by so great a catastrophe.
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van Bussum, Sani (writing as Sientje Schmidt-Prijes): Een bewogen vrijdag op de Breestraat: Een vertelling uit de tweede helft der 19e eeuw. Amsterdam: 1930; Het Joodsche bruidje: een zedenschets uit onzer dagen. Amsterdam: 1933; De lamp van de meester. Zeist: 1927.
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Minco, Marga: De glazen brug. Amsterdam: 1986; De val. Amsterdam: 1983; De zon is maar een zeepbel. Amsterdam: 1990; De andere kant. Amsterdam: 1990; Het bittere kruid. Amsterdam: 1967 (translated and published as Bitter Herbs, London: 1991); Het huis hiernaast. Amsterdam: 1965; Je mag van geluk spreken. Utrecht: 1975; Een leeg huis. Den Haag: 1974; Onder onze ogen. Amsterdam: 1995; Nagelaten dagen. Amsterdam: 1997.
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Ha’Ischa 1929–1940. Contains several articles by Anna Polak.
De Naaistersbode 1899–1901.
How to cite this page
Leydesdorff, Selma. "Modern Netherlands." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/netherlands-modern>.