It’s only a ten-minute walk from my house to the beautiful synagogue on Samuel Hirschstraat, a majestic brick structure from the late nineteenth century, designed to house a much larger community than the thirty Jews remaining in Zwolle. On Saturday morning, the door is locked for safety concerns, but when I ring the bell (not the intercom buzzer, which is electric and thus forbidden on the sabbath), I am warmly welcomed. The left side of the prayer book may be in Dutch instead of the English I am used to, but on the right side are the same Hebrew prayers, frequently sung to tunes familiar to me from home. It’s a bit of a surprise to start with adon olam — the concluding prayer that can be adapted to almost any melody, from This land is your land to Hamilton’s You’ll be back — and also very comforting: we may be in Zwolle, but this is definitely shul. Or, rather, sjoel.
Because it is winter, when attendance is so low and heating is so expensive, we meet in the small chapel. In sephardic style, the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) is in the center, with pews facing each other (men on the left, women on the right). It is a warm and friendly group; as each male congregant enters, he comes around to shake hands with first the women and then the men. Following the service, we go upstairs to a dining room, where the wine is blessed and we share tea, coffee, delicious homemade coffee cake, and oranges.
Jewish people first came to Zwolle at the beginning of the 14th century, but in August of 1349, all Jews of the city were burned, to “honor” God, it was alleged, and call down God’s mercy on a community decimated by the Plague. At a time when we are struggling with a powerful and mysterious pandemic, this history is a startling and brutal reminder that our own fears can be as deadly as illness. Jews returned to Zwolle in the 18th century, and established their first synagogue in the Librije — the former library of the Domenican monastery, by the water’s edge; by 1899, the Jewish community of over 700 needed a new building.
The Torah from which we read is a survivor, hidden in a nearby bank vault during the 5-year Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. But fewer than 250 of the Jewish people of Zwolle survived the war. On small brass pavers throughout the city, I see traces of my lost Jewish neighbors. The stolpelsteiners, or “stumbling stones,” each engraved with the statement, “Hier woonde” (here lived), followed by a name, birth and death dates, and the locations in which those events occurred. The stones mark the last spot where someone, later murdered by the Nazis, lived freely and by choice. The artist, Gunter Demnig, placed the first fifty memorial stones(commemorating Roma-Sinti people) in Berlin over 20 years ago; his goal was to replace the narrative of mass victimization with the reminder that each person dragged off, dehumanized, murdered, disappeared, was a unique individual, worthy of dignity.
There are now over 70,000 stumbling stones, or struikelstenen, as they are called in Dutch. For Demnig, the markers are an intrusion of memory into quotidian life, a reminder of the Talmud’s affirmation that “a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten.” The stumbling stones remind us that the millions who died were each a human being, someone who lived and loved; they tell us that on this spot, here in our neighborhood, birthdays were celebrated, deaths were mourned, family meals eaten, books read.
There are plans to install twenty stones here, later this month , and to continue until there is a memorial for every one who was murdered. Already, there are many more stumbling stones in Zwolle than living Jews in its synagogue. They are here on Terborchstraat, around the corner, in front of the cute little pizzeria with the wood-fired oven. There are at least 8 struikelstenen in the Melkmaarkt, the square where we go to buy cheese and bread and vegetables, tasty fried fish, and the occasional fresh stroopwaffel. No longer shiny, the brass markers are dirty and dull from the winter, poignant, silent witnesses, calling us — if we take a moment to look down — to remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.