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Hidden in a quiet street in the heart of the city of Middelburg on the island of Walcheren is an extraordinary building. If you wouldn’t know of its existence, you’d walk right past it. Only a small wicket-door with some Hebrew lettering reveals an entrance and a promise. The old synagogue is unique in Zeeland and was built in 1705. In that time the building permission was considered a great tolerance, albeit on the condition that it was out of view of any passing God-fearing Christian Middelburgers. That was the beginning of a conventicle, a ‘frowned-upon house of prayer’, in the small walled garden of the Jewish merchant Benjamin Levi. The serene looking synagogue comes with a nearly silenced history.
In 1942 the synagogue was occupied by the Germans and used as storage for confiscated radios and other goods. And in 1944 it was seriously damaged by British shell fragments during the liberation of Middelburg. Everything was smashed, in line with what was going on in Europe. Most Jewish people were gone. A ruin was born. In the years after the Second World War, only the crumbling walls of the synagogue remained, the site soon overgrown. The two yew trees watched on.
After many years of post-war reconstruction, the city of Middelburg was restored to its former glory. Today, walking around the authentic city, the ruins of yesteryear are hard to imagine.
But there was much discussion among the city and province councils about the monumental and symbolic value of the building for the almost wiped-out Jewish community. Thanks to the initiative and perseverance of, among others, Aad Vos, a non-Jewish resident of Middelburg, the restoration did occur and in 1994, fifty years after its destruction, the Jewish people of Zeeland finally had regained their anchor.
We cast our gentile gaze at the airy room with its large windows. Despite the rain, there is a sea of light. Lea Rots shows us around, herself a member of this Orthodox community. She explains the meaning of each object; she talks about Jewish traditions and faith and she points us to the two different candleholders: the seven-armed menorah that will never be burnt again and the eight-armed hanukkiah. She talks about the annual cycle of Torah readings and the Jewish way of life; how a house where the dietary laws and prayers are observed can be an extension of the synagogue; about the different roles of women and men; and how the mother is the determining factor in being Jewish. We learn new words and their meanings, such as minyan (quorum of ten adult men needed for certain prayers and also for a synagogue service), bima (table on which the Torah scrolls are placed during reading), and chazan (cantor).
Finally, we look at the doors of the aron hakodesh, the sacred ark of the synagogue, made by artist Appie Drielsma, in which the Torah scrolls are kept. The bronze doors are richly decorated and symbolise facets of Judaism, such as the twelve tribes, and refer to the blazons of Middelburg, Jerusalem, the Jewish community, the Star of David and the historical candleholders. These symbols are also reflected in the fence Drielsma designed for the Sephardic of the two Jewish cemeteries in Middelburg.
The same street door leads us away from the quiet oasis, and before we know it, we are back in the busy tourist centre. A little dazed, still absorbed by the place behind us, a little richer by having been passers-by in this historic building.
If you want to know more about the Jewish history of Zeeland and Middelburg, then start at https://www.synagogemiddelburg.nl or http://www.joodszeeland.nl