Where Candle-Lighting Cast Its Harsh Shadows

It's erev Chanukah and the Bezemstraat playground, a large courtyard in the historic heart of Holland's The Hague, is empty of children. In its center stands an odd piece of artwork: a series of steel shapes resembling chairs of different sizes.

Come closer and you see that the first names of children are inscribed on each steel bar of the chairs. "One-thousand-seven-hundred Jewish children from the Hague didn't return from the war," an inscription reads. "Many of them played here and went to school. Let us not forget them."

I'm on my way to witness the lighting of the menorah at the Stadhuis, the town hall where the Jewish community of The Hague will be gathering on this evening to celebrate the festival of lights in a very public space.

But my path to the celebration is filled with ghosts of the past: They're the thousands of faces of Hague Jewry that "never returned" from the war — the euphemism used in this country because it's easier on the ears and conscience than the word "murder."

"Most of them perished in the Holocaust," explains Rabbi Shmuel Katzman, leader of the Orthodox congregation, the Nederlandse Israelische Gemeente.

The children for whom this monument was erected were rounded up at a corner of this very park, just steps from their Hebrew school and playground, while their parents were being assembled a few blocks away.

We know what happened next.

The Hague is a divided city, with a clear demarcation between rich and poor.

"The rich live close to the dunes near the ocean, while the poor live in the lowlands," says Remco Dorr, a Jewish tour guide and native.

We're in the stomping grounds of the Jewish poor, a shtetl once home to the Ashkenazi community, but more recently, reincarnated into Chinatown.

"There's not much left to see," he says, pointing to the stone-carved head of a ram situated above a doorway to a convenience store. "This was the Jewish butcher's store, and a few feet away was the head synagogue for the Ashkenazi community, where I had my Bar Mitzvah in 1972."

Not long afterward, the synagogue and its adjoining mikveh were sold. It just didn't make sense to keep the spacious house of prayer any longer, given that only 10 percent of the former Jewish population had returned after the Holocaust, and they had relocated elsewhere in the city.

At the Stadhuis, a handful of children are on the makeshift stage, singing songs for an audience of young and old, while a table is laid with jelly doughnuts and juice. Many Israelis are there — young families that have relocated to The Hague to pursue their careers. Arik Bitton, 40, is among them; he owns a kosher catering firm, food store and bakery in Amsterdam and here.

"I came for two years, and seven years later, I'm still here," says the father of four with a shrug. His wife, Pnina, was born here and grew up with a strong consciousness of the Holocaust. "My parents were hidden by the Dutch during the war, and we're still in touch with the families that saved their lives to this day," she explains.

But it's unlikely that her family will remain in the city for the long term, she adds: "Jewish life here is very assimilated with lots of intermarriage. For many Jews in The Hague, being Jewish is more like a hobby."

According to Katzman, only half of the 2,000 Jews are synagogue members. "But our high participation levels don't reflect our numbers" or activity, he says optimistically.

That activity is evident on a Friday night, when I join a communal meal in the Bezuidenhout area of the city, home to the kosher-food store and synagogue. After services, 60 people gather for dinner.

The main difference is the history their country has witnessed.

Explains Katzman: "There's a fair number of Holocaust survivors in this community. The consciousness of World War II is very tangible, and on every corner, there's reminders of the past and what it was like. Those who did return from the Holocaust courageously committed themselves to rebuilding Jewish life in bits and pieces." 



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