To this day, the Dutch have been unable to achieve closure concerning how the Germans were able to kill, with such relative ease, between seventy and eighty per cent of the country’s 140,500 Jews during their Second World War Occupation of the Netherlands. This proportion was by far the highest in western Europe. Many varied and complex subsidiary questions involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders and survivors still remain unexplored. Moreover, very little published research, if any, in the historiography of the persecution, has so far investigated how the urban design of a particular local neighbourhood might perhaps have contributed to theannihilation of its Jews.
Much attention has rightly focussed on the more than sixty per cent of the country’s Jews who lived in Amsterdam, However, inherent elements of the built environment, capable of analysis by the application of interdisciplinary approaches, have been largely disregarded as potentially significant factors in this field that might otherwise contribute to the wider debate.
A pertinent example of such an area is the Rivierenbuurt (Rivers District), a tranquil suburb a few kilometres to the south of the historic centre of Amsterdam, erected in the 1920s and 1930s and occupying only 140 hectares, a negligible 0.003 per cent of the landmass of the entire Netherlands.
A walk through the Rivierenbuurt in 2020 barely discloses connections with its tragic past. This is unexpected, when it is understood that 13,000 individuals, out of its Jewish population of 17,000, were removed by the Germans and murdered in the death camps of eastern Europe. While Jews from many other parts of Amsterdam, and elsewhere in the country, also lost their lives in this way, the Rivierenbuurt stands out because its Jewish population represented one in nine (19.5 per cent) of the Dutch Jews.
Certainly, the Germans were well aware of the Rivierenbuurt’s disproportionately large Jewish population from the outset of the Occupation. This awareness took on a greater relevance after February 1941, when a ghettowas imposed in the Jodenhoek (‘Jewish Corner’), the traditional centre of Jewish settlement of Amsterdam. While this ghetto had been based on the principles of eastern European paradigms, it proved to be untenable because the Germans could not seal in its Jewish population, due to the high proportion of non-Jews living there who needed to continue to interact with the rest of the city.
Thus, by the middle of 1941, the Germans alighted upon an alternative approach that could help achieve their aim by harnessing existing local conditions as they pertained specifically to Amsterdam. Henceforth, three discrete Jodenwijken (‘Jewish Districts’), took the place of the ghetto, of which the Rivierenbuurt was by far the largest.
The Germans called this model of containment a ‘lockeres Ghetto’ (slack ghetto), an unenclosed district that allowed resident non-Jews, and Jews, to continue to live alongside each other. In consequence, the physical barriers of the ghetto were rendered superfluous, thereby allowing the Rivierenbuurt to remain open and accessible. Instead, the activities and movements of Jews were controlled by means of an extraordinarily wide range of persecutory measures, of which personal registration, restricted employment, travel permits and the wearing of the ‘Jewish Star’ for identification purposes were but a few.
If the Germans did not explicitly recognize the advantages of the spatial conditions that already existed in the Rivierenbuurt before the mass deportations of the Jews began in July 1942, they soon exploited their benefits. Able to round up their Jewish victims in efficient operations with minimal resources, they could send them rapidly to local assembly points and for onward transportation to almost certain death in the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór. This was achieved, in the first instance, by being able to deploy police during razzias (raids for rounding up Jews) along the grand avenues of the Rivierenbuurt, the design of which was clearly derived from authoritarian precedents, as seen in Paris, St. Petersburg or Imperial Rome (see photo below). Secondly, the boundaries of the Rivierenbuurt delineated by the River Amstel and canals were capable of being cut off from the surrounding city by raising the bridges, as occurred, for example, without warning, in a major dawn razzia on 20 June 1943. Thirdly, the regimented grid-like planning of the secondary side streets created a net during razzias, the mesh of which could be enlarged or reduced in size as required to isolate specific localities where Jews lived.
In other circumstances, inherent flaws in the progressive architectural design would also have been taken for granted by their designers and residents, yet were capable of disclosing further opportunities for the Germans. This came about because four and five storey residential blocks with long frontages, designed for sustaining intensive housing densities, extended from one street corner to another. Each of these contained tightly packed clusters of spacious apartments in which large numbers of people were billeted when the Germans forced Jews from all parts of the country to move to the Rivierenbuurt, which, in effect, rendered it a large detention camp in all but name, pending their future deportation to the camps. Furthermore, awkward and narrow, steep staircases, accessed by open, communal entrance archways, led from the street to upper floors without alternative escape routes. Panicked Jews were trapped and could not escape being caught (see photo below).
The buildings, streets and waterways of the Rivierenbuurt might have appeared well-ordered and beneficial for the well-being of their residents in peacetime. However, despite the local death rate being similar to the rest of the country, it is evident that the existing built environment of the district could be readily subverted by the Germans for more efficient means of conducting their persecution of its Jews. In the end, when theRivierenbuurt was finally liberated on the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, almost no Jews survived, apart from the very few that had managed to hide.
David Kann is a PhD researcher in the History Department at the University of Sheffield, focussing on Het Joodsche Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly) as an instrument of persecution in the Nazi Occupied Netherlands. David is a retired architect by profession and in 2017 completed a Master’s by Research thesis at Royal Holloway College, University of London
Cover Image: Anne Frank memorial at Merwedeplein: the Rivierenbuurt’s most famous resident lived at no. 37 (on right) until she and her family went into hiding in the centre of the city. Source: David Kann, 15 September 2016