Although many cities across Europe had large Jewish populations in the early part of the 20th century, the lingering result of the Holocaust was a drastic reduction in their population. One city stands out from that trend: Antwerp, where Jews continue to live in one of Europe’s last remaining Jewish communities.
Welcome to one of the world’s last remaining shtetls
Shtetl, a Yiddish term for village or small town, is often applied to Antwerp’s Jewish district due to the city’s high concentration of Hassidic Jews.
Although the Flemish city’s some 15,000 Jewish residents are outnumbered by Brussels’ estimated 20,000, Antwerp is a much better place to get a flavour for Jewish life.
That’s mainly because while Jews in Brussels are spread out throughout the city, Jewish Antwerp is still largely concentrated in the streets surrounding the central train station.
More than 80 percent of Antwerp’s Jewish population work in the diamond industry. More than half of the world’s diamonds – rough, polished and industrial – pass through this Flemish town, though much of the big deals are done behind closed doors.
Fortunately, ordinary citizens can visit numerous retail shops all along Pelikaanstraat, which conveniently begins at the central station and goes on about six blocks. The diamond district is concentrated in a two-square mile area comprising some 1,500 companies and four diamond bourses.
Jewish residents who don’t work in the diamond industry mainly run family-owned shops or kosher eateries, are involved in education or religious institutions or are active in the fur, textile and leather industries.
To get a real appreciation for Jewish Antwerp you must first go back in time.
Antwerp’s Jewish heritage goes as far back as the 13th century, with the arrival of the ‘Ashkenazi’ Jews from central Europe. In addition, Jews expelled from France and England also arrived in Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The next big immigration wave occurred at the end of the 15th century, when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Although Emperor Charles V tried to have ‘Marrono’ Jews from Portugal banned from Antwerp, local authorities protected them because by then they had become essential to the financial development of Antwerp. Between 1650 and 1694 a secret synagogue conducted services in Antwerp.
When Belgium became independent in 1830 it officially recognised Judaism immediately. After 1880 Belgium’s Jewish population grew significantly with the arrival of many eastern European Jews and again in the 1930s with the arrival of German refugees.
Estimates of the number of Jews living in Antwerp at the outset of World War II vary widely, from anywhere between 25,000 and 55,000. Many of them, as in other Belgian cities, were hoping to escape to the United States.
Despite Belgium’s active resistance movement, and Belgian police officers’ reluctance to follow the Nazi order of putting yellow badges on all Jews, more than 25,000 Belgian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Today, Belgium’s total Jewish population is about 42,000, mainly concentrated in Brussels and Antwerp. Elsewhere in the country, there are smaller Jewish communities in Charleroi, Ghent, Liege, Mons, Arlon and Knokke.
When and where to go
The best day to see Antwerp’s Jewish district is on a Sunday, when all the shops are open for business but the rest of the country is closed. Typically Jewish shops and restaurants are open Monday through Thursday all day, a half day Friday and all day Sunday, and close Saturday.
You’ll hear a lot of Yiddish – it’s apparently not uncommon for diamond traders to congratulate each other with a Mazel u’bracha, luck and blessing — but shopkeepers also may speak Flemish, English, French or German.
Start at Pelikaanstraat, where all the jewellery shops are concentrated, and weave your way around the surrounding streets.
Here you will find kosher butcher shops, grocery stores, restaurants and all sorts of little family-run shops. It’s not unusual to see schoolchildren in uniform wandering around, or Hassidic Jews in traditional garb.
Everyone here seems to know one another, but this community spirit also seems to extend to outsiders who are visiting and show an interest in Jewish culture. Most shopkeepers seem to be more than happy to give you directions, or answer any queries about their neighbourhood and town, so don’t be shy.
Not surprisingly Antwerp is home to numerous synagogues, but the most famous is at Van den Nestlei 2, which boasts internationally renowned cantor Benjamin Muller.
For food, there are a couple of must-visit places.
Hoffy’s at Lange Kievitstraat 52 has been an Antwerp institution for 19 years. Run by three brothers, this is a bustling palace of delectable kosher food, all on display behind glass cases so you can pick and choose and have them assemble a plate, either to eat in the restaurant or take home in special vacuum-sealed plastic containers. Try the potato latkes, fish cakes and the stuffed peppers. The restaurant also has an à la carte menu.
The kosher grocery across the street at Kievitstraat 77, which doesn’t seem to have a name, is very clean and has a vast array of goods including several kinds of matzos and pita breads, several easy-to-use mixes to whip up latkes or falafels yourself, or even pre-made dishes such as kebabs and croquettes de falafel.
If it’s dessert you’re after, Steinmetz bakery at Lange Kievitstraat 64 is famous for its cheesecake and blueberry cake, both of which are available year-round. Owner David Steinmetz, whose father opened the bakery in 1967, says his place is one of Belgium’s only establishments to bake cakes according to traditional methods, on huge platters.
Lamalo Mediterranean Restaurant at Appelmanstraat 21 serves up an innovative menu of kosher-Mediterranean dishes typical of southern France like red mullet with smoked aubergine filet and fresh tomato herb stock and lamb tajine with onions and dried apricot.
Ika Zaken, who came to Antwerp from Tel Aviv two and a half years ago to open the place with partner Isaac Cohen, said the clientele is an international mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Israel’s Barkan is the most popular on the all-kosher wine list, which also includes wines from Italy, Spain and France.
But man cannot live by (unleavened) bread alone. For intellectual stimulation head to Boekhandel Yam at Simonstraat 40, run by Yugoslav-born I. Menczer for the past half-century. This is the place to come for all Jewish books from the Bible to Jewish mysticism, available in Dutch, English, Hebrew, French and other languages.
Even if you don’t buy anything, the place’s musty, somewhat dishevelled but unique atmosphere is worth a visit. The store also has menorahs and other religious items, Jewish music CDs, greeting cards and toys for learning the Hebrew alphabet.
Here you can also pick up a copy of the Flemish-language Belgish Israelitisch Weekblad, Belgium’s only weekly Jewish newspaper that’s really more of a newsletter. The small operation is run out of Pelikaansstraat 106-108.
The next time you’re wondering what to do on a Sunday, don’t despair – head to Antwerp for a stroll through one of Belgium’s most fascinating neighbourhoods.
Photo credit: uhuru1701