In 1925 a very unusual thing happened in the Netherlands. A tornado ripped through the eastern part of the country and almost destroyed the small town of Borculo. Houses and businesses were torn to the ground and almost every roof top disappeared. The Jewish School was completely destroyed, but the synagogue was still standing. Residents must have thought that this was the worse thing that could have happened to their town. But they were wrong.

Borculo was one of the first Dutch towns that Jews settled in and by the mid 17th century, there were many Jewish families living in this town, located near the German border. In 1842, Borculo had a synagogue and in 1877, a new synagogue was built in the center of town. Behind this building was a bathhouse, also know as a mikvah. Borculo soon became the center of Jewish learning and the Jewish population grew and became a community. There were Jewish organizations for women, a society for the sick and dying, a burial society, a theatre society and also a group to promote Jewish identity for young people. In the early decades of the 20th century, there were numerous Jewish leaders on the town council.

By the beginning of the second world war, there was a Jewish family on almost every street in Borculo. In 1941, the Nazis tried to burn down the synagogue. Even though they failed, the building was severely damaged and  the synagogue was closed. In 1941, there were 160 Jews living in Borculo. They were taken away by the German army to the Dutch work camp in Westerbork and then later taken to Áuschwitz, Sobibor or other concentration camps. 87 people from Borculo died in one of these camps. Those that were not taken to camp had gone into hiding. When the war ended, survivors of the war rarely came back to their beloved Borculo. They had moved to Israel, Ireland or the United States. Only a few people came back and when they did, they were shocked to find that their homes were taken over by Dutch families and shockingly, as was the common practice in many countries, the camp survivors had to purchase their houses back, if they wanted to return home.

After the war, the synagogue never held services again. The building had many lives, among them, a metal shop and a butcher shop. As the years went on, the building stood empty and it seemed like it had been forgotten. But people got together and decided to save this historic building and it took many years, volunteers and fund raising. In 2008, the synagogue opened its doors again as a community center and a historical museum. Upstairs, in the former women’s gallery, you can study the history of the synagogue and the former Jewish community. It is an impressive and beautiful building and the citizens of this town should be very proud of all that they have achieved.

On the first floor of the synagogue is a plaque with a list of the 87 names that did not survive the war. Behind the building, there is still the white marble mikvah.

As you leave the synagogue, and cross into the next street, you will see a large shoe store. In front of this store, in the sidewalk, are five squares called Stolpersteines. This is a German word that means stumbling block and they have been created by German artist Gunter Demnig. He makes a 4” concrete cube that he covers with a sheet of brass. Words are then stamped on top. Stolpersteines are placed in front of the home of a victim of the holocaust, most of the stones are for Jewish victims of the holocaust. At the top of most of the stones it says “here lived” and then their name, birthdate, the date of where and when they died.

In Borculo, there are currently 28 Stolpersteines and many more are planned for installation. On this day that I visited the town, I saw the Stolpersteines that are near the synagogue.

Above the store, the family of Louis Meijer lived. He and his wife had five children and their youngest child, a boy, died at the age of six before the war. Their other four children’s names are in the stones of the sidewalk. They all died at Auschwitz, including daughter Bethtje’s unborn child. The five Stolpersteines are for Johanna, Bethtje, Michael Izak, Izaak and Bethtje’s husband, Horst. Standing there, in a circle with my family and the man who was giving us the tour, the busy street seemed deafeningly quiet. As we read the stones, it looked like our heads were bowed in prayer. As the stones were in Dutch, they were read out loud in English for my benefit. Hearing these words just made it an even more powerful experience.

Louis and Ida were not arrested and did not go to a camp. Instead, they went into hiding. They lived separately during this time. Louis, who was a butcher, worked as a bicycle repair man and Ida posed as a nun in a Catholic hospital.

After the war, Louis and Ida returned to Borculo to start their lives over. There was no longer a Jewish community and the synagogue stopped being a synagogue, but Mr. Meijer was still very active in the town. In 1975, there was the final Jewish
service in town, held in the former school and led by Louis Meijer. He had long been thought of as a hero in this town, as an example, in 1941, he had been warned that the Nazis were coming to Borculo to destroy the synagogue. He and his daughter Johanna saved the Torah scrolls and other sacramental items and hid them in the fire station. Ida died in 1959 and Louis died in 1976. Louis was a short man and everyone called him “little man”, the Yiddish word for that is “Pieman”.  No matter what, Louis Meijer had a big impact on this small town.

In July, 2011, artist Gunter Demnig came to Borculo to install the 28 Stolpersteines. There was a ceremony inside the synagogue and all 28 names were read out loud, including the five Meijer children. There are many Stolpersteines in the Netherlands and they are in about 600 towns or cities in Europe. 30,000 Stolpersteines are currently placed in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands. And there are no plans to stop this project.

This small town (population in 2007 was 10,420) faced their horrible history and did something about it. Instead of denying it, pushing it aside or downplaying it, they took their history and put it under a spotlight. The synagogue or the stones are not just bricks or concrete, they are a reflection of the people who lived there. This town knew that their history was based on its people. The synagogue was a second home to some and it was certainly a large part of their lives. The Jews were killed or moved away, but their homes are still standing. Now their names are where they once walked and played.

The school children of Borculo visit the synagogue and are taught about the second world war. They then go on a field trip to Westerbork, the work camp that was run by the Nazis and that held most of the Dutch Jews (including Anne Frank for a short time). These children now know what happened in their town and I hope they are horrified. I hope that by visiting the camp they will find out what happens when humanity disappears. And then I hope they know about Louis Meijer who came back to his town and worked to make Borculo a better place to live. He did not live to see the five stones in front of his former home, but he does not need them to remember his children. We do.

The Synagogue of Borculo

Stolpersteine Meijer Children

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  • janeduttonutrecht  On November 5, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    You are a very gifted observer and writer Jane. I am very touched and moved by your story about the Jewish community in Borculo and in particular the family Meijer. Keep writing.


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