When friends and family in Northern Europe pressed me for a wintertime visit, I confess to a certain reluctance. I thought that if the brief, pallid afternoons of a New York winter give me the blues, Berlin and Rotterdam were likely to do me in altogether.
But as it happens, these are places where the light is always scarce and the weather is generally awful — especially Holland, where a midsummer day is likely to be gray, gloomy and damp. You might as well go at the winter solstice. In fact, at this point, I could argue that winter is actually the best time to visit Rotterdam.
Lights twinkle brightly all around the city, lending an infectious gaiety to streets and adding shimmer to the canals and harbors. Outdoor markets bustle with pedestrian shoppers; the scents of fir and hot mulled wine waft in the misty air. And then there are the corny-but-fun holiday rituals, such as the pea soup express (more on that later).
Bundle up as I did, and the city is actually pleasant for winter strolling. That’s how I discovered that while Amsterdam may have the high-profile Jewish sights — the Jewish Museum, the Anne Frank house and museum — Rotterdam has a quiet but persistent Jewish presence. In addition to several small congregations that serve a community of around 300, a myriad of recently-installed memorials and monuments to prewar Jewry reveal the admirable Dutch commitment to historical memory.
It’s all the more unexpected in Holland’s most modern city. Rotterdam lacks the cutesy, antique charm of its larger neighbor — an easy hour’s train ride away — but it more than compensates in youthful energy and bold design. An industrial port since the age of Rembrandt, Rotterdam boasts some of the world’s more stunning waterfronts: there are bridges that look like gulls in flight and skyscrapers (well, low-hanging cloudscrapers) that look like Rubik’s cubes, all set amid a landscape of soaring angles and arresting planes.
Even the malls here are works of art. Rotterdam is a great shopping city; like its buildings, its people like to attract attention, and there are glittering glass shopping centers throughout the urban core. I have a theory that the near-total absence of visual history — the blank-slate freedom of a built-from-scratch postwar environment — is what gives Rotterdam, and Berlin for that matter, the impetus to create a new and distinctive visual aesthetic.
The most seasonal way to see all of this fabulousness is from the windows of the Snerttram, Rotterdam’s wintertime pea-soup tour. Pea soup? It’s a local specialty, so beloved that it has at least two Dutch terms (snert is the easier one). To sample snert in style, you catch one of these trains — which are spray-painted, what else, a brilliant light green — and rumble through the city, slurping down soup as a tour guide points out various landmarks. The Snerttram interior is weirdly — ironically? — retro, with live accordion music and frilly little curtains. I’m told that in summer it turns into a sorbet express, but pea soup is just so much more fun.
You can see better art in Amsterdam, but the Rotterdam Maritime Museum is essential for understanding the soul of this city. Set amid working docks, tugboats and lighthouses, the museum is both classic — you can tour a 19th-century warship and admire a model vessel from Holland’s 17th-century Golden Age — and cutting-edge, with multimedia exhibits on seafaring adventure.
You come away from the museum thinking about how a small, resource-poor country like Holland became rich and powerful due to its exploitation of geography. And not incidentally, the Rotterdam Jewish community — which grew out of Portuguese and Polish-German immigrants in the 1600s — owes its growth in part to these shipping lanes; Rotterdam was a major port of embarkation for Eastern European Jews heading to America around the turn of the 20th century. Many of those would-be émigrés stayed put in Holland and fortified the Jewish community.
The iconic Lev Jam synagogue was erected in 1927 on Joost van Geelstraat, a mere decade or so before Rotterdam Jewry would suffer its near-total decline at the hands of the Nazis. Today, a left turn onto Schietbaanlaan (how the Dutch love their vowels!) takes you from the temple site past two Jewish memorials, the more recent of which was dedicated to commemorate the site of a prewar Jewish hospital. Several other memorials are sprinkled throughout the city, including a monument to Rotterdam Jewish Holocaust victims, in the gardens behind City Hall.
And just this past year, local authorities ceded a historic Jewish cemetery in Werkendam — a Rotterdam suburb — back to the Dutch Jewish community. I haven’t been to see it, but it is one more reminder of the continuous Jewish presence in this ever-evolving corner of Europe. With all that is modern, shiny and novel in Rotterdam, the persistence of memory there is powerful.