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  • The Jewish community of Beek

    "Wat baek os bud,"
    by Prof. Dr. J.C.G. Jansen, Dr. L.M. Lemmens, D.I. van Gelder and J.M.G. Aussems.

    Beek is located in the province of Limburg, south of Geleen.
    It is certain that Jews lived in Limburg during the middle ages, usually in the towns. In Maastricht, Roermond en Venlo lived quite large groups of Jews. In Maastricht there was even a synagogue, which was closed at the start of the 14th century. The street there is still called the "Jodenstraat" – the Jewish street. It is unknown whether the economic activity of the Jews during the Middle Ages included Beek, but the possibility exists.
    We know that Western European Jews used to extend credit to local farmers. The farmers sold their products usually between July and November. In spring they were often left without any income and then they had to borrow money from the Jews against interest.
    Usually part of the harvest or of the non-harvested crop served as collateral.
    We are not sure whether this also occurred in Beek, but between 1350 and 1650 certainly no Jews were found there. During this period there were no Jews in Maastricht or in the "county of Overmaze." Only in Sittard were there some Jews from time to time.

    Even after 1650 we have only scarce information regarding Jews living in Beek. At the end of the 17th century the Jews of Beek are mentioned with regard to legal processes. The scarce information was found in archives of notaries and courts of law. Compared to their brethren from Meerssen, Eijsden, Vaals or Maastricht, the Jews from Beek possessed very little land and needed almost no notarial assistance.

    In order to register small legal matters, like a protest regarding defamation, or a difficult claim of small debts, the Jews in other parts of Limburg went to the local notary. The Jews of Beek however, had to use the services of aldermen, whose archives are badly conserved and provide very little information about the Jews from Beek, or elsewhere.

    Nevertheless some information has been found, mentioning almost forty Jewish persons, living in Beek between 1685 and 1820.
    About 1740 three Jewish families lived in Beek and at the end of the 18th century twelve families.

    The ancestor
    The first known Jew in Beek was Meyer Joseph, whose name appears in an undated document, probably issued between 1723 and 1725. It states that Meyer had lived in Beek already 28 years, which means that he arrived there between 1685 and 1687. His daughter Helena was born there in 1690 and the name of her mother was Mechteld Capel.
    Meyer Joseph, like other Jewish ancestors in the vicinity, possibly arrived in Beek in the wake of Portuguese Jews, who were appointed before 1690 by the Council of State in The Hague as caretakers of the army, which was engaged in wars against France between 1672 and 1709.
    These well- to- do Portuguese Jews provided bread for the soldiers and hay for their horses, in cooperation with German Jews living in the region. Some of these Jews remained in the villages, and also in Beek.
    After the wars these Jews looked for new sources of income. They provided the villages with coffee, tea, tobacco, textiles, and meat.

    In 1712 Meyer Joseph was registered as a butcher. In the same year his daughter Helena was mentioned in a terrible murder case.
    Till 1722 Meyer Joseph headed the only Jewish family in Beek, afterwards the number of Jewish families rose. About 1740 two or three Jewish families lived there, joined in 1755 by newcomers.
    After 1785 their number rose, due to difficulties in Eijsden. The authorities had erected tenement houses for the Jews, housing more than one hundred inhabitants, which exceeded the local population by 10 per cent.
    In order to settle, requirements had to be met. "The law had to be strictly fulfilled" and evidence of moral behavior and guarantees had to be provided. Not all Jews were able to meet these conditions. Therefore many Jews had to leave and to find other villages in the Overmaze to settle in.
    In Beek the number of Jewish families in 1794 rose to twelve.
    In 1796 the French occupation proclaimed equal rights for all burghers and from now on no town or region could exclude the Jews. Many left for the present Belgium, which had not accepted any Jew for ages. In 1808 only seven Jewish families remained in Beek. In the same year they were obliged to adopt family names as decreed by King Lodewijk Napoleon.
    Five of the Jewish families had lived in Beek between six and fifteen years, and another five had lived there for more than thirty years. Part of the Jews came from Middle Germany, three from the Rhine region and one came from France.

    Generally the authorities did not persecute the Jews, and did not decree anti-Jewish measures. Beek became a safe refuge for Jews, who elsewhere were afraid for their life.

    The Jewish community
    In 1828 Beek became an independent Jewish community with the status of an "additional synagogue." There were eleven Jewish grown-up males and the community had about thirty members. They congregated in a house synagogue, situated in the home of a well- to- do member. Due to the small number of members, the same people always held the available positions in the community, causing resentment and conflict. Therefore there were members who did not visit the synagogue anymore and discontinued paying their dues to the community.
    The community of Beek was in a difficult financial position and could not even pay its dues to the chief rabbinate.

    The results of Belgian independence
    As a result of political changes in 1839, the Province of Limburg was divided. In 1841 it was decided by Royal Decree that the Jewish communities of Dutch Limburg would belong to Maastricht, while the Jewish communities of Luxembourg, Liege and Brussels would not belong anymore to the "Nederlands Israelitische Kerkgenootschap" – the Dutch Israelite Church Community. All other synagogues were classified according to the number of their members.

    The synagogue
    The authorities of Beek were also tolerant with regard to matters of religion. The service in the home synagogue was permitted and existed in Beek till the end of the seventies of the 18th century. In 1789 the Torah roll was handed by the heirs to a banker from Maastricht, who sold the roll to somebody in Elsloo, under the condition that the Jews from Beek would be allowed to buy the Torah roll at the same price, whenever they would decide to establish a synagogue again.

    In 1794 a home synagogue was established again. The financial problems of the community were somehow solved.
    The small Jewish community of Beek remained constant for more than one generation. According to the results of the French census from 1808 and 1809 there lived between 26 and 28 Jews in Beek. The results from 1829 and 1849 showed about the same numbers. In 1866 there were about 40 Jews, and in the same year an old dream was fulfilled. The Jewish community founded a real synagogue.

    In September 1861 the Jewish community requested permission to build a synagogue on a parcel of land acquired by them. In July 1862 the council of Beek refused to authorize their request, for the following reasons:
    "Said parcel is in the immediate vicinity of the municipal school where 300 till 400 children from all classes and age are learning. This could disturb the religious services and may cause discomfort to the Israelite Community as well as to the parents of the rash young pupils. Such a situation could even cause clashes, the nature of which may not yet be envisioned.
    Said parcel moreover, is situated very near to the existing Roman and Protestant churches."

    The Jewish community had to look for another place. In the spring of 1863 they succeeded to exchange the parcel at the platschj (now Brugstreet) for an orchard at the Molenstreet, where only an old house was standing.
    In May 1863 the municipal council finally authorized the building of a synagogue. It was hard to raise the necessary funds. The municipality offered a subsidy of 240 guilders.
    In March 1866 a tender was announced. The inauguration of the synagogue took place in August 1866, with the Jewish choir "Halleluja" from Sitttard.

    Architecturally the building was very simple. It was built of bricks. The windows had segmented arches and above the entry was verse 20 from psalm 118 in Hebrew letters, reading: "This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter."
    Near the road a wall was erected with an iron grid. Some trees were planted. After several years the synagogue was surrounded by an industrial area.

    In the synagogue beautiful copper chandeliers hung from the ceiling and on the floor and on tables stood lovely candlesticks.
    Till about 1900 weekly prayers were held in the synagogue. Afterwards people went to Sittard because in Beek there was no "minyan" anymore. These trends were caused by rising assimilation.
    Only during the high holydays, was the synagogue of Beek used again; these services were attended by a Rabbi coming from another place.
    Financing the maintenance of the synagogue was a difficult matter. From 1890 the provincial authorities paid for maintenance, but after 1900 not much more could be done. In 1954 the synagogue was sold to the municipality of Beek and finally the building was demolished. Only a monument reminds us of its existence.

    Teaching and Jewish education
    Already in 1822 public teaching for the poor existed in Beek, for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish children. Lessons were given in a small school near the Platschj. Children from villages around Beek, also were taught here. The school had one class with a floor of clay and benches for eight till ten pupils. The passages between the benches formed the partition between classes.
    In 1857 when the teaching law was announced, the teaching improved.
    A new school in the Raadhuisstraat was opened.
    Since 1892 Jewish girls were taught at the school of the Sisters in the Molenstraat.
    A sign of the growing assimilation was the fact that Jewish children went to school also on Saturday.
    According to the archives three Jewish teachers gave lessons in Jewish subjects in Beek. The Jewish community valued the fact that their children would be taught some prayers and Hebrew knowledge. The father with most children usually brought a young man from Germany, aged sixteen till twenty, who had just studied some Hebrew himself and who had now to transfer his knowledge to the children. The young men were honored with the title of "schoolmaster."

    Till 1911 the Jewish children of Beek were probably taught by a learned member of the community, since there were no available funds to pay the salary of a real Jewish teacher. After 1911 the children were taught on Sundays, at the home of one of the parents, by an assistant teacher from Maastricht. Owing to the small number of Jews in Beek, there never were regular Jewish classes.

    The Jewish cemetery
    The cemetery at the Putbroekerweg is older than the synagogue. The oldest stone is from 1794. Possibly the Jews of Beek could bury their dead outside the village, on a parcel which the Jewish community had been allowed to buy. This parcel had been probably bigger, but its present area was now 3.90 are only. In 1861 the cemetery was divided and later on enlarged, caused by the change in the outline of the road.

    In 1871 the communities of Limburg were ordered to regulate "the burial of the dead and the protection of the cemeteries." The regulation describes how the burial had to be effected.
    The conveyance of the body to the cemetery and the burial had to be executed between sunrise and sunset. During the burial no disorder should take place and on the cemetery itself no cattle or other animals would be allowed to graze or to stroll. The drying or bleaching of garments was also forbidden.
    Those were the first steps of an intensive control of burial, effected by the authorities, which were necessary in view of contagious illness.
    These regulations caused financial difficulties to small cemeteries and it took a long time before a Metaher house was erected in Beek with the help of a subsidy.

    Today there are eighteen tombstones in the Beek cemetery. How many Jewish inhabitants were buried there is not known, but for sure have to are many more. According to the annual report of 1888 four people were buried in that year alone.
    The east side of the cemetery is bordered with a beautiful hedge and the foliage of two large trees covers most of the cemetery.
    In 1905 the exact acreage was 5.30 are. In 1966 the ownership of the cemetery was transferred to the NIK-the Organisation of the Jewish Communities in the Netherlands. The cemetery is well maintained by the Beek municipality.

    Religious and social tension
    In the middle of the 19th century there was an anti-Semitic incident in South Limburg, causing anti-Semitic tension. This incident was proof of the existing tension between Jews and Christians in South Limburg.
    In Jewish eyes the Catholics were stupid and backward, but the Catholics thought the same about the Jews.
    In view of the much needed economic relations between the groups it was deemed advisable not to vent these opinions. Nevertheless, on many occasions the religious differences, mixed with economic conflicts, played a part. Usually these conflicts broke out without any realistic reasons to point to.
    The situation improved however. According to Beek inhabitants, interviewed in 1990, both communities learned to live with each other, during the period between both World Wars. On the street, in shops, or in associations, people had contact with each other. Both groups shared a daily life. The social life of the Jews was fully integrated with the life of the non-Jews.
    The village and everybody celebrated carnival and other Christian Holydays.
    This form of integration was not always appreciated by other Jews in the country. In Beek some Jews converted and became Catholics or Protestants and there were mixed marriages. Gans wrote about this development: "What the pastor said was for them at least as important as the words of the rabbi."

    In Meerssen an antisemitic weekly was published and during the 19th century also in Beek antisemitic utterances were heard. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 19th century the number of Jews in Beek rose steadily. From 1900 till 1950 the number remained about 15 Jews.

    Year Number of Jews

    Economic activity
    The Jews in Beek were not very wealthy. They had simple professions, which are not even mentioned in our sources. There were day laborers, butchers, pedlars, textile sellers and cattle dealers. The word "merchant" is not mentioned. There was somebody who gave loans, but in very small amounts.
    During the whole 18th century the Jews of Beek had no professions with a good income. There was no trade whatsoever in luxury articles, like gold, silver or watches. In the official documents three day laborers are mentioned, two knitters, two cantors of the synagogue, a buyer of fish, three teachers and two unemployed men.

    In later years the Jews of Beek traded in agricultural products, like cattle, butter and grain. Since 1850 some Jews became land owners, and some Jewish families could be regarded as prosperous.
    But generally speaking the people of Beek were not rich, Jews included.
    There were firms for the making of cigars and a few syrup firms existed.

    The end of the Jewish community of Beek
    From the approximate twenty Jews living in Beek before the war, twelve were saved by hiding. The rest were killed. After the war the Jewish community was not re-established again and in 1954 the Jewish community of Beek was united with the one of Maastricht.

    Extracted from source:Yael (Lotje) Benlev-de Jong
    Translated from Dutch:Michael Jamenfeld
    Review:Ben Noach
    End editing:Hanneke Noach

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