Among graves, Dutch teens build bridges between communities

by: Jan Hennop Updated: 26/Nov/2011 10:42
The restoration of the old Jewish cemetery of ‘Zeeburg’ in Amsterdam – dating back to 1714- by volunteers. The restoration by a Jewish foundation and youngsters involved in restoring the cemetery are more than just cleaning up: drawn from the city’s Jewish and Moroccan Muslim residents, they are building bridges between two divided communities.
Photo: Anoek de Groot in Amsterdam, AFP Copyright 2011
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AMSTERDAM (AFP)—On a chilly Sunday morning, a group of Dutch teenagers gather in an overgrown patch of land in east Amsterdam to work on  unique project: cleaning up a 300-year-old graveyard.   

But the volunteers involved in restoring the Zeeburg Jewish cemetery are more than just beautifying: drawn from the city’s Jewish and Moroccan Muslim residents, they are building bridges between two divided communities.

“Come on guys, lets get going!” volunteer Alfie de Vries, 13, urges his friends Jonas Poolman and Mx Zegerius as they grab garden rakes and a spade to join some 30 other teenagers hacking away in a nearby clearing.

With help from Ahmed Bularoez, 21, they pull down branches and clean up strands of dead grass to reveal a grey stone slab with an inscription in Hebrew and the Star of David on it.

“Another tombstone,” one teenager excitedly points out as dirt and leaves are wiped away before being carted off in a wheelbarrow. De Vries, Poolman, Zegerius and Bularoez lean on their garden tools, grinning broadly.

De Vries, Poolman and Zegerius are Jewish. Bularoez, the son of Moroccan migrant labourers who came to the Netherlands in the 1970s, is Muslim.

“The idea to get Jewish and Muslim teenagers working side-by-side to clean the old cemetery was sparked last year after we filmed incidents of anti-semitism on a hidden camera and broadcast it,” one of the project’s organisers, Rabbi Lody van de Kamp tells AFP.

Shown on Dutch television, Moroccan youngsters are seen baiting two Jewish teenagers wearing skullcaps, as they walk around a Moroccan neighbourhood in Amsterdam, while in another clip, the boys are flashed a Hitler salute.

The broadcast sent out shockwaves which reverberated all the way to the lower house of the Dutch parliament.

It was mooted as a sign of growing anti-Semitism in the Netherlands and an MP, himself of Moroccan parentage, even suggested police don kippas and walk the streets as “decoy Jews” to catch offenders in the act.

But the images also touched a raw nerve within the Moroccan community, whose members also complain of being singled out.

“You know, when you do something good, you’re called a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, when you do something bad, you’re just a Moroccan,” said Bularoez.

Said Bensellam, a key figure among Amsterdam’s Moroccans, says he decided to contact Van de Kamp shortly after the programme aired — and so the idea of a combined project to clean up the Zeeburg cemetery was born.

“We want to show solidarity with the Jewish community,” he says.

Jewish teenager Jonas Poolman says “together we can achieve a lot. Besides, we really like these guys.”

Around him, teenagers mix and laugh together, all wearing the same blue overalls. The only real difference, some of the youngsters are wearing kippas.

Says Bularoez: “This is a fantastic project with a lot of history here.”

Opened in 1714, the Zeeburg Jewish cemetery is spread over two acres (0.8 hectares) and with thousands of graves, it’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest Jewish graveyards.

It’s also one of the largest in western Europe, according to Van de Kamp.

It was well maintained until 1944, when most of the city’s Jews including its most famous wartime figure, Anne Frank, and her family were carted off to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, Sobibor and Bergen-Belsen.

“They did not come back so there was no-one to tend to the graves,” says Van de Kamp.

Its existence was rediscovered about two years ago, when police arrested two youngsters playing a paintball game among the gravestones, which borders Zeeburg’s multi-ethnic Indies Neighbourhood.

Now, the plan is to clear a part of the cemetery and restore it to its
former glory. For five Sundays, the teenagers will lead the way.

“In a sense, it’s the dead from the past showing the living of today the way of the future,” says Van de Kamp.

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