Sometimes it’s sheer luck. Someone else has done the work for you, you didn’t even know. The story is waiting for you to find it.
I knew of Marcus Levie De Leeuw who lived five generations back. He was a great-grandfather of my grandfather on mother’s side, Arnold De Leeuw (1886-1944). He had lived in the small city of Delden and he was a butcher. I knew that his first-born son Abraham Marcus had moved to nearby Almelo around 1854 and that between 1827 and 1845 Marcus Levie and his wife Geertruida Lindeman (1807-1880) had twelve more children. But that was about all I knew.
That was all… until two months ago I laid hands on the book written by Peter Kooij, published in 2004. The book deals with the history of the Delden Jews. 1 A happy surprise: Marcus de Leeuw is the star of the book.
There is no shortage of books on local Jewish communities in this country. But they have often been researched and written by amateur historians and put-together somewhat clumsily. Not so Kooij’s book. It shows admirable flair. Kooij has spent time in more than a few archives: the municipal archives of Delden; the Estate Archive at Twickel Castle; the historical archives of Overijssel Province in Zwolle; the National Archives in The Hague; and the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana (University of Amsterdam Special Collections), Jewish Historical Museum Archives and City Archives in Amsterdam. And everywhere he found traces of my forefather Marcus De Leeuw.
Marcus Levie (Mordechai ben Yehuda in shul) had one brother, Joseph Levie, and no sisters. Which of the two brothers was the elder remains unclear to this day. Marcus and Joseph were born between 1797 and 1799, immediately following the ‘Emancipation’ of Dutch Jewry. On 2 September 1796 the Jews of The Netherlands had been granted equal civil rights to all other citizens. Joseph Levie was illiterate – but his brother Marcus could write, and write he did!
The Jewish Community of Delden was formally established in 1838. In 1840 the city housed 68 Jews, being 4.5 per cent of the total population. Marcus Levie De Leeuw was their ‘Church Master’ from 1841 until shortly before his death in December 1883. More than forty years. In this small and poor community he no doubt was a pioneer, providing leadership. He knew how to write – and to whom.
During the first decades of the nineteenth Century, the Jews of Delden congregated in rented premises. Their make-do shul was dilapidated. On the land registry map of 1832 the premise is indicated grandiloquently as the town Sinagogua, but in fact it was a damp and draughty hall. It was Marcus Levie De Leeuw who took the initiative for the construction of a synagogue building, a shul owned by the Jewish Community, the kehilla.
The first letter written by him and traced by Kooij dates from 1839. It was addressed to the Provincial Authorities in Zwolle. The find documents that Marcus De Leeuw started his campaign of letter writing no later than 1839. The first letter addressed to King William III dates from 11 April 1850. Marcus wrote the King about ‘the bad state of the church’ as it was located in a small home which
…hurts both the body and the religion, since as a result of the dampness our one and only Book Moses, also named Torah, has become almost unusable and we lack funds to buy a new one.
It took eleven more years of letter writing (often to the King), canvassing, lobbying, fundraising and begging before on 10 April 1861 the newly built synagogue was ceremoniously inaugurated. For some twenty years Marcus Levie had campaigned, and the synagogue had no doubt become one of his life goals. At the time of its inauguration he was in his early sixties.
Marcus’ correspondence with the King went beyond matters religious. He was a butcher after all. In 1863, two years after the new synagogue has been inaugurated, he writes the King again, asking him, is he perhaps interested in meat from the oxen that Marcus has bought from Baron Van Heeckeren, the squire of Twickel Estate. The Baron is related to staff at the Royal Court in The Hague. Kooij suggests that this fact may have prompted Marcus Levie’s audacious question. His letter has an amusing aftermath.
The Court Marshal answers that the King ‘would like to receive a piece of the oxen to be slaughtered by Marcus Levie, accompanied by an invoice.’ Butcher Marcus De Leeuw slaughters and ships the meat to the Court in The Hague. One month later the Court Marshal sends a letter to the Mayor of Delden, complaining that the invoiced price of 1.50 guilders per kilo is too high. Would the Mayor be so kind as to communicate to De Leeuw the Court’s ‘surprise’, since ‘the price of the best meat in The Hague, and in Amsterdam as well, is no more than 80 cents per kilo.’ The Mayor is asked to get butcher De Leeuw to send a lower invoice, ‘or to leave it blank, so that I will fill it out and provide him with the sum by way of gratuity.’ In the end, butcher De Leeuw receives forty guilders.
The 1796 Emancipation had brought the Jews of The Netherlands equal rights… on paper. But little of this was noticeable during the first half of the nineteenth Century. In 1849, the year preceding Marcus’ first letter to the King, the first Jewish weekly newspaper had been founded in Amsterdam (at the time of writing it is the longest continuously publishing newspaper in The Netherlands). The first Jewish students were reading in the universities in the West of the country. The first Jewish Cabinet Minister was Michel Henry Godefroi, 1860-1862 at he Ministry of Justice. It was during this period that the newly built synagogue of Delden was inaugurated, the shul for which Marcus Levie De Leeuw had campaigned for more than twenty years. It cannot be denied, my forefather had some chutzpah.
The Delden synagogue stood for 102 years. No more than nine Jews (out of 33 in 1941) survived the Holocaust, five men and four women. Not enough for shul service, which needs at least ten men (minyan). Once Delden was liberated, the city council showed no compassion whatsoever. No minyan, no synagogue. The plot had been provided under a leasehold, and the city wanted it back. In 1948 it terminated the lease. The synagogue building was used for storage and as a municipal workshop. In 1963 it was pulled down.
Revised 7 April 2015, with thanks to Bernard Wasserstein for his comments.
- In een betere staat en een beter lokaal. De Joodse gemeenschap en synagoge in Delden. Delden, Stichting Bedehuizen Overijssel en Flevoland, Bulletin nr. 32. 172 pp.