Russell Shorto examines the dawning of one of the darkest periods in the history of the Dutch metropole.
The stories of three families may give a sense of this hopeful, newly expansive, but brief moment of the city’s history. Of course, many of the Jews who moved into the new district were diamond workers. A cluster of streets preserves the memory of the time in their names: Topaz Street, Diamond Street, Emerald Square. One couple in particular moved to Sapphire Street. Another moved a few blocks up the river. The boy from the one family, whose name was Joël Brommet, fell in love with Rebecca Ritmeester, the girl from the other. They married, and the young man, who had an artistic sensibility, began to work with fabric and window design for shops. In 1925 they had a daughter whom they named Frieda, and the little family moved to the Zuider Amstellaan, or Southern Amstel Avenue, one of the wide boulevards that Berlage had laid out. Frieda spent her girlhood in the embrace of her extended family, living a few blocks from both sets of grandparents. She had an easy life, she tells me. Her parents doted on her.
Meanwhile, another son of a Jewish diamond cutter, whose name was Bernard Premsela, fell in love with a girl named Rosalie, married her, and moved with her to an address just across the river, in what is now called Spinozastraat. In the same year that they married, 1913, Bernard Premsela got his medical degree. He came under the influence of Aletta Jacobs, and in this expansive, liberal era he became consumed by thoughts of sex: that is, he realized that gender differences, sexual urges, and the act of sex constituted a large portion of what it meant to be human, and yet society had caged and perverted this vast and undeniable force. He decided to specialize in something that almost didn’t exist. He chose to become a sexologist.