It is not by chance that the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam has chosen this year, the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution, to hold an exhibition on the Lopes Suasso family; for, without them, stadholder William of Orange would not have crossed the Channel from the Low Countries to become King William III of Britain.
Don Francisco Lopes Suasso was the one person on whom William could always count for financial advice and discretion. It was he, a wealthy Sephardic Jewish merchant, who lent the enormous sum of two million Dutch guilders, no strings attached, which enabled the enterprise to take place.
The Museum has carried out a thorough study into the backgrounds of Francisco and his father Antonio. They belonged to a group of Portuguese Jewish merchants who had fled the Iberian peninsula in the seventeenth century to escape the Spanish Inquisition. These merchants settled in several northern countries and maintained their links with Spain and Portugal. Their detailed knowledge of the trade routes to and through the peninsula enabled them to establish trade links between commercial centres such as Bordeaux, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London and Hamburg with the Far East and Brazil, importing goods hitherto unknown in northern Europe such as sugar cane and tobacco. Despite the fact that they were persecuted in Spain for their faith, certain Sephardic Jews acted as emissaries for the Spanish king, Charles II, in the Netherlands. In gratitude for his financial services, Charles conferred the title of Baron on Antonio Lopes Suasso. Sephardic Jews were also contractors for the armies of the Dutch Republic, supplying the soldiers with arms, ammunition and food. In addition, their political enterprise was such that an international network was created in which the Sephardic Jews held key positions.
“The Lopes Suasso family: Jewish barons and the House of Orange” has a perfect setting within a Museum which was completed in February 1987, in the vicinity of four seventeenth and eighteenth century synagogues, in the heart of the Jewish quarter. It was decided not to reconstruct the lost elements of the earlier buildings but instead to blend in the newly designed parts of modern glass and steel. The colour plan is based on the Prussian blue of the vault of the oldest synagogue. Public alleyways link the four buildings of the Museum so that the passer-by has a view of, and is tempted to visit, the exhibition areas.
Temporary exhibitions, such as the Suasso, are set up in a specially designated area whereas the greater part of the Museum houses a permanent collection. These ancient synagogues have, according to the curator Dr Edward van Voolen, become a living monument to Judaism. It is estimated that 90 per cent of visitors arc non-Jews and with this in mind the Museum has set out to inform. The main theme of the collection is “Jewish Identity” and it includes an important section covering the relationship of the Jews to Dutch culture and Protestantism. Wherever possible, Jewish activities, such as the diamond trade until 1940, arc set against the backcloth of Dutch history. Many ritual objects dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represent both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. The vicinity of the recently discovered ancient Mikvah is used for exhibitions of Halachic interest whilst elsewhere affiliation to Israel is demonstrated.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1988