Jewish infant mortality in Amsterdam
In literature the relatively low Jewish infant mortality, as compared with non-Jewish infant mortality, is mentioned in the literature as the cause for the Jewish demographic miracle of the nineteenth century. This ‘miracle’ means that during the nineteenth century , the Jewish population in both Eastern and western Europe increased twice as fast as the non-Jewish population.
Jits van Straten, who made the burial-registration of Amsterdam available to people who cannot read Hebrew, and I, decided to check infant mortality in Amsterdam for the end of the eighteenth/beginning of the nineteenth century. In the Hebrew burial books three categories are represented, adults above 12/13 years, children (up to 12/13 years), and nefalim (miscarriages).
From the data we found that the number of nefalim gave constant high figures (about 40 %), compared to the rest of the buried children. The answer lies in the definition of the word nefel, plural nefalim. Once understanding the meaning of this word, we understood that we had to check the Hebrew burial register with a comparable civil source, written in Dutch by the Dutch authorities. In the Amsterdam situation, with a population of around 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews, this was possible for the years 1806-1811. Comparing this double registration of the burials of children and nefalim we found numbers that made more sense concerning miscarriages, stillbirth, children dying before they were one month old and children up to 12/13 years old.
But how did these numbers from Jewish infant mortality compare to the non-Jewish population of Amsterdam? The Burgerlijke Stand (Civil registration of birth, marriage and death) started in the summer of 1811. We therefore checked the year 1814 for death children up to 12/13 years of age of both populations. Results were that Jewish infant mortality was significantly lower, the number of stillbirths per 1,000 among Jewish women was higher though.
To give our results a last check we also compared the numbers of stillbirths and live-born-children of 1819. We divided these data into children from couples and singles for both populations. We also checked whether non-Jewish children were born in a Jewish (poorer) quarter of Amsterdam.
The results made clear that less Jewish mothers were single when getting a child, but single Jewish mothers had more stillbirths than non-Jewish singles or couples. The final conclusion of the combined researches do make clear that the annual growth rate during the nineteenth century of Jews is higher than of non-Jews. But the differences are not so extreme that one can talk about a demographic miracle. And the right understanding and interpretation of the word nefalim, will make clear that an extremely low Jewish infant mortality was certainly not the case. At least not in Amsterdam.