Remembrance Address 2012

Saturday,  29  September 2012

drs. P. Kalma, former president of the Wiardi Beckman foundation and son of an ex-prisoner

It is my honour to deliver the commemorative address today in the Oranjehotel. I fully realize that I am not here because of my own accomplishments, but because I am a son of an ex-prisoner; as one of Iens Staal’s two sons (as from 1947: Ien Kalma-Staal, wife and since last year widow of Bouwe Kalma). In the second World War she was active in the Resistance movement and was in prison from November 1944 until May 1945. Her Second World War experiences form their own special story. Special because of three reasons. First and foremost: although my mother and her family went through horrific experiences, they all survived the War unharmed. This of course affected their memories, which they passed on to the next generation. In this particular case to my brother Robert and myself, both born and raised in the same house in Rotterdam-Kralingen in which the family also lived during the Second World War.

The secret hiding place in the attic, where my grandparents sheltered people from the Germans and which they also used themselves, was still completely the same, as was the coal basement where Grandfather successfully hid under a large potato bag during a house search by the Germans. All this made the memories of the War different than when a family or close friend had died. It made the past sometimes seem like an experience of many exciting anecdotes without losing sight of the struggle of the War and the Resistance movement.

Two other things come to mind thinking about my mother’s experiences. First: the down-to-earth attitude she displayed -as a high school student- in her work in the Resistance Movement and during her time in prison. She was not easily frightened by something. And secondly: the mistakes the Germans made in her and her family’s case, and the Germans’ clumsy behaviour, which clearly contributed to a positive ending. “Those Germans could really be dumb”, as she mentioned to me the other day: a sometimes forgotten side of our Second World War history.

My contribution consists of two parts. First I will tell you about my mother’s War experiences, including the time she spent in Scheveningen. Then I will talk about the increased urge people have to idealize, or rather to mythologize -not in a political or religious way, but in a philosophical type of way- the 1940-1945 period. All this to summarize a multitude of War stories: the fallacy of a human being when he forgets about the value of being personally involved within the community. That is a worrisome development, not just from a historical point of view.

The Staal family (father, mother and three children) first lived in the Rochussenstraat in Rotterdam. On May 10, 1940 they saw from the street they lived in how Waalhaven airport was bombarded by the Germans. The repetitive ticking on the pavement came from artillery fragments. Later the family moved to the Prinses Julianalaan (which was changed by the authorities into “Vredehoflaan”).

Father Staal worked as a Chief Inspector in the Rotterdam police department. In 1941 he had a public disagreement with the new establishment. At a gathering of the police department he strongly disagreed with a statement a highly placed NSB official made: all Dutch reserve army officers had been cowards. “Take that statement back!”, Father Staal demanded from the NSB speaker. His refusal to shake hands with the new mayor subsequently led to his resignation. Father Staal remained active in the Resistance for the remainder of the War. At the end of 1944 he was appointed as ‘commander’ of the collective local Resistance groups, but as there was no reality of them working together as a team, he resigned from this position. Directly after the Netherlands was liberated, he was appointed to Chief of Police in Rotterdam.

The errors and mistakes the Germans made, which I already mentioned, mainly concerned him. At an attempt to capture him as a hostage, he managed to escape by jumping out of a window. A couple of months later he was finally arrested. He was first brought to St. Michielsgestel, and later transferred to Amersfoort – only to be set free shortly after that due to an administrative mistake. And, in the last year of the War, when both parents were visiting their own house at the time they were hiding from the Germans, suddenly the SD was on their doorstep. They fled to their hiding place, but the Germans -obviously tipped by someone- went there and demanded : “Komm heraus oder wir shiessen sie heraus” (“Get out of there or we will shoot you out”). The SD thought they were going to find English pilots. They left, realizing only half an hour later who they had left behind. They went back to find no one was there anymore.

The Staal family house was for the largest part of the War a place of refuge for those hiding from the Germans, ranging from friends in the Resistance Movement to messengers delivering food stamps and such. Ien (then 15 years old) and her two younger brothers fully realized what was going on. They switched rooms to give place to one of the ‘house guests’. And brother Han once hid a gun, which was used for a liquidation, in his schoolbag. Now you would say: “I would never expose my child to that”, but those times were different and the tension felt during assignments for the Resistance Movement was compensated by humour and cosiness. After the 10th house search, mother Staal baked a cake.

In the meantime daughter Ien spent more time doing illegal work than doing her schoolwork. She did small assignments for the Resistance, like bringing onderduikers (persons in hiding) to other hiding places and was cycling the whole day to deliver copies of Vrij Nederland (the Resistance newsletter) to distribution centres on the South-Holland islands. In those days she experienced the harsher and horrendous side of working for the Resistance. She experienced this via her friend “Rooie” Chris (Red Chris) Scheffer (after the War he was a journalist and historian and we used to call him “Uncle Chris”), who as a member of a Rotterdam fighting group, liquidated many people. Also, she went through the traumatic death of her bicycling companion Hans Berlage, with whom she travelled to the abovementioned islands. He was shot at the Utrecht train station.

At the end of 1943, Ien was arrested herself, after a copy of Vrij Nederland was discovered in her room. She was brought to the SD building in Rotterdam and locked for hours into a so-called “standing coffin” (a closet in which you could barely move). After that she was a prisoner in Vught for three months and she spent three weeks imprisoned in Utrecht. Especially Kamp Vught was horrendous, with its torture -sometimes to death- of prisoners during roll call. But she would not let herself be intimidated. She would, while forced to work in the Continental factory, with her nails make holes in the gas masks they were making for the Germans. And she helped smuggling news to the outside world about the death by suffocation of 10 out of 75 women imprisoned in a single cell.

In March 1944 Ien was sentenced by the Landesgericht to 4 months prison in Utrecht, reduced for time served. She was free now to return to school. That was a strange experience, about which she wrote later in a school memorial book. “Neither parents nor students….”, she wrote, “…reacted to my return. Only one friend (..) gave me a book in which she had written the date of my release, a very nice gesture. After all that I had gone through in Kamp Vught, I felt much older than my class mates. It was very weird to sit in a class room again and to be told off if you hadn’t done your homework” [1].

 

Ien Staal was not only young when she went to work for the Resistance movement, she was also a woman. I would like to state some general remarks about the position of women in the Resistance.

The organised Resistance was mainly a man’s world. Little has been written about the role that women played in the Resistance. The commemorative books Onderdrukking en Verzet (Suppression and Resistance) contain only one article about the subject, written by mrs. A. Ten Holt – Taselaar. Women in many families, she writes, played first and foremost an invisible role and secondly an important supporting role. During the course of years women were increasingly used for courier work, spying and other activities. The author emphasizes the “harshness, fierceness and human compassion” which symbolized many Resistance workers and which was sometimes used irresponsibly [2].

A second contribution to what has been written in this area is by Marjan Schwegman. In 1980 her Master’s dissertation Het Stille Verzet (the Silent Resistance) was published. The main focus in this dissertation was directed at the positions that women had in the Resistance movement. The number of women active in the Resistance grew, due to the Arbeitseinsatz of the Dutch men and because of the general repression. Women, was the general opinion, gave less reason for suspicion. But they rarely were chosen in leading positions. The author further emphasises the ‘warmth, solidarity and humour’ many female prisoners had and also the less harsh treatment of arrested Resistance women. Torture was rarely used [3].

Also Ien Staal experienced that women were treated differently by the Germans during their arrest and after being arrested. That was also confirmed after her second arrest under harsh circumstances. In November 1944 she rang the front door bell of a house on the ‘s-Gravendijkwal, where Resistance people lived and where the SD just discovered a gun depot. A German opened the door. Ien did not know what she saw, hid her fright, and said: “Oh, I’m sorry, I need to be next door”. To this the man answered: “Aber wir kennen einander doch, Fraulein Staal” (“But we have met before, Miss Staal”).  He had been involved in her previous arrest. That, as she later described, did not look too good: “I was lucky to be a girl. A young man would have been shot on the spot”.

Again she was brought to the SD headquarters in Rotterdam, where she was questioned. She repeatedly denied her involvement in the weapons discovered and also spoke boldly when defending herself. That worked, she saw during her last questioning by the SD. They tolerated her self-conscious attitude and bold remarks -“You have the power now, but we will tomorrow”-, probably because she was a woman. Also this time she remained unharmed, but the threat was added that she would be shot dead. The next day they took her to Scheveningen, where she -without being charged or even the start of a trial- stayed until May 6, 1945.

She spent all those months practically alone in a cell. Airing in a so-called ‘air cell’ never took place, let alone being allowed to read books or using the so-called Sportplatz (sports court). Communication with other prisoners was limited: my mother only knew the names (but not the faces) of a few women. And the prison regime, which as a sanction provided only Kalte Kost at meal times, was not overly strict in her department. The daily routine primarily focussed on how to pass a day without any form of distraction. Often she tried to recall the math questions with which she had difficulty at school. She did not scratch patriotic statements with her nails on the wall of the cell she was in, it was the Pythagoras statement.

What helped her get through the days was a German song that was sung by the women’s ward often in the evenings: Die Gedanken sind Frei.

Die Gedanken sind Frei!
Wer kann sie erraten Sie fliegen vorbei,
Wie nachtlichen Schatten Kein Mensch kann sie wissen,
Kein Jager erschiessen,
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind Frei!

“What took me through all this”, my mother says, “has been believing in a good cause, believing in the battle against injustice – but also in the good ending of it”. That begun to show already before her imprisonment, when the South of the Netherlands was recaptured. A sign that liberation was really near was when the food became better and the prisoners were allowed to be aired. In the first days of May she was assigned to clean the prison director’s office. She saw a jar of vitamins on his desk and swallowed a handful. Only then did she notice a portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall: a mourning veil was draped over it. This meant it could not go wrong anymore. And on May 6 it happened. On a sleperswagen (dray-cart) she was brought to friends from the Resistance movement in The Hague and from there she went to Rotterdam, were she was reunited with her entire family.

My mother maintained the fighting attitude that she had had in the War. In her personal life and in the couple of times she, together with Bouwe, openly expressed their point of view in certain matters. But what draws one’s attention, is that that fighting attitude, if you look back to the years 1940-1945, never hindered her in having a well-balanced opinion about the people in her environment. For example, her opinion about her classical languages teacher who had been a member of NSB and lived opposite the Staal family during the War. “He must …”, she wrote, “….undoubtedly have noticed that things happened at our house that should not become known. He never misused this knowledge. I have always respected him for this” [4]. This goes to show how complicated the relationship between good and bad could also be in the War.

 

This story about my mother is one of the many, many stories that can be told, and should be told. This brings me to the second part of my contribution to this day of commemoration: the necessity to keep remembering the War years, to keep doing historical research, to convey knowledge and to pass on the experiences in full detail and nuances. That is the best way to avoid forgetting about it. But it also prevents an unwanted side effect getting the upper hand, which is ‘mythologizing’; using the Second World War as a projection for overly optimistic or too bleak opinions about people and their community.

A critical side of that approach has been convincingly stated by Ewout Kieft, a writer and critic from a generation that was born in the seventies. ‘War myths’ is the name of his book, which has the subtitle ‘Willem Frederik Hermans and the Second World War’ [5]. Kieft shows a change in the dominant opinions of the 1940-1945 years, where an overly positive image was created about the Resistance against the Germans, which was subsequently changed to a very reserved opinion. ‘Why the sudden change?’, he asks himself. And how to resist the temptation to make one all-encompassing story out of the War, where the value of moral choices that people made are lost in the background?

Kieft was never very interested in remembering the War. His grandfather had been in the Groningen Resistance and had died in a German concentration camp in May 1945. He hated the doomed atmosphere which cast a shadow over their house every May 4. I, he writes, “did not feel the need for the strong moral lessons that my father drew from the Second World War; (….) from his idealized view of my grandfather doing his duty for God and his country.”

Kieft pushed the War far away. But all that changed after the strong words about a country that had heroically defended itself were replaced by a more cynical and fatalistic approach: for an image of the Resistance Movement where chaos, rivalry and clumsiness ruled – and just beautiful words to cover it all up.

W.F. Hermans’ work played a big part in this change. Novels like ‘De tranen der acacia’s’ and ‘De donkere kamer van Damocles’ concentrate on a single key thought: in times of War, people show their true character and that is not a pretty sight. ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ is only used to justify their own behaviour, or to gain wisdom. Hermans of course was allowed to write this. He had full right to show his views about the community in his novels. And Kieft admires Hermans’ courage in involving himself in those views. But he also accuses him of the fact -also in his work as an essay writer- that he mythologizes the War. He became more of an ideologist: one of disillusion.

According to Kieft, this also counts for Chris van der Heijden, who with his book ‘Grijs Verleden’ (2001) follows in Hermans’ footsteps [6]. This historian certainly has a point if he speaks of the black and white opinions of the War as being a secular form of religion. But he does exactly the same with all the changes he sometimes makes in his work. As Kieft writes: “The view of the world described in ‘Grijs Verleden’ is not less clear than any other mythological display of the reality. Yet it has become more fatalistic.” And further on: “Whether they are collaborators or Resistance workers, Van der Heijden describes their lives as a range of accidental events and not one in which conscious choices were made.”

I think this critical approach is valid, just like Kieft’s views that a very dark opinion of the Dutch in the War has grown stronger. I had noticed myself that  movies (like ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ and ‘Zwartboek’) were mainly about the good-and-bad of the relationship between Resistance Movement and those who betrayed. I read about a research on the involvement of policemen in hunting down Dutch Jews in the press, suggesting as evidence that a large part of the Dutch police corps was ‘criminal trash’. And I read about a study about the atrocities committed by a fighting club in the Westland, entitled ‘The payment. Revealing the armed Resistance’ [7]. Sometimes it seems like there is a competition going on: who can display the Dutch’ attitude at the time in the most negative of perspectives.

But how to counteract? How to avoid the false choices between an overly sunny and an overly cynical view of the Second World War? Kieft does something that he would normally not have thought about. He visits the archives of the Groningen department of the LO (the organization responsible for offering assistance to the people in hiding), and studies the daily ways of the Resistance movement. In describing this, he does not shy away from revealing himself. He realizes that he might also be looking for those guilty of his Grandfather’s death (who was captured due to treason). And he reads about events that, he acknowledges, would not be out of place in a war novel written by W.F. Hermans. But Kieft also discovers something else: the practical role moral viewpoints played in and around the Resistance movement. To have something to hold on to, and to keep an overview in order to reduce one’s own vulnerability.

Because of the uncertain situation and the enormous discipline needed to continue with the regular work, he writes, the higher goal was emphasized. Patriotism, political or religious convictions and a need for justification; they all served as a personal motivation, to sort out the world so that people could make a clear and strong choice. He ends his book concluding: “A free will is the biggest war myth of all. It has to be challenged in its own disproportional form, just like its mirror image, that of man not capable of anything.  Without the thought that people were capable of making free choices during the time we were occupied, not much is left of the war experiences than an accumulation of accidental events. And that I refuse to believe.”

Kieft wrote an important book. Since he belonged to the after-war generation (just like me, only a lot younger) he confronts the increasing urge people have to project the human deficiency, without becoming an exponent of the overly optimistic view himself. He shows that the Resistance in the Netherlands against the Nazi regime was limited (maybe shamefully so), but that it concerned hundreds of thousands Dutch people, including those who helped people in hiding. Also, he emphasizes that the relevance of personal convictions played an important role in the actions and decisions that not only had consequences for those involved but also meant a lot in the sense of taking one’s own responsibility. That seems to me a very plausible, and honourable view. And not only in War time.

This comes close to what Hans Blom (active himself in the debate about how to colour our War past) remarked in his commemorative speech in 2010. “In particular those who were imprisoned by the Germans in the Oranjehotel ended up here because of their individual decisions. This is the way they made their mark in the history of the time that The Netherlands was occupied. Their actions can be a reason for contemplation.” [8]

 

Finally: I have told you the story of one of the prisoners of the Oranjehotel. Of one of the prisoners that were imprisoned here for a short or long time and have been set free. That is what the annual commemoration is about. But as the short walk that we will make to Death Cell 601 will emphasize: we are especially remembering those who have not made it through the War; those who have been killed elsewhere and foremost: those who have been shot by a firing squad at the Waalsdorpervlakte. I pay them my deepest respect.

I hereby also answer to the call of the Oranjehotel Board to preserve the Oranjehotel as a War monument and to make it more accessible. It is, like the experts would say, a lieu de memoire: a place where the history of the Second World War has settled. The Netherlands knows more of these places: the Anne Frank House, which attracts more than a million visitors each year and, for example, Kamp Amersfoort, which has opened with the help of its volunteers. Making the Oranjehotel, with its own intriguing history, more accessible can contribute to broadening and stimulating the interest in the Second World War – especially among younger generations.

In short: the renovation and making available to the general public of the Oranjehotel has to be turned into a success.

References

 

  1. J.S. Kalma – Staal, Erasmiaan in verzet, in: Het Erasmiaans Gymnasium in de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Herinneringen van oud-leerlingen, Rijswijk, Uitgeverij Elmar, 2003, pp. 143 – 148.
  2. A.M.J. Ten Holt, Vrouwen en meisjes in het verzet, in: J.J. van Bolhuis e.a. (red.), Onderdrukking en verzet. Nederland in oorlogstijd. Deel III, Arnhem/Amsterdam, Van Loghum Slaterus/J. M. Meulenhoff, z. j., pp. 818 – 827.
  3. M. Schwegman, Het stille verzet. Vrouwen in illegale organisaties Nederland 1940 – 1945, Amsterdam, ASVA/SUA, 1980.
  4. J.S. Kalma – Staal, Erasmiaan in verzet, p. 148.
  5. E. Kieft, Oorlogsmythen. Willem Frederik Hermans en de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Amsterdam, De Bezige Bij, 2012.
  6. C. van der Heijden, Grijs verleden. Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij Contact, 2001.
  7. M. van Buuren, De afrekening. Ontmaskering van het gewapend verzet, Rotterdam, Uitgeverij Lemniscaat, 2011.
  8. H. Blom, Het belang van individuele beslissingen, in: Herdenking 2010, zaterdag 25 september, Scheveningen, Den Haag, Stichting Oranjehotel, 2010, pp. 6 – 13.