Five Jewish historians in the Netherlands after WWII
Abel Jacob Herzberg (1893-1989)
Abel Herzberg was born in Amsterdam and also died there. He was a lawyer, a writer and a poet. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he became a Dutch national in 1922. He studied law in Amsterdam and qualified as a barrister and Crown prosecutor. As barrister he specialised in alcoholic beverage legislation. Between 1934 and 1939 he was chairman of the Dutch Zionist Organisation (Nederlandse Zionistenbond). He was in charge of the Jewish labour village in the Wieringermeer Polder from August 1940 until its evacuation in March 1941. In January 1944 Herzberg and his wife Theodora (Thea) Loeb were transported from the Westerbork transit camp to Bergen-Belsen. They were on the last train to leave Bergen-Belsen for Theresienstadt on 9 April 1945, which eventually stopped near Troebitz, where they were liberated. Their three children had been in hiding, and also survived the war. Abel Herzberg managed to keep a diary in the camp. This was published after the war under the title "Tweestromenland" (Between two streams). His poignant "Kroniek der Jodenvervolging" (Chronical of the persecution of the Jews) for which he was awarded the Jan Campert prize, was published in 1950. In 1949 he was awarded the Wijnaendts-Francken prize for “Amor fati”: essays he had written in 1946 about the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Writing about his experiences in the camp affirmed his belief that "The pen is mightier than the sword".
In his pieces about the Eichmann trial Herzberg highlights the hard facts as well as the human issues, and advocates a genuinely spiritual culture. His plays centering on figures from Jewish history, are about everyday human problems.
Other works are: Memoires of King Herod, the Death of Saul, the Eichmann trial and Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Letters to my Grandson.
He was not only a writer but also a historian.
Abel Herzberg found an escape from his sorrow about his wartime experiences, by writing about them. Before the war he had published articles about Zionism, a play called "Fatherland", a discourse about alcoholic spirits, and warnings against the rise of Nazism.
After the liberation he started a new chapter in his life. According to his acquaintances he became ever more youthful. His thirst for publication and productivity was unquenchable. He wrote for the newspapers De Groene (Amsterdammer), De Tijd, the Nieuw Israelitisch Weekblad and the Joodse Wachter. In the sixties he was a contributor to the Volkskrant, and was present at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem as their correspondent. A. Kuiper wrote a biography about him. Herzberg received a number of awards for his oeuvre.
Although he was a Zionist, he was often critical of Israeli politics.
Abel Herzberg studied law, but criminal law and the principle of revenge were foreign to him. He criticized other historians like Lou de Jong and Jacques Presser, because they did not adopt his theories.
Abel Herzberg was admired by many for his high ethical standards, mildness of spirit and lack of thirst for revenge, but in Jewish circles his excessive tolerance often drew much criticism. He was of the opinion that one should not judge one’s fellow man, until one had been in his position.
One of his children was the poet Judith Herzberg. The other two went to Israel. A grandson was killed in one of the wars; his father, also a Holocaust victim, could not cope with yet another sorrow, and died a few years later.
Lou de Jong (1914-2005)
Louis de Jong was born in Amsterdam on 24 April 1914. His father had a grocery store. The family was not religious. After finishing secondary school (Vossius Gymnasium) he studied social geography and history at the University of Amsterdam from 1932 to 1937.
From 1938 to 1940 he was foreign editor of the leftist weekly De Groene Amsterdammer. He called himself a socialist. In May 1940 he and his wife Liesbeth escaped to England. In London he became manager of ‘Radio Oranje’, which was broadcasting to the occupied Netherlands. In October 1945 he was appointed head of the Dutch National Institute for War Documentation (RIOD now NIOD), whose function was to gather historical documents about the Second World War in the Netherlands and make them accessible. He was however not the only one occupied with this; Jan Romein and Nicolaas Posthumus were doing the same. Eight years later he obtained his PhD cum laude for a thesis on the German Fifth Column in the Second World War. Contrary to general opinion he showed that German secret underground actions had not played a significant role in their military victories between 1939 and 1940. His paper was translated into English, German and Russian. In 1963 De Jong became a member of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen).
In 1955 the Department of Education and Sciences (Ministerie van Onderwijs en Wetenschappen) commissioned de Jong to write a scientific treatise on the history of the Netherlands in the Second World War. It was estimated that such an extensive study would take about six years to complete, during which time he would be assisted by RIOD members.
However it was not until 1969 that Voorspel (Prelude), the first volume of Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War), was published. It featured in the best seller list for many months. It was clear already that completion of the series would be a lengthy process.
De Jong steadily produced volume after volume, and nineteen years after the first part was published, the twelfth and last part Epiloog was issued at last in 1988. His work was now done, but part 13 with appendices and corrections, and part 14 written by J.Th.M. Bank and P. Romein containing reactions and criticism were still to appear.
Without doubt this was a mammoth work. De Jong’s thirteen parts were issued in twenty-seven volumes totalling almost 15,000 pages.
He did not want his work to be read only by historians and consciously strove to attract a large audience.
Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog did reach a broad readership and sold 75,000 copies, quite unprecedented for a historical work. An estimated 74,000 readers ordered the complete set. His books were praised, and he received many awards. His success was also due in part to the subject of his work. The shocking experience of the Second World War had left deep marks in the collective memory of the Dutch people. The long war has become a moral benchmark, a source from which socially relevant lessons can be drawn.
As author of Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog and director of RIOD De Jong’s opinions on the numerous problems surrounding resistance and collaboration carried extra weight.
Dr Lou de Jong died on 15 March 2005. Although much new research has since been done, his work remains an important source for anyone concerned with the Second World War in the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies.
Isaac Lipschits (1930-2008)
Isaac Lipschits was born in Rotterdam in 1930. He was the son of Sander Lipschits and Grietje Grootkerk. His father was a market trader.
In 1942 his parents sent two of their six children, Isaac and his younger brother, into hiding. Both children were saved, but the rest of the family was murdered in Poland.
After the war he studied political science at the University of Amsterdam and in Paris. He later lectured at several universities in the Netherlands and in Israel. From 1973 he was professor at the University of Groningen.
He wrote several books on political subjects and on the post-war Jewish community in the Netherlands. His book De kleine Shoa (The little Shoah) deals with the problems concerning the financial affairs of the Jews and Jewish possessions, and the Dutch bureaucracy after the war. For his research into looted Jewish possessions during the war, the so-called Liro investigation, he managed to unearth several crucial documents.
He criticized the conclusions of the Contactgroep Tegoeden WOII (Commission dealing with WWII restitutions) which under the direction of ex-minister Jos van Kemenade had to assess the amount of restitution due to the Dutch Jewish community.
In 1992 he published "Onbestelbaar: herinneringen in briefvorm" (Undeliverable: A Letter of Reminiscence) in memory of the Jews of Rotterdam who were murdered during the war.
The book is written in the form of a letter to his mother, who was one of the victims. He relates how he and other relatives had fared after the war, and deals with the persecution of the Jews and other atrocities. In 2008 it was distributed free of charge in Rotterdam.
He also translated "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx.
At the start of the 21st century he started the "Digitaal Monument Joodse Gemeenschap" (Digital Monument to the Jewish Community) in the Netherlands, which from 2005 was made available on the internet. With this project he wanted to provide a record of the Jewish community in the Netherlands as it had been before the deportations took place. Isaac Lipschits died in Groningen in 2008.
Jaap Meijer (1912-1993)
Jaap Meijer was born in Winschoten in extreme poverty. His father died when he was 13 years old. It was decided that Jaap should continue his schooling at the Dutch Israelite Seminary in Amsterdam, then the only way for poor students to receive an academic education. Various Jewish families paid for his tuition and living expenses. He did not complete his studies at the Seminary however and instead went to study history at the University of Amsterdam.
During his student years he was an active member of the NZSO, the Dutch Zionist Student Organization.
In 1941, just before the Germans barred Jews from universities, he obtained his PhD for the thesis “Isaac Da Costa’s weg naar het Christendom: bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der Joodse problematiek in Nederland” (Isaac Da Costa’s road to Christianity: a contribution to the history of Jewish problematics in the Netherlands).
From 1941 to 1943 he taught at the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam. In 1943 he was sent to Westerbork with his wife Liesje and son Ischa, from where they were deported to Bergen-Belsen. They were eventually able to return to the Netherlands, having barely survived.
In 1948 Meijer was asked to write the history of the persecution of the Jews. Negotiations remained fruitless however, and Jacques Presser eventually undertook the task.
In 1951 Jaap Meijer resumed his position as lecturer in history at the University of Amsterdam. He also became editor in chief of the Zionist publication De Joodse Wachter (The Jewish Watchman). Later his attitude towards Zionism became however more critical.
Jaap Meijer did not always bother to reveal his sources, maybe because he thought that historians reading his work, should look them up themselves.
In 1953 he left for Paramaribo in Surinam with his wife and children (Ischa, Miriam and Job) to take up the position of assistant rabbi. The family returned to the Netherlands towards the end of 1955.
In the Seventies he published several books on the history of the Jews in the Netherlands. He also wrote poems under the pen name Saul van Messel.
For his publications in the Groningen dialect he was awarded the "Literaire Pries" by the Stichting 't Grunneger Bouk (Groningen Book Foundation). Jaap Meijer was not easy to get on with, as countless polemics against his colleagues testify. He passed away in 1993 shortly after his wife's death and was buried in Heemstede.
Jacob (Jacques) Presser (1899-1970)
Jacob Presser was born in Amsterdam to Gerrit Presser and Aaltje Stempel. His father was employed in the diamond industry.
In 1936 Jacob married Debora Suzanna Appel, who died in Sobibor in 1943. He married again in 1954, to Bertha Hartog. Both marriages were childless.
Presser grew up in a poor Jewish family in which belief in the rise of socialism played an important role. Because of unemployment in the diamond industry the family moved to Antwerp. They returned to Amsterdam in 1907, where Jacob became a brilliant student at the Commercial College. After graduation he reluctantly followed his father's wishes and started work as an office clerk. In 1919, thanks to a private bursary, he enrolled at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied history and Dutch. In 1926 he obtained his PhD cum laude with the thesis Das Buch "De Tribus Impostoribus" which attacked the teachings of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.
In 1926 he became a teacher at the Vossius Gymnasium, a newly established grammar school in Amsterdam. He was an excellent teacher. In those years he did not write much apart from book reviews and textbook articles. He also published an essay on "Anatole France en de geschiedenis” (Anatole France and history), which he dedicated to prof. H. Brugmans.
In 1930 Presser got to know the historian Jan Romein, who influenced him not only scientifically but also politically. He called Jan Romein his most influential teacher.
Presser's interest in contemporary history, which expressed itself especially after the war, had its origin in the turbulent thirties. He lectured on this subject at the Volksuniversiteit of Amsterdam.
In 1941 his second book "De Tachtigjarige oorlog" (The Eighty Years’ War) was published under the pseudonym B.W. Schapers.
The German invasion of Holland on May 10th 1940 marked a low point in his life. He tried in vain to escape to England and tried to commit suicide. In the autumn of 1940 he was discharged from the Vossius Gymnasium on the orders of the German occupier. From 1941 to 1943 he taught at the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam. In March 1943 his wife Debora Appel was arrested and sent to Westerbork . From there she was deported to Sobibor, where she was murdered.
He also wrote poems under the pseudonym J. van Wageningen.
In spite of the sorrow that he had experienced, he managed to write another book: Amerika, van kolonie tot wereldmacht (America, from colony to worldpower) which appeared in 1949. Like his book "Napoleon" it is often satirical in tone and razor-sharp in judgment.
After the war he resumed his teaching post at the Vossius Gymnasium until 1947, which he combined with a lectureship in political history at the University of Amsterdam. His lectures were popular with the students and he was much respected by his colleagues. In 1950 he accepted the assignment of the "Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie" to write the history of the Dutch Jewry during the years 1940-1945. Its publication was preceded by the brilliant novella De nacht der Girondijnen (The night of the Girondines), which for him meant the breakthrough to his most important book Ondergang (Downfall), in which he describes the persecution and extermination of Dutch Jewry. It was issued in two parts in 1965. Writing such a book would have been a heavy task for anyone, but the more so for one who had been a victim himself. Writing detective novels offered him some light relief.
The publication of "Ondergang" struck an unprecedented cord with his readers which meant a great deal to him. It also met with much criticism from other historians, which was largely justified and accepted by Presser. The book should not just be regarded as a worthy and great memorial to the fateful story of Dutch Jewry during the war years, but also as an original historical work, based on academic research.
In May 1969 he left his academic career, but he continued his research until his death in 1970.
Extracted from source:Yael (Lotje) Ben Lev-de Jong
Translated from Dutch:Michael Jamenfeld
End editing:Sara Kirby-Nieweg & Anthony (Tony) Kirby