‘I liked the ordinary prisoners better than the Jehovah’s witnesses’

‘I liked the ordinary prisoners better than the Jehovah’s witnesses’

1. Mariët Meester: Colony child

Anyone visiting Veenhuizen in Drenthe may be doing so because the former justice colony has been on the World Heritage List since July 2021. Or perhaps one read The pauper’s paradise by Suzanna Jansen who wrote about her ancestors who were in the re-education camps in Veenhuizen. Now there is the very personal, committed writing Colony child from writer Mariët Meester, who grew up in Veenhuizen because her father became director of the School with the Bible there. Meester describes her memories from kindergarten to her eighteenth birthday. How she sat in class with her father, Master Meester, and how she secretly read the minutes of board meetings. The village had its own rules and customs (for example, you could drive within the colony boundaries without a driver’s license). At that time, Veenhuizen was not accessible to outsiders, visitors had to be registered in advance. Everyone was connected in one way or another to the prisons, formerly the three educational institutions. People worked there as custodians, civil servants, ministers or in the hospital, the wards of which are now impressive hotel rooms. The Fourth Gesticht is the nickname of the cemetery about which Meester writes beautifully in her book as a child, but where as an adult, as she said last Saturday NRC wrote, has started to think differently (‘The myth about the mass grave is therefore incorrect’). The difference with The pauper’s paradise is that Colony child is written very purely from the perspective of a child who knows no better than that life is shared with prisoners (‘I liked the ordinary prisoners better than the Jehovah’s witnesses’) without fear of that, although the number of escapes increased. The Pauper’s Paradise on the other hand, it is about poverty in the Netherlands and the role that the penal colony played in it.

Mariët Meester: Colony child. Growing up in the prison village of Veenhuizen. Arbeiderspers, 287 pages. € 21.99

2. Mala Kacenberg: The girl, the cat and the forest

The Polish Jewish girl Mala Szorer (1927-2017) grew up in the village of Tarnogrod, which, like many other villages in Poland, turned into a ghetto after the German occupation in 1939. Mala is one of nine children her parents had to feed and because the youngest are in danger of starving, the then twelve-year-old Mala decides to look for food outside the ghetto with her brother. It turns fatal for the boy – he is shot dead by a German soldier – and from that moment on Mala no longer dares to live at home because she has been betrayed by a man from their village. When the family is taken away and, as it turns out, also murdered, Mala flees (‘I had no gun, but I was armed with an enormously strong will to survive’). She is followed by their cat Malach who will become her guardian angel during the war. He jumps out of a tree at the right moment to scare off a German soldier, or he shows her the way when she is at a fork in the road. Also The girl, the cat and the forest was written with the retrospective memory of a twelve-year-old. The book is reminiscent of a gripping biography Escape from the ghetto which tells the story of the thirteen-year-old Polish Jewish Chaim who escaped from the Lódz ghetto in 1940. The major difference between the two books is that John Carr, Chaim’s son, ‘verified’ and documented his father’s story where possible, while Mala Kacenberg relies exclusively on her own memories. Mala was also allowed to register as a young refugee in England in 1945. There she is asked about three times if she wants to be adopted, but she prefers to live on her own. In contrast to Chaim, who continued to present himself as a Catholic in England, Mara decided to fully practice her Jewish faith again after the war together with her future husband Meir Kacenberg. This very personal, hopeful one, already published in 1995 Mala Kacenberg written memoir has now been translated into Dutch for the first time.

Mala Kacenberg: The girl, the cat and the forest. (Mala’s Cat). Translation Els van Son. The House of Books, 286 pages. € 21.99

3. Miriam Rasch: Autonomy. A self-help guide

For the philosophical pamphlet series New Lightwhich confronts contemporary thinkers with a classic text, the twenty-seventh edition was written by Miriam Rasch. This philosopher and essayist was presented with how Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) two hundred years ago called on man to free himself from the power of the church and from the power of habit (‘Have the courage to use your own reason’ and ‘Man is more than that […] than a machine’). How do we think about that freedom of action, being autonomous, while we are guided by algorithms? In Autonomy. A self-help guide Rasch examines the issue by first considering the concept of Enlightenment and then inviting the reader to engage in a number of self-reflection exercises; What did you want to do as a ten-year-old but were not expected to do? What did you want to be ‘later’ that was not accepted? Rasch is always keen to help break through ‘immaturity’, the term with which Kant referred to the Enlightenment. But don’t just see this immaturity literally in speaking, our actions can also bend from compulsive to autonomous. The exercises, the many references to other philosophers, painters and writers, but above all the reflections of Rasch himself, make this pamphlet one of the best in the series.

Miriam Rasch: Autonomy. A self-help guide. Prometheus, 128 pages. € 16.99

4. Willem Wilmink: It could be less

The poems, songs and stories of Neerlandicus Willem Wilmink (1936-2003) have been reissued many times, nevertheless Vic van de Reijt a pleasant new choice from Wilmink’s extensive oeuvre. The hardcover anthology It could be less is equally immersed in time in both the stories and the poems: childhood memories of the war, school and the girl next door Ans to holidays, being a first-year student in Amsterdam, love, divorce (‘Never has a child been to blame/ as a big people divorce’) and death. Van de Reijt mixes poems and songs for children and adults, which nevertheless leads to a self-evident unity. For example, the poem ‘This fist on this fist’ fits easily next to the poem ‘Oorlog’ (‘Not afraid of the war, but of your report’). His tone is recognisable: melancholic with light, sometimes witty undertones. The stories are pure memories of the smallest details: that a classmate at the Lyceum taught him how to dry his wet back after school swimming (“Until then my mother had done that every Saturday”). But let us not forget the song lyrics rightly chosen by Van de Reijt, such as the moving ‘Frekie’ performed by Kees Prins or Herman Veen’s big hit ‘Hilversum III’ (‘Hilversum III did not yet exist, but everyone had their own voice’).

Willem Wilmink: It could have been less. Compiled by Vic van de Reijt. Van Oorschot, 304 pages. € 27.50

5. Walter van den Broeck: Tijl Uilenspiegel

In Tijl Uilenspiegel edited by the Flemish writer Walter van den Broeck the story of the traveling jester Tijl Uilenspiegel. He based his story on the story of the Belgian writer Charles De Coster, who had revived the saga in the nineteenth century. In Tijl Uilenspiegel Van den Broeck places the story in the sixteenth century in the immense empire of Charles V and later his son Philip II. In the Low Countries, believers are set up to betray non-believers. Heretics and witches are tortured, hanged or burned at the stake. Tijl’s father also suffered this fate and Tijl will not rest until he has avenged his father. He eventually joins the Protestant Sea Beggars and is even given authority by Prince Willem the Silent over the Beggars’ ship with which Alva is defeated at Den Briel. Throughout the story, Tijl’s jokes are widely publicized and whether they are very lame or quite cunning – Tijl gets away with them. Only his deep love for his family, his neighbors and his religious motto seem sincere: ‘Where one man tells another what he should believe and how he should live, it is not God but the devil who rules.’ Recommended for beautifully developed, historical storylines.

Walter van den Broeck: Tijl Uilenspiegel. Friday, 320 pages. €23.50

6. Louis Couperus: Along lines of gradualism

In the series ‘retranslated classics’, Dutch teacher Albert Kroezemann the novel Along lines of gradualism (1900) by the great Dutch writer Louis Couperus (1863-1923) sensitively retranslated. The main character Cornélie de Retz van Loo married Baron Rudolf Brox in The Hague when she was 22, but divorced him after a year because he abused her. The young independent Cornélie, not supported by her family (‘the loneliness was widespread and her suffering was painful’) goes to live in the Belloni boarding house in Rome. The subject of the novel – an abused woman divorces her husband, lives on her own, falls for a poor artist and is threatened by her ex-husband – only gained recognition later. The book had only one printing during Couperus’ lifetime. To endorse this later recognition, Elsbeth Etty is quoted in the afterword Dutch: ‘The undisguised manner in which Couperus in this horror story addresses violence against women and analyzes its consequences Along lines of gradualism a committed literary plea for feminism and sexual liberation.’

Louis Couperus: Along lines of gradualism. Retranslated by Albert Kroezemann. Little Owl, 274 pages. € 19.50