Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden victims of WWII given a face

Every year on 26 November Leiden University commemorates the protest speech given by Professor Cleveringa against the Nazis. At least 663 students, staff and alumni of the University lost their lives during the Second World War, yet little was known about these victims. PhD candidate Adriënne Baars discovered how many of them died.

Shot dead during a raid, killed in a camp or suicide motivated by utter despair. External PhD candidate Baars came across many tragic stories about the Leiden victims when she had just started her PhD research on the question of the extent to which writing about experiences in Nazi camps help the authors process their experiences. ‘While conducting a  preliminary study in diaries, biographies and camp archives,  I came across a number of different victims who had a link with Leiden University.’ Her supervisor Yra van Dijk, professor of Modern Dutch History, has for a long time been calling for more research on the broad 'Leiden' group that did not survive the Second World War.  

Death list

In 2015 Van Dijk asked her students to explore commemorative  culture both within and outside the University. Every year the University marks the protest speech by Professor Cleveringa, dean of the Law Faculty. He survived the war, but little is known about the victims who were not so fortunate. On the intiative of Van Dijk, the book In Memoriam 1940-1945 dating from 1952 has now been digitised. It contains a list of the names of 663 Leiden students, staff and alumni who lost their lives during the war. The then Rector Magnificus Julius Boeke stressed in the foreword that 663 was the number of known victims according to the information that was available at the time. The list of victims contains only the name, the year they started in Leiden and the place where they died.

Personal stories

Baars studied the whole list in In Memoriam and was able to trace important information on around 500 victims, such as where they were born and their study programme; she also discovered some very personal stories. Baars: ‘The names alone of victims don't tell people from outside very much, but one you know more about them, they really come to life.' As well as diaries, biographies and autobiographies, she also studied the archives of the NIOD, and online archives such as the Jewish Monument and the War Graves Foundation.

Died in Westerbork

Baars mentions a couple of ill-fated stories. In Memoriam gives only the names of the Jewish sisters Rebekka and Johanna Biegel and that they died in Westerbork in 1943. But a lot more was known about them: according to the biography by Coen Rümke, Rebekka (an astronomer) and Johanna (a biologist) felt that their future was hopeless and they committed suicide using a substance given them by a friend who was a chemist. This information had been published earlier, but Baars was able to link the story to names on the Leiden list. 

The victims of WWII are commemorated in the memorial window in the Academy Building, inserted between a Japanese and German soldier.

Suicides in May 1940

Baars came across more instances of suicide. The book Mij krijgen ze niet levend; de zelfmoorden van mei 1940 (They're not going to take me alive: the suicides of May 1940) by Lucas Ligtenberg provided some important information. Of the 389 known suicides in May 1940, six were Leiden students and alumni. Five of these deaths were mentioned in In Memoriam, but not that they were suicides. Baars: ‘For a list of 663 names, the number of suicides is high. That may have to do with the fact that the more highly educated people were, the more aware they were of the dangers posed by the Germans.'

The Luggage monument by Ram Katzir comprises six cases at different places that commemorate the Jewish people of Leiden who were arrested by the Nazis during the war. Photo: Jan van Steen

Many deaths in Dutch East Indies

A remarkably high number of victims, almost half of the total, came from the Dutch East Indies or died there during the war. At that time, Leiden University had a large Indology programme that attracted both Dutch and Indonesian students many of whom went to work in the Dutch East Indies once they had graduated. ‘Thanks to this additional information, we are now able to place these victims in a broader perspective and we have also learned more about the student population at that time.' A number of Indonesian students were actively involved in the Resistance; one of these was Irawan Sujono, who was shot dead during a raid at the Apothekersdijk in Leiden in January 1945. The NIOD even has a photo of him in his coffin. 'This Leiden student has been given a face even long after he died.' 

First female lawyer

One particularly distinctive woman, Lizzy van Dorp, was among the victims who died in the Dutch East Indies. She was the Netherlands' first female lawyer and economist. After a highly versatile career in the Netherlands (besides her other positions, she was also Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party), she was able to work as a teacher in the Netherlands East Indies. In 1941, she was imprisoned in a women's camp on Central Java, where she died on 6 September 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, worn down by years of exhaustion.

Adriaan Bommezijn died in Camp Vaihingen. Photo: National Archive

Alumni diaries

Two alumni from In Memoriam are particularly relevant for Baars' dissertation on the role of camp memories. Alumnus Adriaan Bommezijn, a judge in The Hague, was imprisoned in German camp Vaihingen on account of his Resistance activities. He died there as a result of maltreatment and exhaustion. His wife, Jeanne, was in Ravensbrück, where she kept a diary. Alumnus Floris Bakels, who survived the War, wrote in his diary about Bommezijn, Eric Verstijnen and other Leiden alumni who died in Vaihingen. Eric Verstijnen studied Law and Chinese in Leiden and was a member of the Student Resistance.

Forgotten victims

Baars came across one Leiden alumnus, Jan Snellen, who committede suicide and who did not appear on the list. There may well be more such forgotten victims. Another couple of victims that Baars knows of died of natural causes. One of these was Franciscus Schreinemakers, who came to Leiden in 1887 and died in Roermond in February 1945, when the region had already been liberated.

Erik Verstijnen was active in the Student Resistance. Photo: War Graves Foundation

Follow-up research needed

The new information uncovered by Baars is not yet available online. She is discussing with her PhD supervisor Van Dijk what the next step should be. 'All these stories are very special, but my dissertation is about the camp experiences of Dutch women in Nazi camps and not specifically about the Leiden victims. It would be good if a website were set up based on the In Memoriam list and if other researchers could do more follow-up research; this group of victims really does warrant more attention.' 

This year the Cleveringa lecture is on Monday 27 November. Historian Marjan Schwegman, this year's Cleveringa professor, will talk about the war history of Professor Eduard Meijers.

As chair of a temporary advisory committee that includes historian Willem Otterspeer and Professor by Special Appointment Job Cohen, Yra van Dijk made a number of recommendations in 2016 for a more comprehensive commemorative culture within the University. The committee recommended that an annual occasion should be appointed, such as 4 May, for example, when historians or memorial specialists could give a lecture on an aspect of the Second World War or more recent wars. Students could visit locations that commemorate war situations and more recent examples of exclusion, where they could hear the stories of the victims. Baars’ research is an important step in the direction of the second recommendation made by the committee: to set up a website and a photo exhibition focusing on the list of names and presenting the personal stories of some of the victims.

(LvP)