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‘War history of Eduard Meijers warrants place in memorial culture’

A group of confidants including a former student of Meijers managed to avert his deportation to a death camp. In her lecture on 27 November, Cleveringa Professor Marjan Schwegman revealed the history of the persecution of the Jewish Professor Eduard Meijers.

‘Rudolph Cleveringa is quite rightly a shining example in memorial culture, who knew just what he was risking with his protest speech,' Schwegman said in a packed Academy Building. On 26 November 1940 the Law Dean protested on this very spot against the dismissal of his mentor Eduard Meijers, Professor of Civil Law in Leiden. Meijers was dismissed by the Nazis, along with 29 other Jewish members of staff. The day after the protest speech, Cleveringa was arrested and imprisoned in Scheveningen where he remained until the summer of 1941. 

The audience in the Academy Building with the Meijers family in the front row.

Honoured as a scholar

Cleveringa’s protest speech is still commemorated today, but little is known about what happened to Meijers during the war, Schwegman commented.  'He was and is primarily honoured as the post-War founder of the Civil Code.' Colleagues wanted to honour Meijers, who was an atheist, primarily as an scholar and not as a someone who was persecuted for his Jewish background, she explained. She also suspects that there was some discomfort surrounding his release from the camp. 'In the initial period after the War, survivors of camps were often treated with suspicion. What had they done to ensure their survival?'  

Many Leiden professors were present at the lecture in the Great Auditorium.

Protest speech also had a negative effect

The historian touched on another sensitive issue: Cleveringa’s lecture, which Meijers had approved in advance, gave rise to an enormous sense of solidarity, but it also unwittingly had a negative effect. 'The German authorities felt that their honour had been so offended that it was difficult after that to get them to make any concessions to Meijers. In Westerbork it turned out that Meijers' punishable status even opened the floodgates for repeated commands to transport him and his family to the East.’

Marjan Schwegman also referred in her lecture to the war history of the family of Job Cohen, professor by special appointment in Leiden.

Confidants saved Meijers

Nonetheless, Meijers, his wife and their youngest daughter Clara (two daughters survived the war in the Dutch Indies and one went into hiding) managed to survive the war in Westerbork and later Theresienstadt. How was that possible? Meijers declared before a Parliamentary Enquiry Committee after the War that luck and chance played a major role. Schwegman noticed something else. 'Behind the scenes a group of confidents did a lot for him, which is why he was never sent to a death camp.’

Prominent status

In particular Meijers' lawyer, Lucie van Taalingen-Dols, a former student of his, made enormous efforts. She was assisted by Willem van Eysinga, Leiden Professor of  International Law, and Petrus Idenburg, secretary of the University. Van Taalingen even went to Berlin where 'the Meijers case' was discussed by Head of the SS Adolf Eichmann. The group managed to arrange for the Meijers family to be given the status of  ‘prominent’ and for them not to be deported while their emigration procedure to Switzerland was in progress. Cleveringa also helped. 'He wrote part of a memorandum by Van Taalingen setting out Meijers' services, including to Germany.' 

Rector Carel Stolker greeting the Cleveringa family after the lecture, including their daughter Hiltje and her husband.

Life and death decisions

The status of 'prominent' ensured that Meijers did not have to carry out any heavy physical work in Westerbork and Theresienstadt. He had to do administrative work and was able to help prisoners in Westerbork by providing them with another nationality. He also kept in contact with his colleagues in Leiden, such as ‘Ruben’, the code name for Rudolph Cleveringa and Ben Telders. His Leiden friends also helped him by sending him study material. Thanks to all these efforts, Meijers managed to survive and after the War he returned to Leiden University. 

Renewal of Leiden memorial culture

Schwegman concluded her lecture with a wish. 'I hope that knowledge of Meijers' history will contribute to a renewal of Leiden's memorial culture. Simply adding his story to that of Cleveringa is not enough. Then we are setting a history filled with difficulties and the bare struggle for survival  against a flawless history in which Cleveringa upholds pre-war law.’

Daan Samkalden (left) with Hiltje ten Kate-Cleveringa, Eduard Vermeulen (Meijers was also his grandfather) and Theo ten Kate, Hiltje's husband.

Meijers family very moved

After the lecture, several of Meijers' descendents, such as his grandson Daan Samkalden, commented on how impressed they were with the lecture. 'It was moving, particularly because Schwegman showed so many family photos. I have also heard some new information; I didn't know, for example, that he carried out legal work  in Westerbork.' Great grand-daughter Mette added: 'We now have a better idea of what the family went through during the war.' 

(LvP/Photos by Monique Shaw)

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