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Paul Christiaan Flu: a Surinamese professor in a time of war

Paul Christiaan Flu, originally from Surinam, was a brilliant tropical doctor, who in 1938 rose to the position of Rector Magnificus of Leiden University. The war years brought his lightning career to an abrupt end: his son was murdered and he himself was imprisoned in a concentration camp. A sad family history.

4 January 1944. In the late afternoon, nurse Arnoldus Krom was cycling through Oegstgeest, having just left the Eendegeest nursing home. At the junction with the main road from The Hague to Amsterdam, he suddenly heard a muffled explosion coming from inside a black official car. The door of the car flew open and three men got out and dragged a body onto the side of the road.  SS officer  J.W. Hoffmann took aim with his pistol, pulled the trigger and fired two shots. The nurse was ordered to be on his way. 

It was at this particular spot that Hans Flu, son of the Leiden professor and former Rector Magnificus Paul Christiaan Flu, met his death. It was the Nazi's ultimate revenge.  The day before, members of the Resistance had attempted an assassination at Leiden's Rapenburg and even though Hans had nothing to do with this, the Nazis wanted him dead. The cards were stacked against him.  He supposedly got into a fight with a German some time previously who had harrassed his pregnant wife, and he had expressed less than positive views about the NSB. And on top of that, his mother's maiden name was the Jewish Polak. To add fuel to the fire, Hans was dark-skinned. There was no place in the new world order of the German occupiers for a Mischling or half-breed. 

And so, Hans was taken from his doctor's practice that day, driven off and summarily executed. Two other Leiden residents were apparently 'shot while fleeing'.  A further 35 Leiden notables were deported to Sint-Michielsgestel hostage camp and Camp Vught. Among them were Leiden professors Rudolph Cleveringa, Eduard Meijers and Paul Christiaan Flu. The last of these was the father of the unfortunate Hans Flu, although he was not yet aware of his son's fate. 

Part I: A Surinamese prodigy

When Paul Christiaan Flu arrived in Leiden with his wife and sons in 1921, he already had a full academic career behind him. The brilliant specialist in tropical medicine had attended the Medical School in Paramaribo from the age of 15 and he obtained his doctor's certificate at Utrecht University at the age of 22. Here, too, his intelligence immediately stood out. The Colonial News and Advertising magazine Surinam wrote about the pesentation ceremony: 

After the examination, the unusual phenomenon occurred before the chairman of the examination committee [...] felt the need to address the examinee. In the most flattering of terms, the professor wished the successful examinee success with the exam he had taken, which he described as particularly good.  […] Mr Flu is now the golden son of this academic city.

Paul Christiaan Flu with his colleagues in the Surinamese town of Groningen. Flu is to the far left, with a straw hat on his lap.

Flu spent the next three years in his beloved home country, the Dutch colony of Surinam, working as a health officer. He became head of the newly established Laboratory for Bacteriology and Pathology, where he also conducted research and lectured. At this time he was researching the Surinamese population who were plagued by such diseases as malaria, yellow fever, filariasis and Yaws.

Flu was fellow-organiser of an expedition to the Surinamese town of Groningen, where there was a nursing home for sufferers of Yaws. This is an infectious tropical disease typified by raspberry-like swellings of the skin.  The highly educated Flu suspected that this skin disease should be easy to cure, and hetreated the condition with Salvarsan. Within three weeks, all the patients had been cured and the nursing home could be closed.

However, Flu realised it would be a waste of time as long as hygiene in the colony did not improve. In the cities, on the rubber plantations and in the gold industry in Suriname, the general living conditions, particularly among the poorer people were atrocious. In his diary, he wrote:  

The water supply in Paramaribo is less than primitive; during the rainy season there is plenty of water, which is collected in all kinds of reservoirs. These are often a source of mosquitos, which means that in particular filariasis (a condition involving a parasitic worm) is transmitted. 

Flu believed – rightly – that hygiene could substantially improve the standard of living. He made recommendations to the colonial management to improve the quality of the drinking water, food and habitation. It would ultimately take until 1933 before the Surinamese Water Supply Company installed a new water supply system from Pararivier to Paramaribo.

Portrait of Flu with his royal award.

Flu's pioneering work was noticed, not only in Paramaribo, but also in The Hague. In 1911 Flu was appointed Knight of the Sword in the Order of Orange Nassau. He was then just 27 years old. Shortly afterwards he left for the Dutch East Indies, where he continued his research on tropical medicine.

In the Dutch East Indies two sons were born: Hans and Freddy. In spite of their dark skin colour, the Flu family certainly belonged among the white colonisers. They lived in Weltevreden, a white neighbourhood with  stately white buildings and with the kampongs at a suitable distance. Mother Flu had several servants to help her with running the house: a kokkie, ababoe tjoetjie (washer woman), a kebon (gardener) and adjongos (a domestic servant). Father had a chauffeur , who drove the family around in their car, into the mountains of Java.   

Part II: A close-knit family in Leiden

In 1921, their lives continued to prosper, but this time in Leiden: the university employed the talented Flu in the City of Keys as Professor in Topical Hygiene and director of the newly founded Institute of Tropical Medicine. In beautiful premises, Rapenburg 33 (currently DUWO student housing specialist office), Flu and his colleagues researched tropical diseases, and there was even room to treat a maximum of six out-patients.

In the meantime, there was plenty of time to enjoy Leiden and the beautiful surroundings. In this academic environment no one had to tell the Flu family what comme il faut meant. Especially mother Flu enjoyed chic dinner parties and galas. Where father usually wore his white lab coat, mother could often be found in a cloak decorated with a fur collar and a matching bag and shoes. The children were children: they loved to ice skate on the Singel during winter and sometimes to the amazement of the local children, who had never seen dark-skinned children on the ice before.

In those happy years, the entire family regularly went sailing on a boat that Paul was Christiaan bought with his generous salary. The motor yacht took them to the Zuiderzee, the Waters of Zeeland and the Oostzee. On their trips, young Freddy was often the centre of attention because he climbed the spinnaker pole to jump into the cool water. Hans was more serious and mature and soon became helmsman on board the sailing yacht.

The highlight of Paul Christiaan’s glorious career was the late 1930s. In 1936, he received an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, Utrecht University. Two years later, he was also appointed Rector Magnificus of Leiden University. He would hold this position for a year, which was customary at that time.

Hans (left) and Freddy (second from left) with friends in the sailing boat.

Resisitance: not by choice but with conviction

When is enough enough? When do you say: this far and no further? It’s a question that every Dutch person would have asked themselves during the Second World War. From May 1940 they were confronted with the excessively strict measures of the occupying forces. What started with the bombing of Rotterdam soon escalated to the dismissal of Jewish officials and academics, and shortly after the first police raids and deportations.

From Professor Flu’s life story we learn that it’s not easy to act against draconic measures, even if the origin is a racist and dictatorial occupying force. Flu was firmly against National Socialism but from his memories of the war he had to admit that ‘some sense of antisemitism’​​​​​​ was not unknown to the Dutch. 

The result of his lecture was a great, spontaneous demonstration. People started to sing the Wilhelmus and students walking in the streets […] all sang along. The halls […] emptied and they all sang – most of them with tears in their eyes – the verses of the Dutch national anthem. Everything was a spontaneous manifestation of a deeply offended sense of justice byyoung people who, in such matters, luckily let their hearts and feelings speak rather than listening to their common sense.

In the meantime, some of Flu’s colleagues did resist. One particularly famous colleague is Professor Rudolph Cleveringa’s 1940 lecture (video), in which he denounced the German occupying forces for dismissing his Jewish colleagues. Flu was moved by the events, as becomes evident from his memoirs:

The result of his lecture was a great, spontaneous demonstration. People started to sing the Wilhelmus and students walking in the streets […] all sang along. The halls […] emptied and they all sang – most of them with tears in their eyes – the stanzas of the Dutch national anthem. Everything was a spontaneous manifestation of a deeply offended sense of justice among young people who, in matters of this kind, luckily let their hearts and feelings speak rather than listen with their common sense.

In the prison camp in Sint-Michielsgestel Paul Christiaan Flu organised a celebration of the Relief of Leiden.

Flu didn’t listen to his heart; that wasn’t like him. Up until 1941, the NSB weekly magazine People and Fatherland (“Volk en Vaderland”) arrived with the post. This wasn’t because the professor had national socialist beliefs but because he wanted to know ‘how his opponents thought.’ Hans and Freddy were outraged and held vigorous debates with their father until he cancelled his subscription.

Flu’s breaking point wasn’t until June 1942, after over two years of occupation. At that time, the German occupying forces fired lawyer Roelof Kranenburg, which was enough for 58 out of 93 Leiden professors to resign too as a form of protest. Flu was one of the academics that hung his gown in a willow, although he did it with some hesitation, as we can read in his diary:

I belonged to a group of professors that didn’t know how they would make a living after their resignation. A small light at the end of the tunnel was presented to me by someone from outside academic circles. He ensured me that I could count on two thousand Dutch guilders per year after I resigned. It wasn’t much […], but I didn’t hesitate for a moment when I had this assurance and my decision was set; as soon as the NSB would try to attack Leiden University, I would resign together with the others.

And so, Flu joined the resistance after all. On 7 August 1942 he was arrested and held hostage at Sint-Michielsgestel Internment Camp. The regime at this camp was not very strict, especially compared to the fate that awaited the Jews. At camp, Flu even succeeded in celebrating the Telief of Leiden with his fellow prisoners on 3 October. One week later he was sent home, in part because he suffered a serious, progressive heart failure just before the war due to an accident in his own lab. Paul Christiaan was severely ill. 

Hans Flu with wife and children in 1943. A few months later he was shot dead by the Germans.

Part IV: A broken man

His freedom was to be short-lived. On 4 January 1944, Paul Christiaan was arrested again. He was not yet aware of the fact that his son Hans had just been shot dead. It was not until after his arrest that he found out that his son had been killed. At that moment, he and 34 other detainees were in the overcrowded Boerhaavelaan Ortskommandantur in Leiden. Leiden professor Rudolph Cleveringa was also present in that room when the tragic news arrived, and wrote the following about it:

The Leiden officers supported us as best they could and tried to be of service as much as possible. They also announced the terrible deaths of Douma and Flu. The announcement about young Flu was especially wretched, as his father was among us. An officer carefully told him about the accident and his son's fate.

It remains guesswork what went through Paul Christiaan's mind at the time. Was he thinking back to little Hans’ exuberant birthday parties at the Waterloo square in Weltevreden? Or how he and his friends were glued to a cinematograph watching children’s films? Or did he reminisce about the boy with a melancholic expression on the Vondel steamship heading to the Netherlands? How happy Hans had been when he had won the sack race on board the ship! Or perhaps he thought of his son as a young gentleman, dining at Minerva and rowing at Njord? A doctor no less, who followed in his father’s footsteps.

Paul Christiaan Flu in the Leiden University cortege. It is a pre-war photograph, since it is likely that Flu wasn’t able to walk in 1945 due to his poor health.

Paul Christiaan was deported to Vught concentration camp. The regime was a lot stricter than at St-Michielsgestel. The Leiden leading figures were not treated any different than the ‘regular’ prisoners. Flu writes:

We had to […] undress. […] Our heads were shaved, beards and moustaches cut, after which we went to the bathing area and took a hot shower with soap. Then we received our prisoner’s garments: underpants and a shirt of coloured cotton, a coat and trousers of some kind of imitated flanel, grey and white with broad, blue stripes lengthwise, an overcoat, hat and gloves made of the same fabric.

After almost a month, Flu was dismissed from Vught and could return to Leiden. More so than physical hardships, Flu was broken by his son’s death. The once so strong and proud man became low-spirited and despondent. At his time at camp in Vught he wrote that the poor treatment left him ‘completely indifferent’. After his release he only lived for his grandchildren who had lost their father.

If I must live, wrestling through years of sorrow, let it be so only with the satisfaction that living through the grief enables me to do something for my grandchildren.

On 17 September 1945 Leiden celebrated. Leiden University’s doors were reopened with a formal gathering at the Pieterskerk. The university was closed during the war because the ‘bastion of freedom’ was not willing to bow to anti-Jewish measures imposed by the occupying forces. Paul Christiaan Flu probably did not join the cortege that day: he was too weak. Three months later, he died at 61 years old. The academy may have survived the war with the occupying forces, but lost one of its prominent scientists as well. 

Text: Merijn van Nuland

Grandson records family history

This article uses Paul Christiaan Flu’s biography, written by his grandson Peter Flu, partially based on Paul Christiaan Flu’s memoirs. Peter will soon hand over his book, which he wrote as a private record for his own children, to university historian Willem Otterspeer. Otterspeer currently works on a book about Leiden University in times of war, titled Het Horzelnest (The Hornets’ Nest).

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