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On the trail of Cleveringa

He is primarily known for his protest speech against the dismissal of his Jewish teacher Eduard Meijers, but who was the man behind this iconic figure? This is the subject of the travelling exhibition 'On the trail of Professor Rudolph Pabus Cleveringa’. The exhibition can be seen from 16 January to 30 March in the Oude UB in Leiden.

A photo from his childhood with parents and servant girls in the garden in Appingedam. (Groningen archives)

Intimate family photos, memoirs, diaries, letters, texts of speeches, drawings of camp scenes and much more. The travelling exhibition, which was first shown in Appingedam,the town where Cleveringa was born, sheds light on both the personal and professional life of this famous Leiden professor of Trade Law and Civil Procedural Law.  ‘The main focus of the exhibition is on the northern influences on Cleveringa,' guest curator Marten van Harten explains. It was Van Harten who  put the exhibition together. ‘We show how Cleveringa was inspired by his youth in Appingedam and the values that he wanted to pass on to his grandchildren.' The film documentary  'De Damster Vrijheid van Professor Cleveringa' (in Dutch) can also be seen at the exhibition. 

Tradition of civil freedom

Eight banners guide the visitors through Cleveringa's life and work. Cleveringa (1894-1980) was born in Appingedam in Groningen, where his family produced generations of lawyers, ministers and administrators. Visitors to the exhibition will be given a glimpse into the rich family archive and will be able to view items from special collections. One of Cleveringa's ancestors, for example, the 18th-century minister Rudolph Pabus, collected manuscripts of the Leiden medical specialist and botanist Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). Cleveringa drew inspiration from the history of  Appingedam that had a centuries-old tradition of civil liberty. He used this image in his Ex Libris, the emblem of his book collection. The embem shows the point in time in 1327 when Appingedam was granted city status by the meeting of free Frieslanders in 1327 at the Upstalsboom, where they held their meetings on legal matters.

The emblem of Cleveringa's book collection refers to the point in time in 1327 when Appingedam was given city status.

Love of shipping

The liberally educated Rudolph studied Law in Leiden and was awarded a doctorate cum laude in 1919, supervised by his mentor Eduard Meijers. After obtaining his doctorate, Cleveringa left the University and immediately started to work as a lawyer at the Royal Netherlands Steamboad Company (KNSM). This work combined his two passions: transport and the law. His love for shipping developed while he was still a young boy in Appingedam, probably encouraged by the fact that it was a traditional trading area with the countries around the Baltic Sea, according to Van Harten.

Lecture texts

When Meijers asked him to come back to Leiden as professor of Trade Law and Civil Procedural Law in 1927, Cleveringa brought with him his expertise in Maritime Law. Many of his lectures even started with a collision between ships, Van Harten recounts. Cleveringa wrote his lectures out in great detail and kept almost everything in his archive, part of which was passed on to the Leiden University Libraries on his death. A number of his lecture texts are also exhibited.   

Eduard Meijers in front of the Academy Building.


One of the banners is devoted to the wartime Resistance and Cleveringa’s protest speech on 26 November 1940 in the Academy Building. Cleveringa regarded the speech as a concerted effort, agreed almost unanimously by the professors of the Law Faculty. He also had the wholehearted support of his wife Hiltje Boschloo in delivering the address. She knew beforehand that her husband, the father of her three children, could be arrested, which is what happened. Van Harten: ‘Cleveringa absolutely did not see himself as a hero. In his farewell lecture as a professor, he reflected on the unshakeable resolve of all those around him.' 

This sketch by Henri Pieck can be seen at the exhibition.

Sketches of camp inmates

The exhibition also pays attention to known and unknown war victims. It includes a number of sketches by artist  Henri Pieck with whom Cleveringa spent some time in prison in Scheveningen. After Scheveningen, Pieck was transferred to the Buchenwald camp, where he made sketches of his fellow inmates. A few of these sketches can be seen at the exhibition. ‘Cleveringa valued the resistance shown by artists very highly and saw parallels between the meaning of art and that of law in times of injustice.' 

The travelling exhibition is an educational activity of the City of Appingedam Museum in the context of the the Year of the Resistance 2018 organised by the Dutch World War 2 Platform (WO2). 

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