‘I can do more with questions than exclamation marks'
The life and career of art historian and Leiden alumna Gerdien Verschoor (1963) followed quite a remarkable path before she was appointed director of Camp Westerbork Memorial Centre in 2019. A woman with a deep awareness of historical places, she sees it as more of a series of coincidences, but the pieces of the puzzle have fallen perfectly into place.
This article appeared previously in Leidraad, the free alumni magazine of Leiden University. The complete magazine is also available on line.
What should have been the busiest year ever for Camp Westerbork Remembrance Centre has instead, due to the corona situation, turned out to be a period of disruptive silence. Director Gerdien Verschoor: ‘We had planned a huge liberation commemoration on 12 April. That's been shifted - if all goes well - to 13 September, the day in 1944 that the last train carrying 279 Jews left Westerbork for Bergen-Belsen. We're also looking at a different way of marking the 4 May remembrance.'
Being unable to commemorate these defining moments is painful, but, besides this, there is also the financial pain: 'We are largely dependent on ticket sales, and in these months alone we would have received around 30,000 schoolchildren. And there are also the 250 guest speakers who were to teach classes on our behalf but who are also having to stay home.' Even so, she doesn't want to be pessimistic about the future: 'No, the way some people are comparing it to a war situation is over the top. There's no comparison. We are living through a crisis, but, like all crises, it also brings new opportunities. It gives you a chance to reflect, and you learn to think about things differently.'
The flexibility and resilience Verschoor shows with this response were an important reason for the remembrance centre to appoint the Leiden alumna last year as the successor to Dirk Mulder. ‘For me, it's a dream come true. When I was cultural attaché in Poland in the nineties, Dirk showed me around the remembrance centre. Right then I thought: ''One day I'm going to do your job.''
'Is that typical of me, to make my plans so far ahead? Haha, no, not really. It was a fleeting thought that came in a flash and disappeared just as quickly. That's how I look at the course my life has taken: my career may seem to have a particular structure but I've made choices that were right at the time, and that took me somewhere. But there can always be other, different lives that you could be happy in.' She emphasises this with memories from the time when she graduated. 'I'm part of generation X that came onto the job market at the end of the eighties. At that time, you were happy with any job you could get. I applied to all the bookstores and tried to get a grant for PhD research in Warsaw. I did get the grant, but I'd have been just as happy working in a bookshop. I'm convinced I'd have had a great life among all those writers.'
Passionate about culture
Gerdien grew up in a Reformed community in Boskoop. Her father started out as a carpenter when he was twelve, and went on from there to become co-owner of an architectural firm. Her mother had tea ready for Gerdien and her brother and sister every afternoon when they came home from school. She combined that with an active social life as a volunteer for Amnesty International and working with refugees. 'I come from a warm and open family that was passionate about culture - and that's really important to me. We read a lot and went to Italy on holiday, where we had a rigorous cultural programme every morning.' Visits to Etruscan excavations awoke her interest in these Italian people. After applying twice for the School of Journalism in Utrecht and not being selected, she choose the only university in the Netherlands where Etruscan culture was a fixed part of the Art History programme. 'It was my father's idea; he thought it would be better to go and study for a year before trying again for Utrecht.'
Gerdien decided to become an Etruscan specialist. 'I had done a school project, through which I had already had contact with Professor Bouke van der Meer; he was surprised to see me in his class in 1981.' She left the Etruscans behind, but her interest in art history remained. Leiden proved to be a good choice: 'Not far from Boskoop, safe, compact and historic.' She found a room above a snackbar in Hansen Street and threw herself into her studies. 'It was fantastic going on my bike to the rustic Pieterskerk part of the town.'
She became a member of Augustinus student association, but didn't really feel drawn to that kind of typical student life. 'I was - how should I put it - more withdrawn, a bit shy. I didn't go out much; nothing more than a drink in the Uyl van Hoogland with study friends. If a professor spoke to me, I clammed up. But I was the first person in my family to go to university and I assumed that you had to join a student association.
After about a year, when I still didn't really feel part of the group, I decided: 'I can do this differently.' She felt more at home with Ecclesia students and become involved with a study group on Poland. The people she met there she still counts among her closest friends.
During her first study trip to Warsaw, she was impressed by the cultural vitality shown by young Polish people under the suffocating dictatorship of General Jaruszelski. She made more frequent visits to the country and became fascinated by the magic of the region's culture and nature. A scholarship gave her the opportunity to carry out research in the city, on a group of artists from the 1930s. 'I graduated in Leiden in 1988 under Nico Brederoo, but by then I had left Leiden. I was living in Amsterdam, working for Ten Have Hoofdstad bookstore in Kalverstraat.’
The fate of the Jews
The epicentre of her existence shifted after her study on Poland. She was awarded a grant for PhD research, became assistant-curator in the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, and applied successfully a year later for a position that had just been created as cultural attaché at the Dutch embassy in Warsaw. She lived in Żelazna Street, in the heart of the former Jewish ghetto, close to the street about which writer and Nobel prizewinner Isaac Bashevic Singer – whose book The Slave her mother had once given her - has written at length. Her love for Poland took on a new dimension; she became intrigued by the fate of the Jews. 'I have always been aware of the history of places, even though that history may be hidden from sight. I feel in my bones the term ''guilty landscape'' coined by artist Armando. Polish Jews are everywhere in this neighbourhood, even though most of the old houses have been destroyed.' In 1998, she obtained her PhD in Warsaw based on another artist collective from the interbellum, the Kapists.
In 2001, she left not only her post as cultural attaché,but also Poland. She was curator at Nijenhuis Castle at Heino (now the Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle) from 2001 to 2005, after which she was until 2019 director of CODART, an international network of curators of Flemish and Dutch art.
The exclamation mark
And that's not all: Gerdien is also active as an author. Besides essays, short stories and interviews, she has also written two much-praised novels and a non-fiction book. The Girl and the Scholar - a story of two presumed lost Rembrandts - that follows the remarkable travels through Europe of two panels by Rembrandt.
Even as a young girl, Gerdien understood what you could achieve with skilful writing. She regularly submitted stories to the Haagsche Courant, a weekly newspaper in The Hague. ‘Every Tuesday, the paper had a children's section. If your story was published, they sent you a book. I devoured them.' Even she herself finds it surprising that it took until 2011 for her first book to appear in bookstores. 'Apparently, I managed to put it off for a long time.' That may well be a pity, if we reflect on this masterful description of the exclamation mark from The Thread and the Flying Needle: 'It has a straight back that lets everything just glide off it. It strides through life and can jump much higher and faster than the question mark. It never has to twist or turn, it's weightless and its shape means it will always have more chance of landing the right way up. An exclamation mark takes up hardly any space, but neither does it give up any space; it offers no protection and no comfort.' Read like this, it almost sounds like a motto for life. 'In describing the exclamation mark, it's true, I show that I'm really attached to the question mark. I can do much more with that. Good questions are interesting and empathetic, they don't try to pin things down and challenge you to think. Novels are about question marks, but writing is about question marks. Actually, Westerbork is also a question mark.'
Nonetheless, as director, she also had to introduce some exclamation marks. 'I started by asking questions. I drank many cups of tea with people who were concerned about the future of Westerbork. I listened to them and discussed their concerns. But there comes a time when you have to make decisions and stand by them.' The memorial centre is facing some big challenges. The camp area, the museum and the knowledge centre need to be better connected and a rebuilding of the museum is on the cards. The many-layered history of the place has to be told to new generations.'
Sobriety and silence
Gerdien: ‘The most urgent need is to continue to interest young people, while preserving the sobriety and silence of the place. I think we're making some good progress with this. We are going to use a digital tool to show what happened at specific places in the camp, and what path the lives of some of the camp prisoners took. We also want to offer visitors a more tailor-made experience. For some groups of school pupils we look at the different jobs in the camp, and for others - a senior group from a high school in Rotterdam, for example - we might talk about the people from the Witte de Withstraat in their city who came here and what their fate was. We always use personal stories because it's through them that you really feel the history of this place. And they make sure you keep on asking questions.'
Text: Fred Hermsen
Images: Hollandse Hoogte