Anda Kerkhoven and WWII
The coward and the heroine
Just my luck.
My editor asked me to write an article about Anda Kerkhoven. ‘Why don’t you make it a true human interest story?’ she asked. ‘Anda was a student, just like you. But she was gunned down by the Germans in 1945 for being a resistance fighter. Why don’t you try to find a personal connection with her?’
‘Sounds good’, I said. ‘I’m on it.’
And I really thought I was. After all, she certainly was an interesting character. She studied medicine in Batavia, but came to Groningen in 1938 because she was opposed to animal testing. The programme here didn’t require it. She was a staunch pacifist and wrote extensively about her views in Der Clercke Cronike, a kind of predecessor to the UKrant. When the war broke out, Anda joined the resistance. She helped forge documents and distributed ration stamps and identity cards. But then she was arrested in 1944 and tortured at the Scholtenhuis on the Grote Markt – a location that housed the Vindicat association until recently. On 19 March, 1945, she was shot to death by the German Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service).
It’s a story that leaves an impression. It’s no wonder we honor her: Anda is part of an exhibition at the Groningen Scheepvaartmuseum, has been immortalised in the Academy building’s stained glass windows, and is buried at the National Field of Honour in Loenen.
Writing about Anda should be easy.
But then I flip through a copy of Der Clercke Cronike from 1939, and read one of Anda’s contributions:
‘No tyrant will be able to subdue me, make me obey him or commit moral suicide by using combat methods I detest against either him or his slaves […]. A pacifist defence will save our homeland.’
My, such a serious and moralistic statement in a university magazine, I think, scanningher letter, titled ‘The Defence’. ‘No tyrant will be able to subdue me?’ Strong words. ‘Commit moral suicide?’
But I realise that she wrote these words when the world was a completely different place. At the time of writing, Hitler had just invaded Poland. The Kristallnacht had happened only a year before. Jews were fleeing across the border; Dutch people feared the war was coming to them. And Anda was determined not to let a tyrant subdue her. This tyrant she spoke of was a real, living person.
I couldn’t help but wonder: would I be able to have a stance this strong? Today? If I lived in Turkey, would I resist Erdogan like this? If I were Russian, would I fulminate against Putin? I’m pretty sure I’m too cowardly. And I would gladly ‘commit moral suicide’ if it meant staying alive. I wonder if I have any ideals strong enough to risk my life for?
Freedom, maybe? Equality? Freedom of speech? Sure, these are important, but fairly commonplace. I’m not a vegetarian or an environmentalist, and I certainly wouldn’t be willing to die for those ideals if I were. I do object to Zwarte Piet – he is severely outdated. And I certainly speak up whenever the subject comes up. But would I risk my own life to fight for my views? I don’t think so.
These words were written by a twenty-year-old student. A girl who studied at the RUG, just like me. Who lived in Groningen, just like me. She walked the same streets I walk. But how am I supposed to find a meaningful connection with her, as my editor asked me to do? She and I could not be more different.
Take, for instance, her decision to move to Groningen because she opposed animal testing. She left everything behind and started a new life in a city where she didn’t know anyone. That’s pretty brave, if you ask me. I probably wouldn’t be prepared to do the same just because I had principles. I would just close my eyes, put it out of my mind, and finish school.
Idealist through and through
Anda was an idealist through and through. She had a fierce love for animals and nature, and was a strict vegetarian. Her burning convictions and the complexion she inherited from her Chinese grandmother, made her an outsider. People called her a nuisance, but Anda persisted. She never stopped writing letters, to Der Clercke Cronike or other publications.
The last time I made an effort for anything political was during the torch-lit march in Groningen, and that was mainly to accompany my mother. Unlike Anda, I constantly worry about what other people think of me.
As I reflect on her life, I begin to feel uncomfortable. Sure, I respect Anda’s ideals and convictions. I respect the hell out of them. But at the same time, I wonder if I should be ashamed for not having any real ideals of my own.
I visit the places that were important to her, such as the Ranitzstraat, where Anda lived as a student. This is probably where she wrote all those letters.
It’s a perfectly normal house, in a perfectly normal neighbourhood. There’s a little field of grass right outside the door, and children are playing in the street. It would probably be quite nice to live here. But then I see the small memorial stone in front of the house: ‘Here lived Anda Kerkhoven. Murdered on 19.3.1945.’ And the truth hits me like a tonne of bricks: Anda’s life was anything but ‘perfectly normal’.
I’m deeply moved, but only for a moment. The feeling fades as I return to my daily business. I find myself at the Grote Markt, where the Scholtenhuis stood throughout the war. The building once belonged to Scholten, a well-known nineteenth-century industrialist, and served as the headquarters for the German Sicherheitsdienst during the war. The city is building the Groninger Forum on its grounds.
An interactive website shows the atrocities that took place in this location. It hits me hard. People were tortured here in horrible ways, right where construction workers are now building something new. Anda was interrogated here for ages after she was arrested for her work with the resistance. I had no idea about any of this until now. And now that I know, I won’t ever look at the place the same way.
But even when I visit the Quintusbos, the forest near Glimmen where Anda was killed, I have difficulty imagining the event. But then an older woman approaches me to ask if I know who Anda Kerkhoven is. When I say I am in fact writing an article about her, the woman seems pleasantly surprised. She tells me about how Anda was murdered here in 1945: ‘The Germans let her out and told her she could walk around for a while. And they just shot her without warning. Those bastards.’ The woman shakes her head with disgust.
And finally, it all hits home. Could this woman have been in the war herself? Has she lost loved ones? Everything suddenlybecomes more tangible for me, more real.
And yet. I hold Anda in high regard; I admire her, even. But I still have trouble forging a real connection with her, now, 75 years after her death. Perhaps it’s because we’re such different people. But most likely it’s because our worlds are so starkly different. And I have no way of connecting to hers.
Anda Kerkhoven’s story is part of an exhibition ‘Voortdurend Verzet. Wat zou jij doen?’ at the Noordelijk Scheepvaartmuseum which opens on 30 March.
10 April, 1919
Born in France, grew up in the former Dutch East Indies
Moved to Groningen to study at the University
Wrote her letter The Defence in Der Clercke Cronike
Joined resistance group De Groot
Captured by the Sicherheitsdienst and tortured at the Scholtenhuis
Murdered by the Sicherheitsdienst in Quintosbos in Glimmen