On the 4th of May, the day of remembrance, the city of Groningen will come alive with stories of bravery, resilience, and compassion from World War II. RUG students have been preparing the annual ‘Open Jewish Houses’ event for months and are expecting hundreds of participants.
The event will feature 20 different stories at varying locations in the city, commemorating victims, resistance fighters, their families, and those who were lost in the war.
But the students behind the event are also interested in figures who fall into the ‘grey areas’ of history.
Second-year history student Theunis Holthuis is one of the researchers who combed through archives looking for inspirational figures. He has always been intrigued by how difficult it must have been to make all the ‘right’ choices during the war.
Theunis: ‘We talk about Nazis and resistance fighters as though it’s all very black and white. We wanted to create a narrative that showed that people weren’t always right or wrong in the war, it’s more nuanced.’
So they decided to highlight the story of a guy who some people have even considered a traitor – a guy who started out on the wrong side, but still managed to do some good things.
It’s the first time the event will include the story of somebody who is neither a resistance fighter nor a victim. ‘Jan Derk Domela Nieuwenhuis Nyegaard is somewhere in-between’, says Ruben Zeeman, another second-year history student and one of the organisers of the event.
Jan Derk was not an anti-Semite. But he did support the German occupation and the Greater Netherlands movement, even writing articles arguing that the Netherlands should come under a German protectorate.
People weren’t always right or wrong in the war; it’s more nuanced
It wasn’t until Jan Derk’s youngest son – a resistance fighter – was murdered in his Groningen home by a German police officer that Jan Derk’s changed his allegiances for good. Upon discovering his son’s body, Derk opened the window and screamed curses at Hitler and the whole German project. Local Germans responded by taking him prisoner. They held him at the Scholtenhuis in the Grote Markt.
The good prisoner
Imprisonment turned a mild German sympathiser into an unconventional resistance fighter, says Theunis. ‘When you think of a resistance fighter, you don’t picture someone sitting in prison giving emotional support to the other prisoners, but that’s what Jan Derk did’.
The protestant pastor became the unofficial minister of the Scholtenhuis prisoners, who mostly other Christians. ‘It was a religious community under a lot of stress and torture’, says Theunis. ‘Jan Derk helped people get through terrible things by providing mental and spiritual support – which I think of as a kind of resistance.’
Seventeen of the ‘Blood Brothers’ – as the prisoners dubbed themselves – were executed, but their comradery under Jan Derk’s ministering remained steadfast.
That really annoyed the Germans, who sent him into exile on Schiermonnikoog. Even then, says Theunis, ‘he continuously rattled the cage, provoking his interrogators with angry speeches about the evils of the Nazi regime.’ Theunis admires Jan Derk – not because he picked up a sword, but because ‘ideas are stronger than the sword.’
‘That’s such a cliché’, Ruben laughs. ‘But I agree.’
Even so, the decision to focus on Jan Derk was not an easy one. There were a lot of arguments during the planning phase for the event, which centred on the claim that real victims and real resistance fighters should take centre stage. Jan Derk, who supported the German cause until it affected him personally, seems like a bad candidate for commemoration. Theunis and Ruben are expecting to field similar criticism from participants.
Theunis thinks remembering these characters is useful. The demarcation between right and wrong can be a ‘grey area’, he says. Someone like Jan Derk can teach us a lot about our own frailty, cruelty, compassion, and bravery – and hopefully inspire us to make moral choices that will land on the right side of history in the end.
For his part, Ruben worries about the rise of anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe. ‘Especially now, it’s very important to share these stories.’
We are telling stories, but people also talk, think, and share their own
Ruben warns that the stories of the Holocaust are going to fade over time. ‘We have to actively try to remember, and this project will help revive these stories.’
The most beautiful thing about this event isn’t the program, Ruben says. It’s the audience: ‘people who have memories of the war or who have heard stories about the war from their parents always speak up. We are telling stories, but the fact that people can talk, think and share with each other – that is beautiful.’