On Sunday 26 July 1942 – 80 years ago – priests of the Dutch Roman Catholic churches read a letter in which they protested against the growing persecution of Jews. Exactly one week later, the German occupier took revenge by rounding up and deporting Catholic baptized Jews. Among them the wife and five children of the writer Herman de Man (1898-1946), best known for his novel the wash water, which was shown as a successful TV series in 1985-1986.
In his work, De Man gave a sharp picture of the rigid Calvinist peasant population in Lopikerwaard. He condemned the conventions of that milieu with its dead conservatism and soulless religiosity. Themes in his books are the struggle between tradition and innovation, rebellion against the social order and the desire for purity in an impure world. The latter was the result of De Man’s personal – and unsuccessful – struggle. With his work he hoped to renew and elevate the ‘peasant’. What would De Man have written about the current nitrogen crisis, you wonder.
His socio-critical regional novels gained a large audience and also received literary appreciation, but in 2022, only The washing water still available. Last year there was renewed attention due to a month of activities dedicated to him in Lopikerwaard. Frits Spits then used in his radio program The language state attention to De Man’s quirky novel The hard winter of the nineties.
Herman de Man is the pseudonym of Salomon Herman Hamburger. He and his also Jewish wife converted to the Roman Catholic faith long before the war, and their children were also baptized Catholic.
On the summery second of August 1942, a constable and a watchman – no Germans were involved – picked up Eva de Man and four of her children from their home in Berlicum, North Brabant. They were taken to Vught on an open farm wagon. From there it went to Kamp Amersfoort and then to Westerbork. Eldest son Jan was taken from a monastery in Rijswijk, son Joost and daughter Marietje, who also stayed elsewhere, could go into hiding.
Immediately after arriving at Auschwitz, on August 9, Eva and her children Anneke, Jochie, Pietertje and Magdaleentje were gassed. Jan died in the same camp on 30 September.
Herman de Man escaped the dance. He had gone to the French Alps on April 30, 1940, to work on a new novel in a farmer’s loft, far from his busy family. It seems incomprehensible now, his departure ten days before the German invasion of Holland, but it was not expected at the time. ‘Very competent authorities told him with confidence that there was nothing in the air for our country’, his wife wrote to the Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels, literary exemplar and friend of De Man.
When De Man heard that Germany had invaded Holland, he immediately tried to return. At the consulate in Paris, however, he was told that he had begun an impossible undertaking – he had better go back to the Alps. He stayed there until early 1942, when he traveled via Lisbon to London, where he was employed by Radio Oranje. Here he received the telegram informing him of the deportation of his wife and five of his children.
On 29 July 1942, five days before his family was abducted, De Man had spoken in a radio broadcast about thousands of ‘defenseless Poles’ who had been ‘killed in gas chambers’. As far as is known, he was the first to talk about gas chambers at Radio Oranje. He could not have imagined that eleven days later the vast majority of his family would meet the same fate as the defenseless Poles.
In mid-1945, De Man returned to the Netherlands from Curaçao, where he had been a broadcaster for Curaçao Radio Broadcasting for two years. There he found his only living children, Marietje and Joost. In the meantime, new residents had moved into his (rental) house.
Shortly after the family was taken away, residents of Berlicum broke into the house. They left with looted items. Herman de Man’s literary archive was lost, his estate was dragged by Berlicum. Among other things, the landlord placed the library in his attic and used it as collateral after the liberation, when he presented De Man with a small rent arrears: if it was not paid, he could whistle for his belongings. A furious De Man did not pay.
Bitter and resentful, he turned his back on being a writer. Together with a friend, he set up a company that focused on importing English cars and motorcycles. On 14 November 1946 he returned from London from a business trip. The Dakota he was in crashed on landing at Schiphol. All 26 people on board were killed. The life of the 48-year-old Herman de Man, bereft of his wife, five children, his possessions and his illusions, ended as explosively as he had lived it.
At the end of last year, Berlicumse Heemkundekring ‘De Plaets’ received the poetry album from Magdaleentje, Herman de Man’s youngest daughter. It came from the estate of a woman who had bought it at a book fair over thirty years ago. It is most likely that it was stolen from the De Mans home in 1942 after the deportation.
Heemkundekring’s board has accepted the purchase. The fact that it was stolen Jewish property was not the subject of open discussion. No contact was made with the only surviving daughter, Marietje Boserup-de Man, who moved to Denmark after the war. She is aware of her sister’s poetry album that has appeared. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted it myself,’ she says, ‘but I would have donated it to the Literature Museum in The Hague.’