Nieuw Israelisch Weekblad
Monique Marreveld (1994):
"Van Kaapstad tot Den Haag - op zoek naar solidariteit"
Frederik van Gelder was born in the Netherlands, went to primary school in the Orange Free State ( South Africa ), and studied in England and Germany . Since 1978 he has been a lecturer at the Frankfurt School . His life is an odyssea which has everything to do with his background: born in hiding at the end of the war, the eldest child of parents who were badly traumatised by the war. Now, close to his fiftieth year, he has finally got around to dealing with his own pain.
In the midst of people who know what you're talking about. Frederik van Gelder was present in Amersfoort two weeks ago. Coming especially for the mini-congress of and for people in hiding during the war - all the way from Frankfurt , where he lives, 500 odd kilometers from the town where he was born, in Den Helder . There he saw the light of day on 10th April 1945 . Where, exactly, in the house of Dr. Loesberg or the place of hiding on the Binnenhaven, he does'nt know. He was never able to talk about it to his parents.
"My mother told me later that she had decided to become pregnant because my father was going nuts in that cellar where they were in hiding. If she had a child that would distract him, give him something else to worry about. In the summer of 1944 she anticipated, just like everyone else, that the end of the war was just around the corner. No-one had expected that last terrible winter, with the famine it brought. My parents lived off fish heads, and worse, were close to starvation."
When he was five his father sold the butcher shop in Den Helder and the whole family emigrated to South Africa . Two years after the beginning of the Apartheid regime in 1948.
"My father feared - and he was not alone in this - that Korea spelt the outbreak of a new war in Europe . He decided on South Africa because of the language - it would'nt necessary to learn English, he thought, as was the case for those who emigrated to Australia or New Zealand . Afrikaans, was'nt that pretty close to Dutch? That was about all he knew of the country. We ended up in the Orange Free State , in a small town in the most reactionary and racist part of the country."
That the van Gelder family was'nt all that welcome in South Africa is something Frederik discovered later.
"When we emigrated there was already a secret clause in place in the South African emigration legislation which banned Jews. In the town in which we lived the antisemitism was quite strong. I remember the neighbours calling someone 'jid!' 'jid!'. Although noone knew that we were jewish, and there was nothing in the house to remind of Judaism. The Esther parchment which we owned in Den Helder my father had given to friends before our departure, with the words: "please take this, I never want to see it again."
As in many Jewish families after the war, their Jewish extraction was as closely guarded family secret.
Frederik: "My father was terribly angry at my mother when she finally did, one day, let us into the secret. It was not unusual for the first generation of people badly traumatised by the war that they simply could not speak of their experiences."
Once Frederik did try to speak to his father about the past. "That was in 1970, after a trip to Europe . I'd been in Auschwitz , and in Holland I'd talked to an aunt of my mother about the war. For my father I'd brought back the 'Weinreb Report'".
During the seventies there was a fierce controversy in the Netherlands on the topic of Friedrich Weinreb. It raged around the question whether he had betrayed Jews during the war for personal gain or whether he had acted in good faith in trying to place as many people as possible on his socalled 'Weinreb list'. In an attempt to come to a finding on the matter the Rijksinstituut van Oorlogsdocumentatie [Royal Institute for Research on the War] published the so-called Weinreb-report.
Frederik: "In the front of the book I'd written: Arbeit macht frei. It was'nt meant to provoke. For me this was, on the one hand, a symbol of absolute evil, since I'd already visited Auschwitz . But on the other hand it expressed a kind of imperative: my generation had to turn this around, we had to work to carry on, work towards the task of preventing a recurrence of the evil represented by that terrible sign 'Arbeit macht frei.'
My father gave the book one glance and then turned away, wordlessly. But if you've grown up not being able to speak to your parents that's nothing new. By that time I had found other means of dealing with the things that I found important."
"As a child I was always in the school library, as if I lived there. That was my way of escaping from my family."
After School Frederik studied medicine. He became a dental surgeon, an irreproachable, middle-class South African existence. "My father wanted us to achieve something, that was his answer to the war. We children were not much seen as individuals in our own right - we were extentions of my father's ego."
To go somewhere else, to build up an existence in another country, that was all inconceivable. Frederik: "My whole world was South Africa . I was raised there, worked there, married there."
It was only much later - overseas, looking back, on realizing that his whole upbringing was typical for that of the 'second generation' - that it struck home just how problematic that life in South Africa had been. He and his sister (as well as their parents, he came to realize) stood alone and isolated in the midst of a society which knew nothing - and wished to keep it that way - of the fate of the Jews during the Second World War.
Frederik: "I think that in Holland we would not have had quite that same feeling of being seriously threatened and beleaguered from all sides. My parents saw the family as a kind of castle, from which we had to defend ourselves against a very hostile surroundings."
"You should not forget that my sister and I grew up in a racist, reactionary and violent society. Apartheid was an expression of a part of the Nazi ideology. At school I learnt to shoot, on fridays we had cadets. I was even a member of the Voortrekkers, a youth movement modelled more or less on the Hitler Jugend."
The language also played a role: Netherlands was his mother tongue, but Frederik soon came to speak mostly Afrikaans, with friends and at school. "My parents spoke Netherlands and I learnt it from them, but it was'nt really ever possible to speak to them about the things that bothered me. This inability to express things, to put things into words, was something both my sister and I thoroughly internalised. As a child I stuttered badly, my sister had a kind of nervous tic.
Soon after his first trip to Europe he'd had enough of the silence. Frederik: "I just could'nt carry on with the attitude that it was'nt possible to speak of the events of the past. I had the feeling that I was wasting my time with what I was doing, that it was meaningless."
He gave up his profession and started to study philosophy and sociology. "In those years I still had this idea that there must be answers to the questions about the causes of the Shoah. Besides which, I felt I could'nt stand idly by in the struggle against Apartheid."
A few years after the death of his father (1973) he was offered a two-year scholarship by the Deutscher Akademische Austauschdienst. "I said to myself: if you want to understand the causes of the Shoah, you have to go to Germany , to the Frankfurt School . So off I went."
The struggle against Apartheit was another reason for accepting the scholarship. "I'd hoped that, after a stay in Germany , I could be of use to the African National Congress, the most important of the organisations opposing the white Apartheid regime in South Africa . The congress was, in those years, more or less Marxist-oriented. The Frankfurt School was for me the ideal place, since it was important not only in the context of a study of the Shoah, but also of an intellectually renewed Marxism."
The idea was to gain the kind of knowledge and skills in Germany which could be of use in the reconstruction of a new society in a liberated South Africa . An idea which arose in the student movement in South Africa , most especially in conversations with his friend Richard Turner.
"Turner was a political scientist of some considerable influence in the National Union of South African Students, one of the few anti-Apartheid organisations in South Africa during the sixties. We had both been offered scholarships to Germany , Turner by the University of Heidelberg , I by the University of Frankfurt . I travelled ahead. While waiting for his arrival I was phoned one evening with the news that he had been shot dead by the Special Branch, the South African security service."
This news struck him hard. "Richard's death was also the beginning of a crisis in my marriage. In the end I did not have the strength to carry on alone, to return to South Africa and carry on the struggle. I stayed in Germany ."
Since studying the literature on the 'second generation' he's been able to place this 'personal failing' in a different light. "In a country like South Africa you're putting your life on the line as a political activist. What I've had to learn is that I'm not much good at handling that kind of pressure. I read an article recently on second generation Israeli soldiers - people like myself, I'm partly first, partly second generation - that they react in much the same way. When they're faced with a war situation they go to pieces. Since learning of this I don't feel quite as guilty any more."
His stay in Frankfurt became, with time, ever more difficult. "My coming to Germany was, in a certain respect, also a kind of rebellion against my father. Everything to do with Germany was for him like the proverbial red rag to the bull. Hence I, of course, had to go to Germany . It took me a while to realize that such a youthful rebellion wears off - that there's not enough emotional motivation there to keep one going for twenty years."
"There's not a lot anymore that's keeping me here: I've learnt what I wanted to find out, I've dwelt on the work of Horkheimer and Adorno now for many years. I can pack it all into my car and drive away. I don't want to speak German anymore. It's like Afrikaans, a language which I know, but morally compromised by the politics of too many of those who speak it. One encounters many words here in Germany - Volk, Einsatz, Sonderbehandlung - which come straight from the old Nazi vocabulary. I'd like to steep myself in the Dutch language, Netherlands history and culture, where I come from."
Looking back, he realizes that there's always been an inner, emotional distance towards life in Germany . "Although I've lived here now for fifteen or sixteen years, it's something which I've never really admitted to myself. I suppose it's rather schizophrenic: I speak German, I think in German, I lecture in German, but emotionally I pretend that all this has nothing to do with me. It's the most important reason for not wanting to educate my daughter here in Germany . I did'nt want here to become a German. She lives with her mother in London ."
The emotional distance with regard to Germany is something which Frederik has only come to realize quite recently, in the course of studying the problems of the second generation. An interest which really dates from a visit to a museum.
In 1990 Frederik happened to visit the Anne Frank exhibition in Frankfurt . "At the end of the exhibition there is a list of names from Westerbork. At the top of the list were the names of the Frank family, below that the name of my grandfather. On that transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz . When I chanced upon that I broke down."
He still puzzles about it. "I've read widely on the war, I've been to Auschwitz , to Westerbork several times now, I've spent years dwelling on various aspects of the Shoah. But it looks as if that was also a way of suppressed my emotions."
Frederik decided - or rather, had to concede - to do something about his own past. He went with his daughter on a visit to Holland , went to Den Helder and to the Anne Frank museum. Via Cor Suijk of the Anne Frank Foundation he was introduced to rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, of the reform Jewish community in the Hague .
"It was very moving. I'd never been to The Hague , and I'd never met rabbi Soetendorp before, but in some way his reactions were very familiar. He did'nt, for a change, say: 'you're traumatised, you need help' or 'I have a complicated theory of modern society to explain it all'. He reacted in exactly the same helpless way that I do to the thought of all those millions of deaths. He simply said: 'I have no answers either; they've been murdered, and I don't know why, and it bothers me as much as it does you.' It was the first time in my life that someone in a position of authority was prepared to concede that none of us have any answers."
In the Netherlands Jewish community Frederik, for the first time, feels at home. "It was here that I for the first time encountered a warm hospitality which said: 'we're glad that you've come, we need you. And what can we do to help you?"
He idealises the Netherlands . "I'm fascinated by this country; this is where my roots lie, in the Jewish community here. Which in turn has to do with language. This summer I was in Utrecht , and on the street somewhere heard the word 'hutspot', a word that I had not heard for forty years. I stood there and wept like a child."
As far as he's concerned: he's had enough of Frankfurt . Not only because, as a child of the first and second generation he finds it increasingly difficult to live in the country of the perpetrators. But even more so because he feels that he's being pursued by the past.
"I think that the kind of things I'm studying, that these things are once again coming to play a role in this country. Right-wing violence is on the increase here in Germany , and this country is polarising. Even here in Frankfurt , at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University , of which the Frankfurt School is a part, there is a Professor Balreich who maintains publicly and loudly that all talk of gas chambers and mass murder is american propaganda. There's a disciplinary hearing going on at the moment and he's been requested to retract. But for all that, he's getting away with it."
"I feel myself much undermined by this, threatened, as if someone is pulling away the rug on which I'm standing. When I came here I was expecting a democratic state with liberal intellectuals. It turns out that it's less liberal than it seems at first sight. There's always been a strong rightwing political movement here, but its beginning to make its presence felt at the universities once again."
"I've always felt myself as an outsider here, and mostly I've been able to use that in a productive way. But now, as a foreigner, a Jew, I don't seem to have the emotional strength anymore to work in the way I want to. It's becoming increasingly difficult. I feel that I'm being undermined in ways that I'd never imagined."
As long as he cannot return to the Netherlands - that's how he sees it - Frederik says he wants to try to do something for those who have helped him deal with his own pain. "If there's something which bothers me, then I try to deal with it in a rational way. I'm writing a book about these things, about what it means to be a Jew in this world, what it means to have to wrestle with the past."
It's not going to be a history book. "It will deal with the moral outrage one feels and the denial thereof by one's surroundings. It will deal with Freud and the psychoanalysts."
What his own experiences have taught him is that the psychoanalytic world - fifty years later - has failed, in the main, to understand what the first and second generation problematic is all about. "The world must understand that we survivors are not mentally ill but morally outraged. The psychiatrist is for us frequently the embodiment of a society which says: 'You're ill. What are your symptoms?' But the victims are not ill, they suffer from a sense that the world is morally out of kilter. If someone says: I don't share your sense of outrage, then that is a denial of all those who have been murdered. The psychologist becomes, in the eyes of the survivors, part of the problem."
For survivors and their families the most important form of help is hence solidarity, a conclusion which in the Netherlands , since the introduction of the Law for Restitution for War Victims (WUV) in 1973, has been generally accepted. A unique law in Europe , according to Frederik. That this law should now be 'closed' for applicants from the second generation he regards as dramatic.
"The WUV has done more for the survivors than any number of psychoanalytic congresses put together. This law is an expression of collective solidarity. Its significance goes beyond the financial support which it provides - the money is a symbol of something else. With it the message is conveyed: your feeling of injustice suffered is legitimate, and this society recognises it. We cannot revive the dead, but we can say: we respect your feelings on the matter. And that is exactly what mainstream Psychoanalysis, with its built-in medical prejudices, cannot do."
[This is part 4 in a series of articles on Jewish life - the life of Jews - in Frankfurt . Parts 1, 2 and 3 appeared on 18 and 25 February, and 11 March 1994 ]