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Jan Brokken: “My father told me that he did survive the camp because he did remember very well...”

Jan Brokken: “My father told me that he did survive the camp because he did remember very well the lecture of Dostoevsky’s Notes of the House of the Dead”

Jan Brokken (b. 1949) a Dutch writer. He is renowned as a masterful storyteller and he gained an international fame with his more than twenty nonfiction works, six novels and three books with short stories about a number of exotic and far-off places, including West Africa, the Dutch Caribbean, Indonesia, China and Russia winning acclaim for his adventurous attitude and sensitive style. Among his books are:

2008 - In het huis van de dichter (ISBN 9789045014821)

In the House of the Poet. Russian concert pianist Youri Egorov (1954-88) was a cult hero. Jan Brokken got to know Egorov in the 1970s when he travelled with him for a magazine article that he was to write to a performance in England. Egorov’s playing was out of this world but he was agitated by the orchestra’s indifference: ‘Not one spark of enthusiasm, I can’t stand that.’

2010 - Baltische zielen (ISBN 9045006596)

Baltic Souls. Changing fortunes in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. During a boat trip on the Baltic, Jan Brokken chanced upon Pärnu harbour, on the Estonian coast of the Gulf of Riga. It was an unforgettable introduction to the Baltic lands: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The extraordinary light, the tranquil landscape and the stories he heard there drew him back time and again. In Baltic Souls, Brokken connects the cultural richness and social diversity of the region over the past eight centuries with tales of personal tragedy and a first-hand account of his travels.

2015 - De kozakkentuin (ISBN 9789045030173).

The Cossack Garden. A compelling account of the friendship between Alexander von Wrangel and Feodor Dostoevskyю St Petersburg, 21 December 1849, and a man in his late twenties in a white shirt stands in front of a firing squad in the cold. He kisses the silver crucifix held to his lips by a priest, in the sure knowledge that he is about to die. Just before the command ‘Fire!’ is given, a pardon arrives from the Czar. The white-shirted man is the writer Fyodor Mikhaelovich Dostoyevsky. Alexander von Wrangel, a student, eleven years younger, is a witness.

2016 - De gloed van Sint-Petersburg (ISBN 9789045033303)

The glow of Saint-Petersburg. This beautiful, illustrated literary guide, filled with stories about writers, poets, musicians and composers. Everything in this city gives food for thought, for looking, remembering: everything pushes everyone almost unnoticed into an inconsolable melancholy. In 2019 the book won a prestigious Antsiferov award in the nomination “The best foreign book about Saint-Petersburg”.

2018 - De rechtvaardigen (ISBN 9789045036649).

The Just. How a Dutch consul saved thousands of Jews. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Dutch consul in Lithuania found a way to save the lives of thousands of Jewish people who had fled Poland, by giving them visas for the Dutch island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. Visas in hand, the refugees were able to take the Trans-Siberian railway to Japan and then disperse to all four corners of the globe. The vast majority of them survived the war.

Serguey Ehrlich, Interview with Jan Brokken

Dear Mr Brokken, firstly let me congratulate you with the winning of a Antsiferov award of 2019! Your impressive boook De gloed van Sint-Petersburg (The glow of Saint-Petersburg) just have recieved that prestigious award in the nomination “The best foreign book about Saint-Petersburg”.

JB: I'm extremely happy with this award, named after the great historian and author Nikolai Antsiferov. And given by the foundation named after Likhachev. Both were eminent men of Piter, the city I love even more than my birthtown, both have spend years in the Solovski Camp. My respect for them is tremendous. This award feels like, how I can say, like a blessing. My best friend in life was the Russian pianist Youri Egorov. He was so young when he died, 33 years, but I'm sure that he would have been extremely proud of me. The pages about the novelist Nina Berberova and Youri, who pushed me to see and meet her, are the most beautiful of the book.

Your country is at the crossroads of German, British and French influences. As a graduate from l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Bordeaux you know well that in France the problem of restraining the Anglo-Saxon cultural pressure has been regarded as a prioritized state task. For the Netherlands, with population four times smaller than France, it is probably more difficult to solve the challenge of “Hollywoodisation”. How does Dutch people manage to preserve the national culture and identity under those circumstances?

JB: I’m from the old guard. When I was in high school, the teaching of three foreign languages was compulsory: English, German and French. A perfect reflection of the European culture. More than three languages, they were three ways of thinking: the abstract, philosophical approach (German), the concrete, expressive way (English) and the Latin analytical way of raisonner (French). You could say we were ahead of our time. But while Europe became larger and more integrated, Holland did focus on the USA.

Since the major educational reform of 1968, only one foreign language was required (and one was optional). You could say that we have given away our huge lead. Only a very small minority of the Dutch speaks nowadays German or French. Around 25 percent of higher education is in English. The idea behind is that we have to survive as little country, so we have to be international. But I don’t believe it’s the right way. We did not receive more Nobel-prizes since English is admitted as teaching language at the university. Rather the opposite. Both the British and the Americans look down on us. Things are changing. During a very long time, American music, movies, books, were the trend. The whole way of life was Anglo-Saxon. Maybe that is no longer the case. Obama was the last president who was incredible popular in the Netherlands. Youth hates Trump. But at the other side: it’s very difficult to survive as a little country, language, culture... Perhaps for that reason, I’ve written Baltic Souls. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did not only regain their independence, they also saved their language, culture, music.

The small Dutch nation created a great culture, which has a global significance. Among the luminaries of world culture are Erasmus Rotterdam, Spinoza, Rembrandt, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Van Gogh and the list goes on. Do modern Dutch people believe that they are the successors of their great ancestors?

JB: While the protestants are nowadays in the minority, Holland is still a society deeply marked by protestantism. According tot the Calvinists, to be proud is a bad feeling. Is, to speak with the Bible, ‘vanity of vanities’. Writing about the Golden Age, the British historian Simon Schama saw it in the right way: The Embarrassment of Riches. Being rich is up to that, showing your wealth is a shame. That was the reality in 1650, and it still is. It’s significant that a young generation of Dutch historians no longer want to use the term ‘Golden Age’ and want to ban it from the museums. Rembrandt, the great painter of the Golden Age? No, Rembrandt, the great painter from the time of slavery and colonialism. We are more and more critical about our past. At the other side, I was very content to discover that one of my ancestors was the painter J.C. Schotel, known for his marines. Tsar Nicoholas I was found of his work and some paintings are still in the Hermitage. And, yes, in the 19th cenmtury, one Brokken married a Van Gogh. Great. I not only love Van Gogh’s paintings but also his letters. I have never read one sentence of Erasmus but Van Gogh.... He is really a genius, and I believe, every Dutchmen agrees with that. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is one of the places you must have seen on earth. I visit it at least once a year.

What do you think yourself about that Golden Age?

JB: ‘It was one of the most interesting experiments in European history. I saw recently an exhibition of the paintings of Pieter de Hooch. He is not as famous as his fellow citizen of Delft, Johannes Vermeer. But from a historical point of view, he’s perhaps more interesting than Vermeer. He was specialized in cityscapes, street scenes and interiors. He makes you part of life in the 17th century in Holland. I was very astonished that in his interiors, the doors are never closed. They are open or half open. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands was an open society. Quite egalitarian already. The figures on De Hoochs paintings are wealthy civilians, but also laundresses, maids... Not dukes and duchesses... Holland was a republic in the 17th century, and was admired by for example Voltaire.

The Republic was a federation of seven provinces with their own identity. In Friesland (Frisia) they spoke another language. You can say it was a primordial form of the European Union.

Is memory regarding the First World War still alive? Your first book is about Mata Hari, who was sentenced to death penalty as a German spy during that war. She became an icon of global mass culture. What are the reasons of her postmortem popularity? What role does she play in the Netherlands memory?

JB: The full title of my book is: Mata Hari, the true and the legend. I was interested in both: the dancer who became with Isadora Duncan a symbol of the Belle Epoque in Paris and the spy whose role is infinitely overrated. She knew all important persons, not only in Paris but also in Berlin, Vienna. She was the ideal double-spy, for Germany, for France. During World War I the Netherlands were neutral, but Mata Hari had much more sympathy for the French. Yet it were the French who arrested her and sentenced her to death. She get in 1917 in trouble, that was a very bad moment, France was loosing the war, Chemin des Dames was a unparalleled slaughter, in March and April the allied forces lost 350.000 soldiers, the French newspapers repeated every day that ‘the enemies were among us’, and Mata Hari was the ideal enemy. A star, a beautiful woman without scruples. Afterwards history had turned her into a striptease dancer, but she was an acclaimed artist, even Diaghilev wanted to engage her for a ballet. The true Mata Hari is much more interesting than the legend, a girl from Friesland (Frisia) in the north of the Netherlands who married a colonial officer, spent four years in Java, and became without any dramatical education worlds most famous oriental dancer in Paris. She started spying because her success was fading away and she was bored.

The Netherlands was a great colonial power. Are there any evidence of that in the contemporary Dutch national memory? Does it stimulate national pride? Is there any feelings of nostalgia?

JB: ‘There is some nostalgia for the people who were there. Who were part of this great colonial empire. Imagine: in 1935 the Netherlands were the country with most Muslims of the world! It was really an empire, in the East and in the West. But for the the young generation there is only shame. Shame about the domination, oppression, the filthy colonial war. I myself try to nuance the image sometimes. It is distorted to look at the 18th or 19th century with the eyes of the 21th century. History is a process of oppression and liberation. What’s a dark page for the Dutch is a brilliant for the Indonesians.”

You have family memory regarding the Netherlands-Indies (now Indonesia) because your parents has lived there for a long time and your older brothers were born there. Could you tell about your family’s experience of colonial life and how your parents remembered their detention in the Japanese camps during World War II?

JB: ‘My father was a theologian who was specialized in Islam. He was sent by the government to do scientific research into Islamic movements. So he was not a businessman, farmer or a planter, he was a sort of cultural anthropologist. He had great interest in the population, was in constant contact with the sailors and fishermen of South Sulawesi, spoke their language, was till a certain degree in solidarity with them. In the eyes of the Dutch authorities he was dangerously near the nationalists. Then came the war, my father was imprisoned during three and a half years in a Japanese camp for man, my mother with my brothers in a camp for women and children. Period of hunger, deceases, pain, my mothers’ camp was bombarded by mistake by American air-force because they thought it was an Japanese military camp. After the war they asked my father to work for the mission. He did, he was a convinced Christian. In 1947 he was forced to return to the Netherlands. He did not want it, his heart was in Indonesia, in Sulawesi, but he was sent back with his wife and his children tot the Netherlands. I was born in 1949 and I grew up with a father with a so called KZ syndrome, a Concentration Camp syndrome, a mother and two brother with the same syndrome. I was marked by a war in which I had not participated.

How much did it influenced you in your work?

JB: ‘My father told me that he did survive the camp because he did remember very well the lecture of Dostoevsky’s Notes of the House of the Dead. It’s an incredible positive book, he told me. Perhaps, that’s the reason I have written about Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia in my non-fiction book The Cossack Garden. A book about the friendship between a young prosecutor, Alexander Jegorovitsj von Wrangel, and Dostoevsky. It was Alexander who stimulated Dostoevsky to write The House of the Dead, and about the fate of political prisoners. For my father, it was a sort of a Bible, like for Primo Levi. I started to understand that when I wrote my book.’

How powerful is the Dutch memory of the Second World War? Your book The Reprisal is dedicated to the subject of Nazi’s repression against people from the Dutch village Rhoon, where you grew up. Could you tell about the tragic story?

JB: ‘In the evening of October 10, 1944, a German soldiers platoon petrolled on a dike near my village. In the full darkness the front soldier stepped on a electric 400-high-voltage cable that was cut during a storm. He, a 18-year old boy, died. Sabotage, the Germans concluded immediately: the cable was deliberately cut. Seven young men from the village were arrested that same evening and were executed the next day exactly at the place where the German soldier died. I wrote about this war-crime in an autobiographical novel about my youth in the village, which was published in 2004. Then I received some telephone calls of former leaders of the resistance movement in my village and they sent me a secret report about the events. It had not been an unit soldiers patrolling on the dike but two soldiers and a sergeant who came back from a party, given by a lady who had an affair with a Nazi-officer. I started an investigation. It had not stormed for 30 days. Men in the café had been talking for days to cut the cable, to punish the krauts and also to punish the women who made fun with the enemy. It was clearly an act of sabotage, but who did it? I’ve been searching for years, did not find – for 100 percent sure - the suspect, but developed three scenarios what happened. It became a sort of crime story, a thriller, but with real facts and persons. By this thriller I could show exactly what was life under the Nazi-occupation in a small village. The life, the fears, the resistance and the collaboration of ordinary people, of men and women. I insist on women because in war stories we never learn anything of the fate of ordinary women who had to raise up and to feed their children.’

The Reprisal was a tremendous success. It’s seen now in Holland, Belgium but also in Germany as one of the most impressive books about the war. It’s a mix of history, journalistic research and literature. Where did you find your inspiration for this book?

JB: ‘Vasili Grossman, Life and Fate. It’s this microscopic description of a historical event that inspires me. Not only the story of a general who won a battle but also of a simple soldier, not only the victorious but also the conquered.’

Even the motto of your book is from Vasili Grossman!

JB: ‘Yes. Why the past remains so painfull?

And why it is?

JB: ‘Because we don’t know what happened exactly. And then it becomes very difficult to explain, to understand or to judge the events of the past. 70 percent of what is written in The Reprisal was unknown to my fellow villagers. Was unknown to my fellow countrymen. Because in the other villages or little towns of Holland, the situation was quite the same.’

People don’t like the truth.

JB: ‘No. And what is the truth? Behind every truth, there is another. But if you want to understand something of a war or a period of repression, it’s to easy to say: okay, there some bad guys and some good guys, and finally the good ones did win. No. History is extremely complicated. As complicated as life.’

Jan Zwartendijk, the hero of your last book The Just, was a good guy. He, the Dutch consul in Kovno, Lithuania, saved the life of thousands of Jews.

JB: ‘He was an example. Some one who did the right thing at the right moment. An extremely good man, by all the ways. But nearly twenty years after the war, he received a reprimand of the ministry of Foreign Affairs. He should not have done what he had done. He did not follow the rules. Incredible, not? In 1964 it was generally known what happened with the Jews during World War II. Six million of them where killed in a fully organized way.

Jan Zwartendijk foresaw what would happen, he said to his children: ‘If I don’t do anything, those people are doomed to death.’ And he said that in the summer of 1940!! This man received a reprimand. Okay, he was mentioned Righteous Among The People, he received Yad Vashem in 1997. But that was 21 years after his death. This man died with the idea that he had done something wrong. For that reason, I wrote the book. What happened with this man, was a shame. While he’s an example, not only for the current generation and for future generations.’

Your book had caused a storm, not only in the Netherlands!

JB: ‘Israeli newspapers headed: ‘Dutch diplomat punished by saving Jews during WW II.’ Questions were put to the minister in the Dutch parliament. Finally, the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs asked Jan Zwartendijk’s family for his excuses.’

Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most important personal evidence of the Holocaust. Could you tell about the special projects aimed to the commemoration of Holocaust (exhibitions, museums, the school programs) in the Netherlands?

JB: ‘Nearly every Dutch kid has read The Diary of Anne Frank. The museum in Amsterdam, The Anne Frank House, has 1 million visitors every year. I live four minutes walk and 900 meters away from the house, every day I show the way to the house to four, five, six people, mostly youngsters. One day, I took my three French nieces (in the age from 11 till 13) to the Anne Frank House and bought the French edition of The Diary for them. They started reading in the evening and I found them next morning crying in their bed. Anne Frank House is a living memory.’

Don’t you do the same? Aren’t you trying to make living memories?

JB: ‘It’s extremely difficult to make of events in the past something that could have happened today. But it’s the best thing you can do as author. I’ve tried it with The Reprisal, with The Just, and with Baltic Souls. My story of bookseller Janis Roze in Riga is such a story that makes history alive. I think we need lived and experienced histories to understand something about ourselves or our fathers and mothers.’

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