Hetty Cohen-Koster was present at Cleveringa’s speech
'I belong here.' This is what the young Jewish law student Hetty Koster felt when she attended the memorable protest speech given by Professor Cleveringa on 26 November 1940. She managed to survive the war by going into hiding. She married Dolf Cohen, later Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, and had two sons: Floris and Job Cohen, now Professor of the Thorbecke chair.
The 27-year-old Hetty Cohen sat in the packed Great Auditorium on that memorable November morning in 1940. The razor-sharp words spoken by Professor Rudolph Cleveringa against the German occupiers who had denied Jewish staff access to the University, she experienced as ‘a salve for my doubting soul.’ She could sense ‘the same thoughts and feelings are being communicated back and forth between us, wordlessly yet completely and precisely understood by all of us.' And for her that so important realisation as a doubting Jewish girl: ‘I belong here.’
Sixty-two years later Job Cohen recalled in his own Cleveringa lecture the feelings and thoughts expressed by his mother. She had recorded them in a personal account: ‘Memories of Cleveringa’s Speech on 26 November 1940. Job Cohen added his mother’s account (see PDF below) to the text of his lecture. Hetty Cohen-Koster’s reflections put into context the sharply judgmental words spoken by Cleveringa about the German occupiers and the ‘anti-Jewish measures’ they had announced. The text gives us today a better understanding of just how significant this was and still is. In his lecture as Cleveringa professor in 2002, in the spirit of Cleveringa himself, Job Cohen also called for tolerance towards people from different cultural or religious backgrounds, and towards ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees. He reflected on the impressions made on his mother by the lack of tolerance and the rising anti-Semitism of her time.
'I belong here – a very simple sentence behind which there is a complex reality,’ Cohen remarked about his mother. ‘There was a young woman sitting in that Auditorium who was born and bred in the Netherlands. A Dutch woman brought up in a liberal Jewish family (…)who knew only the pre-war Netherlands. In her experience this was a country of complete tolerance in all respects: origin, gender, religion and race. Then came May 1940, war and the occupation by Germany. For the national-socialist Germans, Jews were regarded as ‘Fremdkörper’ within the national state, as arch enemies of Germany. Suddenly this young Dutch woman became an ‘alien’, someone who did not belong and who, if the Germans had their way, would never belong.’
'Belonging’, according Job Cohen, 'is the one thing that people most want. Every individual is a social being who needs other people, seeks out other people, enters into relationships with them and forms communities with them. Anyone who does not manage to do this, who ‘does not belong’ for whatever reason, is likely to be unhappy much of the time. But ‘belonging’ is not always easy today, and for many people certainly cannot be taken for granted. The Netherlands today has many people living side by side as strangers. Cleveringa showed that we have a choice in defining a person as ‘different’ or ‘an alien’. The choice is whether we define that person as different, or not. Cleveringa did not accept that his (Jewish – Ed.) colleague Meijers should be degraded by the Germans as an alien. By doing so, he showed that in his view Meijers – and therefore also my mother – belonged. This choice to allow people to belong, is one that we, too, can make.’
Hetty Cohen-Koster put Cleveringa’s so calmly spoken words – that might today be regarded as ‘boring and flat’ – in the context of her time. Mrs Cohen’s account has been available on the University website since 2002, in the Cleveringa portfolio, but it warrants more attention, particularly this year, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Cleveringa’s speech. Hetty Cohen-Koster heard at a 26 November meeting in 1980 or thereabouts – the exact date is not certain – that a young boy of sixteen apparently said of Cleveringa’s speech: ‘What a lame story. Is that really what it’s all about?’ This was another reason for her to commit her account to paper.
'Writing this account is at the same time an attempt to allow this unknown young boy to feel something of the effect of those apparently calm words forty years ago.’ She had also told her father-in-law en route to Cleveringa’s speech that morning in November 1940: ‘It’s a pity that Cleveringa will be the one to speak as he always comes across to me as such a boring man.’ He replied: ‘Wait until you have heard him; he’s from Friesland and if he shows any of the fire that is burning within him, you really are in for an experience!’
According to Hetty Cohen-Koster, the anger expressed by Cleveringa in every sentence that he uttered in the crowded Great Auditorium was almost tangible; his words were ‘strident’. The contempt in his voice was worse than any possible insult. ‘And that beautiful closing sentence that focuses all hope on the future, makes all of us stand as one and spontaneously sing the national anthem, the Wilhelmus, as I had never heard it sung before and never will again. For all of us there is an awareness that we are experiencing a historic event. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Deeply impressed, I return home.’
'I try reading the text again with the eyes of a sixteen-year-old of today,’ writes Hetty Cohen-Koster. What is it that is missing for that young boy? It must be those harsh cries of the present day: we protest, we demand, we threaten to take action: strikes, occupations! (...) And what effect did his speech have? There were no demonstrations, no other public actions than the student protest that was already planned. The German occupiers reacted by closing the university. But more important than closing the university and suspending the lectures was - first for the listeners, and later also for the many who read and passed on the speech - the enormous impetus this gave people to carry out real acts of resistance. (...) all that hidden work that would eventually save my life and the lives of so many others.'
John Cohen believes that the account written by his mother, who passed away in 1996, is still relevant today. ‘I estimate that she wrote the text in 1980, but it has lost none of its power. It shows clearly what was important for people like Cleveringa, then and now.'
Hetty Cohen-Koster: ‘Of course, I do know that those people who took risks were but a small minority. No nation on earth is made up wholly of heroes. There were many who did not dare to act, or who were unable or unwilling to do so, just as there were those who collaborated with the Germans or exploited the situation for their own benefit. But besides these there were those others who, under the slogan of ‘Keep your foul hands off our foul Jews!’, started the February strike. And there was also the noble figure of Cleveringa. (...) Safety can be found wherever there is true tolerance and true democracy. And safety is not just an issue for Jews; it affects all minority groups. In the end it affects all of us.’
The account written by Hetty Cohen-Koster is included in Vreemden, the Cleveringa lecture given by Job Cohen, 26 November 2002 ('Dedicated to the memory of my mother').
(30 April 2015)