The Erasmus Lectures
On the History and Civilization of the Netherlands and Flanders
December 5, 6 and 7 2005
Daughter Culture and Identity in the Netherlands 1900-1930
Madelon de Keizer
Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation (Amsterdam)
1 On being Jewish in the Netherlands
Let us start with a quote:
She bears within her the deep glow and resilience of her race. She is a beautiful, sturdy Jewess, with something masculine in her face, in her word, in her posture, without a single weak element
Stereotypes regarding race and gender tumble over one another in this intriguing passage in an interview from 1915. They show how confused the interviewer was by this relatively new phenomenon: an emancipated Jewish woman writer. I have taken these words from the only substantial interview that we have with Carry van Bruggen, the woman who will be in our guide in these three lectures on identity and culture in the Netherlands in the period around the First World War. That interview was conducted shortly before the publication of her new book, A coquette woman?. The author was 34 years old at the time. Two years earlier her successful novel Helen had been published. Her books came out in popular, cheap editions and went through several impressions. Her articles were published in leading literary and cultural magazines. The readers of an important magazine for women had just acclaimed her female writer of the year. She was considered by far the most interesting and exciting of Jewish prose writers at the time.
She was the daughter of a gazzen — a cantor and religious teacher in a Jewish community — and grew up in a poor, orthodox Jewish family in a small town to the north of Amsterdam. After training to become a teacher, she went to live in the cultural capital of the Netherlands. She was absorbed into a lively circle of progressively orientated intellectuals, artists and bohemians, and lived from her earnings as a teacher. She married the journalist Kees van Bruggen in 1904. She spent the next three years with her husband in the Dutch East Indies, where they both worked in journalism. After returning to Amsterdam, her debut appeared in 1907: a collection of stories called In the shadow (of a child’s life). This was followed in 1910 by the collection Little knitting school and her novel The abandoned. A novel based on Jewish life. Four years later the novel The Little Jew was published.
This series of books about Jewry in the Netherlands in the prewar period dealt with such controversial themes as Jewish emancipation and assimilation, anti-Semitism and Zionism. Carry van Bruggen fondly provided a minute description of the orthodox Jewish milieu in the small provincial town she knew so well. She keenly analysed the question of Jewish identity with which she was confronted in Amsterdam. Her insight into the Dutch anti-Semitism that she had known from childhood left its mark not only on these penetrating and masterly collections of stories and novels, but also on her particular view of the importance of Zionism in the Netherlands and of the major conflict of her time, the First World War. The articles and essays that she wrote during the war years formed a single extended commentary on it, culminating in the lengthy essay Prometheus (1919). Eight years later she wrote Eve, her finest work, which brought together the themes of her oeuvre in an extremely tight-knit Modernist novel. It can be read as the ultimate account of the question of the identity of a Jewish woman in the Netherlands in the period from 1900 to 1930. Although Carry van Bruggen was a famous novelist in her day, the biographical sources available are scanty. At the end of her life, when she was going through a heavy depression, she destroyed all her manuscripts and almost all her correspondence — everything that could throw light on her private life. In the past her short stories and novels have been interpreted in a highly autobiographical way because they seem to contain a lot of details that refer to the author’s life. For Jewish historians she was above all the Jewish author, while for feminists she was the author of women’s books. Cultural critics considered her as a philosopher of culture, while literary critics recognised her as a Modernist author. Finally, her work has been placed almost exclusively within a limited Dutch context.
These three lectures are about the triple identity of Carry van Bruggen — as an assimilated Jewess, as an emancipated woman, and as a respected writer — in the Netherlands around the period of the First World War. It is particularly to the international context of her work that I would like to draw attention. In the first lecture, I shall place Carry van Bruggen’s personal vision of Jewish identity in the Netherlands within the broad European discussions that were going on at the time among Zionist and non-Zionist Jews. I have particularly in mind the big debate on the relation between Jewish and German culture that took place in Germany on the eve of the First World War. In the second lecture I shall deal with how the author, who now referred to herself as a ‘thinking woman’, dealt with the major conflict of the First World War in her essays. Even though the Netherlands was neutral in that war, as a result of the growth of nationalism and Zionism there was just as heated a discussion of the question of Jewish identity in the Netherlands as in the warring nations. It is in that light that I want to consider the essays that Carry van Bruggen published during the war, and particularly the cultural critique contained in the major essay Prometheus that she published at the end of the war. In the third and final lecture, I shall consider how this intellectual Jewess developed in the course of the 1920s to become a writer whose name would not be out of place among the ranks of the great Modernists of the time such as Proust, Eliot, Larbaud and especially Virginia Woolf. It is a pity that her last novel, Eva (1927), has never been translated into English. After a first impulse in the 1980s, the study of Carry van Bruggen’s Modernism has not progressed any further.
The conventional interpretations of the relation between Jews and non-Jews in the Netherlands do not make it easy to interpret the work of Carry van Bruggen that she published in the prewar years on the relation between Dutch culture and Jewry. Dutch historians emphasise the increasing integration of Jews in the Netherlands in the period from 1870 to 1933. Without being able or willing to give up their particularity, they came to form a part of the general culture that was shared by the majority in the Netherlands, according to one of them, the Leiden historian Ivo Schöffer. That position was further elaborated in a collection of essays by various hands entitled The history of the Jews in the Netherlands, which has become the standard work in this field since its publication a decade ago.
The Jews formed a small minority of the Dutch population, never amounting to more than 2 per cent. In 1796, during the Batavian Republic, they were formally given equal status with the Dutch. In the second half of the nineteenth century they benefited from the economic boom in the Netherlands, but still failed to make a major entry into professions from which they had always been excluded. More than half of the 100,000 Dutch Jews in 1900 lived in Amsterdam, which still had a ghetto. Although the level of poverty among the Jews was relatively high, they did not form a separate group in economic terms. They became more integrated with regard to religious life and practice as well. The Jewish religious organisations became increasingly ‘nationalised’. Dutch took over from the Yiddish that was spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, or the Portuguese of the Sephardic Jews. Those in charge of the synagogues were increasingly assimilated, and even secularised Jews from the well-to-do bourgeoisie, who guided the faithful with a fatherly hand. Unlike the situation in Germany, the Reform movement, which was largely a class phenomenon of the bourgeoisie that made no appeal to the proletariat, did not take shape in the Netherlands until 1930, when a liberal Jewish organisation was established. In the long term, participation in the Jewish community in the Netherlands was primarily of social importance.
The participation of the Jews in Dutch society of this period was wide and multi-faceted, according to the conventional picture presented by Dutch historians. The Jews shared the national Dutch feelings — at any rate, those of the bourgeoisie — with conviction. Jewish religion or Jewish origin were regarded as a private matter that did not need to be expressed in socio-political and cultural behaviour. Generally speaking, then, they participated in liberal or social democratic organisations such as the press, politics or the labour unions, and in economic life, art, science and culture. That was never done in an exclusively Jewish sense.
All the same, these assimilatory and integratory tendencies were not taken to their logical conclusion. Society imposed limits and was marked by anti-Jewish (anti-Semitic) sentiments in many forms and gradations. Historians characterise the degree of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands as ‘comparatively mild and moderate’. Manifestly virulent anti-Semitism did occur, but it was regarded by the majority as ‘unbecoming’. Although the Netherlands never witnessed any pogroms and the emancipation of 1796 was never seriously called into question, discrimination and anti-Semitism were to be found in the personal sphere, albeit ‘in tempered form’, they write, varying from anti-Judaism, which was mainly confined to Protestant circles, to social anti-Jewish feelings and behaviour. Expressions of racist anti-Semitism did not appear until National Socialism began to win adherents in the Netherlands in the 1930s, but they met with emphatic opposition in Dutch society at the time. In the light of this special situation in the Netherlands, the breeding ground for Zionism was not very large at first. Sympathisers were primarily motivated by philanthropic considerations, feelings of solidarity with the persecuted in other countries, and a more general sense of solidarity with international Jewry.
This view of Jewry in the Netherlands in the period between 1870 and 1940 is strongly coloured by the dominant picture of compartmentalised Dutch society that is presented by Dutch historians. This typically Dutch form of consociationalism was shaped during that period in a society that championed unity in diversity — integration without the loss of one’s own identity. The predominantly social discrimination against the Jews was like the attitude of various other social groups towards one another, such as that of the Protestants, the Catholics, and the Socialists. Virulent anti-Semitism is out of line with the traditional picture of a tolerant, pluralist and non-violent Dutch society that is put forward by these historians.
There certainly has been opposition to this vision of a moderate, mild or latent anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. The historian of the influential multi-volume work on the history of the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies during the Second World War, Louis de Jong, himself an assimilated Jew, had difficulty in accepting it, but under the influence of readers of his manuscript, he usually attempted to tone down his original statements on anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. After completing the final volume of his work in 1988, he was one of my predecessors here at Harvard as Erasmus Lecturer. In the first of his Erasmus lectures he expressed himself once again in very nuanced terms about anti-Semitism in the Netherlands before 1940. ‘I would not say’, he stated, ‘that life for the Jews was easy in the Netherlands (most of them were fairly poor), but it was certainly less difficult than elsewhere. So they felt at home.’
Recently the Amsterdam Professor of Contemporary Jewry, Evelien Gans, made a fundamental critique of this picture. She noted that the studies of anti-Semitism that had appeared in the Netherlands so far were in the first place primarily general chronological studies, in which the theme of anti-Semitism was treated not only briefly but also above all in a fragmented way. Anti-Semitism in the Netherlands was still discussed as part of a particular period. The monographs that have appeared on anti-Semitism have also always targeted a particular period. As a result, there is as yet no historical study that systematically charts and analyses the possible continuity and possible discontinuities in anti-Jewish actions and sentiments in the Netherlands over a long(er) period. Moreover, publications on Dutch anti-Semitism are often of a very descriptive nature and include little analysis.
The reason for this doubtless lies in the reputation of the Netherlands as a relatively tolerant nation in which virulent anti-Semitism as it was to be found in other countries did not exist. The existing informal, ‘everyday’ anti-Semitism was nothing by comparison. In many respects the same is true of the history of anti-Semitism in that other liberal nation, Great Britain. Dutch history, however, was overshadowed for many decades by the great twentieth-century drama: the deportation of 75 per cent of Dutch Jews during the German Occupation between 1940 and 1945. Research on anti-Semitism in that connection was focused almost exclusively on the ‘prehistory’ of the Holocaust in the 1930s, and on the influence of National Socialism in the Netherlands. The preceding period — the years from 1900 to 1930 — received much less coverage. This was also a result of the fact that the period around the First World War traditionally occupies only a small place in Dutch historiography because of the neutral position taken by Netherlands in that conflict. The supposed exceptionalism of the Netherlands at that time discouraged international historical research on anti-Semitism.
The often highly polemical work of Carry van Bruggen offers an excellent example for closer investigation of this picture of a virtually uninterrupted process of far-reaching assimilation and integration of the Jews in Dutch society. After all, the years around the First World War put that process fundamentally to the test all over Europe. Seen in that light, Van Bruggen can be seen in all kinds of ways to have adopted a stance in the debate of the time on Jewish identity and Jewish culture that had begun within and as a result of Zionism.
The so-called Jewish books of Carry van Bruggen from the prewar period appeared at a time when the Netherlands was going through a strikingly dynamic cultural upswing. As far as the participation of the Jews is concerned, historians have once again emphasised their integration in Dutch society. Not only the Jewish élite, which had participated in Dutch culture ever since the emancipation, but also the Jews from other social strata were now involved. The upswing affected not only Jewish life; Jews also participated in general cultural life in the Netherlands without their specifically Jewish character playing a role in the process. Zionist-orientated historians tend to emphasise the more specifically Zionist character of that Jewish participation in Dutch culture. Although many assimilated Dutch Jews no longer believed in a future of its own for Jewry, they still maintained a spiritual bond, these historians would like us to believe, with the Jewry in which they had grown up. We read in the collection Pinkas that in the case of many artists and intellectuals ‘one can recognise a search for Jewish values to confer a new and refreshing content on what they regarded as petrified and outdated’. While the integration historians consider Carry van Bruggen as an example of a Jewish woman writer who also concerned herself with other general issues — the position of women and philosophical questions —, in the Pinkas collection she is rated among the artists and intellectuals who belonged to the upsurge of interest in Jewish culture.
This upsurge, which has been and is interpreted and evaluated in very different ways, was a response to the far-reaching integration required of the Jews within the modern national cultures of Europe. They ran the risk of losing their voice and identity completely in that process of assimilation. With the growth of anti-Semitism in Germany and Russia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the question of where assimilated Jews really stood now became even more topical than ever. It was Martin Buber who introduced the term ‘Jewish renaissance’ in an essay of 1901, where he described it as ‘the resurrection of the Jewish people from the partial life to full life’. Unlike Theodor Herzl’s strictly political Zionist movement, Buber believed that a revival was only possible by introducing Jewish tradition in a contemporary fashion. A major inspiration was provided by the more than 70,000 orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who fled to the West to escape the persecutions and were regarded as bearers of an authentic Jewish culture. Buber’s initiative was the prelude to profound debates on Zionism and culture in which the notion of assimilation became the stake in a broad struggle between rival schools of thought. The debate hit the national press in Germany with the position adopted by the young Jewish intellectual Moritz Goldstein in a long article in the cultural magazine Kunstwart. The Jews, he argued, ran the culture of the Germans, while the Germans denied them the right and ability to do so. He did not consider Zionism an option, but called for the Jews to free themselves from that German culture. They should now concern themselves with Jewish affairs, not only for their own good, but also in order to create a new type of Jew, especially in literature. That article attracted a lot of attention and prompted the so-called Kunstwartdebatte ‘on the poet as Jew and the Jew as poet’, which showed how keenly the distinction was felt in Germany between a culture of the Germans and a culture of the Jews. More than ninety articles, most of them written by Jews, were sent to the non-Jewish editor-in-chief of Kunstwart, who devoted his periodical to the issue on four subsequent occasions.
The debate on Jewry and culture that was triggered in Germany in 1912 by Moritz Goldstein was followed with the greatest interest in the Netherlands, that had a strongly German cultural orientation. Zionists in the Netherlands claimed that the Jewish question had always been a persistent phenomenon in Dutch culture too, and that it still was. The German debates stimulated the young Jewish writer Victor van Vriesland to write an article that was published in the Nieuwe Gids in February 1914, in which he also raised the question of the ‘cultural emergency of the Jewish people’. However, he was on principle opposed to the idea of a Jewish renaissance. Buber and his associates, he argued, were out ‘to force a national culture at the wrong moment’. Van Vriesland considered Goldstein’s conclusion that a Jewish national literature had to be created to support the creation of the Jewish political state to be full of ‘half-measures and temporary stop-gaps’. Those who represented a position like that were among the assimilated Jews who were parasites on a ‘higher’ culture. Van Vriesland believed, on the other hand, that the struggle should be ‘for a differentiated purification, for a reaction to mixing’.
When Carry van Bruggen moved to Amsterdam in 1900 to take up a position as a teacher, she had left orthodox Jewry behind her. The articles that she wrote for the Deli-Courant in the Dutch East Indies show that she closely followed intellectual life in the Netherlands as best she could. There were a number of popular Jewish writers in the Netherlands at the time. The best-known is undoubtedly the novelist and dramatist Herman Heijermans (1864-1924). The main themes of his work were social injustice (Hope for the best, 1900), religious narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy (Ghetto, 1899), and avarice (Links, 1905). His most important work was for the theatre, and has been compared with that of Strindberg (1849-1912) and Chekhov (1860-1904). Another famous Jewish writer was Israel Querido (1872-1932), one of whose novels was about the world of the Jewish diamond-cutters in Amsterdam. Carry van Bruggen was no fan of Heijermans, who triggered a wave of literature about Jews. She called him ‘the cynic, the writer without emotion’, although she found that he wrote well. Her criticism of Heijermans was of his ‘hatred of the Jews typical of a born Jew’ who ‘knew nothing about the Jews’. For Querido she had nothing but praise. He ‘was a Jew’ and had ‘those moments of revelation that make every Jew of a rather sensitive nature exclaim: that is how I experienced my Jewishness too. Querido feels something for the great glory of the Old Testament, for the bygone brilliance of rabbis and prophets.’
In this respect she felt a close affinity with Querido. She had no time for the spate of ‘literature about the Jews’ which she regarded as an easy, fashionable phenomenon. She wrote in 1904 that it did no more than pander to ‘the considerable lack of familiarity on the part of the public at large with the typical and poetical Jewish customs and the concomitant curiosity to hear something about them’.
Once she was back from the Dutch East Indies, Carry van Bruggen participated heart and soul in the flourishing cultural and intellectual life of the Dutch capital. The year of her return, 1907, was also the year in which the Eighth Zionist World Congress was held in The Hague, which was an enormous stimulus to the small group of Zionists in the Netherlands. Her brother, the writer and lawyer Jacob Israel de Haan, who also lived in Amsterdam and with whom she felt a close bond, was increasingly drawn to Zionism from that moment on.
The four Jewish books that Carry van Bruggen published before the outbreak of the First World War echo the debates on assimilation, Zionism, emancipation and anti-Semitism that were currently being conducted among Jews and non-Jews in the Netherlands. Following the interpretation of her oeuvre that is usually based on the contents of the works themselves, these novels are generally referred to as ‘memory books’. As we know, however, memory is the production of a selection from the past for the purpose of the present; it is a construct. I would therefore prefer to see these ‘memory books’ as relatively programmatic texts in which Carry van Bruggen used the form of memories to participate in the contemporary debate on Jewish identity. Like the Querido whom she so much admired, she once said that ‘art is never copying, it is never photographing but always painting, never just reporting facts, but always a question of the artist’s freedom of choice’. Her childhood memories are therefore no retelling of the past, but a reworking of the pain and pride of the anti-Semitic humiliations inflicted on the daughter of a gazzen from a provincial town to create a keen analysis of the insoluble ambivalence of assimilated Jewry in the Netherlands.
If emancipation meant assimilation, this process inevitably entailed a loss of traditional values. Freedom was won at the price of Jewish identity. The phenomenon of assimilation, Evelien Gans writes, shows us the entire complexity and duality of modernity — the new opportunities and possibilities, but also the loss of identity and the corresponding doubt and uncertainty. Within what German historians have so aptly called the Fundamentalkrise of modernity, the alienation and powerlessness felt by the Jews undergoing emancipation were possibly even greater than among the non-Jews. Not only did the Jews have to adapt to the new era with all its confusing aspects, but they also had to do so more often without the support of their own familiar milieu. Armed with nothing but their own doubt and uncertainty, they had to find their way in a new society in which they were never fully accepted. That is how Carry van Bruggen herself once put it:
As children we were forced to have consideration for everyone, and yet we knew, from our proud nature, that we were superior… That is why there was something out of balance in our education, a deficit and a surplus of self-confidence at the same time, but as a whole it was still something that thwarted a gradual development.
The insoluble problem of Jewish difference is the key theme in the entire oeuvre of Carry van Bruggen. In her debut, the collection of stories entitled In the shadow (of a child’s life), published in 1907, she shows how Jewish children are caught between two rival camps. Occasionally they rebel and turn against the compulsive life, with all the obligations that Jewish life entails, such as having to go to the Jewish school after a day in regular school, while the other children are playing outside. And if the Jewish children are allowed to play outside, they are excluded from the circle of the other children, at most the butt of scorn and teasing. The same ambivalence applies to the Jewish faith. Although the children look forward to it, the long awaited sabbath with all its traditional rituals turns out to be a day of endless tedium, while the other children have a real day off. And no matter how beautiful the children find the Jewish belief, its mysterious stories and prophecies arouse their anxieties. They also experience ambiguity in their love affairs. If a Jewish boy or girl comes into contact with a non-Jew, the result is inevitably the traumatic experience of being turned down. Their difference is a source of permanent anxiety for the children, because they do not really grasp what that difference means. The last story in this collection, in which the villagers successfully drive the Jewish family that ran a shop there out of the village, shows how that difference is experienced as a fundamental threat, as a matter of life and death:
The children were coming outside now, one after the other. Their faces, which were too old for their years, were listless and exhausted, pale in the morning cold after a miserable night. They ambled silently around the carts in their tattered winter clothing. Then Mother came out of the house with little Michael on her arm, the red cap splashing cheerfully among the others’ worn-out attire. The father was the last to come outside, pulling the door of the shop shut so hard that the unknowing bell tinkled in the bleak, deserted house. He looked poor in his short jacket, under which his emaciated legs wobbled clumsily. Grey hair fluttered from under his cap, and the wind chilled him as it blew on his neck. He took the squealing rascal, who was now clapping his hand loudly, from Mother and set him in his own cart, after first pressing a hollow with his hands between the bedding and the pile of clothes. The other, the heaviest, would be pushed by Bram and Joop. Mother walked hand in hand with Saar and Lé behind the carts. Bent over and pushing hard, Father and the boys set the jolting carts in motion, and they groaned and rattled over the cobblestones. … Under the overcast October sky, surly and unpleasant as a whining child who doesn’t know what he wants, they set out through the village in their shabby procession…
Even in the rare event of non-Jewish adults siding with the Jewish children, the same ambivalence remains. ‘Jews are still people’, says the old knitting teacher to smooth matters over when life is made difficult for her favourite Jewish pupil by the non-Jewish girls in her knitting school. But she was granting a favour, not guaranteeing a right.
For most of the characters in The abandoned, a novel published in 1910, the moment comes when the warmth associated with Jewish festivals in the family cannot compensate for the obligations, fears and isolation to which Jewish children are exposed outside the family. This novel is about the erosion of the traditional awareness of Jewish identity and the different forms of assimilation that occur as a result. Both themes were topical at the time. At the end of the year, Carry van Bruggen wrote to a friend:
It is the gradual decline of Jewry that deeply moves our youngsters. Like a drama — a melodrama: certainly melodrama in the sense that no further drama can be born from today’s rotting Jewish society.
The path taken by the children in The abandoned, leading away from the faith and away from their parents, shows the development within Jewry itself. Carry van Bruggen describes it in the sketch of the tragic fate of the Lehren family, which falls apart after the death of the mother who had always managed to carefully maintain the balance and cohesion in the family. The father remains firmly loyal to the faith, which in the long run drives his four children away from the faith and thus out of his life. His faith consists of commandments and prohibitions, which have to be unquestioningly followed, but his children adopt a critical attitude. They each go their own way in accordance with their character after the death of their mother. Filled with feelings of repulsion, the intelligent son Daniel leaves the synagogue on Yom Kippur before the end of the ceremony. His father drives him out with the words ‘in the past they would have stoned you’. In the end Daniel breaks openly with the Jewish faith and the strict regulations that he regards as empty and devoid of meaning, but is still the only one not to make fun of the celebration of Passover with his ‘free’ friends. The beautiful daughter Esther has already been traumatised by anti-Semitism as a young girl. She hopes to escape from Jewry by marrying an older, non–Jewish man when she is barely sixteen years old. After a couple of years she sees that the status and prestige that she yearns for so much will always remain out of reach. She goes mad and returns to her father — and to the Jewish world, as a patient in a Jewish psychiatric institution. Joseph, the eldest son, is eventually cast out by his father too, although he has never broken with the faith, but has opted for liberal Jewry. He does not make fun of the Jewish faith and is not ashamed of his origins, but he is no longer able to accept the old-fashioned religious commandments:
A cigar on the sabbath, a glass of beer on your Friday night off, what was wrong with that? If being Jewish or not depended on that, well…
Rose, the youngest of the family, stays at home to take care of her embittered father
For her the festive element and the religious element in the celebration of holidays were completely united. She did not dissect, reflect, or try to separate things, but left them as they were in their wonderful unity.
But once she has fallen in love with a non-Jewish man, she has no difficulty in leaving the Jewish regulations for what they are. The novel ends with the father who, abandoned by them all, dies alone and without the Shema.
Carry van Bruggen explored the painful ambivalence in which assimilated Jews live in more depth in a novel with a single protagonist, the young man Bennie, entitled The little Jew (1914). He is constantly torn between feelings of respect and antipathy towards the others, the non-Jews; he does not want to deny his origin, but at the same time he would like to be accepted by the others as one of them. He feels loyal towards the Jewish faith of his parents and grandparents and the Jewish tradition, in fact he derives a sense of pride and self-confidence from them since he is one of the chosen people. But on the other hand he is so keen to be accepted by the people he has to deal with every day. If he is ever to be successful in society, the Jewish faith must not act as a brake. In the end the admiration for the others triumphs over his pride and shame of his background when he gets to know a non-Jewish girl. But Bennie is almost destroyed when the brother of his girl friend terminates the relationship with the words: ‘I find it disgusting, I find the very idea of intimacy between my sister and one of you miserable people of God disgusting’.
Carry van Bruggen’s Jewish novels were very popular in their day. Presented as childhood recollections, her first two novels, In the shadow and The Little Knitting School, were in line with the tendency at that time in Europe to turn authentic cultures that disappeared in the modern era into museum pieces and to exhibit them as curious relics — something of which Carry van Bruggen was well aware. Apparently her work met the need for knowledge of the dramatic demise of Dutch Jewry and the painful process of integration of the Jews in Dutch society. The abandoned was a very popular book in the Netherlands for a long time, going through fourteen reprints before the Second World War. In a positive review published in 1920, an important Socialist writer said of it: ‘It is a very Jewish, but purely Dutch work of art’. In both cases, however, the work of Carry van Bruggen was taken out of its context and stripped of its political purport.
The novels that Carry van Bruggen wrote before the First World War reveal a high degree of involvement in the contemporary debate on the Jewish identity and bear witness to a keen analytical capacity. Setting out from her own personal experiences, she investigated her own Jewish identity as she wrote. Although she worshipped and admired her brother Jacob Israel de Haan for his intellectual and poetic talents, the parallel lives of these two children of the gazzen went their own separate ways around 1910. For her, the emancipated Jewish woman, the Jewish faith was incompatible with the modern life that she wanted as a writer. While she sought individual freedom in the loneliness and ambivalence of assimilation, her brother’s quest for an awkward sense of security ended up in a religious-based Zionism.
The double bind of the assimilated Jew — wanting to belong and never being able to belong — involves an extra dimension in the case of a Jewish woman. Women were assigned a place of their own within Jewry. Carry van Bruggen was well aware of this. She repeatedly elaborated motifs in her stories that she once recorded in a more autobiographically tinted sketch:
And if you think how angry I always was as a child because girls count for so little, do not acquire adulthood in public worship, are not eligible for ‘money’ or ‘quorum’, are not even allowed to recite the prayer for the new moon — then you will understand how I felt when I was allowed to drill the boys’ bar mitzvah part into them.
Never fully accepted as a Jew in the Netherlands and as a woman by Jewry, the intelligent daughter of the gazzen dedicated herself during the years of the First World War to creating a view of life and the world in which the identity of an individual no longer had to be sacrificed to the intense desire and bitter necessity to belong to a community. She recorded the outcome of her reflections in the long essay Prometheus in 1919. Prometheus and the novel Eva from 1927 are the only two of her books that are still read today. However, as an assimilated Jew and a woman, she realised that she had to deal with a third identity too: that of an emancipated, thinking woman. As is clear from the quotation with which I began, this was regarded as a direct threat to the existing society and culture. This is the topic of my second lecture, ‘On being a ‘Thinking Woman’ in the Netherlands’