Top Hats, Low Standards. It is the telling title of the collection of essays published in 1969 by Jaap Meijer (1912-1993), an outstanding historian of Jewish life and thought, a fierce Dutch public intellectual and a deeply troubled soul. Meijer’s collection is about Jewish life in the Netherlands during the 1930s. Each essay is a blast. Meijer hated the paternalistic patriarchs and parnassim of the pre-war period; in Meijer’s view they had stifled Jewish life. Meijer’s own quest for both intellectual and spiritual revival was a rich and curious blend of socialism and Zionism.
Meijer came from the most northern rural part of the province of Groningen. His parents struggled to make ends meet. As a young boy Jaap was sent to Amsterdam to the school that trained boys to become a rabbi. He then took up the study of history at the University of Amsterdam. After German troops invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and the Nazi regime started the persecution of Jews in the Netherlands, Jaap and his wife Lies led a ‘quiet’ life of defiance. Their son, Ischa, was born. Jaap, against all odds, managed to finish and defend his PhD, a study of the famous and controversial poet Isaac da Costa. The public PhD-defence in October 1941 was an act of defiance; the speech of Jaap’s supervisor, the great Dutch historian Jan Romein was a subtle act of resistance. The title of Jaap’s doctoral thesis suggests it is about Da Costa’s conversion to Christianity. Actually it is a historical and deeply personal study of the poet’s quest for the meaning of spiritual and intellectual life—as a Jew, as a poet, as a human being. Jaap’s PhD was even published — and in a twist of historical cynicism a copy made its way to the library of the university of Göttingen, by 1941 a rather sad stronghold of Nazism. I have it here, on my desk; probably I’m the first reader of this copy.
To make money and to protect his family Jaap Meijer taught history at the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam, which was set up, more or less overnight, in the summer of 1941, when the Nazis ordained that Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend regular Dutch schools but had to go to Jewish schools. One of Jaap’s pupils was Anne Frank, who was in the first class. The first notebook of Anne’s famous diaries tells us about her class and about her school year — in a way that was deeply inspired by one of Anne’s favourite novels, The High School Days of Joop ter Heul, written by Cissy van Marxveldt in sparkling Dutch, refreshingly different from the heavy style and idiom that marked so much of serious (male) Dutch literature…
Jaap Meijer also knew Anne’s family. Jaap was interested in both German and Jewish culture. After the war he wrote movingly about ‘the Jewish drama’ of those who, like the Frank family, as German Jewish refugees, living in Amsterdam, had tried to keep up some of the good parts of German culture, preserving their books, as Meijer wrote, on their ‘tragic, well-built, voluminous bookshelves’. Like the Frank family, Jaap and his family were eventually arrested by the Germans. Like Anne and her sister Margot, Jaap and his family ended up in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, just north of the town of Celle, here in Niedersachsen. Anne and Margot perished in the mud and cold. Jaap and his family survived in the Vorzugslager, as it was called with deafening cynicism. The story of their struggle for survival in Bergen-Belsen is told in a monumental chapter of Jaap’s biography, written by the Dutch historian Evelien Gans and published in 2008. The chapter is indeed a monument, an attempt to capture every minute and day of life in Bergen-Belsen for us, readers. Written with verve, elegance and passion Evelien Gans’ study warns us, her readers, not to forget.
That warning steeps much of Jaap Meijer’s post-war publications, as poet and historian. All publications are deeply personal. Some are written in anger; some are moving struggles to keep our memory alive. One of Jaap’s first post-war publications was the deeply personal review of the diaries of his pupil, Anne Frank, in 1947. It was part of a ‘campaign’ to publish and publicise the diaries. First, on 3 April 1946, Jaap’s old supervisor, Jan Romein published his reflections on Anne’s manuscript (given to him by Anne’s father, the sole survivor of the Frank family) on the front page of Het Parool, a newspaper set up by the Dutch resistance at the beginning of the war. The piece, The Voice of a Child, helped to get the diaries published. On 25 June, 1947, the publishing house Contact published the first edition of Anne’s diaries, with a preface written by Jan Romein’s wife, the historian and literary critic, Annie Romein-Verschoor. Sales were helped by a series of positive reviews. Jaap Meijer wrote, as far as I can tell, the very first review. Jaap hailed the diaries as ‘the unique electrifying autobiography of a young girl, so pure’ that it must take the reader’s breath away. Jaap wrote his review with ‘melancholic sadness’. He drew the first portrait in print of Anne, a sketch of ‘a true Jewish child: Anne Frank’, a slender and ‘delicate girl’, with big, striking and dallying eyes, ‘talkative’ and ‘full of spirit’. Commemorating Anne’s death in Bergen-Belsen, Meijer regarded it as ‘senseless and deeply hurtful’ to ask what Anne’s future might have been. Her story was that of ‘murdered youth’, the title of the review.