A leading Dutch writer recalls growing up as a Jew in the Netherlands and explains why he now prefers to live in America
At home, when I was young, we never celebrated Christmas. We were Jewish, although my mother considered it a contentious term. She had a horror of religion in general and of Jewish notables — that handful of survivors in our native Den Bosch — in particular. We were Jewish, but in an unconventional way. My father went to synagogue on Saturdays and kept more or less to the traditions, but for my mother, who had been raised in poverty, God, if he existed at all, as she invariably added in a conspiratorial tone (my father was not allowed to know she held such revolutionary ideas), was essentially an opponent. She had no time for a God who created hunger, disease and suffering. For her, a God who had allowed her mother and brothers and sisters to be gassed in Poland was not much of a God.
A few years before she died, we met for Christmas dinner at a restaurant in a village near Den Bosch. She used to hate the Christmas season; often she spent it alone at home, her children away elsewhere (I was in Los Angeles much of the time), but because the whole world celebrated Christmas, she decided in her old age and out of sheer desperation to participate for once. The dinner was at one of those stuffy places and not particularly good, but it had been my mother’s idea so I pretended it was delicious.
My mother joked about it as she sat there, leaning slightly forward as she ate, using only a fork, no knife, and evidently unfamiliar with correct etiquette and table manners. She looked radiant, as she always did when surrounded by her children.
Afterwards, we went to her house, and I waited quietly for the right moment to leave. I didn’t know that one day she would no longer be there — well, yes, I knew, but I couldn’t imagine it — and so I gave in to the profound discomfort that my youth and the place in which I had grown up evoked, instead of suppressing it, just to please her.
Since my memory records experiences more or less consciously, I associate my youth in that beautiful city with a profound sadness. I had experienced no tragic events there myself, but it seemed as if the disasters that had struck the families of both my parents had put the city off limits. Whenever I visited my mother (too rarely, too briefly), I wanted to turn my back on that dark city as soon as I could, and so too on her. But she always, always asked, as I put my coat on before getting into my car (in those years before her death I drove a Jaguar XJ6, in which she proudly let me drive her round the nearby streets, past her neighbours who stared open-mouthed as she passed by), whether I had enough money for petrol.
Each time, when I wasn’t looking, she would put some money in my pocket. It became a ritual. When she asked about money for petrol, I would reply that I was fine. Then she would tell me to check my pockets. I would say that I had no money there. “I’ll look,” she would say, then she would put her hand in my pocket and with a broad smile pull out a hundred guilder note. “You’re richer than you thought,” she would say, and I would look surprised and hug and kiss her. Above all, I was not to say that it was she who had put the money in my pocket.
She would also give me a plastic bag with food: a few onions, sweets, nuts, a bag of mandarins or oranges, sometimes a leek, some smoked chicken, a glass jar of chicken soup and always a roll of toilet paper. A small emergency supply for the journey, because you never knew when famine might break out on the A2 from Den Bosch to Amsterdam.
After that Christmas dinner, she gave me some chocolates and a cake. A few years after she died, my son was born; three years later, my daughter. We have endless Christmas dinners. A few years from now, I’ll be giving my children food parcels. For the journey. Against the hunger my mother lived through.
My father died a few days before I turned 11, and I remember little about him. Like my mother, he came from a penniless Jewish family. Like my mother, he started work when he was 13. He went with his father, my grandfather, trudging the streets where people were so affluent they could afford to throw away clothes. At the age of 13, my father began his career as a rag-and-bone man.
A rag-and-bone Jew, they used to say — Jew was synonymous with a cheap, not entirely honest dealer in things that were ostensibly worthless. I have a photo of him, taken at the market in that tiny Catholic city where he and I were both born, which was printed by a local newspaper and fished out of the archive many years later by the person who sent it to me. He must have been around 18 at the time, standing beside various boxes and holding up a bunch of grapes for passers-by to admire — expensive fruit in those days. My father had apparently made it to market vendor and no longer pushed a cart through the streets. He looks well, a “handsome boy”, my mother used to say. He was getting ahead.
After the fruit came rolls of cloth. He sold fabrics at the market; in those days many people sewed their own clothes. He met my mother and for a few years they were courting.
My father’s family was considered even poorer than my mother’s penniless family, so my mother’s parents objected to the match. “He had someone else at the time,” I recall my mother saying. But they got back together at the start of the Second World War.
A few years after he died, I found some boxes in the garage where his car still stood, containing correspondence courses he had taken. He wanted to improve himself. He read. He subscribed to four newspapers. He knew what was going on in the world. After the war, he turned his rag-and-bone business — not new rolls of cloth, there was none after the war, nor was there any fruit, so he went back to trading in rags and scrap metal — into a flourishing firm employing dozens of people. His breakthrough came with the Korean War. It changed his yard full of wrecked cars and broken tractors into a goldmine; the war had sent the price of scrap sky-high.
My father had been interested in the world back in 1939 and 1940, too. He had read about the Germans. He knew what hatred of Jews meant — it was part of everyday life in the southern Netherlands. My parents found each other again and my father managed to persuade my mother to go into hiding with him instead of obeying the notice ordering Jews to register for transport to the East.
Counting all the nephews and cousins, there were about a hundred people in my parents’ combined families. Six of them survived.
I grew up in the affluence that the Korean War bestowed on my father. He had a villa built and drove a Ford Mercury, an unusual car in Holland in those days. He had become wealthy — after he died, my mother had no difficulty feeding and clothing her four children, the oldest of whom was then 12, and showering them with birthday presents.
He was 53 when he died; I was ten. There are ten thousand questions I want to ask him, questions I never even knew existed when I was a child.
In the area in which I grew up, they speak a southern Netherlands dialect. Brabant was divided in two when Belgium seceded in 1830, and in our region they speak in a mellow Flemish brogue. But even as a young boy, I was determined not to use the dialect. I spoke correct northern Dutch, no accent, perfect. It was impossible to hear that I came from the south of the country. I remember one of my earliest thoughts (I imagine it to be a memory, it’s probably from later): I don’t belong here.
The whole region knew my father, Jood de Winter, the rag-and-bone Jew who had made money and lived in a white villa on the edge of town and drove a flamboyant American car. My mother was small and round, a traditional Yiddish mother who smothered us with love and food. She always told my two brothers, my sister and me that if anyone asked what our father did, we should answer that he was a businessman — no one would ever ask, because anyone from the region called de Winter and a child, had to be Jood de Winter’s child, the wealthy scrap merchant.
And if anyone asked what our religion was, our mother told us to say that we had none — but anyone who lived in the region and knew our name knew that we were Jews because everyone knew Jood de Winter.
My mother’s sense of shame ran deep and it had a long history. Her mother, my grandmother, had walked from farm to farm across the south selling boxes of matches and shoelaces. As a child I heard that anecdote dozens of times — my mother repeated it over and over again. That was often when she was in her spacious kitchen, preparing an elaborate meal. She would have loved to be able to show her mother the many things she had, the brimming fridge and the pantry full of food, the huge garden, the good reports that I, her second child who looked just as dark and Mediterranean as she, brought home from school. I would be the first not to work with his hands.
My grandmother was killed in April 1943 at Sobibor. Most of my parents’ families were killed there. Sobibor was where many of the trains that left the Netherlands for the East in 1943 went.
Two writers changed my life: Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In Kafka, I recognised the fear of a world that could not be controlled, governed by unfamiliar and hostile laws. In Singer, I recognised the poor and vigorous and colourful Jews that my parents had once been. What these writers taught me was the intriguing notion that what I had seen and heard, the madness and misery and happiness I had witnessed, could be written down.
After my father died, my mother reduced the four newspaper subscriptions to two, one local and one national. She continued to read them for the rest of her life. Those were the newspapers I grew up with: one Catholic and one conservative. Until I came to Amsterdam as a student and finally managed to escape the city in which I had felt like a stranger ever since I could remember, I had no idea that leftist newspapers and magazines existed.
In Amsterdam, I read everything, Left, Right, conservative, progressive. I discovered Foucault and Popper, Naipaul and Updike. After a year in Amsterdam, I got my own phone, which inaugurated a telephonic mother-son relationship that carried on as long as she lived. My mother phoned every day, sometimes several times. Politics was usually the subject. She had only been to primary school, but she had a clear perspective: America could do no wrong, and she measured what was good or bad in the world according to whether it was good or bad for Jews. If she discovered that a famous person was Jewish, her satisfaction knew no bounds. She loved Israel, although she had never been until I paid for her to go there with my younger brother, by which time she was almost 80.
The book about the generations of semi-literate Jews who wandered the southern Netherlands in search of odd jobs and deals that would tide them over for the next few days, about the life of crime some of them took up, about their energy and creativity and determination to survive, still lies unwritten on my desk. But I thought about my parents when Daniel Johnson, Standpoint‘s Editor, asked me to write a piece about why I and my wife and our children are currently living in America and why I decided to leave Europe. My upbringing was not a run-of-the-mill Dutch childhood with parents who had a farm or a grocery store or a bicycle or cheese business with one generation naturally and organically succeeding the other. Jews in the Netherlands don’t have that kind of continuity. And of all the Jews now in the Netherlands, probably fewer than 30,000 in a country of 16 million (before 1940 there were around 120,000 Jews in Holland), there are not many with a similar background and roots in the pre-war Jewish working class — which was almost entirely eradicated by the Nazis with the aid of Dutch collaborators and the Dutch police force and the Dutch railways.
I grew up knowing that Evil exists. My mother was not erudite; I never saw her read a book, though she liked magazines, and she never spoke in historical terms about the terrible things that had happened to her and her family. Sebastian Haffner and Joachim Fest were not names she knew. It was clear to me whom she had feared: the Dutch informers who were ready to report to the police where she and my father were hiding. These people were even more dangerous than the Nazis, who kept a greater distance than the Dutch Jew-hunters who roamed the country.
My parents were betrayed 12 times, and each time they managed to escape, sometimes with just half-an-hour to spare before the police arrived, rescued by a resistance group of conservative priests and nuns (my parents spoke lovingly of the Catholic Church — yes, nothing is as it seems). The danger came from Dutch informers, while the rest of the Dutch population looked away with a mixture of indifference and fear.
Evil exists, my mother raised me to believe, and Evil can also be spelled “indifference”.
But she also taught me that good exists. She met people who risked their lives to save Jews they had never met — in this case, conservative Catholics who believed that the Jews had caused the death of their Saviour yet were unable to live with the agonising thought that something would go fundamentally wrong with the cosmos if the Jews were left to their fate.
I cannot say it more precisely. Until I left my mother’s house, that white villa which became increasingly oppressive as I grew up, my parents’ experiences could be reduced to these two propositions.
Evil exists. Good exists.
I’m no opponent of multiculturalism. Today, I live in one of the most varied multicultural cities in the world, Los Angeles. All kinds of languages are spoken here. Every ethnic group has its own segregated neighbourhood. And that’s fine as long as cultural relativism remains at bay. In the Netherlands, cultural relativism threatens to take on suicidal proportions. Cultural relativism and appeasement go hand in hand. Cultural relativism is the erosion of moral and ethical values until they are crushed by fanatics who are waiting to slice off the heads of the appeasers under the umbrella of cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism emerged from the vulgar neo-Marxist ideology that has polluted the media and academic world since the 1960s. Cultural characteristics were designated a consequence of material history. Man should be understood within his socio-economic environment, and his cultural characteristics are decorative elements on a par with any other ornament. These are grotesque fallacies, yet the reports and analyses of the manifestations of evil in the world are full of this kind of thinking.
One example: Hamas is an oppressive ideological organisation based on a death cult.
In the Western leftist-liberal media, Hamas is a response to poverty and hunger, imposed by Israel on innocent civilians who, if they were not starving and poor, would be just as liberal and tolerant as the media elites in London and Amsterdam. Thus the insanity of Islamist ideology is dismissed and blame is placed outside the radicals’ own circle. The suicide terrorist is then no more than a pawn that merely reacts and never acts. In other words, the inhuman Evil that lies at the heart of Hamas’s barbarous ideology is simply denied. The Western media is unable to recognise that Evil, or rather, refuses to recognise that Evil since that would undermine the socio-economic model that explains poverty and injustice in the world (and so the core social-democratic ideology of today’s media elites).
Did I leave the Netherlands because the Dutch media whitewashes Hamas? No. What about the rain in Holland? And the dark, grey skies. It is wonderful, for a couple of years, to be able to leave the house without an umbrella. And it is liberating to live in a country where the houses and the streets and the landscape have, at least for me, no history.