The Hague based daily Het Ochtendblad featured the following headline on 19 October 1940: “18 months in prison and a 3000 guilder fine for professor caught listening to English radio broadcasts”. The professor on trial the preceding day was C.W. (Carl Wilhelm) de Vries, then the 58-year-old Rector of the Netherlands School of Commerce (Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool, NEH), an institution that would later evolve into Erasmus University.
On 3 September 1940, De Vries had given a lecture in constitutional law where he discussed ‘the relationship of the Dutch People with regard to the Royal House’. During the lecture, he mentioned Radio Oranje to his students. This was a radio programme used by the Dutch government in exile to speak to the Dutch population during the German occupation. “Just as I heard on the radio, and just as all of you have likely heard…”, said De Vries in his lecture, according to Het Ochtendblad.
Listening to the BBC, the British broadcaster that gave air time to Radio Oranje, was illegal during WW II. De Vries was arrested on 28 September and sentenced three weeks later. He was also dismissed from his position as Rector. “I imagine the Germans weren’t too pleased with his constitutional law lecture. It probably wasn’t the right kind of constitutional law”, says his granddaughter Hanna de Vries at her home in Schiedam. “All of you listen to the English radio broadcaster, just as I do”, she quotes from one of the books on her kitchen table. “That’s all they needed to arrest him, because listening to the BBC was illegal.”
Hanna De Vries, who was assistant director of the Rotterdam University Library from 1993 to 2011, doesn’t believe it was an act of resistance. “My grandfather had a will of his own and what you could call boyish bravado. As a professor of Constitutional Law, he thought it was important in his lectures to discuss interesting contemporary developments in constitutional law in the Netherlands. It’s just the type of thing he would do.”
Professor De Vries served time in Scheveningen until he was transferred to Bochum in Germany in December 1940, and then transferred back to Scheveningen where he spent the remainder of his sentence from December 1941 to March 1942. “He kept a low profile after that”, says granddaughter De Vries. “It was a difficult time for the family. In retrospect, some in the family thought it was a brave act, but it was quite troublesome to be incarcerated during wartime and then be out of a job. He also regretted the consequences it had for the family.”
During his last months in Scheveningen, professor De Vries spent the majority of his time in the prison library. “He wrote to his family saying ‘I more or less live in the library’”, says his granddaughter. That’s where he met Henri Pieck, the twin brother of Anton Pieck. Pieck had been arrested because he was a high-ranking member of the Communist Party and the illegal pamphlets De Waarheid and De Vonk were stencilled in his atelier.
Just like his more famous twin brother Anton Pieck, Henri was also an artist. He would draw portraits of the guards while in prison in exchange for certain privileges, and he also drew his fellow prisoners, including professor C.W. de Vries. The two became friends during the month they spent together in the prison library.
After the war, C.W. de Vries was reinstated as Rector of the NEH. “When a portrait of my grandfather was needed, he wanted Henri Pieck to do it. Of course, with his communist background, Pieck wasn’t exactly a high-society portrait painter. But my grandfather, a real liberal, was the type of person who could get along with anyone.”
De Vries’ granddaughter had only seen a photograph of the painting. “When I started working at Erasmus University, my father told me stories about my grandfather’s time at the NEH. He knew that the family had donated the painting to the university in 1946, but we had no idea where it ended up. The last thing my family heard about the painting was that it was taken along in 1968 during the move from the Pieter de Hoochweg to the Woudestein Campus.” The family did have a black and white photograph of the portrait. It was this photograph that De Vries showed to Cora Boele of the University Historic Collection.
Boele also had no idea where the portrait was and reported it missing to the Netherlands Institute for Art History. When the Erasmus School of Economics had to move out of the Tinbergen Building late last year, Boele requested that any works of art found during the moving process be reported to the University Historic Collection.
At some point, a message came in from Fiscal Economics: a portrait had been discovered on the thirteenth floor of the Tinbergen Building with ‘C.W. de Vries’ written on the back. Boele exhibits the portrait in her collection under the Theil Hall. That is where the cleaned painting is temporarily displayed, safe and sound among the archival storage boxes. “It looks like his suit was just dry-cleaned”, jokes Boele. “The residue left behind from cigars and cigarettes was clearly visible.” The portrait will soon be given a place in the Erasmus Building, mounted on the wall near the Beadle’s Office.
Boele is pleased that the portrait has been recovered after being missing for a half-century. Not just because of the story surrounding professor De Vries, but because the portrait itself is something special. “It’s tall and narrow, probably because it was created in 1946. I suspect that the artist didn’t have any other materials at hand so soon after the war.”
Granddaughter Hanna de Vries is also pleased the portrait has been found. “It was strange that it went missing. We were worried that someone had taken a liking to the work of Mr Pieck,” she says laughing. It also serves as a good reason to reflect on who her grandfather the professor was: “He was quite an unconventional man who simply didn’t care what other people thought. We, his grandchildren, clearly saw his boyish bravado, a quality he carried with him throughout his life. That made him a lot of fun as a grandfather. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m proud of what he said during his lecture: he just said what he wanted to say. I’m proud of how he lived his life, his achievements, what he did for others and especially his service to society.”
Carl Wilhelm de Vries was appointed professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law in 1925 at what was then known as the Netherlands School of Commerce. He first became Rector in 1934-1935 and he held this position for just one month in 1940. After the war, the university reinstated De Vries, making him the first post-war Rector between 1945 and 1947. He was granted emeritus status in 1952. He held a number of positions including board membership in a committee for poor relief (Algemene Armencommissie), and he was involved in the introduction of the Social Assistance Act in 1965. As a parliamentary historian, he wrote books on Thorbecke and King William III. De Vries passed away in 1967.