“This is where Willem died.” Jos Exler walks towards a long row of brightly coloured books in the middle of her study. She points to an orange book with the number 16 on the spine and in the margin the text Letters 2204-2356. She apologises for the slight sob in her voice. “William still managed to finish volume 16, and I presented the book in the end. When he died, I thought to myself, should we just let it go? No. I quickly realised it would never be a case of ‘Willem is dead, let’s just leave it be.’”

Willem is Willem Donker. His father started the Rotterdam Ad. Donker publishing company back in 1938. Donker jr took over the reins in 1980 and gradually built up the business. But at the beginning of this century, a man who rang the doorbell of this publishing house in the heart of Rotterdam turned his life upside down. “As is often the case with publishers, Willem was regularly sent manuscripts or ideas,” explains Exler. “And every now and then they just turned up and rang the doorbell.”

portret Willem Donker brieven van Erasmus – Ronald van den Heerik
Portrait of Willem Donker Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Overcoming grief

As did retired teacher Frans Theo Steens. His message was: ‘As a publisher, you publish plenty of books about Erasmus, but wouldn’t it be nice to translate all his letters as well and make them available to everyone?’ Exler: “Willem was immediately enthusiastic. ‘Go ahead,’ he said, ‘but I’ll have to see if there’s any money for that.’ Willem immediately went in search of sponsors and was successful. Eventually he amassed nearly one million euros.”

Various people translated Erasmus’s entire correspondence letter by letter. Meanwhile, Donker was becoming more and more engrossed in this “mammoth project”, as he himself called it. But fate struck two years ago when Willem Donker suddenly died during a stroll in the neighbourhood near the publishing house.

This was a huge blow to Exler, but she soon got back on her feet again. “My son died at an early age, so I do know how to deal with grief. I do it by picking up the positive things that the person who died would still like to have gotten done. That makes you feel proud and brings back wonderful memories. So yes, carrying on with the Erasmus project also seemed to me a good way of overcoming grief.”

'You can’t do this'

Except for one problem. Exler, herself a fashion designer in everyday life, didn’t really know anything about the publishing business, let alone anything about the life work of her husband. “I was on the side-lines. I had my own store; this was his place,” she says about her husband’s old office which she has since taken over. “When I came in to ask a question, he often didn’t even answer. He just waved his hand, meaning ‘go away.’ It was his company and his project. We never talked about it very much.”

At the same time, several rivals started turning up who wanted to take over the publishing company, but that kind of interest ultimately had the opposite effect on Exler. “’You can’t do this. You’re a woman and come from the clothing business.” That’s what they said when they came here. Comments like that were not amusing. One day I was sitting in this room and thought: If I sell this, some strange man will be sitting here. That just did not feel right.”

By the time the fifth prospective buyer called on Exler, she was done talking. “Then I used Pippi Longstocking’s quote: ‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.’ It is so fantastic that I said that. And I really enjoy it so much; I can’t believe it. I’m a huge fan of Erasmus now. It’s a pity that Willem never got to experience this.”

brieven van erasmus – Ronald van den Heerik
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik


To carry on with her husband’s work, Exler did one thing in particular: She made a phone call. “I called everyone and told them we were going to carry on. Translators, publishers, you name it. ‘I don’t know anything’, I said, ‘so tell me everything.’” That tactic worked. By now all 3,141 letters have been translated and the twenty-volume series is complete and printed. Only volume 21 is still to be published in October, a reference book indicating where to find which letter. Nevertheless, Exler’s work is far from finished.

“Two weeks before Willem died, he was reading a book in the conservatory about Erasmus’s travels. ‘Why is this book not being sold?’ he yelled across the conservatory. ‘It’s so good!’ After his death, I started to read the book too, and was immediately on board.” Exler bought a large map and plotted out all the journeys Erasmus had made on his horse more than five hundred years earlier. “How extraordinary is that? We already find it a bit tiring to take a plane to Venice. He travelled by horse and wrote all those letters along the way. I’d like people in those places to get to know his work all over again.”

Consequently, in addition to the customary suitcase with clothes and toiletries, she takes along with her on her travels a suitcase containing twenty books of Erasmus’s entire series of letters. “Heavy? Yes, definitely. But I’m not really a rollator-wheeling kind of woman. So, I just went off on my own, without a plan. I called everyone and wherever I was invited first, I went.”

Jos Exler brieven van Erasmus koffer – Ronald van den Heerik
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Very fitting

The Dutch University Institute for Art History in Italy was the first to respond, so Exler flew to Florence last year. “I was walking there with all those books. But the people were extremely enthusiastic. Then I went to Cambridge. I read in the Elsevier magazine about a theologian who is the first Dutchman since Erasmus to hold the academic chair there, so I also went to visit him. And I already have an appointment with the publisher in Venice for the following trip. But then corona showed up.”

When travel is allowed again and is safe, Exler will hop on a plane as soon as possible – along with the suitcase with the twenty books. “A month before Willem died, he was tired. I was worried, but he still went on a trip. Then I thought: We’ll buy a nice, sturdy suitcase which he can also use to support himself. Kind of like a cane. Although, of course, I didn’t say that to him. He eventually only used that suitcase for one trip, but now I use it for the books. If someone buys the series, I travel there with the suitcase and take the books with me, wherever that is. Very fitting, don’t you think?”

With the presentation of the final volumes of the series, the work of Willem Donker is officially completed. But that does not mean that Exler is done. Despite the fact that the initial interested parties are already lining up again to take over the publishing company, she will nevertheless carry on with her work. “They thought I’d be done with it. Willem’s work is now finished, moreover it was also my intention to quit the publishing company now. But I enjoy it far too much. Erasmus has pushed me into publishing.”