For each city with a higher education institute except Rotterdam, a book has already been published about students in the resistance during the war. The five largest Rotterdam student associations, united in the Stichting Rotterdams Studentenverzet 1940-1945 [Rotterdam student resistance foundation], felt that the gap had to be filled. They opened their archives to the author and historian Merel Leeman, who hopes to publish the result with the publisher Atlas Contact in September.
After three and a half years of archival research, the draft of the book is complete, and in the week of Memorial Day she tells a bit about her findings. “I focused primarily on students who started studying from 1940, the first time looking after themselves and determined to enjoy their freedom. I explored in depth their everyday history and how, over the years, the seriousness of the war gradually affected them.”
The book tells the story of Rotterdam students in the resistance based on the fraternity called De Keien of the Rotterdamsch Studenten Corps (RSC). The eight students in the fraternity lived together on the Claes de Vrieselaan and became increasingly involved in the resistance over the years. One well-known resident is Frits Ruys, whom the Germans executed by firing squad on the Kraling shooting range in 1944 for resistance, after being betrayed by a fellow student.
That house still stands, and Leeman visited it. Today it is occupied by a NRC journalist, who was happy to show her around. “During the war, the house on the Claes de Vrieselaan was a student hostel. ‘Pa and Ma Riedé’ ran it. The husband was an unemployed captain – all water transport had been stopped – so they started a hostel. Slowly but surely the couple became involved in the resistance because of the students, who did not all join the resistance immediately though. Some did, others joined in the last year of the war. It was not a natural step to join the resistance.”
For her book, Leeman wanted to describe the world the students experienced. She did this by exploring the archives of student associations, published interviews, articles in student magazines, the Niod [Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies] archive, the municipal archive and personal archives. “A son of the fraternity members still had an enormous chest containing correspondence between the students and a logbook of their daily activities. That was invaluable for my research.”
De Keien fraternity
De Keien fraternity serves to provide a framework in the book for the broader resistance of students in Rotterdam studying at the Nederlandse Economische Handelshogeschool (NEH, Netherlands School of Economics, predecessor of Erasmus University, ed.). “It took a while before Rotterdam had pulled itself together after the bombardment and resistance could start to be organised in the city. In the initial phase, Rotterdam residents had to take care of survival first. Like finding a home with a roof,” explained Leeman.
The NEH had eight hundred students, so it was relatively small and new. Initially, Leeman noted a certain conformity of the higher education institutions in the archives. “The most important aspect was to continue providing education; they had to build the Netherlands up again after the war. Many companies were involved in the NEH, and a large number collaborated with the Germans. Their idea was: this is the new status quo, in this new world we have to take up a prominent position. ‘Business as usual’ as motivation.”
In this environment, the students tried to remain students for the first few years, noted Leeman. “Most students tried at first to stubbornly continue on with their lives, just surviving in the war. You can understand that attitude when you read their notes. How they wished they could keep on studying, partying, organising pub crawls, hazing newcomers – while the city lay in rubble.”
Code of honour
But there was also resistance in Rotterdam. “Initially, it came mostly from outside. That is why someone like Frits Ruys with his network played a larger role early in the war: he came from Wassenaar, and The Hague was the centre of Dutch illegal activities at the start of the war. After the bombardment, mainly relief organisations were active in Rotterdam. I saw that some of them developed into resistance networks in later years.”
And students became involved. “Of the entire student population, the proportion was small, but there were relatively a lot of students in the resistance because they did not have responsibilities like a job or family. I am trying to describe how persisting with normal daily life transformed into resistance at a certain point, which factors played a role in the pivot, how it was to lead a double life within a group of friends to whom they were just normal students. I wanted to understand all that. The answer turned out to be different for each student. But I’m not going to reveal everything yet…”
She could not find the same amount of information for all of the student associations. “Students from the SSR-R, for example, at that time a Reformed student association, always maintained a strict code of honour of not talking after the war about what you went through during the war. A code of honour that was transgressed by others for many reasons, for example the need for self-justification. This in turn influenced our image of the resistance.”
Falsification centre and illegal press
Because of its economic character, Leeman expected Rotterdam students of the Netherlands School of Economics to be primarily active in the National Support Fund (which helped finance illegal activities in the Netherlands, ed.). This was not necessarily true. “The students could be employed in a range of tasks. They were good at spying, a number of students worked in the falsification centre, and they helped the illegal press.”
She laughed, “When the students became involved with the press, they started issuing surveys to the readers about the quality of the articles and what could be improved. It remained a company that they were running, despite everything.”
Leeman noted that the students became more bound to the city through the resistance. In Rotterdam – city of dockworkers – the students were the crazy outsiders. “But through the war, it became evident that the students’ world in Rotterdam came into contact with seamen, communists and members of the Dutch Reformed Church. These were all worlds that had remained apart until then.”
Another question she wanted to answer was: to what extent did their work in the resistance bring them into conflict with the business sector, which was collaborating to a great extent, and which was training them at NEH. “In the resistance you had to develop an uncompromising attitude while being in a pragmatic, economically driven environment. And what do you do with those values and attitude after the war? I describe all of that in the book.”