De Keien, the book by historian and author Merel Leeman, is not an exhaustive account of the resistance’s activities. Instead, it closely follows a group of friends to look at how Rotterdam students experienced the German occupation and joined the resistance. To make it easier for readers to identify with the story, the author decided to introduce several main characters. By showcasing various student perspectives, Leeman gives an insight into what it was like to join the resistance as a student. “I wanted to confront today’s students with the question: What would you do?”, Leeman says.

Merel Leeman_De Keien_boek_studenten_verzet_Fjodor Buis – rechtenvrij
Image credit: Fjodor Buis

Leeman decided to focus on De Keien, a horizontal fraternity within the Rotterdamsch Studenten Corps (RSC). The members of this fraternity, founded at the start of the ware, saw the German occupation become increasingly strict. They were students at the Netherlands School of Economics, Erasmus University’s predecessor. Leeman decided to focus on this fraternity after coming across a chest full of letters, resistance documents and a log book from that time documenting student life. “The reason why I chose to focus on them is not so much because these students were key members of the resistance, but because I had access to such a wealth of materials, giving me a better insight into the early development of the resistance.”

In addition, the members of De Keien held a unique position in Rotterdam. “This group of students came from prominent merchant families and was very well connected in that social environment, so they not only offered a perspective on the student resistance movement, but also on the School of Economics and the world of commerce. If was fascinated by the fact that they were at the interface of all these social domains.”

Partying during the occupation

Student life stubbornly continued at the start of the war, Leeman explains. “Initially, many traditions were kept going during the war. Students simply continued to party and organise dinners, encouraged by an environment that told them, ‘We are neutral, so we should just go on as before.’”

“Another reason why I decided to focus on the members of De Keien was because they were simply a group of young men discovering freedom.” In the book, the author relates how de members of De Keien kept student life going in the RSC as usual, with hazings, get-togethers and copious amounts of food and drink. “And there was always lots and lots of beer. This was also because Hitler had said, ‘Bier soll sein’ (‘There must be beer’), as this was very important for the soldiers. The beer was increasingly watered down, but it still did its job.”

The war did affect student life in some ways, though. Student associations SSR-R and Laurentius lost their association buildings during the 1940 bombing, and the RSC was forced to close down its building in 1941. Without their association buildings, students had no choice but to gather at the various pubs in Rotterdam. “They started organising hazings and meetings in pubs, like Het Gouden Spinnenwiel and Café De Pijp.” In addition to these pubs on Nieuwe Binnenweg, students also gathered in Katendrecht, the lawless dock area that was prohibited to the Germans because of the risk of STDs. “Katendrecht became the real night-life district for students, but it was also a centre of resistance and criminal activities.”

Student spies

The first students to become active members of the resistance were not in fact student association members, Leeman says. “Many students who joined the resistance early were so-called nihilists, so students who were not members of an association. For example, there were the members of the Teetotallers’ Union, an organisation of people who didn’t drink alcohol. This was a very idealistic and socially minded group that cared strongly about social responsibility.” Communist students, who were an early target of the German occupiers, and Indonesian students, who were fighting for Indonesian independence, also joined the resistance early on.

When it came to joining the resistance, the students in De Keien took a bit longer. Frits Ruys, one of the members, took the lead in this. The students contributed to the resistance in various ways. “You might have expected these Rotterdam resistance students from financial circles to have joined the National Support Fund (Nationaal Steun Fonds), which helped fund the activities of other resistance groups, but that didn’t happen to any real extent. The students were mainly active in the underground press and in assault groups, and they also did a lot of spying.”

According to Leeman, students were perfect for the role of spies. “Students who were relatively well-spoken and had the ability to improvise and observe were obviously very valuable to spy organisations like the Ordedienst and Albrecht, so many students in the resistance engaged in such activities.”

Some of them would pay for this with their lives. Ruys, for example, was executed by firing squad after betrayed by Kees Bitter, a fellow RSC member. “Kees was caught by the Germans and at some point became a double agent. He betrayed Frits Ruys as well as many other members of the resistance.”

Collaboration of the Netherlands School of Economics

The book paints a clear contrast between the students who joined the resistance and the Netherlands School of Economics, which claimed to be neutral but increasingly became a puppet of the German occupiers. The School of Economics had been founded as a private institution by businessmen and unlike other universities was under no compulsion to refuse Jewish lecturers. “Even so, the management of the School fired its Jewish lecturers on its own initiative.” When Jewish students were banned from studying at the School of Economics, not only did the Rector Magnificus and the board members cooperate, but they also tried to prevent active student resistance against the ban. “The businessmen did not want to lose ownership of their School. During that period, this almost became like a mantra, constantly repeated in the minutes: the school must stay open, even without students.”

The students had few defiant lecturers who could serve as role models. “At other research universities and universities of applied sciences, there were individual lecturers who protested against the occupiers, but everyone fell in line at the School of Economics. This made it difficult for students to chart a course or to make different choices.” Leeman has great admiration for the students who nevertheless joined the resistance. “I kept thinking: how could you possibly develop a resistance mindset in these circumstances? Because everyone and everything, including student life, the Netherlands School of Economics and the business community, insisted on cooperating.”

Van der Mandele

One of the founders of the Netherlands School of Economics, Karel van der Mandele, takes up a prominent position in the book. Van der Mandele, who was the chairman of the Rotterdam Chamber of Commerce during the war, is seen as one of the most important Rotterdam businessmen of the twentieth century, but according to the author, he also extensively cooperated with the Germans. “He was one of the first and most enthusiastic proponents in the business community of economic cooperation with the Germans. He also became a member of the Business Council (Raad voor het Bedrijfsleven), which restructured the Dutch economy to integrate it much more seamlessly into the German war economy.”

At the School of Economics, Van der Mandele held the position of head of the Board of Governors, making him the person with most influence. “He facilitated the process through which the School of Economics became a puppet of the German occupiers and a place where German ideology was spread.”

Rotterdam still places Van der Mandele on a pedestal, and the square between the Theil and Erasmus buildings is even named after him. Leeman is critical of this adoration. “Even aside from his dubious actions during the war, what really bothers me is the way people like him were afterwards praised for their actions during the occupation.” The Van der Mandele archive is still kept sealed. “His family keeps the correspondence from the war period locked away. I wasn’t allowed to look at it. It’s the same for many other merchant families, but surely the full story must be published eventually?”


Merel Leeman_De Keien_boek_studenten_verzet_oorlog_Esther Dijkstra
Image credit: Esther Dijkstra

The book was commissioned by the 1940-1945 Rotterdam Student Resistance Foundation. This foundation, consisting of former members of the five oldest Rotterdam student associations, asked Leeman to write a book about Rotterdam students who had joined the resistance. The subsequent research was carried out by her independently. After five years, the book is now finished. On 3 November, the first copy was presented to Mayor Aboutaleb and rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord. The book is now available for purchase here.

De Keien

Read more

Upcoming book on Rotterdam students in the resistance during WWII

In a Rotterdam flattened by bombs, students were involved in the resistance against Nazi…