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Jacob Israël de Haan: A Monument to the Son of Smilde

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 29 september 2016

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
Length: 8 minutes

On July 2, 2016, the monument for poet Jacob Israël de Haan was unveiled in Smilde, his place of birth. The monument stands in the beautiful park behind the old church of Smilde, not far from the synagogue with living quarters in which he was born. As a member of the board of the De Haan Society, Gert Hekma spoke the following appreciation.

This society organizes annual lectures on De Haan; this year on October 19 with a presentation of his work by Arthur Japin. With thanks to Jan Fontijn, who wrote “Onrust,” a monumental biography of De Haan, published last year.

Jacob Israël de Haan and Carry van Bruggen, his sister, were born at Smilde in the Dutch Province of Drenthe with almost a year between them. His sister was born on the first day of 1881, and De Haan on the last day of that same year. Brother and sister became Dutch celebrities because of their books, poems, and work in journalism.

De Haan as a poet of the Jewish song and author of the first ever Dutch gay novel, and Carry van Bruggen as writer of novels and as a prominent feminist with her studies “Prometheus” (1919) and “Hedendaagsch fetischisme” (Contemporary Fetishism, 1925). Somewhat over a year after Jacob Israël was born, his family moved to Gorredijk in the Province of Friesland, where his father became a cantor and teacher in another synagogue.

In 1884, the family moved to Zaandam, where the siblings would remain up to adulthood. It was a large and poor family, as a cantor/teacher did not make much in the small communities the father worked in. Also, there were many mouths to feed. The couple had seventeen children, but most of these children died young. The start of De Haan’s parents in the Jewish community - or mediene – of the North of the Netherlands was not surprising, as throughout Drenthe, Groningen, and Friesland, there were vibrant Jewish communities before the Great War (at Smilde 150 people on 5,000 residents). Being the Jewish capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam had a pull, and it is exactly where Jacob Israël de Haan ended up after Zaandam and his college years in Haarlem. In Amsterdam, he became a substitute teacher and student of law in 1900.

Scandalous Gay Novels

As an adolescent in Haarlem, De Haan was already looking to join the ranks of the literary movement “De Tachtigers.” He admired authors such as Lodewijk van Deyssel, Frederik van Eeden, and Albert Verwey. He acquired knowledge about medical and criminological work on homosexuality and accountability with a late joiner of this movement, Arnold Aletrino. Just as his sister Carry did, he lost his faith and joined the socialists of the SDAP (Social Democratic Workers Party). His work for the children’s column of “Het Volk,” the newspaper for the working class, was appreciated until the publication of his first novel “Pijpelijntjes” in 1904.

Not only is this a most charming novel about the Amsterdam Pijp district, but also an undisguised gay novel. For several reasons, the book was controversial. P.L. Tak, the editor-in-chief of “Het Volk” and from 1905 onwards leader of the SDAP, was “not amused” that the author of a children’s column had written a gay novel. The socialist municipality leaders of Amsterdam found it pedagogically irresponsible that a teacher on the city’s payroll would publish such a thing. Aletrino perhaps was the most shocked, as the book was dedicated to him. The main characters Sam and Joop were clearly based on De Haan and himself. He was portrayed as Sam, Joop’s slightly sadistic lover, both names being their pet names in real life.

De Haan suffered dire consequences: Tak fired him at the newspaper, the city let him go as a teacher, and Aletrino bought up all available copies of the novel, together with De Haan’s fiancée Johanna van Maarseveen. The author himself cancelled his membership of the SDAP before the party would kick him out. However, De Haan was not afraid: he wrote a pamphlet criticizing Mr Tak, and a new version of his novel that was as gay as the previous one, but without a Sam and Joop or a dedication. Not long after this, his second novel and the beginning of a third were published.

De Haan’s second book, “Pathologieën” (Pathologies, 1908), was not only even more explicitly homosexual, but also contained incestuous and sadistic elements. Even though he had promised his fiancée to refrain from writing decadently, he failed to do so. However, the relationship did last, and the couple married in 1907. Despite their appreciation for the literary style of both books and requests from De Haan to “De Tachtigers” to write prefaces or other recommendations, he did not get them.


Around 1910, two mayor changes took place in the live and work of De Haan. Firstly, he went from novelist to poet, and secondly, he returned to the Jewish faith. He became the poet of both the Jewish and homosexual song. The political modernism of the SDAP had disappointed him, as did Aletrino’s sexual modernism. His literary friends had left him out in the cold mainly because of his controversial subject matter. With his shift to the Jewish song, he felt more appreciated by his literary predecessors and found a connection to the Jewish community. It seemed the Prodigal Son had returned. He was now a successful poet and lawyer, and, like his sister, threw himself on linguistic theories, in his case judicial (the so-called “significa” in which Van Eeden was also active).

With his return to Judaism, he became interested in both orthodoxy and Zionism. After the Great War, he decided to go to Palestine to explore the Jewish experiment. He was able to finance his travels and stay by becoming a correspondent for newspaper “Algemeen Handelsblad” and other magazines, and later on for English language newspapers. He wrote hundreds of serials in which he reported on living and political developments in Jerusalem and Palestine, which was under British rule. These serials were loved by even readers that did not share his views, and they can now be read at the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letterkunde (Digital Library of Dutch Literature; DBNL) thanks to Ludy Giebels.

Controversial Partialities

In his new place of residence Jerusalem, he would increasingly identify with Arabs and Orthodox-Jews who had been living there much longer, and less and less with the Zionists. He became erotically involved with Palestinian youths whom he admired for their carefreeness and lust for life - a lightheartedness he could not make his own in Judaism. His leaning towards orthodoxy made him a spokesperson for their cause, which did not match Zionist hopes. There were, for example, issues about taxes the Zionists would collect on behalf of the colonial administrators in the Jewish community. For the Orthodox, the Zionists were not religious enough.

The Orthodox were rather more inclined toward a spiritual than a nation state with ministries, laws, borders and soldiers as the Zionists wanted. De Haan emphasized that globally and in Palestine itself, there were more Orthodox than Zionist Jews, and more Arabs who also had rights. The Zionists accused De Haan of endangering their cause by conspiring with British press barons who were not on the side of the Jews or Zionists. All the squabbling in Jerusalem led to Zionists not only spiting at De Haan, but also announcing his violent death on a particular day, and De Haan writing a serial about his foretold death. That date did pass, but not much later, on Monday, June 30, 1924, he was indeed murdered. He was the first Jewish victim of Zionism.

After his death his quatrains were published - a magnificent rendition of his struggle with religious and sexual feelings. The poet of the Jewish song hesitated between God and sex, lust and sin, between Smilde and Jerusalem, and wondered why he even went to the Wailing Wall: for God or the Arab boys?


De Haan is not commemorated in many places in the Netherlands. Zaandam has a commemorative tablet with text, on the Amsterdam Homomonument a poetry line written by him can be found: “Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen” (Such an endless desire for friendship), there is a poem on a kind of border post of the former Jewish neighborhood near the Rembrandt House, and some streets and lanes were named after him, but that is it. Until this great initiative by his birthplace Smilde: a veritable monument. De Haan was a difficult and controversial, but principled man who has meant a lot to gay people and Jews in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and as a political activist in Palestine. That he remains controversial because of his sexual preferences and orthodoxies - in itself a difficult combination - says a lot about the kind of man he was.

It shows the courage of the municipality of Smilde and the promoters of this monument that they know to break through such deadlocks and controversies, and have decided on this memorial. As the author of the Jewish song and one of the early and controversial gay novels, De Haan is a true Dutch hero. He was a man who was known throughout the world by his actions in Palestine which remain relevant to this day - and because of his murder.

De Haan deserves this monument in his place of birth, but it might as well be in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem or in front of the building of the United Nations in New York. Jacob Israël de Haan and Carry van Bruggen are Smilde’s gift to the world. A monument that would not be amiss elsewhere, and that is why it is so exceptional it is unveiled here.   Photos Mattias Duyves & Reinarda C. Hekma



published Apr 2015       

published Nov 2015       


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