In 2011, actor Willem Nijholt published his letter to Dutch authoress Hella Haasse. Haasse was, as was Nijholt, born in the Dutch-Indies. After the publication of this book of letters, which for a large part deals with his time in a Japanese (POW) camp and is a “a stirring tribute to his mother” (according to newspaper “de Volkskrant” in 2011), now his memoirs are published. In expressive, associative, and often exuberant language Nijholt takes the reader to some impressive chapters in his life.
“Soit. I am over eighty now. So be it. My bones creak, my tendons moan, my muscles groan, my belly jiggles, and my hair is getting greyer... Also, my teeth crackle.”
Grey, Everything is Grey
On 14 January 1946, the eleven-year-old Willem, his older brother, younger siblings and ailing mother enter the port of Amsterdam on a ship “full of half-dead human concentration camp surplus.” It is freezing cold: “Grey, everything is grey in Holland. Yech!” Princess Juliana was there to welcome the hospital ship. “No Gilded Coach, grooms in red velvet, and riders on snorting horses with plumes and bells on the harness. No ermine mantle or shining crown where mother could talk about so interestingly in the Indies. No gala orchestra playing the national anthem. No hooray, hooray, hooray! (...) People were yelling: ‘Be brave!’ ‘Be strong!’ ‘Welcome home!’ Home? We did not have a home, Our home was in Soemenep on Madura.”
To the Hospice
From Amsterdam, Willem and his family travelled on to Millingen aan de Rijn to “our granny.” To the nuns (“Swans”) in the Hospice Sint-Jan de Deo, where granny lived: “From the pantry, the nuns had made vests for us, Jansen & Tilanus underwear that was left behind by old men who were already dead and was economically kept. ‘You see that it always comes in handy’ (...) The nuns also gave us a magazine (De Katholieke Illustratie), with many stories about Jesus and with sweet coloured pictures.”
Willem falls for the maid Victorientje, who teaches him ballads, “songs of the day” and swinging. Above his mattress, he pins “beautiful pictures” of movie stars (Deanne Durbin, Judy Garland, and Betty Grable), which are then torn from the wall by the nuns (“those sinful women, those lost souls”). Victorientje secretly gives him a notebook with movie stars in it: “Errol Flynn in a tight leotard with a sword in his hand and that famously crooked smile under his moustache; the jungle boy Sadu in his leopard loincloth! (...) Victorientje’s band aid on the tear in my wounded soul.” After some time, Victorientje has to leave because of a “shot gun wedding.” “I had intercourse with Jaap! We sinned. (...) We are going to have a baby.”
To recuperate, Willem goes to the island of Bornholm in Denmark, to Karl and Anne. “Suddenly I realised that Karl looked very much like Frans in the hospice in Millingen, suddenly stirring other feelings in me. I didn’t understand them and didn’t admit to them in the subconsciously flourishing of my sexuality.” Willem becomes fascinated by certain parts of the male body and through contact with Karl... “That night I did not sleep. I was pondering about that ‘strange’ thing that happened to me. I was totally confused. Karl was a man, so why would he get me so worked up?”
Back in Millingen, his father (“a strange, old man in our eyes”) returns after three years of imprisonment in Burma. Willem eventually goes to the former Dutch High School for the twelve-eighteen year age group (hbs-b) with a focus on exact sciences. However, arts and humanities would have suited him better. He was not doing well. “I was not interested in school, as I was going to be a movie star or something similar anyway.” Willem went to confession every week. “I was more Catholic than the Pope.”
He does not know what to confess to, “but the priest often asked about things I did not understand. Was I playing with myself? ‘Yes, Father, I love to draw dress dolls on cardboard and their clothes on paper with tabs you turn near the shoulders and arms, and then I play fashion show with them.’ And then there was silence in the confessional box. The priest sighed or was irritated, and almost immediately I was given absolution and had to recite the rosary once. But at a certain moment, he asked me if I never had any sinful thoughts, playing with myself and getting a nice sensation. Excuse me, sinful thoughts? No, I had no wild urges to drink, and I did not swear or steal.”
I Lost Myself in Him
Willem comes up with the idea to visit the handyman Frans again at the hospice. According to the lady next door, Mrs. Roelofje, Frans “once had been caught with a young monk in a close embrace in the monastery.” Both boys were punished by “the Holy Bishop and the Holy Monastery’s management” and expelled from the monastery. Willem hears how “socialist Roelofje cursed those damned papists, for giving ‘such a good guy, such a nice man’ the boot because of all things he sinned out of love, those hypocrites!”
“Willi, is that really you?,” sounds from the basement as Willem enters the domain of Frans. “Willi, you’ve become a beautiful and tall lad!” Passionately, Nijholt describes his “first love,” his first intense sexual experience. “I lost myself in him.” With Frans, the awareness of sin comes in the afterglow. “It is forbidden Willi, forbidden.” “But why, why?” “It’s a sin, Willi.” “No, Frans, it is love. Frans, I love you so much.”
A young nun disturbs the romance. “Frans, are you there?” (...) “A whirlpool of thoughts raced through my head. God punishes immediately!”
Willem has discovered love, and did not feel sinful or ashamed. “I like men! I was one of those ‘you-know-whats,’ as it was disparagingly called. But was I? I always had girlfriends I hung out with, but we did not kiss and I was never fiddling them, as my friends proudly claimed to be doing, bringing their hand with two outstretched fingers to their noses in order to sniff them with a horny, mysterious smile and rolling eyes.”
Willem never visits Frans again. After an unsuccessful try at secondary education, he ends up volunteering for the Navy.
Mental Incompetency S5
“In Nijmegen and Milligen, I had seen them at the city hall walls, the posters with the slogan ‘Make Sure You (Also) Join’ in a text bubble spoken by a jolly sailor’s face with his thumbs up. The more I looked at it, the more I liked the idea.”
He is bullied by a sadistic sergeant, and after a brutal “patrol rape” (Nijholt describes it in direct terms and almost as casual as if he had his first peanut butter sandwich) Willem is transferred. After making a night of it, three months of military penitentiary at Nieuwersluis followed - but not after Willem’s parents were informed about his dismissal. His mother said things like: “O dear, Willi! An S5 discharge?! You will never get a good job, not even as a postman! And... and... homophile?! But child! Don’t only Arabs do that?”
“I was dreaming of another life.” In the end, Nijholt truly lived his dreams. After the academy of dramatic art, from which he graduates in 1960, he can look back on a long and successful career. His mother had died in 1959, which hurt terribly. “That hurt, worn, but never to be ironed out. (...) During my whole career, I had to think of her after all the first nights, and I could never really hit the champagne euphorically. (...) if someone had a conduit for the theatrical in the blood, it was my mother.”
As if on a Racing Bicycle
In the last fifty pages of his memoirs Nijholt tells of an anonymous love and the Grim Reaper, the warm friendship with actor Siem Vroom, and a conversation with a chaplain (“Dammit, what a beauty of a priest”). He finds out that he is “extremely unhappy.” His first steps on stage are described expressively. Dutch theatre celebrities Wim Sonneveld and Conny Stuart (“Let’s have another one on the old days. Cheers!”) are also discussed.
“Yes, I am over eighty. I made it! Eighty-two. And looking back? Oh! It seems like racing through time on a racing bicycle.”
That is also the feeling that comes over the reader when the last page is turned. This racing bicycle could have made more stops. That’s the only thing you can “reproach” Willem Nijholt after reading his frank and precious memoirs.