Sunday, February 28, 2010


Chapter X of De eeuw van mijn vader.

The title of this chapter refers to the period in the Netherlands between the invasion in May 1940 and some protests that took place at the end of February 1941. This is the first time I have seen Nazi occupation referred to in such terms.

While the Holocaust got going, the German occupiers apparently kept daily life intact for the non-Jewish population. Kids went to school, and shops opened and closed. In reading this, I was reminded of some recently released color footage of occupied Paris. It was criticized because it showed people going about their business, instead of showing oppression. I have never lived under an occupation, but I suppose that while resistance is necessary, one must also work and eat and so on.

Geert Mak also takes a hard look at the Dutch Paradox, that is, why the tolerant Netherlands had a rate of extermination close to traditionally anti-Semetic places like Poland. The reasons are geographical and cultural. He points out that the Netherlands only has borders with Germany. Culturally, there is a lot of kinship among the Germanic peoples. Also, the Dutch have traditionally trusted their governments, unlike others, such as the Spanish, Russians and Italians. The Dutch culture lent itself to conforming with the modern efficient Nazi bureaucracy, one of the first.

Although Mak looks to other historians to explain what happened, he misses what I heard from Barry Spaanjard at his presentation. He said that the Nazis weren't the villains portrayed in the movies. They were extremely congenial. Spanjaard went on to explain that the Nazis were always smiling. They would say that the next camp would be really great. They would apologize for the bad train ride and offer showers. It was only after the showers turned on that people realized what was happening. In short, the Nazis went out of their way to hide their villainy. What made them so efficient at oppression was that they were often on their best behavior in public, especially early on.

Where the family is concerned, Big Mak concentrates on his sister, Anna. She was parked in the Netherlands with another family for her education. In 1940, her class picture shows the girls on the verge of becoming women, dressed in nice, neat dresses. By 1944, they are women, but they're dressed in rough men's clothing. During the war, she got engaged and worked with the resistance. Her fiance was caught and taken away, never to be heard from again.

What makes Big Mak a great writer is that he is able to separate things and look at them from different perspectives. Much of the resistance was carried out through the Dutch Reformed Church, which he describes as severe, but respectful of foreigners and minorities. Ministers always had a reason to be out, and they served to coordinate hiding Jews and getting them food. Earlier in the book, he shows his dislike for the Dutch Reformed Church, but he is clearly able to set aside his own sentiment to show them at their best. Most writers, especially American ones, would have tried to rationalize things to their point of view.

Big Mak is also unafraid of writing about the Dutch who fought for the Germans, many of whom went so far as to join the SS.

Finally, the pen is again turned over to Hans. He describes life in the camp in the colony. His older brother Gjalt is taken away, because any male over 10 must be in a men's camp. He writes about the women serving corn and calling out items such as veal, making up wild "Fantasy dinners." As time went on, they were more and more hungry. The children also killed flies and built up collections of over a thousand. He closes with a view of an Allied plane, saying that marked the beginning of the occupation's third phase.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Clarification of the Feb. 18 Post

The GF read my take on translating and thought it might be taken as a slam against Geert Mak, because I am struggling through his work. She brought up that I needed to clarify, and mention my paid translations.

Most people take care of their language the way they take care of their cars, which is hardly at all. They drive around badly and have no idea of how things work. Consequently, it is the lot of translators to wade through inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, and cute flourishes put in for emphasis. Interpreters, who work with spoken language, enjoy what is best defined by the great self explanatory Spanish word, verborrea.

The post on Feb. 18th was an expression of envy of literary translators. It would be fantastic to translate for Geert Mak or anyone who writes as well as he does.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Pearl Harbor.

Chapter 9 is the shortest in the book.

The action is all in the Dutch East Indies. The way Big Mak describes it, it seems like Indiƫ fell in slow motion. Over time, apparently, the brutal colonizing machine that was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) grew to depend on inertia, with everything continuing because it had always been that way. As it became clear that the local army wasn't nearly enough to fight off Imperial Japan, vague hopes developed. It was thought that help would either come from Americans in Hawaii or the British in Singapore. These hopes evaporated as various places in Asia fell like dominoes: Hong Kong, Guam and Singapore. While Hawaii was never occupied, the Pearl Harbor attack meant that the Americans weren't going anywhere for a while.

From there, Japanese occupiers came into Medan on bicycles. His sister Tineke saw them and thought, "Is that an army?" The parents were separated. Their father was sent to Burma, diverted from a hard camp because he was a minister. He mentioned feeling guilty years later. The innocent often feel guilty. Those who built the camps were guilty. The Mak children remaining in the colony and their mother went to a camp.

At the end of each chapter about the war years, Geert Mak turns over the pen to his brother, Hans, whose work appears in italics. It seems that the Japanese put everyone in camps, without really knowing what they would do. This contrasts with German camps, which had the machinery of death installed ahead of time. Hans remembers teachers starting school again and writing in sand when they ran out of paper. He also remembers having good times. The women grouped together, based on their husband's associaciations. Mrs. Mak hung out with another minister's wife, and they had something on Sundays that approximated a church service.

As I described earlier, this chapter was hard to read.

I have been listening to Dutch also. At times, I can put together what's happening, stringing words together, getting the gist of what's going on. Yesterday, I watched TV and listened to the news.

The problem with learning any language, is that a language is so large that there are many parts which seem unrelated. For example, I can listen to the news and figure out what is going on, but sitcoms where people are talking to each other and speaking differently are more difficult.

Yesterday, I had some improvement, in that I could listen, read captions for the deaf, and know what everyone was saying. Still, the effort was so intense, that I couldn't make the leap to comprehension and put together the story.

The experience was similar to the way I listen when interpreting. I get out what was said, and try to predict what logically would follow. I don't always remember who said what after a few minutes have gone by.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I think it would be great to support myself as a literary translator. I can't imagine what it would be like to translate for someone who knew how to write.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dutch Cinema

I read the Wikipedia article on the subject, and looked up some Dutch movies. Many notable films should be forgotten. I looked at many trailers on the internet. It appears that the Netherlands was hit harder by the 1970s than most places. Those who didn't wear ugly clothes were in pointless nude scenes.

Dutch documentaries, however, are great. They cover a wide variety of subjects.

Friday, February 12, 2010

As slow as ever

I'm reading the shortest chapter in the book. The only problem is, I'm bogged down in very difficult vocabulary again as Mak describes the horrors of war and has lengthy passages from his father's notes from the period. There is a lot of word researching, from the dictionary, to the computer and back to the dictionary.

For a while, I was starting to read whole paragraphs. This is almost like the beginning of the book.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why a Dutch?

There are two reasons for learning a language. One is practicality. The other is enjoyment. Even though I've been through the process, I wonder what makes enjoyment. Why one language and not another?

The first time I set out to learn a language, I wanted to learn any language. I envied code switchers. Spanish was the choice, because it was the number two language in the area. The whole process was exhilerating.

Now, I'm on my 5th language. I want to read and listen to more Dutch. As with Spanish, I fell in love with it, but that did not happen with other languages, French for example.

Although it is unlikely I will ever speak Dutch, I really want to know it. I would like to read more. Max Havelaar comes to mind. It is in the public domain, and I have bookmarked it. I would also like to watch more Dutch documentaries. Although I have run across the trashy elements of Dutch culture, I still want to read and hear more of the good stuff. I will most likely continue to listen to the nieuws.

There are other reasons for learning Dutch. It lacks the infrastructure of more popular languages. Sometimes, such things get in the way. It's written up as the best jumping off point for other languages in the Germanic group. The bonus is similar to what one gets by learning a Romance language. Learn one, and you get comprehension of several. Being far away from Dutch speakers, it's an internal learning process. There is nobody to impress. It's more relaxed. If I miss something on a tv show, there is no pressure to know exactly what was said. I can read and listen at my own pace. Finally, there is the underrated food. Try a large Dutch pancake made in an iron skillet with lemon juice and powdered sugar over it. Incredible.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I just passed the halfway point in De eeuw van mijn vader! That's the lower part of p. 249 for anyone who is following along.

Friday, February 5, 2010

De tussenoorlog

Chapter 8 opens with a tragically optimistic front page from the May 13, 1940 Sumatra Post, "In spite of intensive airborne tactics, the Netherlands is the master of the situation."

The title of this chapter might be best rendered as, "The Interim War." It covers the posturing and intrigue leading up to and including Germany's invasion of Holland in 1940. It had been planned for 1939, but weather and other difficulties for the Germans intervened. The invasion was delayed many times.

In American texts, the war starts in 1939, with Hitler sweeping across Europe after double-crossing Stalin. Mak writes the Dutch view, with hopes of neutrality there. In the rest of Europe, there were monuments to the legions who died just over 20 years earlier. Nobody could quite believe it was happening again. There was some time between the pact with Stalin and its betrayal. Poland was crushed by both Germany and the Soviet Union. It was ground down for quite a while.

The interim time has also been written up as "The Phoney War." All sorts of plans were being made. Dutch intelligence knew that an occupation was coming. Plans were made to get the Royal Family out. Gold deposits were moved to London and New York. Still, people clung to the idea of neutrality. Minister-President Dirk-Jan de Geer gave a stirring speech anyway.

In 1939, the Maks travelled to the Netherlands from the colony. They left a couple of the older kids behind before going back to the Dutch East Indies. There was more heartbreak, as their vacation went through Switzerland. It made me wonder what might have been if they had decided to stay and sit out the war. They made their way back at the beginning of 1940, stopping in Italy. They could see soldiers everywhere, and the war was definitely on.

One issue that Geert Mak doesn't tackle is the ridiculous position some of the kids were in on that trip. They were going home to the Netherlands, a place where they had never been before. Such things often happen with expats and colonists.

The chapter closes with words from his brother Hans about events closing in. Incredibly, their last vacation was in 1941. Everyone talked of the war, and there was talk of capitulation. Although money was going to buy Spitfires, it was too little, way too late. Like the Netherlands itself, the Dutch East Indies was waiting to be picked off.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Entertainment value.

If you're looking for cheap entertainment, learn a language by reading a book. You could also read in a language you don't know very well. It takes forever. When measured in dollars per minute of entertainment, there is no greater value.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rockers from Eindhoven

What is it about covers? Some people hate them. I can't get enough. I just discovered The Phantoms. I don't know if they were a good band, but their cover of James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy" is fantastic.

It's strange, but without Europe, American music would be terrible. Why? Because Americans have no taste. For whatever reason, we have the conditions necessary to produce many great artists. They are held back by the American public, which either doesn't listen at all or gives them a very short shelf life.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Every so often, I'll wake up in the middle of the night, and a Dutch word I have had to look up many times will suddenly pop into my head with the definition. This happens with words that Geert Mak frequently uses. For example, I now have it firmly in my head that belangrijk means important and bijvoorbeeld means for example.

I understand more and more of the podcasts I listen to, but comprehension is still a slow process. It's like tuning an old radio that doesn't work very well and trying to listen to a radio station that's too far away. Over time it becomes clearer. The better you learn a language, the closer it comes to sounding as clear as your own.

Recently, I added the podcast Laura Speaks Dutch to my list of things to listen to. I am about halfway through it. I am amazed at how having things explained in English has helped my listening and reading. What people say is much clearer now, even though much of it is a bunch of syllables puncuated by the occasional word I know.

Laura is also a good capsule of Dutch life. It includes everything from comments on Dutch food to information about a government falling during the time the podcasts were made. There are many short lessons, which appear to be made to be repeated a lot by the listener.

If there are any language acquisition researchers or language learners reading this who find it useful, I am open to questions. You can post them as comments.