Eugene van der Heijden: the salt of the earth

Eugène van der Heijden: the salt of the earth: Memories of a friend, by Jan Naaijkens, De Hilverbode, 1 May 2003, p. 9. (Translation by Jeroen Ketelaars, July 2003.)

Eugène van der Heijden, who was buried in his native soil last Tuesday, was a year younger than me. This implies that for over eighty years we have been through life together for a great part. We were kindred spirits when we were children. This, however, manifested itself most when after a few years of boarding school with the ‘Broeders an Oudenbosch,’* Eugène became a student at the Bisschoppelijke Kweekschool (teacher training college) in Den Bosch a year after me. He wanted to become a teacher, and he became one. And a good old-fashioned one at that, who got a deep fulfillment from teaching, later on at institutions of higher education. 

Elderly people of today, both in Hilvarenbeek and in Diessen, who for some time now have belonged to his pupils, remember the almost magical power of his storytelling. At that teacher training college, there was still an oppressing, almost throttling, atmosphere, which appeared to originate from the nineteenth century. Here the powerful urge to freedom, which was one of Eugène’s characteristics, obviously manifested itself. Like his fellow villager, he was what is called a ‘troublesome’ student — sometimes cunning, sometimes utterly impudent –, who wanted to broaden the oppressing chains. This attitude remained intact during the later war years. Credit points were given for behavior. A ten was the highest point that was given. It happened that we went home with a nine on our report cards. For the both us together….

Still, Eugène graduated with honors. He was a good student, who moreover broke through the limitations and the barriers of the education. All his life he intensely searched for the good, the beautiful, and the true, on his own, considering the fact that the education had utterly failed in this regard. Often we searched together. For instance, together we cycled to Zaltbommel in all weathers to be submerged in Bach’s Passion of Matthew. But through it all he remained firmly rooted in daily life. He became one of the pillars of the young boys’ youth work, which was then called ‘De Jonge Wacht,’ in which he – along with Mr. Baartmans – was also the regional leader and inspirator. Whenever there was something to do in the Beek of those days one would run into him. In ‘Brabantia Nostra’ among the historians, in the teachers’ association which badly needed to be awoken, and among the local historians. Years later he was to become one of the founders of the Joannes Goropius Becanus association, which is still in existence today. Along with literature and music his great passion was the theater. Partly because of him a fresh wind blew through the old Maet Hout Staet (dating back to 1907). He skillfully and enthusiastically directed and stimulated, he chose a new repertoire, and, moreover, he was a talented actor, which he remained his entire life. During the shooting of ‘T.V. Masqué’ he was sitting next to me in disguise. I did not recognize him….

        Those were the olden years. Many will know and recognize Eugène better as the man who gave force to and helped shape the village resistance during the war years. He, who seemed to have an innate yearning for freedom and justice, was taken by surprise by the enemy. It filled him with abhorrence and bitterness. This, too, the two of us shared, although I only played a moderate role in the margin compared to him. Initially the resistance was limited to little acts of harassment, until a more or less coincidental event determined the further course of Eugène’s life. However, it not only affected his life. A French prisoner of war who had escaped and gotten lost asked for his help. He got the help he was looking for, but not only from Eugène. The entire Van der Heijden family, his father and mother, his four brothers and two sisters, supported him although they were aware of the danger. The Frenchman got safely transported across the border, on his way to freedom, having been provided with a passport photograph which his youngest brother Jef – then only fifteen years old – had made. This was the beginning of a long, long line of American and British pilots, Jews, students, and other refugees. Gradually contact was established with organizations which formed a large network and more and more fellow inhabitants of Beek got involved. During it all, unconditionally supported by his family, Eugène remained the immovable pivot. With great courage he was entered into risky undertakings, sometimes got involved in precarious situations, and at times barely escaped. He did not do it because he was looking for adventure and even less out of some secret kind of feeling of joy or pride. He did it with death in his heart, yet realizing that saving other peoples’ lives justified it. Later on in his life Eugène recorded some of his experiences and concerns in a memorial, a book which was written in a clear, balanced style and which deserves to be published to teach and warn all those who will live after us. Particularities about his work in the resistance can be found in Kees van Kemenade’s well documented book Hilvarenbeek 1940-1945 (De Kempen Publishing, Hapert).

Eugène van der Heijden carried the legacy of the war with him throughout his life. It was a difficult legacy. We know that because of unfortunate coincidences his father and his brothers Marcel and Gustaaf were captured and killed by the enemy. And that his brave mother (‘ons ma’, our mum) was made to carry a heavy burden. It is to his credit that in his later life he never made much fuss about his role in the resistance. He detested words such as ‘hero and heroism’ and mistrusted people from the resistance who loudly called for recognition. Without asking for it he was amply given that recognition. He received high American, English, French, Jewish, and Dutch decorations. He wore them only rarely. I have never seen them…….

In an old letter which he had sent me on the occasion of the turn of the year, he advised me ‘to read a lot, party a lot, and live a lot.’ These words of wisdom literally applied to him. It made him a beautiful human being (‘ne schone mens,’ Brabant dialect), a Brabant title which has not lost any of its value and meaning. Now, then, the curtain has descended forever. Thanks to the sympathetic cooperation of the R.C. Church Council, Eugène has now returned to the village he loved and which he has always carried in his heart and for which he has always been proud. And we should be proud of our fellow villager, as his sweet wife Toosje and his children can be proud of a unique husband and father.

*Translator’s note: In the first paragraph of Jan Naaijkens’ text, it says ‘Broeders an Oudenbosch’. I copied this from Naaijkens’ text because I think ‘an’ is a mistake, which should read ‘in.’ (i.e., meaning the men from a religious order – ‘broeders’ – in the place called Oudenbosch). However, if I am not sure I never make changes in the text I am translating because I want to stay as close to the original as possible. Hence, I did not change this but just copied it from the original text.