In July 2018, Dutch historian Evelien Gans (b. 1951) took her own life. As historians, we are accustomed to writing about the life and death of our subjects, less prepared, to comprehend the loss of one of our own to mental illness. In the Netherlands, where Gans lived and worked, the role of the historian is multifaceted one, with the expectation that scholars engage in public discussions and debates related to their expertise. While Dutch academia remains an insular community, language playing a significant role in this, scholars regularly feature in the media, speak at public forums, and write their own columns in major newspapers such as the Groene Amsterdammer, NRC Handelsblad, Het Parool, and de Volkskrant. Gans embraced this role and often went above and beyond in her contributions to public discourse. Her passionate engagement meant that the boundaries between her academic life and private life blurred.
A historian of the post-Holocaust world
By the time of her passing, she was the preeminent scholar on modern Jewish life, antisemitism, and the aftermath of the Holocaust in the Netherlands. Gans struggled with her mental health in private, but the pressures of what she perceived to be her responsibility to the public and her isolation from colleagues and peers, both in a literal and symbolic sense, contributed to her depression. Evelien Gans’ legacy includes her vast scholarship, which still informs how we understand antisemitism in a post-Holocaust world, but her life should also force us to reflect on the conditions of academia today and why forging an inclusive and supportive community is one of our last hopes to seeing our discipline survive.
Gans’ academic career followed her time as an activist in the squat movement and later as social worker in a women’s shelter. In the 1980s, she returned to her studies of history, inspired to study the intersection of socialist and Jewish history. Gans realized that not only did she have to give up her activism in order to study (and embrace) the Jewish past; in fact, there was a long tradition to these reflections. This research found its way into her PhD, The small differences that make up life) (1999) on Jewish socialists and socialist Zionists in the Netherlands.
However, it was Gans’s first book Gojse Nijd & Joods Narcisme (Goyish Envy and Jewish Narcissism) in 1994 that established her as a bold new voice. The first in a long series of major publications, reflected her lifelong preoccupation with characterizing the function of Jewish stereotypes, postwar transformations to antisemitic rhetoric and imagery, and the changing social and political relationships between Jews and non-Jews. It is in this monograph where she argues that film director and free-speech advocate, Theo van Gogh’s use of antisemitic tropes to critique Jewish writer Leon de Winter originate from his resentment and envy of Jewish victimhood.
This of course, as Gans argues, is not based on actual experiences of Dutch Jews, but rather the perception of Jewish social capital in the shadow of the Holocaust and a rejection of Holocaust memorial culture, which Van Gogh believes forces non-Jewish Dutch to feel guilty for sins they have not committed. Gans links his outbursts towards the so-called Jewish ‘monopolization of suffering’ and his inability to claim a persecuted identity to broader Dutch attitudes which viewed the presence of Jewish survivors as a burden on the collective psyche of the Dutch nation. In response to Gans’ criticism and her assertion that he “flirted with antisemitism”, Van Gogh published an article in Folia, the publication of the University of Amsterdam, with an explicitly pornographic statement about Gans and Nazi perpetrator Josef Mengele. The editorial staff attempted to cite freedom of speech, which was a reoccurring defense for antisemitism in this period, but eventually apologized. Van Gogh, who added Islamophobia to his repertoire, was murdered by Dutch-Moroccan Muhammed Bouyeri in 2004.
Gans’ scholarship and her dedication to exposing the antisemitism or secondary antisemitism, a term borrowed from the Frankfurt School for the Dutch context, of public figures and academics placed her in a vulnerable position. Gans discussed secondary antisemitism in Gojse Nijd en Joodse Narcisme, but continued to think through its application to Dutch circumstances because hostility towards Jewish memory activism continued to shape the political and social landscape of the last two decades. Defining secondary antisemitism as the “conviction that the legitimate desire to draw a line under the past and move on to normalization is heavily obstructed by the frantic attention to the Shoah,” Gans believed that stereotypes of Jews as the “ultimate victim” decentered the magnitude of persecution and deportation of Jews in the Netherlands and thereby absolved Dutch society from any critical introspection into their role during the Nazi occupation.
She, along with several others, took aim at historian and journalist Chris van der Heijden’s first monograph, Grijs Verleden: Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Gray Past: The Netherlands and the Second World War, 2001) for reducing the significance of the Holocaust and ‘leveling’ the experiences of Jews, Dutch National Socialist members, and non-Jewish Dutch civilians. His ‘gray thesis’, informed by the early work of his eventual PhD advisor, Hans Blom (who also served as Gans’ advisor), asserts that individuals during the occupation, ‘apart of the handful of heroes and saints, are not right and not wrong, not black or white but gray.” In arguing this view, Van der Heijden sought to remove morality from decision-making and alter the manner in which historians approached their reading of collaboration. According to Gans, Van der Heijden’s own father’s role in the Dutch Nazi party motivated his framing of the occupation and its aftermath. Addressing Van der Heijden’s publications and his 2009 article expressing skepticism over the necessity of the Demjanjuk trial in her own article for the Groene Amsterdammer, Gans’ wrote,
Van der Heijden seems to want to sweep the crucial moment of (individual) choice and action under the carpet. This is how ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘victims’ end up in the same giant terrine filled with gray, tasteless soup. All of them float aimlessly, hardly distinguishable. Easily digestible, though.
While Gans often deconstructed Van der Heijden’s arguments in writing, she did not shy away from challenging him in public spaces such as conferences or talks. In this way, she became a polarizing figure for her colleagues, who believed labeling Van der Heijden’s work as emblematic of secondary antisemitism “inappropriate.” Her colleagues’ reticence to ‘take sides’ in the debate between the two scholars weighed heavy on Gans, a point she noted in a 2017 interview with Jazmine Contreras.
The invisible burden of a public intellectual
By the time of her death, Gans had witnessed countless controversies over interpretations of the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism unfold. Even as she transitioned to emerita status at the University of Amsterdam and shifted her attention to finishing the second half of her double biography of the historian and writer father and son duo Jaap and Ischa Meijer, she continued to address secondary antisemitism and leveling in the media. Writing to television program Andere Tijden for equating the experiences of a train conductor, police officer, a member of the Military Police, and Jewish lawyer who was a prisoner in transit Camp Westerbork, Evelien once again highlighted how often agency and responsibility are taken out of discussions of wartime wrongdoing. She also, along with Maarten Voorst tot Voorst, uncovered the true story behind author Isabel van Boetzelaer’s Oorlogsouders (The War Elders) that presented her family history as one of resistance, when in fact it included significant cooperation with the occupiers.
Evelien Gans with her co-edited anthology „The Holocaust, Israel and ‚the Jew‘. Histories of Anti-Semitism in Postwar Dutch Society“ (2016); source: timesofisrael.com
In his heartfelt obituary for his co-author and friend, historian Remco Ensel explained, “Evelien Gans took very much to heart the injunction she had learned at home: ‘make your voice heard when confronted with flagrant injustice.’” An outspoken advocate for equality and a generous mentor, Gans embodied what many academics strive to be. She did not avoid confrontation and in doing so, subjected herself to the judgement of peers and strangers alike. While there are myriad of factors to consider when trying to make sense of her suicide, the conditions of academia, in which sexism still plays a significant role, and her increasing disappointment at finding herself fighting solidarity battles (though she noted Ensel was always willing to support her) need to be emphasized.
Depression behind closed doors
Despite great strides, especially by a new generation of increasingly diverse scholars, depression is still highly stigmatized in academia. Disclosing mental illness risks damaging one’s reputation and career prospects, say nothing of the treatment from advisors and senior scholars. The circumstances of her death and her penchant for explicitly and unabashedly naming injustice may have influenced the uneven memorialization of her life and scholarship. In the three years after her death, no major conference or publication had been organized in her honor. In July 2021, we, Jazmine Contreras and Anna Hájková, two Holocaust scholars working outside of the Netherlands, hosted a memorial event honoring the legacy she left behind. It was well attended by over 100 scholars and friends, many of whom voiced the keen loss of Gans, who left behind a gaping hole in the Dutch public intellectual sphere.
Like mental illness, grief in academia is something that occurs behind closed doors. Outdated and often destructive notions of what constitutes professional behavior still shape how we engage with one another and the expressions of our emotions. Writing in the shadow of Gans’s death, especially on those subjects she dedicated her life to, is to be haunted by the realities of her passing. To utter the word ‘suicide’, something usually said in hushed voices, is to acknowledge that there are those in our community who are suffering, often in silence. A significant number in the discipline suffer from mental illness; for many, it becomes a life-long challenge, exacerbated by the conditions of academia. Yet, it seems that the rules of the field are never to show a vulnerable side, to master the sometimes aggressive and critical debates without any consequence.
A new openness
The last two years, as the pandemic ensued and isolation and anxiety followed, it seems that things are starting to change, at least judging by conversations historians of the Holocaust, Jewish history, and fascism are having on Twitter. Now, colleagues no longer strive to show the perfect facade, but share their doubts and fears. Reflecting on Evelien’s life and legacy leads us to ask how best we can develop and sustain a community of scholars who model their behavior on kindness and acceptance. But it also means standing up to sexism, antisemitism, and racism when we see it, even if that means undertaking the uncomfortable task of identifying who in our community is engaging in those practices.