Historian Evelien Gans was a renowned anti-Semitism and Holocaust scholar. In 2018, she took her own life. This had many causes, but also challenges us to reflect on the distressing aspects of academic culture.

  • Anna Hájková

    Anna Hájková ist Reader of Modern Continental European History an der Universität Warwick und forscht über die Geschichte des Holocaust; ihr Buch „The Last Ghetto“ wurde mehrfach ausgezeichnet. Zuletzt erschienen: "Menschen ohne Geschichte sind Staub. Homophobie und Holocaust" (2021), 2. erweiterte Auflage 2024.
  • Jazmine Contreras

    Jazmine Contreras ist Assistenzprofessorin für Europäische Geschichte am Goucher College (Baltimore). In ihrer Forschung untersucht sie die zeitgenössische kulturelle Erinnerung an den Holocaust durch eine Analyse der Denkmäler, Museen und Gedenkfeiern, die die Gedenkkultur prägen.

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.

Evelien Gans is arrested as a squatter, Amsterdam 1975; source: vn.nl

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.

Source: lastdodo.de

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.

„Secon­dary antisemitism“

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.

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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.