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  • HERMAN HEIJERMANS


    Herman Heijermans, famous Dutch playwright, was born on December 3, 1864. His parents were Herman Heijermans Sr., journalist, and Mathilda Sophia Spiers, who kept a Jewish-liberal home in Rotterdam. Herman Jr. was the oldest son in a family of eleven children, of these one died at a young age. The parents were very musically and literary inclined, and the father was an active journalist. His social-democratic leanings were absorbed by Herman at a young age. After his school period, Heijermans started as an apprentice at one of the major banks. From there he was appointed to oversee a business in 'Alte Sachen', and he opened his own agency, together with a brother, in household goods. His business did not do very well and a total bankruptcy was narrowly escaped. Heijermans was deeply hurt by this failure and its attendant poverty may well have influenced the choice of subjects for his future plays. At that time Heijermans started to write short stories and sketches. In 1892 he decided to move to Amsterdam in order to devote himself to a literary career. His first job was as theatre reviewer, and he was not very sparing or gentle in his criticism. During that time he started writing his columns under the pseudonym Falkland (one of many he would use during his career as publicist). These humoristic sketches on Jewish family life became very famous; they appeared for many years in the daily newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad and were lovingly referred to as 'Falklandjes'.
    His first play, Dora Kremer (1893), was not a success and was savaged by the reviewers, possibly in order to get even with their hated colleague. But his next plays fared much better. Especially memorable was his play Ghetto (1898), which caused an upheaval because of its fierce criticism of narrow-minded Jewish orthodoxy. He was even accused of anti-Semitism.
    In 1897 Heijermans became an official member of the SDAP (the Social-Democratic Workers Party), where his sympathies had lain already for a long time. He wrote for their journals under various pseudonyms and was instrumental in establishing the socialist daily journal, het Volk, for the party. Around the same time he started a new literary-political publication, de Jonge Gids, which served as an outlet for his practically unlimited production as a writer, using a series of pseudonyms. This venture lasted for a few years only, because of financial constraints.
    In 1898 he married Marie S. Peers, a singer who came from a circus-milieu; it was said that she was very beautiful. Out of this marriage he had one daughter, Hermine, who became a publicist in her own right, and also wrote a biography of her father. After twenty years the marriage had broken down, ending in divorce and Heijermans immediately remarried Anna E. H. Jurgens, a much younger actress, and had two more children with her.
    His real fame was established with the play Op Hoop van Zegen, (variously given as premiering on Christmas eve 1899 or 1900), known in English as: The Good Hope. The first lady in the play was Esther de Boer – van Rijk ( see a short biography of this famous actress among Famous Persons in the triptych of Akevoth) in the role of Kniertje. The play reached over 1200 performances, an unheard success story. As written in the biography of Esther de Boer-van Rijk: 'The play had an enormous impact when it first was performed, especially since the author studied and knew the abominable conditions at sea fishery. The play is a moving accusation against a social evil. He wished by his play to force the unscrupulous ship-owners to desist from their nefarious practice, by knowingly sending unseaworthy 'floating coffins' to their doom in order to rake in the insurance monies'. The reward for his efforts to improve the lot of the fishermen did not fail to materialize: in 1909 a ships-law was passed, which made control of all outgoing vessels mandatory and assured some degree of seaworthiness.
    Heijermans was a prolific writer; altogether, he wrote more than sixty plays and countless columns, polemics, satires etc.
    In 1907 Heijermans moved to Berlin. One reason was that the Netherlands were not part of the convention that protected authors' copyright. Germany was a member of the convention so he could now claim royalties on his works. His financial condition was always precarious and he hoped that this would improve his situation. He kept writing reviews and articles for newspapers, also in Germany.
    Heijermans never shirked his duty to study his subject well, and he certainly knew his stuff. Before he wrote Gluck Auf (1911), about the conditions of miners underground, he spent a week in a coal mine as a worker himself. The idea for this play was inspired by an actual mine disaster several years before in Germany.
    In 1911 he returned to Amsterdam and established his own theatre company. There were no subsidies at the time, and this was very intensive work indeed, that practically usurped all his time, and left little spare time for good writing of plays. He was not an easy man to work with and found it difficult to delegate responsibilities. This financial morass forced him to keep writing against all odds; some of his critics describe this later period in his life as 'potboiling'.
    In 1923 the first signs of cancer of his jaw became apparent, and this necessitated an extensive operation in 1924. His situation deteriorated steadily and he died on 22th of November 1924 in his home in Zandvoort. He had expressly stated that he did not wish any Jewish ceremonial at his funeral. He was buried at Zorgvlied cemetery in Amsterdam, and the presence of the public was overwhelming, at his house, along the route, and at the cemetery.
    His works remained popular and reached an even wider audience when the radio came into wide use, through the reworking of his plays into radio plays. The play Op Hoop van Zegen was prepared for film on several occasions and the play is performed from time to time until this day.
    Heijermans was honored in 1929 with a bust by the sculptor J. Mendes da Costa, which was placed in the Vondelpark. This sculpture was vandalized several times and found its way eventually to Israel. A new copy was installed at the Leidseboschje in Amsterdam on the 100th anniversary of Heijermans' birth.

    This short biography was prepared by Eldad Kisch after consulting multiple sources. Much of the ample biographical material on Herman Heijermans appeared in Journals that are not easily accessible. A comprehensive biography by Hans Goedkoop, Geluk, was published in 1996 by the Arbeiderspers.