Chapter 9


With our German experience behind us, Hilda and I left Gottingen for the Netherlands on July 30, 1938, and arrived in Appeldoorn on the evening of that day. We made our home with Hilda’s uncle and aunt, Harry and Grietje Veldsma, with whom Hilda’s mother was also staying. We paid a short visit to my relatives in Groningen and Uithuizen, but I cannot recall how the rest of our days were spent. I’m sure we read books and newspapers, wrote letters, made shopping trips into town, and conversed a good deal; but nothing particularly memorable occurred during the whole of the long month of August, except that we notably improved our ability to speak Dutch.

Around the first of September the three of us removed to Amsterdam. Quartered in a hotel there, we explored the city and made train and bus trips to outlying towns and villages. But our travels and amusements did little to alleviate the pain Hilda and I felt when we contemplated the ocean-wide gulf that would soon come between us and leave us stranded on separate islands of loneliness and longing. The fact was that, at the request of Calvin’s Board of Trustees, I had reluctantly consented to study on at the Free University of Amsterdam, even though funds for the support of both of us were not forthcoming. Under the circumstances, Hilda had sacrificially agreed to return to the States with her mother, both to be a companion to her in her widowhood and to find gainful employment. The arrangement was satisfactory to neither of us, and should have been vetoed; but we had given our word to the board and at the time no alternative seemed to present itself. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, but it should never have come about.

On the ninth or tenth of September we traveled to Rotterdam and spent some days with Oom Hannes and Tante Grietje Vander Graaf, the same good people who had greeted us on our arrival in 1936. On September 12, 1938, Mother De Graaf and Hilda set sail for New York on the S.S. Vollendam. Friends and relatives had gathered at the docks to bid the passengers farewell, but for Hilda and me the occasion was all but joyous. After tearful embraces we let each other go, but the parting was heart-rending. What made it bearable at all was our shared assurance that we remained in the custody of the Lord, and that we would be reunited when the winter of our discontent had passed and spring had come.

Hilda and her mother traveled third class. Their cabin, Hilda said later, was small and equipped with stacked bunks; she lay on the upper one with her head close to the ceiling. The passengers were mostly German Jews who had managed to escape to Holland and were now seeking refuge in the land of the free. The weather was stormy, but neither Hilda nor Mother became seasick, and Hilda was fortunate to be often in the company of Prof. Hoekstra, who taught philosophy at Wayne State University and was now returning from a vacation spent abroad. The ship arrived in New York on September 19. Clarence and Marie De Graaf were at dockside to greet the disembarking passengers and to drive them to Grand Rapids. A period of reorientation followed Hilda’s return to Leonard Street, but around the first of October she was rehired by Steketee’s and assigned to work in her old department. She was paid a mere twenty-three cents an hour, on top of which she had to outlive the suspicion that her marriage had broken up and that divorce was imminent.

Uncle Harry Veldsma had been in Rotterdam to see his relatives off, and, when the Vollendam weighed anchor and moved out of sight, I accompanied him home to Appeldoorn. From there I made several trips to Amsterdam, and on one of these trips was able, through the good offices of Prof. Vollenhoven, to secure lodgings with the Byleveld family. I took up residence there on September 21, 1938, and five days later was enrolled as a postdoctoral graduate student in the Free University of Amsterdam.

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I was most fortunate in being able to live with the Bylevelds. The head of the family, Mr. Hendrick Byleveld, was a tall and distinguished looking gentleman who had made a name for himself in Dutch society and was about fifty-two years old when I came to live there. His wife, of the well-situated Dake family, had several paintings to her credit, and was gentle, kind, and motherly. There were nine children in the family, five boys and four girls ranging in age from twenty-six to eight. I came to know the two oldest children only slightly. Greet, the eldest, lived with her husband, Rev. Albert Brink, in the north of Holland, and Heleen was married to H. A. Van Kerkhof not long after I arrived on the scene. The rest of the children lived at home, and their company afforded me great pleasure. Henk (23), Hannie (22), Tonnie (20), and Walter (19) were students at the university; Jan (17) and Wim (16) were students in the gymnasium; and Hettie (8) attended grade school. Under the circumstances, conversation at the table tended to be lively and informed.

Mr. Byleveld could be said to be the living embodiment of prewar Dutch Calvinism, a paradigm of sophisticated Kuyperianism. A native of Amsterdam, he obtained a law degree at the Free University toward the end of World War I, and soon thereafter put his considerable talents into the service of the Christian Anti-Revolutionary political party. In 1919-1920 he served as secretary of the navy in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ruis de Beerenbrouck, and when the government fell, he became administrator of the Federal Department of Trade and Commerce, advisor to the Queen, and chairman of the Council on Grants and Patents. From 1925 to 1929 he was a member of the lower house of the Dutch Parliament. When I came to know him, he was chairman of the board of directors of the National Insurance Agency, chairman of the program committee of the Reformed Radio Broadcasting System, member of the Anti-Revolutionary Party’s central committee, member of the Free University’s Board of Directors, and elder in the Reformed Church (Gereformeerd) of Amsterdam-South. Had it not been for the information supplied by others, I would not have known much of the above biography, for Mr. Byleveld, though amply expressive on matters of public concern, was reticent in the extreme when it came to his own career and accomplishments.

Mr. and Mrs. Byleveld were like a father and mother to me, and I soon joined the children in addressing and referring to them as Vader and Moeder. They in turn treated me as a son, and the care and concern they lavished on me did much to make my separation from Hilda less burdensome than it would otherwise have been.

The Bylevelds lived in a three-story house at 72 Schuberstraat in Amsterdam-Zuid, and a room with bed, desk, and bookcase was provided for me on the second floor. I took three meals a day with the family and was charged for room and board a mere sixty-five gulden a month. Although all of us had our own agenda, we met frequently for conversation, games, and occasional parties and outings; and when I had the opportunity, I regularly accompanied the family to church. On Sunday afternoons we normally played chess, and before I left for home I had acquired a fair mastery of the game.

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The Free University of Amsterdam, with which I was now associated, was founded in 1880 by Abraham Kuyper and his associates. It was a Christian institution based on the principle that Christ’s sovereignty extends over the whole of life, and it was designed to articulate through instruction and research a Reformed world-and-life view. Its beginnings were small. When its doors opened on October 21, 1880, there were five students and five professors in three faculties:

Dr. Abraham Kuyper, Dr. F. L. Rutgers, and Dr. P. J. Hoedemaker taught theology; Dr. D. P. D. Fabius taught law; and Dr. F. W. Dilloo taught courses in language and literature. Kuyper was honored with the first rectorship, and it was in this capacity that he delivered his famous lecture “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring.”

That reality is constituted of several distinct spheres, each of which is governed by laws peculiar to itself, was the central thesis of Kuyper’s address, and it was this idea that gave rise to the term “free,” which was used from the beginning to characterize the university’s status. In its founders’ view, church, state, and school were to be sharply distinguished. It was believed that the university could answer to its own genius and fulfill its own functions only if it remained independent of church and state and free of foreign entanglements. Freedom, however, was not to be construed as lawlessness. Free from alien institutional bonds, the school was nevertheless to be bound by the laws of God and the principles of divine revelation.

Although the university was already fifty-eight years old when I was in residence, it was still comparatively small. Twenty-six professors and three lectors constituted the faculty; the student body numbered no more than six hundred, and of that number only forty were women. There was no campus; instruction was given in remodeled dwellings located on Keizersgracht.

I was enrolled on September 26, 1938, and during the fall term I faithfully attended the lectures and seminars delivered and conducted by Professors Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd. But I was not particularly happy with the program on which I had embarked. The lectures were not always germane or suited to my purposes, the seminars were often a futile attempt to fit a philosopher into a preconceived slot, the students were ten years younger than myself, and I grew weary of class attendance. By the end of the calendar year, I had determined that I could be better employed by simply reading what my appointed mentors had set down in their books, articles, and mimeographed “dictaten.” I did, however, become a member of the philosophical society sponsored by Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, and at one of the meetings of the “Amsterdam Kring” I presented a paper on American philosophy.

I associated very little with the Dutch students and formed no friendships among them, but Henry and Sis Van Til and Lubbertus and Evelyn Oostendorp were pursuing graduate studies at the time, and with these friends from home I enjoyed considerable fellowship.

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In Amsterdam there is an ancient courtyard surrounded by quaint buildings, to which one gains access by entering a gate off the Kalverstraat or off the Spui. The court is called the “Begijnenhof” because it once housed a sisterhood named after St. Begga; in about the year 1400 the nuns of this order built a chapel on the grounds. The chapel passed into the hands of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1578, and in 1607 it was assigned as a place of worship “for the English people dwelling in Amstelredamme in Holland.” The first pastor of the church was Rev. John Paget, a Puritan refugee from England. The Pilgrim fathers who arrived from Scrooby in 1608 worshiped in this church until they left for Plymouth in 1620.

Now known as the English Reformed Church, the building has retained its original shape and size, although its interior has been refurbished and enriched over the years. A brass lectern with emblem and royal monogram was presented to the church early on by King William III, and the panels on the raised pulpit were exquisitely carved at the time of the accession of Queen Wilhelmina. The handsome silver communion set and baptismal basin date from 1781.

The church was without a pastor during my stay in Amsterdam, and, hearing of my presence in the city, the consistory invited me to minister to the congregation during the vacancy. I gladly accepted the invitation and delivered my first sermon during the worship service held on Sunday, October 9, 1938. I preached on Psalm 73:1 that day, and I occupied the pulpit every Sunday thereafter until I left for home. Worship services were held only in the morning, which left me free to attend the Dutch church in the evening. My main responsibility was preaching. The elders, chief among whom were Mr. Kreyenbroek and Dr. Vander Bend, took upon themselves the burden of pastoral work; but I was sometimes asked to counsel troubled souls, which I willingly did, with some trepidation. On one occasion I conducted a funeral, for which I had to borrow from an obliging Dutch clergyman a Prince Albert coat and a black top hat.

I was paid one hundred and fifty gulden a month for my services, a sum of money that, with my Calvin stipend, left me without financial worries. This unexpected windfall made me regret, however, that I countenanced Hilda’s premature return to the States. I suspect we could have managed to stay together in Holland with the funds now at our disposal. On the other hand, with Hilda present I might have given more heed than I did to the consistory’s request that I extend my stay and consider the formal call they wished to extend to me.

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Hardly a day passed that I did not write Hilda. This and other correspondence combined with my sermon making and my readings in philosophy kept me tolerably busy, but ample time remained for a variety of other activities. I read newspapers and magazines, went on shopping trips, explored the city, searched the museums, attended concerts, observed the people and their habits, smoked Ritmeester cigars, savored spots of Dutch jenever, and did other things besides.

My bike was my steed and I rode it everywhere. There were few autos on the streets in those days. In the rush hours swarms of cyclists, often riding eight or ten abreast, their whirling wheels abutting those of their neighbors both fore and aft, poured down the streets like an avalanche. A novice entering that wild stampede put himself at no small risk, but the natives who had mastered the flow went merrily on their way and seldom suffered a mishap.

In September 1938 portentous things were also happening in the public arena. On September 29, Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier, and Chamberlain met in Munich in an effort to ease mounting tensions in Europe. On the next day, the four leaders sealed the fate of -Czechoslovakia by signing a pact validating Germany’s claim to the Sudetenland. Not realizing that his capitulation to Hitler’s outrageous demands had further threatened the existing order, Chamberlain returned to Britain proclaiming “peace in our time.” But Churchill, with prophetic insight, denounced the pact as dishonorable, cowardly, and conducive to no good.

In October I played host to Wilhelm Vauth, who had come from Germany for a visit, and in November I composed a long letter about Amsterdam for publication in the Calvin Forum. On the twenty-fourth I celebrated Thanksgiving Day in the company of the Van Tils and the Oostendorps. What riveted my attention, however, was what had happened in Berlin and other German cities on the ninth. On the evening of that day, gangs of anti-Semitic vandals, aided and abetted by Hitler’s storm troopers, burned Jewish synagogues, smashed Jewish shop windows, and bloodied as many hapless Jews as they could lay their hands on. Because of the broken glass that lay around everywhere, that infamous night is remembered as “Kristallnacht,” and it was viewed by the citizens of Holland as a public and dramatic sign that Hitler and Himmler were determined to decimate the Jews or to exterminate them altogether.

In December, I joined the Bylevelds in giving St. Nicholas Day gifts; entertained cousin Tena Bultema on her visit to Amsterdam; wrote an article on the Free University for placement in the Calvin Forum; enjoyed a violin concert by Nathan Milstein; viewed from a discreet distance the licensed bordellos in the “Jordaan” with Mrs. Byleveld; attended a closed meeting with Karl Barth in the lounge of an Amsterdam hotel; celebrated the birth of Christ on Christmas day; and for four late December days played host to Fritz Gebhardt.

I don’t remember how we celebrated the arrival of the new year, but I know that I appeared as Uncle Sam at a family “Kostum Feest” on January 2, 1939, and that I was a guest at the wedding of Heleen Byleveld on the twelfth. It was also during January that I attended a concert by Jo Vincent and paid a visit to Rotterdam.

A highlight of the month of February was a visit I paid to the home of former Prime Minister Hendrick Colyn in The Hague. Mr. Byleveld had arranged the meeting, and he and I spent an hour or two with Colyn discussing the state of affairs in the world and smoking his big black cigars. On one evening later in February, I took part in the “Societeits Feest” put on by the student fraternity. I was somewhat surprised to see that a bar had been set up in one of the rooms and that both students and professors freely engaged in drinking beer and hard liquors. I distinctly remember how on this occasion Prof. Vollenhoven and I, each with a stein of beer in hand and with arms entwined, cemented our friendship by drinking “Brderschaft.” I should point out that the drinking of alcoholic beverages on festive occasions was almost universal among the Dutch Calvinists. No party was complete without a glass of wine or a jigger of gin; even churches were licensed to dispense wine and jenever at wedding receptions and similar events, and a bar set-up was a feature of every synodical meeting.

In March 1939 things were not rosy in Europe, or for that matter in Asia. Japan was fighting in China, and Shanghai would soon fall into its hands. Closer to home, the Spanish civil war was winding down, but Hitler was on the move, and the governments of England and France were apprehensive and ill at ease. What had long been feared occurred in March: Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, seized Prague, and divided the country into two German satellite states. During the same month he wrested the Baltic port of Memel from Lithuania. Britain and France responded to these moves by promising Poland and Romania protection against aggression; but to most observers this meant that armed conflict was in the offing, for Berlin’s unrestrained Fhrer was evidently bent on further conquests. Mussolini meanwhile had his eye on Albania and had dispatched his troops to acquire it.

Under the circumstances, I was advised by the American consulate in Amsterdam to consider cutting short my stay in Holland; heeding this advice, I determined to leave for home in April. The remaining days of March were still at my disposal, and I decided to make the most of them and to get in as much travel as I could. I made trips to Marken and Vollendam and, on the recommendation of the Bylevelds, I traveled to France and spent six very pleasant and instructive days in Paris, exploring the city and making daily visits to the Louvre.

I devoted most of April to loosening my ties to Holland. I made a day’s trip into the countryside with an elder of the church; I visited Haarlem and Scheveningen, and in mid-April I visited my relatives in Appeldoorn and Uithuizen, not forgetting to leave with them some token of my appreciation of their hospitality and kindness. I bade farewell to my professors at the Free University and promised to become a contributor to the philosophical journal they published. And I gave gifts to the good people who had harbored me these many months and had become very dear to me.

I preached the last of my twenty-two sermons in the English church on April 16, and the church took the occasion to present me with an inscribed copy of a colorful painting depicting the church building as seen from the Kalverstraat. On the evening of the twentieth there was a farewell party at the Bylevelds, and I was given not only an album of the family members in various poses but also a beautiful painting by Mrs. Byleveld, and, above all, an illuminated scroll, etched in medieval Latin, attesting to my adoption as the family’s eldest son and brother.

I entrained for Rotterdam on April 21, boarded the Nieuw Amsterdam at seven in the evening, and at five minutes after midnight on Saturday, April 22, 1939, the huge ship weighed anchor and headed for New York via Boulogne-sur-Mer and Southhampton. I traveled third class, but I don’t recall how I spent the hours during the seven long days it took to cross the ocean. I only know that I waited impatiently for the ship to arrive in port and bring me at last within reach of my dear wife. John and Helen Hamersma were at the docks to greet me when the ship slid into its berth on April 29, and after boarding the first train west, I came to rest in Hilda’s arms the next day. After seven long months I had come home.

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The satisfaction I took in being with Hilda knew no bounds, but joy was tempered by the consideration that Providence had dealt unequally with us. While I, in comparative ease, had been exposed to a foreign culture and had made contact with interesting persons of various backgrounds, Hilda had in customary surroundings been working long hours at an uninspiring job for meager pay. This inequity bothered me, but it could no longer be undone; and I did not know how to express my sorrow and regret that it was with my complicity that this injustice had occurred.

There was another factor in the equation. Hilda and I had been in almost daily correspondence during our forced separation, and for this reason there was not much to tell about what had transpired on the surface of our lives. But for over half a year we had not spoken to each other face to face, nor plumbed the depths of each other’s psyche. We had traveled separate roads, had appropriated dissimilar experiences, and had been buffeted and upborne by winds blowing from different quarters. A segment of our life together had gone unshared, and this could not but affect our restored togetherness; under the circumstances, some adjustment and reorientation was called for. It is to Hilda’s credit that this occurred without stress or strain. What again became evident to both of us was that love has drawing powers and is unsurpassed at building and restoring bridges.

Hilda lived with her mother at 776 East Leonard Street, and we made our home there for two or three weeks after my return. Mother De Graaf invited us to take up permanent residence with her, but Hilda wanted a home of her own, as did I. So sometime in May 1939 we moved into a house owned by Hilda’s uncle, Thomas Veldsma: located at 204 Benjamin Avenue, SE, the two-story, three-bedroom house was well suited to our purposes, and the monthly rent of $35 appeared to be within our means. Of course, we had to supply the furniture and this put us to some expense. Fortunately, Hilda was able to send on to our new home her bedroom set, sofa, and piano, and we were able to retrieve from storage the dinette set, day bed, and utensils we had received as wedding gifts. But more was needed. Hilda selected the three upholstered chairs we bought from Huisingh’s, as well as the rugs, drapes, and curtains we bought from Steketee’s. I had appropriated the front bedroom upstairs as my study, and to furnish it I bought a glass-topped desk and three sectional bookcases from the house’s former tenant. I paid fifty dollars for the lot.

Hilda had taken a three- or four-day vacation on my arrival home but had thereafter gone back to work, and she continued to be employed at Steketee’s until the end of August. This was unfortunate, but it seemed dictated by necessity or at least by prudence. Current expenses were mounting, we were in debt to a number of persons and institutions, and I would not be able to make any significant contribution to our treasury until school opened in September. Thus Hilda became the provider, and the burden was not light, for alongside her daily work at Steketee’s she had numerous household cares and responsibilities that I could only minimally share.

Just what schedule I observed during those summer months I do not recall, but I know that the prospect of teaching in the fall both frightened me and drove me to my books. In Hilda’s daily absence I did, of course, tidy up the house, do the shopping, and perform minor household chores; but I was usually at my desk, both to prepare for the opening of school and to meet other responsibilities that were coming my way. Word of my return had made the rounds, and I was often asked to preach. In May, I preached at Coldbrook and Moline, and in June at LaGrave. I was interviewed by the Calvin Board of Trustees on June 2, a full two years after my appointment. In response to their questions, I spoke at some length of my commitment to the faith and to the ideals of the school; and though I expressed reservations about the “moral” restrictions imposed upon faculty and students, I promised to observe the rules prohibiting movie attendance, card playing, and dancing. The trustees now knew something of the person to whom they had entrusted the chair of philosophy, and they seemed satisfied.

My brother Mart lived with us for two weeks in June because one of his children was suffering from a communicable disease and the family house was under quarantine. On nine successive Sundays in July and August, I preached in various churches, near and far, and on August 8 and 9 I was billed as the main speaker at the annual convention of the National Union of Christian Schools in Paterson, New Jersey. I delivered two lectures on “the Antithesis” and tried to show its relevance both to education and to life.

Things were also happening in those days in and around Calvin College. Jesse De Boer, who had been the interim instructor of philosophy for four years, relinquished his chair and applied for admission to the seminary (though he seems later to have opted for graduate work in philosophy). Of greater consequence was the storm that had gathered around the presidency of Dr. Ralph Stob: although his term of office had expired, he was eligible for reappointment and evidently desired to stay on; but he was under pressure by faculty and student body to resign. After considering the situation for several days in early June, the trustees declined to reappoint him and named Prof. Johannes Broene in his place. Since I had been absent from the scene, I was not privy to what had been going on and could form no judgment about the rightness or wrongness of the board’s action; but I commiserated with my kinsman and offered him my condolences. He retained his tenured position as professor of Greek language and literature and resumed his classwork when school opened in September.

Other actions of the board bore some relation to my membership on the faculty. It added three new members to the staff in June, John De Vries in chemistry, Richard Drost in history, and Grace Pels as dean of women and assistant in English. Although I outranked those three in tenure, the four of us were in fact the new kids on the block; regarding ourselves as an unpracticed quartet in the faculty chorus, we determined for the nonce to sing in muted tones.

The board also decided to require all students to sign a pledge card promising to live by the existing rules pertaining to “worldliness.” This decision was revealing of the times: students on other campuses were swallowing live goldfish, and new movies like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were drawing patrons in droves throughout the country. In response to critics of the college, the board also took curricular action: it instructed the staff to prepare for submission and possible publication a syllabus showing how the instructional material in each course was integrated with the Reformed world-and-life view. The preparation of such a syllabus would perhaps be quite within the reach of those of us who worked in the humanities, but instructors in hard sciences such as mathematics and chemistry would doubtless find the going difficult.

The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church met in June 1939 and appointed Rev. John C. De Korne to succeed Dr. Beets as director of missions. It also adopted a declaration on war which, while giving expression to prevailing views, would be updated several times in subsequent years. What directly affected the members of the faculty was the appointment by Synod of a “committee of ten” charged with monitoring the moral and spiritual life of the college community. The appointment of this committee did not sit well with the faculty, and as it turned out, the “investigation” conducted by the committee did not always proceed with the tact and charity required.

While these and similar things were going on at home, war clouds were gathering over Europe. Hitler was still in search of “Lebens-raum,” and to forestall Russian resistance to his expansionist schemes, he entered into a nonaggression pact with Stalin on August 23, 1939. The storm anticipated by the ominous events preceding that agreement broke loose a week later. On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s troops mounted a massive attack on Poland and reduced that country to servitude in a scant three weeks. England and France could do nothing to stop the German onslaught; but they had pledged their support to Poland, and to honor their commitment they declared war on Germany on September 3. With that, World War II was set in motion, and there was no telling how and when it would complete its course.

It was in the shadow of these events that I began my career as a teacher.