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Ruin's Wheel
A father on war, a son on genocide

by G. Jan Colijn & Izaak Colijn ©2010, , ISBN: 978-1-935232-16-2, 162 pp

A father's World War II memiors, discovered by his son decades after the war, combine with the son's reflections covering years of teaching and research on war, and on the destruction of Europe's Jews. The combination creates powerful insights about a global problem that does not seem to go away: genocide.

Jack H. Koopman

G. Jan Colijn

Part One: The Weight
G. Jan Colijn

Part Two: The Second Great WarŃ Looking Backward
Izaak Colijn

Photos & Illustrations

Part Three: What Have We Learned About Genocide?
G. Jan Colijn





My mother, Aaltje Colijn-Rozeboom, passed away in 1998, well into her nineties. For more than a half century she had lived in the five bedroom house in The Netherlands where I grew up, and she was a thrifty pack rat. Thank goodness for that because, emptying the house, I found the unpublished World War II memoirs of my father, Izaak Colijn. That was a surprise because it is his only unpublished manuscript. My father taught English for a living, but wrote for a life. In the last few years of his life, for example, he published Rambles in Britain (1953), England and the English (1954), With the M.M.S. to England (1956), Engels voor de H.B.S Đ A (1957), Walks and Talks in the Fields of English literature (1958), and An Introduction to Shakespeare (1958). Most of his works aimed to teach translation to students in various high school tracks and to introduce England, its people, its literature, its cities and countryside--all equally lovedŃto Dutch teenagers in such a way that they, too, would enjoy it. He penned everything in long hand. A partner in his publisher's firm, W.J.Thieme en Cie, would pick up the manuscripts and take them to Zutphen, where the company was housed.

Many of the books had multiple editions but they did not make him rich. There is a saying of German origin that publishers drink champagne from the skulls of scholars. Well, Dad did not drink (or smoke) so he can't have been too upset, but his royalties were certainly modest in light of the many editions of the widely used books, a gravy train for Thieme. They continued to publish his work after my father died, with a new editor. So it goes.

Why this recently discovered manuscript was unpublished is a bit of a mystery, given my father's role as rain maker for Thieme. It is likely that the early post-war years were not the best time to publish war memoirs. The country was busy with reconstruction, the general mood was to draw a line under World War II, and there was silence about central aspects of the war, especially the fate of Dutch Jews. War memory consisted of a simple dichotomy: harsh German occupation and heroic Dutch resistance; much more about that soon.

There was more to my father than teaching and writing. He was a Renaissance man. I am sure I knew that as a kid, but I shrugged such things off, then. It did not intimidate me. It did not weigh on me. Only when time became more precious in middle age did I fully understand his range and productivity, and only after my parents' house was emptied after my mother's death did it hit me all at once.

There was his Stradivarius, more than a hundred years old now but factory made (it won't make us rich). There were his drawings and etchings that startle house guests because they evoke Rembrandt. There were his track and field medals. He did not medal in the Olympics but he was a good "third man" on the Dutch 4x100 squad. He took me to meet long distance track legend Emil Zatopek when I was around six years old, an unforgettable experience.

There was a box of records, all 78 rpm, all mono, recorded by him during a brief span in the early 1950s. A few years ago they were turned into a double CD set, and now I can bear to listen to them again. The records contain a good deal of Schubert. The Lieder suited his baritone range, but also his self-effacing quietude. There are Bach arias where a listener can, I think, hear his particular and deep religiosity, ill-fitted to the dourness of the Dutch Reformed Church. He "belonged," though he would mostly just "go" to conduct choirs. His relation with God was very much one-on-one. There is a nice energy when my father is accompanied by his son Piet, my brother, a teenager at the time, a budding shot putter and discus thrower, though you would not know it from his soft touch on the piano.

My father, when he was not writing, drawing, or grading, would listen to music, shuffle his score sheets, and he would practice his scales every morning in front of an open window in his study. He loved the choir work and he organized the production of recordings of his pupils singing or acting in a Shakespeare play. Now which English teacher would say to his pupils: "Here is the Merchant of Venice, Act V, scene 1. You are Jessica. Take it from 'In such a night. Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dewÉ' and, by the way, we are recording"? Recording?! Immortality and Fame! We lived in the Dutch Hollywood, surrounded by radio and television stations: records were the currency of cool, and on the records you can hear the excited intent with which the young voices go about their paces. There is some fine teaching going on.

My father lost his fight with cancer in 1959Ńa fight he did not know he was in. It was a stupendous waste and it left me quite angry for many years. Listening to his voice today is a sweet comfort but it does not grasp the entire man. There simply were too many sides to him. In the Bible he got from his mother upon confirmation she wrote: "Izaak--wees altijd braaf." Braaf is a broad anachronism for good, obedient, decent. Dad was all that. He had great faith in God but mostly went to church just to conduct. He did not like his faith mediated by the formalities of church organization. Former students would stay in touch with him all his life. He was handsome. He was an artist. He was strict but kind. He was beloved.

When I came across his war memoirs, I realized I would have to "do something" with them, in due time. I was born after the war but, for a host of reasons, I have had a personal and professional life centered a good deal on World War II. So the idea for this book eventually emerged as two stories on the war, his based on experience, mine on post-war reflections. You will find him the better writer so, if you get through Part I, The Weight, you will know I owe him for that writing gene, too, and you will know the best part is yet to come.

I wrote this book with an eye on the so-called "third generation," the grandchildren of those who experienced the war, now finishing high school, in college, or a bit older. This is a generation that has a different, less emotional take on World War II than the "second" generation, my contemporaries, who grew up in the shadow of the war.

My generation, especially the children of victims or perpetrators of atrocities, often has a complex and emotionally difficult relationship with the war, if not with our parents, especially parents guilty of wrongdoing. Thus, I also wrote for my oldest and closest mate, in Yiddish my gabber: his name is Jack, a Dutch Jew, a child of survivors. But this story grew because of later friends as well: Yair, a Polish born Jew, and Gottfried, the great-grandson of Richard Wagner. We have all spent years digesting the war--and still do so. Others became part of the narrative for a variety of reasons. They sometimes appear remarkably unaffected by the war, probably a blessing to them but also to me. They help me gain perspective.

I hope the stories will be a small contribution to an understanding of what happened in the war from a Dutch perspective, and to understanding how some of the middle generation learned to cope with the years that would define us in various degrees. As that journey unfolded we found a few shards of wisdom worth sharing with the next generation: a few thoughts on how we may deal not only with the Holocaust and the broader canvas of genocide, but also some reflections on nettlesome perennials--racism, nationalism, violence, and warfare, in their current manifestations.

One thread in this book not explicitly addressed warrants a brief note here. Grappling with history is like pushing beads of mercury. What appeared as self-evident truth in 1945 is now written off as nonsense. The narrative constantly evolves; history is constantly reconstructed. Therefore, today's students are well advised to accept any prevailing current truths about our own world with more than a grain of salt: a generation from now, today's truisms may well look tragically wrong in retrospect. In the same vein, those not actually present in the past must guard against sitting in rear-view mirrored judgment on those present at the time. Hindsight choices are always easier to make than current ones.

A few words on my father's memoirs, a long essay, really. I found it difficult to decide whether to edit it for publication. After all, he would have done so, I am sure, because he was a careful and conscientious craftsman. But I decided to leave the text as is. It was a decision from the heart, not from the head. I simply felt that I had no right to superimpose my style on his by editing his work. Leaving the text alone means that you will read the odd inconsistency: 8 or ten days, not eight or ten days; '%' here, percentage there. I think the text speaks more true as it is, more immediate and direct, as it were, and that is the way it should be. I know full well it would have been error proof if he had seen it to publication himself but I like the rawness of the draft.

Though he writes that these memoirs were not meant to be a book, his essay addresses an English audience. He wrote in English, not American English, so it is neighbour not neighbor, burgomaster, not mayor, to-day (at that time) not always today, aeroplanes, often abbreviated as 'planes.'

What struck me most, however, were not these details but learning about the sheer terror and brutality of occupation in new ways. I, for one, had no idea that teachers were sent to concentration camps when their charges beat up class mates whose parents were Nazis. It must have been utterly terrifying to go to work, knowing your life may depend on what boys and girls in your class may doŃand those were the good ones, mind you.

You will read of his exasperation about the foolishness of the Dutch government-in-exile when it ordered a railway strike late in the war to thwart the German war effort, a strike that had had no effect on the Germans but was exploited by them, a strike also that had as its unintended consequence a very severe food shortage. You can certainly feel the emasculation of complying time and again with Nazi regulations, for example, promising not to engage in sabotage or declaring one is not a Jew, but the most frightening must have been the fear of sudden round-ups (razzias) of able-bodied men for the purpose of deportation into forced labor.

You may think differently about your next meal after reading about the obsessive struggle to find food when shortages reached such levels that people ate tulip bulbs.

But you also will enjoy the poetic exhilaration when liberation came at last, and my father's deep gratitude to the Almighty.

The folder wherein my Dad kept his manuscript and other war documentation has a nice cover he designed for it, with the title of War and Peace 1940-45. But the manuscript itself had a different title, with a line from Robert Burns's poem "Strathallan's Lament," "Ruin's wheel has driven o'er us" slightly altered to When ruin's wheel rolled o'er us. How very apt.

"This intriguing book, part memoir by a father and son separated by 60 years of history, part academic treatise on war, genocide, and the Holocaust, is a must for anyone looking to find an introduction to these issues at at time when, more than ever, they are in our daily consciousness."

Jon Blair, writer, producer and director of the Academy Award and Emmy winning documentary Anne Frank Remembered; the British Academy Award winning Schindler: The True Story; and the Emmy winning series Reporters at War.

"There is hardly any essay that so successfully explores the permanent problems facing mankind in so few pages."

Gottfried H. Wagner, musicologist and human rights activist and author of Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family Legacy.

"Neither conventional history nor standard survivor's memoir, Ruin's Wheel is a DutchmanŐs chronicle and reflection on the shocking epoch in Dutch history and its aftermath when the Germans marched into Holland in the early morning of May 10, 1940, and his son's desire to set his text in the context of genocide.

Part One is a moving "thrice born" account of Jan Colijn, Dean of General Studies, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey: his natal origins in descriptions of boyhood and adolescent years in Holland; his life in America to pursue graduate work and ultimately an academic career; and, at the death of his mother, his return home to encounter again the painful cycle of WW II memories.

Part Two is Izaak Colijn's testimonial diary, which speaks to the function and dysfunction of the Dutch state and society during the Nazi years. Part Three and the book's Appendix elaborate on Jewish victimization and genocidal acts then and now, and attempt a detailed answer to 'What Have We Learned about Genocide?' What emerges from pater et fils is that ever-n-again 'thinking people' are the surest antidote to societal evil. Ruin's Wheel is a reader-friendly, invaluable first-person psycho-sociological discussion of why the Shoah (Holocaust) and genocide matters."

Zev Garber, professor and Chair of Jewish Studies, Los Angeles Valley College and co-author of Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts (University Press of America, 2004) and editor and contributor, Mel Gibson's Passion: the Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications (Purdue University Press, 2006).

G. Jan Colijn, Ph.D. is Dean of General Studies and Professor of Political Science at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He is co-editor of several books and author of many articles on the Holocaust and genocide. His work with the College's Holocaust Resource Center, and his statewide and international activities have been recognized by several awards, including the Honey & Maurice Axelrod Award.

Izaak Colijn (1903-1959) taught English in several Dutch high schools. He wrote six textbooks that were widely used in the Dutch secondary school system. He recorded several albums as a baritone singer. He also conducted choirs and he was a prominent track and field athlete in the Netherlands before the war.

Ruin's Wheel

  • Ruin's Wheel

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