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Before her suicide, a Dutch Holocaust scholar saw deep threats to her life’s work

By Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) – On July 19, Evelien Gans, one of the Netherlands’ foremost scholars on antisemitism and the Holocaust, jumped to her death from her fourth-story Amsterdam apartment, where she lived alone.

Gans, 67, a retired professor at the University of Amsterdam who had struggled with clinical depression for years, left a carefully worded note for her life partner, Frank Diamand, and a last will and testament for her sister. Yet only hours before jumping, Gans bought a two months’ supply of her favorite olive oil. Diamand says the purchase shows that “her mind was on two parallel tracks”: Whereas one part was preparing an exit, another was determined to live.

In that internal conflict, he said, Gans’ focus on the persecution of Jews “didn’t help.” Nor did her growing disappointment in what she considered creeping Holocaust distortion and victim blaming by some members of her intellectual bubble, Diamand suggested. “Having to deal with antisemitism day in and day out is not good for anyone’s health,” said Diamand, a child survivor of the Holocaust and award-winning documentary filmmaker who had been Gans’ significant other since 2006.

Gans described this effect in her last major interview, which she gave to Vrij Nederland weekly in January. “It has gnawed away at me,” she said about her 2016 book The Holocaust, Israel and ‘the Jew’: Histories of Antisemitism in Postwar Dutch Society. The subject of the book was never far from the mind of Gans, whose father, Marco, survived the war by hiding in safe houses, escaping from one to the other no fewer than 13 times.

Gans was born in New York, where her parents moved shortly after World War II. The family returned to the Netherlands in 1954, when Gans was three years old, because her father feared the outbreak of the Korea Conflict would trigger a third world war that would endanger his family in the United States. In the final interview with Vrij Nederland, Gans spoke of an increase in antisemitic incidents as well as “an obfuscation between perpetrator, victim, bystander and collaborator” in the Holocaust.

Gans was an award-winning writer who was recognized in 2002 with the prestigious Henriette Roland Holst literary prize for her book on Social-Democrat and Social-Zionist Jews. She was a professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Amsterdam, until her retirement last year. Last year, she also retired from her long-held position as senior researcher of modern Jewish history and antisemitism at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies – Holland’s foremost organization of its kind.

A quick-witted speaker with a proclivity for sarcasm, Gans was a regular guest lecturer at many renowned international institutions. She was interviewed frequently in the Dutch media. But Diamand said her retirement left her increasingly worried about whether she alone could finish the second part of a monumental biography of two Holocaust victims whose first part she published in 2008. Gans did not have children.

“Increasingly, she fell into negative thinking patterns that didn’t make sense and she became immune to rational analysis,” Diamand said.

In parallel, Gans was waging an articulate war in the media against what she considered Holocaust obfuscation and inversion. Neglecting her own unfinished biography, she took on a former ballerina over her flawed family biography. In that book, author Isabel van Boetzelaer claimed that her father, a Nazi SS volunteer who had served in Ukraine, had no knowledge of the Holocaust. She also stated, apparently without proof, that her grandfather had plotted to kill Adolf Hitler. Gans’ friends were dismayed at the amount of effort she had put into debunking an account so flimsy that few historians of her caliber felt merited their attention. Referencing this, her interviewers from Vrij Nederland asked:

She had campaigned similarly twice before in recent years for historical veracity, feeling disillusioned in the aftermath. One painful episode involved historian Bart Van der Boom, who in a 2012 book claimed that non-Jews in Holland largely failed to help Jewish compatriots in the Holocaust because they did not know the genocide’s purpose and scope. Even Jews did not know this, he further claimed, or they would have escaped the minimum-security concentration camp of Westerbork. Gans and her colleague, Remco Ensel, faulted Van der Boom for ignoring the cruel reprisals visited on relatives and friends of anyone who escaped Westerbork. But as Gans bitterly noted, her objections did not prevent the flawed book from being celebrated as a masterpiece, nor its author from receiving in 2012 the prestigious Libris History Prize.

Gans also was left drained and downtrodden following a dispute with Chris van der Heijden, a historian whose father served in the SS. Focusing on a handful of Jewish supporters of the Dutch Nazi party in the 1930s, van der Heijden “heaped antisemitic stereotypes” in a 2008 book, Gans told Vrij Nederland. In that book, Gans said, “The Jews allowed themselves to be murdered, collaborated and are now perpetrators” of similar crimes in Israel.”

These polemics not only depressed Gans, Diamand said, but “made her enemies.”

As these and other issues continued to take their toll on Gans – a left-wing activist in the 1970s – and she began drawing inward. Things became so bad in the spring that she was hospitalized voluntarily for a month at a psychiatric treatment facility.

Despite its broader context, Gans’ suicide is “ultimately a personal tragedy,” Diamand insisted. Her focus on the Holocaust and antisemitism, he said, was “a factor, not the factor” in her decision to end her life.

“A whole set of elements led her to her painful and wrong decision,” he said.

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