dinsdag 23 februari 2016

The Short Life of Godert Walter - Groningen bookseller was not afraid of the German occupiers

Een mail van Theodoor Walter (93), de tien jaar jongere broer van de in de Tweede Wereldoorlog vermoorde Groningse boekverkoper Godert Walter. Hij had mijn artikel 'Het korte leven van Godert Walter', dat in 2010 in literairhistorisch tijdschrift De Parelduiker verscheen, aan een Engelse vriend, Rob Bayliff gegeven. De Brit had het tot verbazing van Walter in het Engels vertaald en die stuurde dat weer naar mij, met het verzoek het op mijn blog te zetten. Zodat ook mensen die de Nederlandse taal niet machtig zijn het tot zich kunnen nemen. Bij deze.

A car with four uniformed men stopped on 17 September 1944 in front of the house of Godert Walter at Dilgtweg 30 in Haren.  It was a lovely day, the sun was shining and the Groningen bookseller was in the garden with his wife and children.  The youngest, Just, was two months old.  His brother, Theo, was yet to be two.  The idyllic scene would be roughly disturbed by the unannounced visit.  The feared SD Tr1) member Robert Lehnhoff, better known as the ‘Brute of Scholtenhuis’ 1) walked in front. Walter was dragged into the house where Lenhoff held a book in front of him: “You sold this!”  The bookseller was shot dead on the spot.

The then 22 years of age Agnes van Gelder was suddenly a widow: ‘I was held fast by two men so that I could not go inside.  Lehnhoff came outside and I asked: “Is he dead?”  But they said nothing at all.  It happened very quickly and that has always been a consolation for me.  He had no time to be afraid.  In several post-war publications it is maintained that Ode was executed after a hearing of three minutes, but taking everything together it was no three minutes.  They were suddenly gone again.  When those chaps rode up, I immediately thought: “Oh God, it’s up now”.’

Van Gelder heard much later that the sale of the Geuzenliedboek proved fatal for her husband.  Godert Walter appeared to have been betrayed by a Wichers, their butcher. ‘He went with it to the Scholtenhuis. I have no idea if he was a member of the NSB Tr2) Maybe he was just a scoundrel and got money for it.  At the time I had no idea.  After Ode, as we called him, was murdered, on occasion I went shopping to that butcher’s.  The affair was only attended to after the liberation.  It was a while before I learned who had betrayed him.  Then, Wichers was not longer alive.  The butcher was immediately shot dead after the liberation.’ 2)  (The files of the Scholtenhuis: Wichers was one of the two 'informants'. – TW)

Resistance work

The execution did not come as a complete surprise.  Walter appeared to have been warned more than once.  The bookseller was very active in the illegal Tr3) work.  Whenever possible, he aided artists in financial difficulty and took part in the distribution of illegal and clandestine publications.  As well as the Geuzenliedboek, an anthology of resistance poetry published by De Bezige Bij, there were, for example, a ten-part series ‘In agris occupatis’ and the Volière-series.  Both were printed by Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman.  The publishers were A. Th. Mooij (A. Marja), W. H. Nagel (J. B. Charles) and W. H. Overbeek (Marten Drossaard).

One of those who told him to watch his step was Jacques den Haan: “I had paid him a visit at home to warn him about his too open activities, his excessive impulsiveness. Everyone knew they could get resistance books from him and that was in those days, after the allied invasion in Normandy, the days in which the sinister Sicherheitsdienst Tr1) worked overtime, extremely dangerous. [...]  Walter patiently listened to my expostulation politely and was somewhat absent-minded as usual.  He showed me his books and playfully grabbed a huge sword, which in a scabbard was lying on his bookcase.  “I’ll stitch them here if they come,” he said laughingly, whilst he half-withdrew it with an awkward gesture which did not match our waistcoats.  “Rather be sensible,” I said, “and let it be for a while.  It hurts them and they are angry, you know this.” 3)

Hendrik Werkman

Den Haan compared him with printer and artist Hendrik Werkman, who on 10 April 1945, a few days before Groningen would be liberated was executed at Bakkeveen.  He described them as harmless men who did not believe in the evil of the world.  Walter took the view that, after the invasion during June 1944, the liberation would be a question of time and that the Germans would keep quiet.  The Sicherheidsdienst was however exceptionally awake.  But the bookseller refused to give in to fear, though his father died in Buchenwald in 1941. 4)

Van Gelder: “Ode was somewhat carefree in a childish way.  I did say at times that I found it creepy. “Certainly not,” sounded the reply.  “They do not know at all that I exist.”  He said that to the end.  Going underground was not for him.  Then other persons would be in danger.  He wanted to bear his own responsibility.  Ode really was of terrific character.’

The death of the amiable bookseller shocked the Martinistad Tr5) .  In the Groningen edition of the paper De Vrije Kunstenaar, which appeared immediately after the war, Godert Walter was recalled as ‘one of the relatively few booksellers who exactingly determined their point of view with regard to the German occupation, who scorned to give any concession, and who on their patch waged the fight against the occupier with great activity.

Mr. W. R. H. Koops, former librarian of the Groningen State-university, was one of those during the war who sold illegal books for Walter.  The dealer collected the money and channelled the proceeds through to the resistance.  ‘I found him an exceptionally pleasant man, a bit absent-minded, but always friendly.  A lord, not a gentleman.  Godert Walter was a notary student drop-out and this radiated from him.  The bookshop of the moment in Groningen was Scholtens.  But that was a rather dignified shop.  I went rather to Walter. A. Marja worked there too. 5)  ‘Walter combined knowledge of business with love of his trade.  At the time I did not have much money, many wants and that which interested me, I could find there.  There was much read during the war.  After eight o’clock we were not allowed outside, so there remained not much more which could be done.’ 6)

Koops, then at secondary school, was friendly with Geertjan van Meurs, Son of Professor J. H. Van Meurs, professor of Roman and old national law at the university at Groningen.  He refused to sign the declaration of Aryanship Tr6) and was dismissed. Van Meurs left for the west of the country.  ‘Together we brought a portion of his books to Walter’s house on the Dilgtweg during the summer of 1944.  It seemed a safe spot.  A few weeks later he was shot dead’. 7)

Son of a notary

His life shortly before his death had been that of a ‘happy child-man’.  He grew up with two brothers and sisters in Apeldoorn, in comparative freedom from want.  Father Theodoor was a Notary, just like Ode’s grandfather.   His mother was of noble blood, came from Amby, near Maastricht and was named Cornelia Eleonora Johanna Petronella Pichot van Slijpe.  After secondary school, Godert studied to be a Notary, first in Utrecht and thereafter in Breda.  The charming young man generally had many male and female friends around him.  Son was deemed to follow in the footsteps of father but decided to follow his calling and future career ‘in service of the book’.

After two years at the Noord Nederlandsche Boekhandel in Leeuwarden, where he was inculcated in the rudiments of the trade, he worked a year in Paris at an English bookshop and made an appearance as salesman with Dijkhoffz in the Hague.  Dijkhoffz called him ‘a good book seller’ meaning thereby that Walter was born for it.  He knew practically all the customers personally; was very attentive and knew and remembered of everyone their slightest particulars. 9)

Roughly disturbed

An until then carefree existence was roughly disturbed in 1941 when his father died as hostage in Buchenwald after a short illness.  Through this tragic occurrence, a new force rose in him.  Godert Walter realised that he now belonged to the generation which had to take on the responsibilities.  That resulted in August 1941 with the taking over of bookseller A. G. Van Berg of Oude Boteringsestraat 15 in Groningen. 10)
Mr. Van den Berg had died suddenly.  Godert Walter needed only a few months in which to feel at home in the Martinistad.  In the shortest time he was again surrounded with a large host of male and female friends and the booksellers’ flourished.  A book was a popular present in wartime, simply because there was little else to give. 11)

The trade in illegal reading matter which would ultimately prove fatal started early 1944.  van Gelder: “I knew well that Godert sold books on behalf of those who had gone underground but further, nothing.  Not to whom he delivered money or such.  He didn’t talk about it.  Those engaged in illegal work did not talk about it at home.  Far too dangerous.  I was then too only 22, really still a child ...”

Bookshop Godert Walter

The Sicherheitsdienst evidently had satisfaction with the execution of Walter.  This came from the fact that the bookshop was not searched.  Neither did the Germans find the collection at home of interest.  His wife was never interrogated.  ‘The SD thought no more of it.  Wichers declared him and that was sufficient.  During that period things did not go well with the Germans and they went straight to the point.  They really did not get involved in such matters.’

The Wednesday after the murder, a large flat truck rode ahead in Haren.  The German office who had to empty the house seemed to be of good breeding and made a show of dawdling so that the neighbours who succoured the young widow could rescue valuables.  The back room in which Walter was laid out was left alone.  ‘Through which I still have all the books.  I couldn’t care about all the other things, but I am happy that that place was not violated.  Ode was buried the weekend thereafter.  I was able to arrange that myself.  That was quite exceptional as most people who were shot dead were buried in a mass grave.’

Another five years

The young widow remained living in Haren for another five years.  After that she moved with the children to Heemstede, near to Heiloo, where her parents lived. 12)  The 1940-1945 Foundation provided financial support.  After eight years Agnes van Gelder remarried.  With her new spouse she remained 30 years.  She did try to run the bookshop after the death of Walter, but in combination with looking after two little boys it became impossible.  Also, to have knowledge of books was something else compared to running a business.  ‘Wolters, Publishers for a half year seconded five of their best people to lead the business.  Then managers came and went.  It got to the stage at which the Association for the Furtherance of Booksellers had to take charge.

Godert Walter, Booksellers moved in September 1959 to Oude Ebbingestraat 53 and is still there.  The bookshop knew several owners, 13) until the trinity of Maria Geenen, Gerjan Heij, and Erik Kweksilber took the business over in 1977.  After a few years, Geenen and Heij left.  Kweksilber alone carried on and succeeded in building up an excellent name.  The business is now specialised in history, architecture, Groningen matters, and German literature.

Van Gelder: ‘I always had a guilty conscience with regard to Erik.  A guilty feeling because I had not been able to manage the business.  It was the booksellers in Groningen but when I was in charge it went very badly.  I couldn’t do it.  Publisher’s representatives abused my lack of business instinct.  There was pilfering, deliveries went wrong, you name it.  Erik raised the business again.  There were celebrations in 2002 as he had been working there 25 years.  In recognition of his services he was admitted to the Order of Oranje Nassau as Knight.
Burgomaster Jacques Wallage came especially to pin the ribbon himself.  That ribbon he richly earned.  Erik Kweksilber put his heart and soul into the business and for its people, just like Ode.  On that day, the feeling of guilt slipped.

Ode and Agnes

Agnes van Gelder was nineteen when she met the ten years older Godert Walter.  It was love at first sight.  The girl went to work in 1942 as volunteer in the booksellers’.  That was no complete success as she was not suitable for the work.  In the meantime, the passion flourished.  The two married in the same year, two months after the first meeting and moved to Haren. They had two sons and two years later Ode was dead. That Godert Walter and Agnes van Gelder met each other was exceptional casting of fate.
Mother Walter in Apeldoorn had broken an arm and could not get on without help. Agnes’ sister was a nurse and went to care her.  ‘At the time I had just left school and what was to happen with Agnes now?  I was just as un-businesslike as my father.  What I could do well was draw and I did enjoy reading books.  “You know what,” said my sister,” that Mrs. Walter has a son and he has just bought a bookshop; maybe he could do with you.” '
Father van Gelder wrote a letter to Walter and received a letter back saying that the bookseller would shortly have to visit the west of the country to visit publishers and that he would be passing by Heiloo.  “That he did.  I was alone with my mother at home and all of a sudden a man stood at the doorstep.  I was in love at a stroke.  Bang, just like a crack of thunder in a clear sky.  Ode behaved pleasantly and said that he needed some help indeed.  As my father was not there, we could not take a decision immediately.  “We’ll write about that in due course,” he said and was gone again.  I remember still that evening I lay in bed and thought: “Mrs. Walter, that sounds good...” ’

The love appeared reciprocal and the speed with which the relationship developed gave rise, here and there, to raised eyebrows and furrowed brows.  A wedding two months after the first meeting is even at the beginning of the twenty-first century quite fast.  But the young lady had the blessing of her parents, who were not bound by the etiquette of the time: ‘I am great-granddaughter of Nicholaas Beets Tr7), thus it was regarded as so-so.
Ode was ten years older and married right away with also right away a child?  But what did my mother, born in 1880, say?  “My dear, don’t pay any attention to that drivel.  This is one of the dearest people walking about on the world and every day and night that you are not together is a deadly sin.”

From ‘De Parelduiker’ Tr4) 2007, no 4, translated by R. J. E. Bayliff, 07 July 2010.


1.  The Scholtenhuis, built at the end of the nineteenth century by the industrialist Willem Albert Scholten, was used during the Second World War as Headquarters by the Sicherheitsdienst.  It was notorious due to the torture which was a daily occurrence.  With the liberation in April 1945, the building was destroyed, just as the whole east side of the Groote Markt.  Where the Scholtenhuis once stood, is Mutua Fides, the club of the student association 'Vindiat atque Polit'.  –Robert Wilhelm Lehnhoff (1906 – 1950) was not in charge of the Scholtenhuis as is claimed.  The Commandant was G. B. Haase.  Lehnhof was Referatleiter of the department right-orientated resistance, which was responsible for the greatest atrocities.  For this he received the death sentence.  Lehnhoff was the last condemned to death to be executed.  The German lies in an unmarked grave in the Roman Catholic cemetery on the Hereweg. (A virtual reconstruction of the Scholtenhuis 1944/45 can be found at http://www.scholtenhuis.nl/ )
2.   Interview with Agnes van Gelder, Eefde, 13 April 2007.       
3.   Jaques den Haan, 'Onderweg, vallen en opstaan in de cultuurgeschiedenis' (Amsterdam 1966), p. 631
4.  October 7, 1940 was a group of 300 Dutch notables from all over the country taken hostage by the
Germans in retaliation for the internment of all Germans in the Netherlands East Indies. Among them was Godert Walter's father; he died after a short illness March 3, 1941.
5.   A. Marja was the pseudonym of the poet Arend Theodoor Mooij (1917-1964). Amongst other works, he published the autobiographical 'Snippers op de rivier' (1941), a collection of poems 'Nochtans een christen' (1962) and put the collection 'Sint Maarten op de Montparnasse' together in 1946; an anthology of works by Groningen writers. After the war, together with Fokke Sierksma, he looked after the programme 'Literair Kwartier' for  Regional Broadcasts North (RON, now RTV North).  Marja was known for his sharp pen and tongue and was notorious as a practical joker.
6.   Interview with mr. Tr8) W. R. H. Koops, Haren, 20 april 2007.
7.   Geertjan van Meurs then received lessons of Herman Jan Scheltema, the later professor and successor to van Meurs.  At the time, Scheltema was in hiding at D. W. L. Offerhaus’, the family doctor of Walter-van Gelder.
8.    The family home stood on the Hoofdstraat, number 175.  It now houses restaurant De Wilde Pieters.
9.   'De Vertegenwoordiger' (The Representative)– organ of the association of publishers’ representatives, May 1946, number 5, page 27.
10.   The shop was officially renamed Boekhandel K. G. Walter 27 October 1942.
11.   'De Vertegenwoordiger', op cit.
12.  When the trial of the murderers of her husband started, van Gelder received a call to attend as witness. However, the family doctor, Offerhaus, forbade this.  He decided to go in her place.  He certainly knew as much as she did.
13.  After Agnes Walter-van Gelder there were Idus Kuipers (1949-1954) and Dick Heij who from 1973 ran the business with his wife Mettie Heij-Epema.


Page 18  Godert Walter with both children: the year and a half old Theo and on his lap, the two months young Just.  The photo was taken a week before Godert was killed (Agnes van Gelder collection)


Translator notes

Tr1.   Sicherheidsdienst (SD): Security service, a branch of the Allgemeine SS; the Ausland-SD being the civilian foreign intelligence agency of the Third Reich and Nazi Party,
Tr2.   NSB (Nationaal Socialistische Beweging in Nederland): The National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands.  The party sympathised with the Germans and advocated strict neutrality after the outbreak of war.  In 1940 all political parties were outlawed by the German occupation government except the NSB. Party members openly collaborated with the occupation forces and played an important role in lower government and civil service.  The party was outlawed after the signing of the surrender of German armed forces in the Netherlands on 06 May 1945.  Members were regarded as traitors to their country; many were arrested but few were convicted and no proper study was ever undertaken on the mentality of adherents. 
Tr3.   Illegal work: Any resistance activity was illegal (in the eyes of the occupying force).  ‘The Illegality’ became a byword for the resistance movements.
Tr4.  'De Parelduiker' (the Pearl Diver): With its title taken from Mulatuli’s saying “A pearl diver fears not  the mud”, this literary and historical magazine indulges in readily accessible, non-academic reporting often amusing detective expeditions to find hidden jewels from Dutch literary history.   
Tr5.  'Martinistad' (Martini city):  The by-name for Groningen, taken from the church of St. Martin dedicated to Martin of Tours (316 – 397), patron of the Bishopric of Utrecht in which ecclesiastical province Groningen fell. 
Tr6.   Declaration of Arianship:  All civil servants had to sign this declaration by 26 October 1940, attesting that they were not Jewish.  Anyone with one or more grandparents who were Jewish were regarded as Jews and had to submit ‘Form B’ for non-ayrans.  Shortly after receipt of ‘Form B’, they were dismissed.  Non-Jews had to submit ‘Form A’.  By these means the German authorities wished to prepare an inventory of Jews and non-Jews.  
Tr7. Nicolaas Beets (1814 – 1903) was a Dutch theologian, writer and poet. His most famous work is 'Camera Obscura', which he wrote under the pseudonym Hildebrand during his student years. As a poet, Beets came under the influence of Byronism.
Tr8.   Mr. (Meester in de rechten): Title used by holders of law degrees to masters’ level in the Netherlands.

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