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The bravery of the weak

The truly brave do not need to be aggressive soldier fighters, but can be civilians who die in war or undergo danger fearfully firm in doing what is right.

When I was an American graduate student at the Free University of Amsterdam, 1953-1955, my judo instructor was Dirk Vollenhoven, who had been active in the Dutch underground resistance movement during the Nazi military occupation of the Netherlands, 1940-1945. He could tell stories. But he never mentioned the poem by Jan Campert, “The 18 Dead,” which I only recently discovered. This poem is well known in Holland and was often recited in Remembrance Day services.

A group of the Dutch underground resistance called De Geuzen (The Beggars), who tried to rescue Jews and to sabotage Gestapo purges, were betrayed by a National Socialist Sympathizer. So the Nazis picked up 15 Dutchmen, an assortment of mechanics, electricians, artists and ordinary workmen, aged 21 to 49, and readied them for public execution. The Nazis added three other persons, who had been involved in the major, late February 1941 strike centered in Amsterdam protesting the persecution of the Jews, a strike that had disrupted transportation needed by the occupying military force.

Jan Campert’s poem was written in 1941, secretly passed around for a while, finally clandestinely printed in 1943 by De Bezige Bij. It commemorates the 18 civilians who were executed on March 13, 1941 (see my English translation).

But what interests me even more is what I was told by Bob Goudzwaard. When the 18 men were lined up against the wall in the Waaldorpervlakte in Den Haag, not far from where my wife Inès, as a nine-year-old child, was then living, and as the Germans prepared to shoot them, a core of the shackled standing men sang Genevan Psalm 43 (which I assume they knew from the years of Christian schooling – you had to have memorized a Genevan Psalm stanza every Monday morning). They sang it in unison, a capella a musician might say (from my English version):

  Restore, O God true justice due me. Outwit those practicing deceit.
  You are the God of us refugees. Why have You treated me like debris?
  Why must I go through life in grief, pressed down without relief?
  Send our your light and truth to guide me, to reach your sacred heavenly home –

That’s the last line (in Dutch: “Dan ga ik op tot Gods alteren”) they were able to sing of Genevan 43, which ended right there in a volley of bullets. They did not live long enough on earth to sing:

There in your glorious royalty, joyfully safe from the enemy,
I shall make music by your throne, in peace with God alone.

But just as Christ knew the jubilant end of Psalm 22 when Christ cried the opening line on the cross, “My God, O my God! Why have You left me in the lurch?” the singing men knew the conclusion of Genevan 43:

Why should I cringe, depressed by sorrow! Why be distraught and feel abased!
God has come through and lets us borrow hope to be thanking God tomorrow!
God will remove tears from my face, kind God, my God, of grace.

The point of reporting this historical poem and interrupted Genevan psalm is this: it is good to remember the bravery of the weak which has no military bravado (“My God, make dying not too hard . . .”). The truly brave do not need to be aggressive soldier fighters, but can be civilians who die in war or undergo danger fearfully firm in doing what is right. And we churched Canadians might do well, especially as youth, to learn to sing by heart God’s psalms, so such gritty words and melodies may lodge deep in our remembered repertoire for when the hard times, God forbid, come, even if we do not need to face death by a firing squad.

Note: Jan Campert was caught trying to smuggle Jews into Belgium, was himself imprisoned, and later died in the German Hamburg concentration camp Neuengamme.

The 18 dead
Jan Campert

A prison cell is 6 feet long
and hardly 6 feet wide.
The piece of ground awaiting me
is smaller still, outside.

Who knows where unmarked graves shall be
of 18 men so young?
We comrades wait, and soon will die
before the night has come.

The loveliness of his light and land
I knew in Holland free,
was robbed, destroyed, left me disturbed
this evil Enemy.
What can an honest fellow do
who would be true, do right?
You kiss your child, you kiss your wife,
go wage the uphill fight.

I knew the task I had begun
was surely danger crossed,
but once you gave your heart to it,
you never counted costs.
In this fair land it was well known,
true freedom was admired,
until a cursed brutal force
its opposite desired;

until they broke firm oaths, and bragged
their nauseating lie,
invaded Holland’s sovereign soil,
and bombed its countryside;
until German boasts, harangues
of “Honour” stretched belief,
coerced this land under its Macht,
and plundered like a thief.

The pied piper of Berlin
squeaks out his melody
so truly as I soon am dead,
my loved one no more see,
and never eat our daily bread
or fall with her in sleep –
reject all promises he makes!
the cunning, false pipsqueak.

Remember, you who read these words,
my comrades in distress,
their suffering families and friends
were terribly suppressed:
remember what we deeply thought
for native land and folk,
“Each night succumbs to a new day;
dark clouds pass by like smoke.”

I see faint rays of morning sun
light up the cell’s high wall.
My God, make dying not too hard,
I fear what shall befall.
We men are weak, and at times fail,
to say it candidly,
“Give me your grace to face the gun
and end life manfully.”

(translated by C. Seerveld © 4 July 2013 AD)


  • Calvin Seerveld is Professor Emeritus in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the author of several influential books, including Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living.

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