Commemorating the Anniversary of Professor Van Holk’s Courageous Stance

On its 83rd anniversary, we remember Professor L. van Holk’s (1893-1982) historic protest speech against the persecution of Jews at Leiden University. The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) commemorates Van Holk not only as a Remonstrant theologian and a revered scholar but also as its dedicated secretary, deeply committed to religious freedom and human dignity.

The Netherlands has always played a pivotal role in the IARF, with Dutch theologians being active members since its inception in 1900. Their liberal Protestant roots, shared by the Remonstrant Church, provided fertile ground for the IARF’s principles. The Dutch contribution was significant, with the first Executive Committee comprising four Dutch members and several congresses, including the momentous 1922 Congress in Leiden, being held in the Netherlands.

Professor Van Holk, a distinguished figure at Leiden University, embodied the spirit of religious freedom and moral courage. On November 26, 1940, in response to the dismissal of Jewish colleagues by the Nazi occupiers, he delivered a poignant protest speech. His words, though not recorded at the time, were captured in the memories of those present and later documented. He stated:

Ladies and gentlemen, students,

The latest domestic policy measures against our Jewish fellow citizens have deeply shocked us all. We see these measures as a smear to the university and our people, a serious damage to education and science, and a moral and religious injustice…

It fully behooves us all to first alleviate the suffering that will now arise in many families, and to faithfully seek out our Jewish friends and acquaintances to express our high regard. Secondly, as Dutch, as university people, and above all as Christians, we must remain faithful to the principles of human value, justice, and charity, rooted in and proclaimed by both the Old and New Testaments. Remember that Christ teaches us in the Holy Scriptures (John 4:22) ‘Ye worship what ye know not: we know what we worship; for salvation is of the Jews.’ May I ask you to join me in a full minute of silence in this spirit?

His speech transcended mere words; it was an act of defiance, a beacon of hope and solidarity. He continued his lecture by discussing the Jewish Dutch philosopher Spinoza, powerfully reinforcing his stand against the persecution of Jews.

Despite the risks, Van Holk’s actions exemplified the values central to the IARF. His subsequent arrest and internment in camps didn’t deter his spirit; he continued to inspire and educate, establishing a sort of “people’s university” within the camps.

After the war, Van Holk resumed his academic duties, serving the university and its ideals for two more decades. Among other things, he represented the Remonstrants and the IARF at the Second Vatican Council. His legacy, though less publicized than some of his contemporaries, remains a testament to the power of individual courage and the enduring principles of the IARF.

As we mark this anniversary, let us not only remember Professor Van Holk’s brave stance but also reflect on the ongoing need to uphold the values he so fiercely defended. His life and actions remind us that in times of darkness, voices of truth and compassion can shine the brightest, guiding us towards a more just and understanding world.

For our readers who speak Dutch – Prof. van Holk’s book De Boodschap van het Vrijzinnig Christendom (The Message of Liberal Christianity) can be read online here

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