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Home > South Asia Labour Activists Library > NLR Interview with Jan Breman (July-August 2015)

NLR Interview with Jan Breman (July-August 2015)

6 August 2015

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New Left Review 94, July-August 2015

jan breman



Could you tell us about your family background, and how you came to study the conditions of labour in the Third World?

I was born in Amsterdam in 1936. My father was a postman; my mother was a maid until she married. On both sides, their families had been bargees for generations, working the waterways of Holland. My father, born in 1895, was the youngest of fifteen children, though nine of them had died in infancy—infant-mortality levels were high for bargees; hygiene was poor and medical care hard to get. The Breman family originally came from the north-west corner of Overijssel, bordering on Friesland, an area abounding in water. My grandfather had been a self-employed barge owner but moved into waged employment with a shipping company when he got older, shuttling a steam barge between Amsterdam and Utrecht, with the whole family on board. As a result, my father was able to go to school—to two schools, in fact, as the vessel was loaded and unloaded during the day, and sailed at night. When they reached Utrecht in the morning, my father would go to school there; the same when they reached Amsterdam the next day. When he finished primary school—workers’ education went no further—he got two certificates.

My mother’s upbringing was much harder. Her father had a traditional sailing barge, a tjalk, that carried mainly agricultural cargo, building materials—gravel and sand—or peat, which was used for domestic fuel. Her family came from southern Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands; though bargees led a footloose existence, they did belong somewhere. Lolkje was one of fourteen children, though again, not all came of age. Life on the barge was one of abject poverty. If the wind was blowing the wrong way the sail would be lowered and the barge towed along; if there was no money to rent a horse, the bargee and his wife and children had to shoulder the ropes themselves. When the waterways froze during severe winters, traffic came to a halt; no cargo meant no income until the ice melted. Food was scarce and had to be shared; clothes were passed down from child to child. The only schooling Lolkje got was when the barge was requisitioned by the government for food storage, during the First World War; she spent part of a year in fourth grade and learned to read and write a little, though her classmates were way ahead of her.

When she was eleven, she was sent ashore to work; an older sister who’d already gone ashore helped her find a job as a maid. She had to struggle with loneliness and—brought up speaking Friesian—with the standard Dutch spoken in Amsterdam. Housework was quite unfamiliar to her, as it was all so different to life on board the barge. On her days off she would go to the locks on the city’s outskirts and ask passing bargees if they had seen her parents, and to greet them for her next time they met. Things improved when she and an older sister managed to rent a room together; they earned a living working at home, sewing and mending clothes. Then they’d go out—‘looking for a beau!’, as she told me. They were handsome girls. She met my father on a bridge, in 1923, when she was just seventeen; it must have helped that they could speak Friesian together. They were married within a few months, after getting permission from her parents. Willem was already working for the postal service. When he came ashore he’d tried to get an electrician’s apprenticeship, but then he was called up for the duration of the First World War—even though the Netherlands stayed neutral, there was a general mobilization—and by 1918 he was too old to be an apprentice. With the Great Depression his pay was cut, though he was lucky to keep his job. I grew up in a small, first-floor apartment on the Vrolikstraat. Some of my earliest memories were of the German occupation. Food was scarce, and the municipality opened soup kitchens in working-class neighbourhoods. I was sent there with a pan, to queue up for soup or cabbage. Fuel was even harder to come by than food. We would go looking for coal scraps near the shunting yard.

What do you recall of the political atmosphere under the Nazis?

When war broke out, my oldest sister was seeing a butcher’s son, but ended the relationship because his family supported the nsb, the Dutch National Socialist Movement. The difference between good and bad was clear, and defined the distinction between collaboration and resistance. But there was an intentionally shadowy area around the dividing line. Choosing one side or the other too explicitly was risky. The authorities were now from beyond our borders and sabotaging their instructions might be met with appreciation by ‘good’ compatriots, rather than reproach for being disloyal, as would have been the case in the pre-war period. In one sense there was a continuation of the regime of adversity, deficiency and insecurity that had characterized the lives of the masses in the working-class neighbourhoods. But there was also a widely shared view that, under foreign domination, the gap could be seen, even more than previously, as a stark contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’. While ‘they’ meant the German occupiers, the ‘us’ had more the sense of ‘our kind of people’, rather than the Dutch population as a whole. There was a lot that had to be kept secret from the enemy. We were hiding my sister’s new boyfriend, who’d been called up to go and work in Germany. During the razzias, when the Germans closed off the neighbourhood and sent patrols through the streets to search houses at random—for Jews, draftees, members of the underground resistance—he would hide in a secret space behind the fake back wall of a cupboard, stuffed with clothes and junk. He was never caught and made a good living, distilling illegal liquor in our kitchen and selling it on the black market.


A FOOTLOOSE SCHOLAR: interview Jan Breman [PDF]
New Left Review #94, July-August 2015


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