Theo Thijssen (1879 – 1943) has always denied ‘in alle toonaarden’ (‘in all musical keys,’ as the Dutch idiom has it*) that his fiction was in any way autobiographical, but appearances are much against him, in Kees de jongen as well as in some of his other fiction. He did at times concede, though, that, ‘due to a temporary slackening of the discipline that any writer of fiction ought to impose upon himself’ (and we can see his grin here), ‘some autobiographical detail might have slipped in here and there…’
Like Kees, Thijssen grew up in the poor Amsterdam quarter of Jordaan, where his parents, likewise, ran a shoe shop. His similarly adored father also died when young Theo was only eleven years old, and of the same cause, after which the family likewise moved house, his mother started a comestibles store and young Theo had to help out in generating some income. And one could go on. Besides, could he have achieved such compellingly close identification with his protagonist if he hadn’t drawn heavily on his own experience?
We can only guess how Kees’ further life would have unfolded after he has, in the last lines of the story, marched off toward his future. But Thijssen, we know, managed to get himself admitted to the teacher-training college in the town of Haarlem, the poshest in the country, affectionately called ‘de Bak’ (the bin, hod, trough) by the students, where he developed into something of a rebel, railing against old fashioned teaching methods, rote learning and the sweet and moralistic, but not very realistic, stories for children in vogue at the time. And getting ever more disgusted with everything that thwarted youngsters in developing their talents: poverty, bad housing, alcoholism, indifferent teachers, pedantic, meddling, authoritarian head masters, and above all the sin of not taking children seriously. He became editor, then editor-in-chief, of the school magazine, the ‘Baknieuws,’ and managed to turn it into a national magazine, with the result that it was suppressed in one school after another.
In 1898 he graduated as a teacher, and went on to teach at several Amsterdam primary schools until 1921, when he became a salaried member of the Dutch Teacher’s Union.
He married twice: In 1906 Johanna Maria Zeegerman, needlecraft teacher, who died in 1908, leaving him with a baby son, and in 1909 her colleague, Geertje Dade, with whom he had a daughter and two more sons.
He was profoundly anti-fascist, sympathized with various leftist organisations (trade union, broadcasting, youth) but felt nothing but repugnance for dewy-eyed idealists, extremist zealots and for bombastic nonsense in general. Not for his children the (left wing) labour youth organisation AJC (Parades! Flag waving! Uniforms!)
In 1933 he became an MP for the social democrat labour party SDAP, and in 1935 he acquired a seat in the Amsterdam municipal council. In both these bodies he fulminated against cuts on education, jam-packed classrooms and disgracefully paltry teacher’s salaries. One policy that provoked his ire was the issuing of cheap wooden shoes to pupils who would otherwise have no shoes at all. This, he realized, would have a seriously stigmatizing effect.
In March 1941 he was arrested by the occupying German forces on suspicion of having been involved in the organisation of the February Strike**. The two month detention badly affected his health (though not his spirit). He died in 1943 of an apoplectic stroke.
In 1946 the first of many schools throughout the country was named Theo Thijssen School in his honour. Along with the 19th century giant Multatuli Thijssen is the only writer to have his own museum in Amsterdam (www.theothijssenmuseum.nl). It is situated in the house where he was born, in the street where he grew up and where we may assume Bakels' shoe shop to have been located. On summer mornings the shadow of Westertoren projects into this little street, a few hours later touching the roof of the 'Achterhuis,' the house where Anne Frank and her family lived in hiding during WW II. The three museums are within a stone's throw from one another.
‘Our profession entails protecting the small and frail, and stimulating their growth.
Our profession confers on us this strange passion for development, for making strong what is weak.’
Hans Bayens’ sculpture of him on Lindengracht in Amsterdam shows him in action, doing just that.
* And in English?
** A strike that broke out, first in Amsterdam, then in other cities, in protest against anti-Jewish measures, and in particular against the deportation of Jews. It was unique event, the only large scale protest of this kind in occupied Europe, but alas sadly atypical of the general attitude of the Dutch during the war. It is commemorated every year near the statue of the dockworker (on strike) in Amsterdam.