Writer on the Couch: Little Manfred & the Bull
Part II: A Conversation with Manfred Kets de Vries on Writing, Reflection & His Own Inner Theatre
In Part I of this conversation with Manfred Kets de Vries, a trained psychoanalyst, scholar and renowned expert on the psychology of leadership, we learned something of what’s behind his highly prolific writing career—over 50 books and 400 articles thus far. He spoke of his writing rituals, the way he neutralizes procrastination (“Just write garbage!”), and the merits of a really hot bath or a walk.
He also mentioned his mother, a woman of Dutch nationality, who was fluent in German, but less proficient in what was supposed to be her own tongue. She may have wished to be a writer, he speculates. And he adds:
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I think I’ve incorporated a part of her in me.
We pick up the conversation from there. But first, some essential background about his mother, Henriette, and the circumstances in which Kets de Vries was born.
1942—The Netherlands in the Year of Kets de Vries’ Birth
In 1915, Kets de Vries’ mother, Henriette Houtman, was born in Germany. Her father, Florian, who was Dutch, had moved to Germany in his youth, later marrying and having two daughters, Annelies and Henriette. In the mid-1930s following Hitler’s rise to power, he returned with his family to the Netherlands and soon his daughters married Jewish men—Annelies to Bernard van Amerongen and Henriette to Jonas Kets de Vries.
By 1942—the year Manfred Kets de Vries was born—the Netherlands had already been occupied by Germany for two years and the situation for Jews was fast deteriorating. In early May, all Jews were ordered to wear the Jewish badge and a month later deportation to Auschwitz began.
In September, the German authorities reversed their ruling on the status of intermarried couples like Kets de Vries’ parents. Previously a Jewish man in such a marriage had been exempt from deportation, but from that point on, Jewish men without children were no longer exempt. It had been but a few weeks earlier, on August 19th, that Manfred was born, the Kets de Vries’ first child.
Then in October, deportations were accelerated, continuing throughout that year and into 1943. By mid-September of 1943, the goal of deporting all the Jews in the Netherlands to Auschwitz was largely accomplished. Most of those deported did not survive.
Righteous Among the Nations
But some Jews had managed to go into hiding. Of the estimated 140,000 Jewish population in the Netherlands, approximately 28,000 had been able to slip under the radar, owing to aid of non-Jews. Among those who provided aid were Kets de Vries’ maternal grandparents, Florian and Emilie Houtman, as well as his mother, Henriette.
Their efforts were centered in the northern village of Huizen where Kets de Vries’ grandfather had a farmhouse. He explains:
My grandfather was a good carpenter. So he built double walls and things like that, hiding places in different corners. Other places too. They hid something like ten Jews there. It was very risky business.
The people sheltered were Manfred’s grandparents on his father’s side. In addition, there were many members of the Jewish family into which Henriette’s sister Annelies had married—her husband, Bernard van Amerongen, his parents, Maurits van Amerongen and Jansje (Coopman) van Amerongen, his sister, Elisabeth Knoop (van Amerongen), and her husband, Max Richard Knoop.
Notably, Henriette’s husband and Manfred’s father, Jonas Kets de Vries, though Jewish, was not part of the group hidden there. About this, Kets de Vries points out:
My father took quite some risks. And so did other members of his family. Unfortunately, many of them ended up in a not-so-nice place.
It’s worth noting that of the 28,000 Jewish people then hiding in the Netherlands, 42% or approximately 12,000 were eventually found and arrested. This was largely the result of a sophisticated system of rewards offered by the Germans to entice citizens to betray those in hiding.
In the two years that followed, the Germans were alerted twice about the goings-on in the Houtman home, and it had to be evacuated quickly. Henriette took the great risk of bringing one of those hiding there, the young Polish boy Nathan Durst, into her own home where Kets de Vries would have been a mere toddler of two or three. 
According to Kets de Vries, these life-or-death challenges seemed surprisingly well suited to his mother’s character:
Even though all of this was so risky, oddly, for my mother, it was in a way the best time of her life because she felt truly useful… she had to figure out how to feed all those people, how to get food for them, and also how to protect them in one way or another. If you think about it, when you are locked up for so long, there’s a serious sense of claustrophobia. She had to figure out how to calm those people down. I was a young baby so I guess I must have been quite the focus of attention. They probably played with me and things like that. I have no memories of that period. I do, however, have some dreams …
But, as he goes on to explain, Henriette did more than provide food and comfort. Her fluency in German and her willingness to risk everything set her up to be an active negotiator and dealmaker with the German occupiers—this while her parents were sheltering at up to ten Jews in their home. On more than one occasion, she saved her husband Jonas’ life. Kets de Vries explains:
… In the initial period when you had mixed marriages, they would not put the Jewish spouse into a camp. But that changed as time went on. My father was picked up twice and moved to the transition camp. Since my mother was fluent in German, she was somehow able to get him out —probably by bribing people. She saved him. But, yes, it was very dangerous.
Two years after the end of the war when Kets de Vries was five, his parents’ marriage crumbled, triggered by his father’s affair. He spent much of his childhood living with his mother, seeing his father on occasions. While his mother talked a lot about all that had occurred—“She could be quite dramatic,” he explains—his father held back:
My father never talked about the war. Recently in Amsterdam a series of brick walls were constructed as a memorial, and on each individual brick there is the name of a Dutch Jew who was killed in the concentration camp or died while being transported there. Last year when I visited, I realized how many of my family members have a brick there. It felt like hundreds. My father lost both a sister and a brother. And many, many more relatives. But he never spoke about it. Talking about it, must have been too upsetting…
Decades following the war, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, would recognize Florian and Emilie Houtman and Henriette Houtman-Kets de Vries as Righteous Among the Nations — an honorific bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews.
It was into such a time of heighten anxiety, life-and-death decisions, and profound ethical choices that Kets de Vries was born.
It was also into the space of that small fishing village of Huizen—a town staunchly embedded in the beliefs of the Reformed Dutch Church, but also willing to demonstrate, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, its own stubborn resistance to the German occupiers.
One such example was displayed on the birthday of Queen Wilhelmina, who had gone into exile, but who continued to serve as an unabashed symbol of the resistance to Nazi aggression. The New York Times included an anecdote about it in their 1962 obituary of the Queen:
Although celebration of the Queen's birthday was forbidden by the Germans, it was commemorated nevertheless. When churchgoers in the small fishing town of Huizen rose and sang one verse of the Dutch national anthem, Wilhelmus van Nassauwe, on the Queen's birthday, the town paid a fine of 60,000 guilders.
For Kets de Vries, memories of the village are cast in the shadow of the Dutch Reformed Church. He explains:
I was born in a village called Huizen. It was basically a fishermen and farming community. And the Dutch Reformed Church dominated the town. On Sundays, it was a place where everybody would walk around in native dress. The men’s clothes were all black and the women wore these enormous caps. They would take away the cigarette vending machines and you weren’t allowed to ride a bicycle. Sin was a part of so many things. A clear sense of right and wrong. I was actually baptized in that church. It was my mother’s idea given her fear of having me transported to a concentration camp.
Asked how the village reacted to his grandparents and mother’s activities, he responds without pause:
They knew. Of course, they knew. The hiding went on for years. It could not have continued for that long without that village and the way it was.
Little Manfred and the Bull
There is a story about Huizen and the little Manfred that noted scholar and long-time colleague, Elizabeth Florent, suggests encapsulates something at the core of his personality—the story of the bull.
Asked about it, Kets de Vries laughs and explains that it is a story his mother told him many times—it’s emblazoned in his mind:
I was probably 5 or 6. Pretty young. And I must have wandered off with my cousin, Martin, who was a year older. He became a very famous journalist in Holland— but that’s a separate story. In any case, my mother was frantic and she got the word out that two kids had gone missing.
There was a large bell in the center of our village and it was rung whenever there was an emergency. So, the bell was rung and the village was alerted and everybody went looking for these two kids—what had happened to them.
Close to the village there was a big field with lots of cattle, and a farmer who was nearby heard lots of screaming. He ran to the spot and found two boys—Martin and me. Apparently, I was happily throwing stones at a bull, while my cousin was standing to the side, crying his head off. The farmer snatched us up, put us on his bicycle and took off for town.
When my mother saw this bicycle with the farmer and us two kids on it, she was relieved. We were still alive.
As Kets de Vries explains, his mother liked to tell the story with “both pride and indignation.” She would emphasize that he was:
…just a little nothing in size, and it was very dangerous and there was just a small ditch between the bull and the boys.
Still, it was a puzzlement for her:
She said she couldn’t decide whether I was trying to scare the bull off or antagonize it.
Greater than the Sum of Its Parts
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Men are what their mothers made them.” While Emerson’s words are clearly a simplification, in the case of Kets de Vries, they are not without some application.
But the whole of a man is never captured by a single part. Kets de Vries is, after all, this and more:
The son of Henriette—a Dutch woman who was, for all expressed purposes, a native speaker of German, the language of her Nazi capturers, but a more awkward speaker of what was supposed to be her native tongue. A young woman with a small baby—Manfred—who took the risk of using her bilingual ability so she could negotiate for the lives of others. A woman who, we are told, may have wished to be a writer.
The son of Jonas—a Jewish man bold enough not to go into hiding—for whom one might imagine such an opportunity was available, but who may have felt or been led to believe that he could skirt deportation, until it became terrifyingly apparent that he was wrong.
The grandson of Florian and Emelie—an elderly couple who for years hid up to ten Jews in their home, including 13-year-old boy who came to them as a stranger.
And a son of the village of Huizen—a radically conservative Christian community that looked out for their own and thumbed their noses openly at forces that could have easily wiped them off the map.
The Purpose of a Writer
Kets de Vries tells me that, of late, he has shifted to writing more about macro issues. Leadership remains his central concern but added to it are the atrocities in the Ukraine, the narcissism of Putin, and the status of Russian expatriates abroad. The memories of his childhood in the Netherlands and the brutally of that war continue to live and guide his work. Throughout his life, deep concerns about the dangers represented by demagogue leaders have remained top of mind.
Camus once wrote:
The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
If we are to glean anything from the voluminous writings of Manfred Kets de Vries, we might imagine his “rewrite” of Camus’ line would be:
The purpose of a writer is to explore the inner theatre of humankind, and from there, seek to imagine, if only in some small way, a path to a better future.”
 In many Jewish families, heated debates occurred as to whether they needed to go into hiding. While this may seem incomprehensible today, at the time the decision was by no means self-evident. For many people, disobeying the order to be deported and going into hiding constituted a crime, and entering that world of illegality was contrary to their nature. Moreover, the Jewish Council was also against the decision to go into hiding. Its public position was that it was impossible for everyone to go into hiding so no one should do so. Hiding required at times that people be separated from their family members, which again, for many, was unthinkable.
 How Unique Was the Secret Annex? People in Hiding in the Occupied Netherlands. https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/go-in-depth/how-unique-was-secret-annex-people-hiding-occupied-netherlands/
 As for Nathan Durst, the 13-year-old boy who was saved by Henriette and her parents, he went on to receive his doctorate in clinical psychology from Groningen University. In 1971, he settled in Israel and served as chief psychologist in a psychiatric hospital for 15 years. Later he taught at Tel Aviv University, specializing in trauma and the Holocaust.
 "Wilhelmina of Netherlands Dies" (UPI), The New York Times, 28 November 1962. pp. A1–A39.
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