De Bezige Bij – 75 years and still buzzing
One of the most successful literary publishers in the Netherlands of the 20th and 21st centuries is De Bezige Bij (‘The Busy Bee’). Currently, it has almost 600 authors on its list, among them many big international names, together good for 1344 titles by my count.
De Bezige Bij started during the Second World War as a clandestine publishing house, of which there were a great many. Not so many, though, continued after the war, or were as successful as De Bezige Bij. It was among the most outstanding publishing ventures during the war, both in terms of content and of appearance.
It all started with saving Jewish children from the Nazis. When the deportations started and Jewish citizens of Amsterdam had to assemble at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, some women managed to get children out of the building and into the adjacent school for teachers. Soon the group grew and established sub-groups elsewhere, for instance in Utrecht. This so-called ‘Children’s Fund’ needed large sums of money. That money came in part from the Utrecht Student Corps (USC), of which Geert Lubberhuizen was a member. He became involved in the Children’s Fund to such an extent that he was nicknamed ‘The Busy Bee’.
One of the women founders, Anne Maclaine Pont, gave him a typed copy of ‘De Achttien Dooden’ (‘The Eighteen Dead’), the most famous illegal poem produced in the occupied Netherlands. Written by Jan Campert, the poem is a homage to the eighteen men who were executed following the ‘February Strike’, a general strike in protest against the persecution of Jews, led by dock workers in Amsterdam on 24 February 1941. They were the first Dutch men to be executed for alleged anti-German acts.
The poem was circulated in manuscript or typescript. A total of 15,000 copies were produced during the war, not all by De Bezige Bij. However, it was Geert Lubberhuizen who decided late 1942, or early 1943 to make an illustrated printed broadside of it to raise money for the Children’s Fund. It was published by Lubberhuizen and Ch.E. Blommestein, and printed by J. Hendriks in Utrecht. The illustration is signed as Coen ’t Hart, the pseudonym of Fedde Wiedema.
That is how ‘De Achttien Dooden’ became De Bezige Bij’s first publication, almost two years before its official establishment as a publishing house. ‘The Bee’ as it became known continued to issue clandestine publications to support the work of the Children’s Fund.
The Library holds three editions of this broadside. The earliest is from 1943 and, according to Anna Simoni’s bibliography Publish and be Free, is of the 2nd edition. It was donated in September 1969, by Jaap Romijn, who ran another clandestine publishing house in Utrecht. Richter Roegholt wrote a history of De Bezige Bij, published in 1972 and mentions Simoni’s letter to him in reply to his attempts to solve the mystery of spelling errors in the poem. That is a story in itself which is best saved for some other time
A second copy is from 1946 (74/L.R.410.y.1.(5.)) and was purchased in February 1968. The third copy (85/Cup.600.d.(2)) is from 1955, and has the real name of the illustrator alongside the pseudonym. This is printed on ‘pancake paper’ and is much narrower than the two others.
Production was increased after ‘Crazy Tuesday’ on 5 September 1944, when the Dutch thought, mistakenly, that the war had ended. By December 1944 it was clear that the war truly would not last much longer. So on 12 December 1944 the co-operative publishing house ‘De Bezige Bij’ was established, on the basis of a ‘Plan voor de coöperatieve uitgeverij De Bezige Bij in hoofdlijnen’ (‘Main outlines of a Plan for the co-operative publishers The Busy Bee’).
The first article outlines the publishers’ intention to continue the business after the war:
Encouraged by the success of its. publications and by the interest from many authors and illustrators who, from the beginning have enthusiastically contributed to ‘The Busy Bee’, which has as its aim to collect as much money as possible for the national cause, next to the continuation of the free Dutch literature, the management of this publishing house has decided to continue her work after the war with the aim to serve the cause of its authors.
Its first ‘official’ publication was a printing (in English) of The Atlantic Charter, declared by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on 14 August 1941. 100 copies were printed by Fokke Tamminga, who personally delivered one to the British Museum in 1969. The colophon makes clear that this was a clandestinely produced booklet, but its execution is nonetheless exquisite.
This blog’s limitations do not allow for a discussion of the post-war history of ‘The Bee’. For that I refer to Roegholt and to the publisher’s own website . But I make an exception for Geheid Deelder, a collection of six stories by Jules Deelder on the occasion of De Bezige Bij’s 50th anniversary. Jules Deelder is after all just a few weeks older than De Bezige Bij.
It goes without saying that De Bezige Bij is positively buzzing with activity around its 75th anniversary. On the 10th of this month a new poem by Ramsey Nasr entitled, ‘De dag kan komen’ (‘The day may come’) was unveiled in the firm’s offices, where it now hangs opposite Campert’s ‘De Achttien Dooden’.
Long may this Busy Bee keep buzzing!
Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections.
Anna Simoni, Publish and be free: a catalogue of clandestine books printed in the Netherlands, 1940-1945, in the British Library (The Hague; London, 1975.) 2725.aa.1