Gift #7 – Trien de Haan-Zwagerman
Political action, changing times, women’s rights, feminism, equality – these cultural shifts sometimes seem to happen in slow motion, one step at a time, one advocate for the moment.
Believing in a cause, being passionate about an issue can lead to change … and can have severe personal consequences. De Haan-Zwagerman lead a life that enabled social change and almost cost her life.
Born in 1891, Trien de Haan grew up in poverty with her five siblings in the small village of Hauwert in the Netherlands. Her father worked hard to provide, often barely with the help of what they could grow in the local community garden.
Trien married Bartele Boele de Haan (1891-1967) on November 15, 1916, a political activist and member of the Social Democratic Workers.
They had three daughters, one of whom died from measles at a very young age.
She and her husband strongly believed in the ideals of an equalitarian society without class distinction where land, the means of production and distribution are commonly owned and regulated.
These are the political and economic theories of socialism in action.
De Haan-Zwagerman’s activism did not go unnoticed. She became the first women elected to political party leadership, standing for offices in both local and national elections.
Her platform stressed women’s equality which was firmly against the male-dominated culture of the times; she worked to change both the legal system and the economic barriers that held women down and back.
Her efforts resulted in two new organizations: the NAS Women’s Association and later a center that provided information, advice and medical supplies related to birth control.
When these political organizations were banned in July 1940, Trien continued to work illegally, underground, in the shadows, making and distributing false identity cards, government documents while also hiding escapees and hunted colleagues.
Unfortunately, as was so common during that period, her activism was noticed by the authorities; perhaps she was betrayed. She was picked up and imprisoned, sentenced to a term of 15 years.
On July 21, 1942, she was sent to Ravensbrück where she remained until the White Bus ride to freedom on April 22, 1945. After her “arrest, Trien experience(d) horrific years in Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Mentally broken but not broken, she remain(ed) faithful to her ideals after the liberation and she was politically and socially active until an old age.”[i]
After the war, Trien de Haan-Zwagerman tried to continue her advocacy for women, but suffered from ‘concentration camp syndrome,’ a form of post-traumatic stress common among Holocaust survivors:
- severe anxieties,
- obsessive brooding,
- psychosomatic illnesses and
- survivor guilt.
One major ongoing commitment remained: her birth-control center’s programs as a concrete form of women’s empowerment.
Trien’s great-nephew Bart Lankester summarized this remarkable women’s life and impact by noting that
“until her death in 1986 she maintained her pre-war principles: for real democracy and equal access to wealth and power; against … political paternalism and all kinds of (state) terror.[She] encouraged all efforts for social equity, … promoted birth regulation, marital happiness and sexual consciousness. For almost thirty years (1935-1963), she and her husband managed a local care center for birth regulation and contraception.”[ii]
Sometimes connections in life endure even in death; age 94 when she died, Trien was cremated in Westervelt where some of her political allies also lie.
Written while a prisoner in Ravensbrück , her letters and poetry describe the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges facing these women … yet never lost hope and belief:
“What you can’t get away from, you must wear bravely.”[iii]
[iii] https://triendehaan.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/de-eeuw-van-trien-de-haan.pdf Accessed 2/14/2022.