Childhood of Robert Gorter

At the age of three months, Robert Gorter left with his parents Hoorn to move to Haarlem (Aerdenhout and later Heemstede, two upper middle class suburban towns with mainly large and secluded villas. Robert’s father was appointed as “hoofdcommisaris van politie” (head of the municipal police) in Haarlem. His father fulfilled this function until he retired at age 63.

The childhood of Robert was in many ways seemingly uneventful for the outer world. He grew up in a very sheltered environment right after the end of the Second World War (WWII). The Netherlands had greatly suffered under the Nazi occupation (1940 – 1945) and Robert’s parents had been in the resistance since the spring of 1941.

In May 1940, Robert’s father had been head of the police in Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, one of the most northern provinces of the Netherlands, and had now been appointed as head of the police in Hoorn by the Dutch government (Queen Wilhelmina) on the first day of the invasion of the Netherlands by the Germans (the whole invasion took only 5 days, as the Dutch capitulated when Rotterdam was completely bombed in one night and the Germans threatened to do the same with the capital of Amsterdam). Hoorn was a strategic city in the Northern part of the Netherlands (West Friesland) und the Dutch government’s effort was to secure the Northern part of Holland. The move from Leeuwarden to Hoorn was not uneventful. With a truck with all their furniture, the parents moved over the more than 30km-long  “Afsluitdam,” a dam connecting Friesland with Noord-Holland, to Hoorn but were several times attacked by German war planes. Bullets went through the roof of the moving truck at several incidents and still, some of their furniture, which surfaced again after the war in 1945, had traces of damage done by the German bullets.

One day, spring or summer 1941, Robert’s father (Willem Jacob Gorter 1903 – 1996) found out that the Germans would start arresting Dutch Jewish citizens and deport them to concentration camps. The Germans did not want to start in a large city like Amsterdam but rather in a smaller town, “to practise”, as it were. Therefore, they choose Hoorn and there was a list of names and addresses of almost 800 Jewish families and individuals who would be arrested at their homes very early morning one day.

Right after sunset, Willem Jacob Gorter and a befriended policeman, visited all Jewish families they could, and warned them that there would be a “razzia” and that they should leave immediately, as otherwise, they would be captured and transported to concentration camps in Germany or Poland.

When the Germans started their razzia, it became quickly clear that almost all Jews had fled Hoorn in the middle of the night. It took them a few hours to find out that Willem Jacob Gorter must have been the leak. He would be executed right away. Thus, within minutes, Willem Jacob Gorter and his wife Jansje Dingena Gorter-Dik, left Hoorn with nothing more than a bag with some essentials, and their only daughter at that time, Rita Gorter, 7 years of age. By doing so, they knew that they lost all their earthly belongings to the Germans. The Germans confiscated all they had, including the house and a huge art collection. Nazies were crazy about art and would steal any objects of art from their occupied territories.

Willem Jacob Gorter, and his wife Jansje, were very active in the resistance (underground or partisans) till the end of the war. This meant that they were always living in hiding; usually not entering the streets till after sunset and before sunrise; meeting other Dutch men and women in the resistance.  They disrupted many German army and Gestapo activities and saved many more lives of Jews, communists, intellectuals and homosexuals. All these individuals were declared “enemies of Germany” and should be “re-educated” or eliminated in concentration camps.

Willem Jacob Gorter and Jansje had many different “identities” of which a few examples are presented here. One of the identities Willem Jacob Gorter took for a little period of time was Willem Jan Backer (see pictures of identity cards of Willem Jacob and of Jansje Gorter below).





Since it was too dangerous to staying, or being seen together, most of the four years under German occupation, they stayed separated. Only a few times during these four years, they met; sometimes because of a larger “action” against the Germans. During on of those short meeting, the second daughter was conceived (Ellen Wilhelmina Gorter, born on October 17th, 1943).

Robert Gorter reported that his parents would not speak not too often about that period but it had always been clear to him, also as a small child that his parents had suffered greatly by this experience. Still, they would never express any hatred towards the Germans; repeatedly saying that not all Germans were evil and that one should learn from this and prevent any repetition in one form or the other. Often through old friends of his parents, Robert Gorter found out about the deeds of his parents during the German occupation, and they match what has been portrayed in movies like Schindler’s List. A niece of Robert Gorter’s mother, who was 19 years of age and extremely good-looking with her light-blue eyes and very fair blond hair, and also in the resistance, was captured by some Nazis while bicycling in Haarlem and was executed at the spot and her body left next to her bicycle in the street, three days before the official capitulation by the German army.

When the Allies freed the Netherlands in May of 1945, Robert’s mother was in a very a poor state of health (she had lost more than 20 kg and was completely starved and malnourished). Therefore, she was sent to Switzerland by the Red Cross to recuperate and get her strength back. She stayed there with her two children Rita and Ellen for almost a year. She stayed with a Jewish family, which had leased the municipal “Hallenbad” (indoor swimming pool). His first name was Dorius (meaning wisdom in Jewish). When later Robert was born, his third given name was Dorius, to honour the man who had helped them so much. Here, Rita went to school and learnt to speak Swiss German.

When Jansje and her two children returned to the Netherlands, they decided (as so many people in Europe) to pick up their lives again and make the best out of it. Robert Gorter was born as part of that new start for Willem Jacob and Jansje Gorter.

It took Robert’s parents ten years before they could handle emotionally to return to Germany and Austria. When Robert was nine years old, the whole family (father, mother, Rita, Ellen and Robert) went for a three week vacation to Radstadt, Tyrol, in Austria. It was the first time in his life Robert would see mountains, step in cow shit during walks in the Alps, see men in short leather pants and hear them “jodelen” and eat “Apfel Strudel.”

Robert’s parents at a cosy get-together with locals in Austria in 1955; the very first time
his parents went on vacation in Germany and Austria ten years after
the end of the second world war.

Robert was a cute and smart boy who lived his own life amidst his parents and two sisters. He made his room and bed himself (received 25 Dutch cents per week as “pocket money” for doing that, and saved it usually to buy presents for when there was a birthday or “Sinterklaas” = Saint Nicholas on December 5th).

He was always eager to learn and, on occasion, a pain in the neck for his parents and others (especially Miss van Zutphen, his first teacher at his primary school), who could not always answer his questions in a way which satisfied Robert.

(There is this anecdote that in the third grade, the somewhat corpulent teacher Miss van Zutphen, who loved to wear her hairy canary-yellow coat, showed a few pictures of the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who never ever sold one painting of his in his life. She told about his life and how van Gogh ended as a mad man; and how one could see this when one observes his paintings at the end of his life. As an example, she would point at a painting with a farmer in the fields, crawls in the sky and both the sun and the moon both shining. “How can that be possible to have the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time? Robert put his finger high up and asked to respond. Miss van Zutphen consented and he said: “The sun and the moon are often to bee seen together in the sky like right now!” and he pointed to look through the window of the classroom where both the sun and the moon were clearly visible. The children in the classroom were shocked that indeed, there were both sun and moon clearly visible. So, here was suddenly a situation where the authority and the credibility of the teacher were clearly put to a test. Robert ended up standing in the corner with this face to the wall till the end of the morning. For Robert, the punishment was a kind of victory, as he knew he had been right; and by punishing him for opposing her statement, Miss van Zutphen had shown she was not in control of the situation as she should have been as a good teacher. By preventing a kid from saying something, only more trouble lay ahead. This, and other experiences, made Robert a fervent proponent of free speech and flow of information, which lead to his strong and active support of Amnesty International, and other Human Rights Organizations later in Life.)

There is a law in the Netherlands which forbids 5 year olds to go to school (1st grade). But Jansje Gorter was also smart and figured out that nothing was said about the age of a child when it would enter 2nd grade. Thus, she hired a retired teacher and this teacher taught Robert at home and privately reading and writing, arithmetic and geography four mornings per week. After a lunch (we are sure with plenty of Champagne) with the “burgermeester” (mayor) of the town, the burgermeester agreed that there was no reason to deny Robert at age 5 (half-way 6) from entering the 2nd grade. And so, Robert was always the smallest and by far, the youngest in his class.

Early spring was the time of the blooming bulb fields. Around and south of Haarlem, there still is a huge area where tulip-, daffodil- and hyacinth bulbs are grown. Around Easter time, these bulbs start to bloom in these fields. It is a festival of colours and scents, and millions of tourists flock to Haarlem and Lisse to see this incredible scenery. Robert would take his bicycle and take the 8 to 10 km ride to see this. He would like to come back with a huge necklace of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils around his neck.


Robert loved to take bicycle tours through the bulb fields, and on a bike, he could get where busses filled with tourists could never come.

In the summer time, the big event was bicycling in the “Waterleidingduinen” which is a protected natural park along a main part of the coast of the North Sea, delivering tap water to the cities of Haarlem and Amsterdam. One could bicycle there for hours and have hot chocolate in one of those small wooden cafes at the beach.


Robert with his mother and his second sister Ellen during one of those bicycling tours along the coast of the Netherlands where Robert grew up.


Robert and his sister Ellen walking in the Waterleidingduinen, a national park very close to where Robert grew up (Aerdenhout and Heemstede) during one of those bicycling tours on a sunny Sunday


Robert with his mother and sister Ellen on a brake from bicycling in the dunes between Santpoort and Leiden.


Robert and his mother and Ellen having a stiff drink at a typical out-door café at the beach in Zandvoort or Bloemendaal. Notice that Robert is studying the label on the bottle. Already as a child, he was a very nosy person who wanted to know everything and got antsy when it took to long to find out.


On another outing with his mother and sister Ellen. In the back the sand of the beach and on the fourth (empty) chair was the photographer sitting (probably his father or his other sister Rita).


Robert in kinder garden at age 4: always doing something


Robert at age 6 in the second grade with his sister Ellen who must have been at age 10 and a few grades higher at the same public school, the “Craayenester School”






Robert also at age 6, ready to go to the second grade, and eager to learn more. He must have been a very active child (hyper active?) and several people report that he would do ten things at a time, and still finish in time. He was very nosy and asked more questions than anybody could (or felt they could) answer. He was always good humoured, and his parents never had any difficulties with him. He was “perfect” as a child.  








Robert (en face) at age 7 at school in the 3rd grade (the Craayenester School; a public school and since Robert was born during the Baby Boom, his class was always filled with more than 58 to 60 children).




image031 Same time same shot `en profile`















Jansje Gorter, Robert’s mother when she was around 50 years old.




Robert’s mother when she was around 52 years old


For Robert, it was very important to serve and he did as much as he could; usually already starting at that the age of four. From age six on, he served more and more anonymously and often told his mother or others that the work done in the house or garden was done by his sister Ellen. Ellen was a somewhat  difficult child who exhibited great jealousy towards Robert at times. Also, she was less smart at school, and suffered from bed watering up till age 12. Therefore, she was unhappy and often moody, what would bring her in conflict with the parents and the siblings. In order to have his sister Ellen make a better impression on his parents, Robert would do work and “nice things” like polishing the antique silver or setting the table, work in the garden, etc. and would tell his mother or father that Ellen did it. Sometimes, Ellen would find out that Robert did work and that he had said she did it; it never seemed to be against her consent. Robert had developed a certain compassion, a certain pity towards Ellen.

(Another person of our group will describe these anecdotes, collected from people who knew Robert Gorter from his early childhood).


Robert in the front with a 100% black & hairy Bouvier puppy, called Melrose, and his sister Ellen standing behind him with the Dutch Shepard dog. It must have been in the winter of 1955-1956. Robert loved snow and ice and was a pretty good ice skater!


This is a picture of an area where Robert used to go ice skating as a young boy. He loved the cold and the biting winds and the absolutely quietness of a landscape covered by snow at sunrise


The same landscape in the summer at sunset. Robert always felt the beauty of nature but also knew that enjoying landscapes and the beauty of nature was, in essence, an egoistic thing to do.


And very close to Haarlem this landscape which Robert loved in winter and in summer time. What he liked so much were the very open skies, which reflected for him the openness of Dutch society. Through his studies of other world conceptions as a teenager, he became more and more grateful that he was born in a society where he could develop his own characteristics


Ellen with the Dutch Shepard dog Arax in one of the parks around Heemstede and Aerdenhout (Bloemendaal). In this park, there was a “kinderboerderij” an area where deer, pigs, peacocks, ducks and sheep lived together in one large commune and where children could touch (tease?) and care for the animals. As a young boy, Robert loved to go here and feed the animals and in late summer time, collect mushrooms (cantarellen, “Pfefferlingen”).


Robert’s sister Ellen around age 17 or 18, participating in a championship. Ellen loved horses and riding horseback. There was a special school, run by the family Wallage in Vogelenzang, close to Heemstede and Aerdenhout. She would hang out there daily, if she could. There was some suspicion from Robert’s side that she would do more horseback riding than her homework…..

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