In Memoriam

We remember with sadness and affection those who made invaluable contributions to the work of the Norbert Elias Foundation:

Maria Goudsblom-Oestreicher (1936-2009)

Maria Goudsblom-Oestreicher
September 2008Photograph by Søren Nagbøl

Maria Goudsblom-Oestreicher (1936–2009)

Maria Goudsblom died at home in Amsterdam on 31 March 2009, after a long battle with cancer. Maria was the beloved centre in two families: naturally in her own family of Joop, Clara and Frank, but also in what Cas Wouters was the first to call ‘the figurational family’ consisting of the ever-spreading international network of researchers working with the ideas of Norbert Elias.

Maria was born in Karlsbad (Czechoslovakia), to the Jewish family of Gerda Margarethe Oestreicher-Laqueur and Fepx Hermann Oestreicher. Her father was a doctor. They came as refugees to the Netherlands and were forced to move from place to place several times. In November 1943, along with her mother and father and her older sister Beate – her twin sister Helly remained behind in hiding – Maria was deported, first to the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen. When British troops were approaching Belsen all four members of the family were put on a train that crisscrossed through Germany with unknown destiny until it met the Russian army not far from Leipzig. Both parents died within the following weeks from typhus fever and the privations they had suffered. Maria rarely spoke about this, and never with bitterness. But she worked for many years to decode her father’s handwritten ‘concentration camp diary’ and prepare it for publication. It was published by Hartung-Gorre Verlag in 2000. [Fepx Hermann Oestreicher, Ein jüdischer Arzt-Kalender: durch Westerbor und Bergen-Belsen nach Tröbitz – Konzentrationslager-Tagebuch 1943–1945, edited by Maria Goudsblom-Oestreicher (Konstanz: Hartung-Gorre, 2000).]

Maria studied social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and it was there that she met Joop. They were married on 28 November 1958, and they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at a wonderful party in the Vondelkerk on 28 November 2008. By then, Maria was visibly ill, but she was able to present a sideshow of the wedding, with an amusing commentary.

Maria found employment as a social psychologist, but after the birth of her second child, she decided not to continue her career. But she was always closely involved in Joop’s intellectual work, and she had a deep familiarity of her own with the writings of Norbert Epas. Almost always with Joop at conferences, she was very far from being a ‘traipng spouse’. She had a mind of her own, and though she did not intervene very often in the proceedings when she did speak out it was always incisive, sometimes with devastating impact on those on the receiving end. And for the last decade of his life, Norbert Elias was technically Maria’s tenant in the upper-level apartment at J. J. Viottastraat 13. When, as happened occasionally, Epas displayed his cantankerous side, it was Maria who went upstairs and sorted him out.

Meanwhile, downstairs, visitors from near and far would sit around the table in Maria’s kitchen, eating a prolonged breakfast and enjoying conversations that would range from trivial gossip to huge problems of human society and sociology. Thus for decades was Maria a central figure in the figurational figuration. The web of friendship and collaboration now spans the globe, and will endure long beyond Maria’s lifetime. She hosted for many years the annual board meeting of the board of the foundation in early January, supporting it with solid winter meals, good wine and young Genever. Often she informally took part in the board’s discussions and helped it to come to substantial decisions.

During the last years of her life Maria devoted herself to the work of the Board of the Foundation Beate Oestreicher Friedenswerke (BOF). The endowment of BOF came from the legacy of her older sister Beate, who prescribed its purpose of funding projects of organisations aiming at ‘peace’ as defined in her own spirit.

After her illness was diagnosed in 2007, Maria and Joop made good use of their remaining time together, spending a lot of time at their farm in Ommen, of which they were so fond, and going on cycling expeditions, while Maria continued to play tennis. It was a great pleasure for us to have Maria with us at the conferences in Hamburg and Berlin in 2008. The last few months were, of course, awful, but her funeral at the Oosterbegraafplaats on 6 April  – standing-room-only – was a great tribute to Maria’s life. The speakers were: Helly, Maria’s twin sister, who movingly recalled the events of their childhood; her tennis partner and friend, the historian of Indonesia Frances Gouda; Rosemarie Silbermann, a representative of Amnesty International who amusingly recalled Maria’s sometimes ruthless commitment to that cause; the historian Maarten Brands; and then Joop Goudsblom, who described Maria’s courage through her final illness, reading her email messages to her friends when she learned that her illness was incurable; and Clara, who thanked those who had nursed Maria.

The Norbert Elias Foundation has suffered a great loss with Maria’s death. We express our deep sympathy to Joop, Clara and Frank.

Elke and Hermann Korte
Barbara and Stephen Mennell

Peter Reinhart Gleichmann (1932-2006)

Peter Reinhart Gleichmann (1932–2006)

Peter Gleichmann, who died on 13 November 2006, was Professor of Sociology at the University of Hanover from 1978 to 1997, and one of the principal champions of Norbert Elias in Germany. He was one of the editors, along with Johan Goudsblom and Hermann Korte, of Human Figurations, the Festschrift presented to Elias in 1977.

Peter was born in Berlin, but his family came from Suhl, Thuringia, in central Germany. His great-grandfather was an arms manufacturer, in protest against which his grandfather became a Lutheran pastor in a small town, in reaction to which calling his parents refused to be married in the church – something quite unusual at that time. Both his parents were doctors. Peter Gleichmann followed the pattern, defying his authoritarian father’s wish that he pursue a medical career and instead first studying architecture and then embarking upon an academic career.

So opposition and calling things in question was a family tradition, as his younger brother Ulrich – a well-known cardiologist – made clear in his eulogy. He also referred to the fate of their maternal grandfather, a doctor, who came into conflict with the henchmen of the Third Reich and met his death in 1945.

After the war, the Gleichmanns came as a refugee family to Hanover. Outwardly, at first glance, Peter’s life now ran along peaceful and ordered lines. He finished his schooling in a traditional Gymnasium, where for the first time there were two young women in his class; one of them, Renate Röver, later became his wife. Both studied architecture, and Peter went on to study sociology. He and Renate had three children.

A second look shows, however, that peaceful, orderly lines were perhaps necessary, but at the same time too narrow for Peter. The Hanover Institute of Architecture had links with that in Graz, Austria, and there followed jobs in various in various architecture and planning offices in Finland and The Netherlands. Finding these too narrow, he widened his experience of town, regional and environmental planning. These led him to embark on sociological studies first at Göttingen and then at Hanover, where he became a lecturer in 1960, taking his doctorate in 1962 and his Habilitation in 1968. He was a visiting lecturer at the Universities of Manchester and Leicester – where he met Norbert Elias, whose sociology had a profound influence on him.

Peter Gleichmann wrote insightfully on social and psychic constraints. He covered all the causes of suffering in body, mind and society, and transformed suffering into knowledge. He had a gift for the outsider’s or marginalized perspectives. He took particular care of foreign students. He promoted the reception of French sociology because he felt it was unjustly marginalized. He took a keen interest in Germany’s smaller neighbouring states, such as Poland and The Netherlands. The same ‘view from below’ led him to show that buildings should be made fit for people, not the other way round. In his architectural sociology it led him to address the tabooed ‘natural functions’, and later to speak about violence and death.

Hans-Peter Waldhoff

Rudolf Knijff (1956-94)

Rudolf Knijff (1956–94)

Rudolf Knijff, Bram van Stolk’s partner, was assistant to Norbert Elias from 1981 until Elias’s death. The following obituary by Johan Goudsblom appeared in December 1994 in Figurations 2:

Rudolf Knijff, who died of AIDS on 28 September 1994, over the past fifteen years devoted an important part of his life to Norbert Elias – first to Elias personally, and then, after his death in 1990, to his memory and his legacy. That was no sinecure. Norbert Elias was an extraordinary man; it was part of his extraordinary qualities that he could be very demanding. This put a heavy burden on Rudolf, especially at the beginning when, in 1981 as a 25-year-old student in political science at the University of Amsterdam, he found himself posted to the Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF) in Bielefeld to act as secretary, assistant, and general factotum to Norbert Elias – seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Understandably, he experienced moments of despair, all alone in the distant Teutobergerwald. However, as he himself noted in a written memoir of the period, he found ways to survive, such as taking an occasional weekend off to go to Amsterdam. This was very much against Norbert’s wishes, but Rudolf stuck to his guns.

This firm attitude enabled him to carry on working for Norbert for almost ten years. When Norbert first settled in his apartment in Viottastraat in Amsterdam, Rudolf came to live in with him. Later he came in only a few days a week; for the rest of the week, another assistant would work for Norbert. Those other assistants never stayed on for more than twelve months, however, while Rudolf kept going for many years. He was the pivot on which the household turned.

He performed his task with great devotion. It was mainly thanks to his good care that there was order – not only in the chaos of Norbert’s papers but in the entire house, from the kitchen to the wardrobes. Visitors always met with a good reception – Rudolf always saw to that, with a watchful eye on the supplies and a keen sense of quality.

His position was far from easy. I often admired him for the way he managed the balance between being attentive and maintaining dignity and self-respect. He had carefully drawn the boundaries between what could and could not be expected of him. A certain brusqueness sometimes helped him to maintain those boundaries.

Underlying Rudolf’s longstanding relationship with Norbert were genuine affection and admiration for Norbert’s work. Over the years Rudolf gained a thorough and intimate knowledge – not only of Norbert’s published and unpublished writings but of his entire way of working and thinking.

Rudolf was the one who was present when Norbert died. After that, he rendered invaluable assistance in ordering and listing the legacy – an extensive job in which he took upon himself the special task of sorting out and cataloguing the library. Fortunately, he was able to finish that task.

I always enjoyed working with Rudolf, and appreciated the mixture of personal commitment and detachment, of formality and friendliness that emanated from him. It was a heavy blow to the Norbert Elias Foundation when it became clear that we would gradually be deprived of his services, which were so vitally important to our small foundation. We shall always continue to be reminded of the many contributions he made.

Johan Goudsblom 

Abraham van Stolk (1941-96)

Photograph by
Johan Goudsblom

Abraham van Stolk (1941–96)

Bram van Stolk, born in 1941 into an old Rotterdam merchant family, was a student of sociology at the University of Amsterdam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Norbert Elias taught there as a guest professor. Bram and Norbert became close friends and spent many holidays together in Greece, Morocco, Seychelles, and other warm and sunny places. When in 1983 the Norbert Elias Foundation was established, Norbert appointed Bram as one of his three trustees. Bram died of AIDS on 20 November 1996. Another member of the board of trustees, Joop Goudsblom, gave the following address in Dutch at Bram’s funeral:

Bram loved festive occasions, and he knew how to make them truly enjoyable. On several such occasions I had the privilege of delivering a speech to him: once when he obtained his PhD, just over five years ago, and then again at a dinner to celebrate the publication of his autobiographical novel S1.

On both occasions hung a shadow. On the day of Bram’s PhD celebration, his friend Rudolf Knijff was feeling unwell. He did his best to hide it, but several of us feared the worst and that turned out to be the case.

When S1 appeared, there was no longer a fearful suspicion. Rudolf was dead. And we all knew that Bram too had Aids.

He continued the struggle for a long time. I witnessed his determined fight in two capacities which were hard to distinguish: as a personal friend, and as a fellow member of the board of the Norbert Elias Foundation.

From the very beginning, Bram devoted himself with verve to the Foundation. He felt a self-evident loyalty to Elias’s intellectual legacy. He was closely involved in all of the Foundation’s initiatives. His personal interventions leading to the establishment of the Norbert Elias Chair at the University of Utrecht were invaluable.

Collaborating with Bram was always a pleasure. He had a clear and accurate judgement and knew how to present and, if necessary, defend it with style and charm. The words ‘board meeting’ may not immediately arouse pleasant associations, yet Bram managed always to bring an animated touch to our sessions. Official trips to such unexciting places as Hunsrück and Marbach thus became events first to look forward to and then to look back upon with pleasure.

And not only to look back upon, but also to recapitulate at length about. For that was something that made Bram’s company especially agreeable: to go over common experiences and reconsider them once more in a thoroughgoing post mortem. How I would love to have a talk with Bram about the gathering that we are holding today in his memory!

That is, of course, out of the question. The cordon of family and friends has not been able to save him. All we can do is cherish his memory.

For me, that memory is precious and encouraging. I am grateful for the friendship that Bram gave Maria and me. It was as teacher and student that we became acquainted, but we had long left that stage behind us. I for my part was able to learn a great deal from him, for Bram had much to offer not only in erudition but also in experience and judgement of human character, and in cordiality.

Some images stay with me such as the summer afternoon when I was busy in the garden and suddenly heard my name being called from above. There, at the balcony of the apartment above our own where Norbert lived, stood Bram and Rudolf: two men in good shape, in good clothes, with good hairdos, and, above all, in good temper. They were, as I now realise, in the prime of life.

Apart from such moments to recollect Bram fortunately also left us his books: the impressive S1 (1995), with a moving account of the experiences of a homosexual Dutch soldier in Germany in the 1960s, Eigenwaarde als groepsbelang (‘Self Esteem as a Group Interest’, 1991), a collection of highly perceptive essays on various minorities, and Vrouwen in tweestrijd (‘Women Torn Two Ways’, 1983), written together with Cas Wouters and translated into German (1987). Each of these books bears witness to a unique combination of powers of observation, empathy, and sociological imagination. During the last years of his life, Bram turned more and more to writing semi-autobiographical fiction, but he also found the energy to start working with Christien Brinkgreve on a book about social inheritance. Christien will now have to finish that project by herself.

So, luckily, there is a posthumous publication to which to look forward. [The book by Christien Brinkgreve and Bram van Stolk, Van huis uit (literal translation ‘By Birth’), was published by Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, in February 1997.] Talking with Bram, however, asking him for advice, exchanging impressions and opinions and bringing back memories all that is now a thing of the past. There is a book of poems by H. A. Gomperts called Of Loss and Death. I understand what he means by that title, but actually, it is a pleonasm. For death is a loss, the greatest loss.

Johan Goudsblom