Jan and Herman Heukels:
Machlien Vlasblom’s new book ‘Wij waren supermannen’ – Jan en Herman Heukels: broers, fotografen, nationaalsocialisten ('We were supermen' – Jan and Herman Heukels: Brothers, Photographers, National Socialists), published by Boom in March 2022, sheds light on how the Heukels brothers collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War by taking photographs during razzias (round-ups) and producing photographic images to be used in National Socialist propaganda materials. Here Vlasblom introduces her book for the NIOD ImageLab and Kees Ribbens shares his response to the book.
The Dark Room of
the Heukels Brothers: Photographers and National Socialists
The photograph of a woman seen below, whose identity is uncertain, but who may be a nurse named Eva Granaada, was taken on June 20, 1943 at Olympiaplein in Amsterdam. The image forms part of a series shot during one of the last major razzias (round-ups) of the remaining Jewish residents of Amsterdam. The German occupying forces forced Jewish people to gather at two large squares, the Daniël Willinkplein and Olympiaplein. From there they were transported to transit camp Westerbork via Amsterdam Muiderpoort station. A few weeks later, nearly all of the more than five thousand people who had been deported on that day were murdered in the Nazi extermination camps in the east.
A photograph taken by Herman Heukels during the Olympiaplein round-up in Amsterdam on
20 June 1943. The woman seen on the right may be Eva Granaada. The photographs taken by Heukels on that day bear the stamp of the National Socialist magazine SS Storm on their back side, but were never published there. (Further reading - Who is Eva Granaada?)
NIOD Collection - 96719
Several years ago, I studied this photograph alongside a stack of letters and photographs from the family archive of Gerard Visser. He wanted to know more about the unknown war history of two of his grandmother's brothers: Jan (1904 – 1950) and Herman Heukels (1906 – 1947). I tried to see Herman Heukels in the reflection in the glasses of the woman shown in the photograph, because it was Herman who took this series of photographs. After the war, the photographs made by Herman Heukels ended up at NIOD and subsequently found their way into countless books, reports, exhibitions, textbooks and also circulated online, both in the Netherlands and abroad. Not much was known about the photographer, except that his name was Herman Heukels and that he was a Dutch collaborator.
After realizing the letters I was reading were written by the photographer who made the pictures of the razzia, and by his brother, the idea arose to capture the life of these two brothers in a double biography. Further research disclosed a story which transcended the bounds of a family history.
A photograph by Herman Heukels showing Jewish families at the sports complex on Amsterdam's Olympiaplein, awaiting deportation to camp Westerbork. June 20, 1943.
NIOD Collection - 96771
Brothers united in photography and ideology
The result of my research is ‘Wij waren supermannen’ (‘We were supermen’). Although it is not a photo biography, the book contains over two hundred private and public images and tells the story of two Dutch brothers and photographers who both became Nazis. The influence of their ideology on their photographic style and career is evident. A photograph is never a representation of reality, it is the representation of the photographer, and contains their choices, perspective and point of view.
Who was the man behind the lens on June 20, 1943? It is important to realize that the photographs of the round-ups tell a story of persecution but are also part of the history of collaboration.
On the day Herman Heukels took the iconic images of persecution of the Jews in Amsterdam, photographs of a completely different order were on display in the window of the newly opened SS recruitment office in the center of Amsterdam. They were some of the propaganda pictures Herman Heukels took of the Dutch Waffen-SS unit: Standarte Westland in 1940. The photographs were developed in Heukels' dark room in the basement of his shop (Foto-en Brillenhuis - Photo and Glasses house) at Luttekestraat 4, a monumental building in his hometown of Zwolle where he had built a successful business in the 1930s. Soon the marching, strong looking SS-men appeared on pamphlets and brochures which were distributed nationally. Among the propaganda pictures, Herman Heukels provided several national socialist organizations and publications with photographs which emphasized the idea of a strong Aryan nation in various ways.
Propaganda poster SS-Standarte Westland, produced by Herman Heukels in 1940.
NIOD Collection - 81983
Detail from the propaganda poster.
A photograph taken by Herman Heukels, showing a Jewish man, date and name unknown. For more information and other photos of this series ‘Wij waren supermannen’, page 81-85. NIOD Collection - 96672
Herman was a fanatical and opportunistic Nazi who managed to gain influence through friendships with the German occupiers. By threatening his fellow citizens with a weapon During the April-May 1943 strike in Zwolle, he made himself a much-hated man. An accidental encounter between Heukels and a Jewish resident of Zwolle (a former customer of Heukels' shop) who thought he was safe in Amsterdam where he was living under a false name, led to his exposure and to his murder in Auschwitz. For Heukels, financial gain was an important motivation for his collaboration with the Nazis. He obtained ownership of various Jewish photo and optics shops through the direct interference of Beauftragte Werner Schröder, the highest German civil authority of the provinces Overijssel and North Holland, and the city of Amsterdam. By selling their properties, Heukels became rich. For example, he sold the darkroom furnishings of a photo shop in The Hague that had previously had a Jewish owner to the press department of the NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging).
Herman Heukels (left) & Jan Heukels (right). Family collection Heukels
The differences in character between Herman and his brother Jan were significant. Jan’s mother later described her oldest son as a 'social failure'. Although he was also a photographer, he lacked the talent that Herman had, and was less ambitious. Yet, unlike the rest of the Heukels family, he also became a National Socialist and took up a career in the Waffen-SS. It took him to current Belarus (Weißrussland) where he was deployed as an SS Kriegsberichter. Here he had his own dark room and worked as a propagandist. Nazi propaganda aimed to demoralize opponents, partisans in the woods or the civilian population, and persuade them of the benefits of National Socialist ideology. At the same time, various assassination units were wreaking havoc on this country on a large scale. Villages were burned down and the civilians murdered. In his letters home, however, Jan wrote about the beautiful snowy landscape and the good food. Jan ended up as a propagandist as part of the Skorpion West propaganda-unit during the Battle of Arnhem.
The story of the two Heukels brothers continued after the war when they faced the consequences of their actions. The many post-war letters, kept in the family archive, give insight into their feelings and reflections on the war. While Herman awaited his trial, he wrote a letter to his family in which he reflects on his life as a Nazi. He wrote: “Wij waren supermannen. Wat is er nu van over gebleven?” ("We were supermen. What is left of it now?")
Book cover by Mijke Wondergem.
This article is based on the double biography
‘Wij waren supermannen’ Jan en Herman Heukels – broers, fotografen, nationaalsocialisten (Uitgeverij Boom - Amsterdam 2022) by Machlien Vlasblom.
Nazi Visual Culture - the Zwolle Connection
The Ter Pelkwijk Park is a site that is familiar to all Zwolle residents. It is the place where the local World War II memorial was erected five years after the liberation, the place where every year on May 4 the dead are remembered, and where on April 14 the liberation is commemorated. I got to know this place in the 1990s when I was doing research on the wartime history of Zwolle. Precisely because the monument symbolizes the bitter war experiences of the victims in the image of one person, a kneeling man, it made the war concrete for me.
War monument in Ter Pelkwijk Park, Zwolle. Photograph by (Dolf) A.H. Henneke, a former employee of Heukels. HCO Collection - 36074
That image thus formed an essential addition to what I found in the archives at the time, rich archives which, however, consisted largely of written documents, letters, minutes and reports. There was no shortage of historical details in those sources, but in order to bring this wartime history to life, it helped to be able to visualize it. After all, images can transport you to a different setting, and they can also shift your perspective.
This struck me again when I saw a photograph in Machlien Vlasblom's book, which focuses on the life and work of Jan and Herman Heukels, brothers and photographers, who were also Dutch National Socialists.
Herman Heukels and his daughter in Ter Pelkwijk Park, Zwolle. Family collection Heukels
The photograph is a portrait of Herman Heukels with his daughter, a photo taken shortly before the German occupation, near the Plantage Kerk (Plantation Church) in Ter Pelkwijk Park, which you can see today if you stand nearby the war memorial. Herman Heukels, like his brother Jan, never saw the post-war monument. But he did knowingly contribute to the suffering that this monument tries to represent. The images of the Ter Pelkwijk Park flow into each other, connecting past and present.
Machlien Vlasblom’s decision to make the life and work of the Heukels brothers the focus of a thorough historical study has resulted in an illuminating look at the lives of two local National Socialists.
In the 1930s, as democratic societies came under pressure and totalitarian ideologies made their further advance, the importance of images as a form of propaganda became increasingly prominent. Cameras became more widely available, and photo stores like the Heukels firm depended on the increasing popularity of the medium. The newspapers and illustrated magazines, to which Herman Heukels in particular was increasingly contributing, met the growing need of the public, but also played an important role for various political parties – including the National Socialists – who had an interest in making themselves known. The production of visual media was a booming business then, a situation that only became more pronounced during the war years.
Photography was considered a modern medium, but it was not the only way in which images could be used for political or commercial ends. The Heukels brothers seemed to sense this early on, and as early as 1933, the Heukels family photo and eyewear business used a comic strip character in advertisements that appeared in the Zwolsche Courant, the regional newspaper. Rupert Bear, better known in the Netherlands as Bruintje Beer, appeared in them. The title of the book 'Wij Waren Supermannen' ('We Were Supermen'), also evokes a comic strip character, the American comic strip hero Superman, who just before the war sprang from the creative minds of two Jewish-American comic strip creators, but whose existence had already penetrated the National Socialist German press by 1940. The use of the term Übermensch in the European context of the time cannot be separated from the National Socialist and undeniably racist worldview, a political stance that aroused the interest of many but was considered abstract to a certain degree - and for that very reason needed a particular concreteness, a visual underpinning.
The use of propaganda by the Heukels brothers was aimed at confirming in every possible way the philosophy of life of the new order, of the National Socialist regime, which from May 1940, also ruled the Netherlands. This happened in roughly two ways: on the one hand, the values that the Nazis considered important were frequently portrayed and thereby underlined and promoted. This involved emphasizing the strong traits of the Nazified society: the decisiveness, fearlessness, and unity of the people and their leaders, building on traditional values. On the other hand, the Heukels brothers produced images that sought to undermine and condemn everything that did not fit into the reactionary, Aryan ideal image. The Heukels brothers, and Herman Heukels in particular, contributed substantially to both of these. He portrayed soldiers of the SS, among others, in a variety of places in Nazi-dominated Europe. But he also recorded how Jews were helplessly herded together during a raid on June 20, 1943 in Amsterdam. He did not hesitate to record them unwillingly in their most vulnerable moments. From the position of power Heukels acquired through his position as a member of the NSB (the Dutch National Socialist Movement), he got close to the victims, something he did not do only in his capacity as a photographer. The pre-war advertising slogan "What Heukels does, Heukels does well" takes on a particularly wry meaning in the context of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Herman Heukels’ extensive file includes not only the suspicion of ‘membership of the NSB’ but also membership of the ‘Germanic SS, Waffen SS, Economic Front,’ while in addition ‘acting as Verwalter in Jewish affairs, betraying persons, providing assistance to the enemy’. Jan Heukels’ record includes ‘Nazi membership’ and the fact that as an SS-Kriegsberichter, he had provided assistance to the enemy.
The paradox is that Herman Heukels’ photographs of the infamous Amsterdam round-up in June 1943, and his racist visual reports in general, were intended to illustrate the proposition that Jews were Untermenschen, inferior human beings, but ultimately those photographs became proof of the dehumanization to which Nazism inevitably led. Where Herman Heukels thought he was visualizing the superiority of the Germanic race, he was actually documenting the ruthless inhumanity of his own totalitarian world view that led to genocide.
The images Heukels made, such as the photograph taken on Amsterdam's Olympiaplein in 1943, would end up in the NIOD photo archives after the war.
Photograph taken by Herman Heukels showing the registration table during the Olympiaplein Razzia on 20 June 1943. At the registration table stands Sara Emma Paulina Polak-Schwarz (1900-1969) with her bag and coat clutched under her arm, and next to her slightly bent over and speaking with the administrator, her sister Henriëtte Antoinette Polak-Schwarz (1893-1974). In the photo to the right of Henriëtte is her daughter Ans (Annie) Leontine Willy Polak (1924) in a nurse's uniform. Behind the women are Sara's two sons: Johan Polak (1928-1992) behind Ans, and Rob Polak (1925- 2020) behind his mother. (Further reading - Behind the Star: Names Identified) NIOD Collection - 96799
Thereafter they were reproduced in numerous books and newspaper articles, in documentaries and exhibitions. This gave the photographs iconic status. They have become well-known, recognizable images that touch many people, but whose backgrounds have not been sufficiently investigated. The fact that through Vlasblom’s efforts it has become clearer who produced these images and under what circumstances, helps us to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust, a better understanding of the fact that the persecution of the Jews in all its aspects was human work, in which individuals from a mixture of ideological motives and shameless opportunism were willing to contribute to the exclusion of their fellow men and contemporaries, in the most radical sense of the word. Photographs documenting the steps that lead to genocide do not come out of the blue, iconic wartime photographs do not just suddenly appear. There are makers behind them, there are clients involved, just as there are distributors, and ultimately viewers, and paying attention to the photographer is also a stimulus for further research into all those other people involved.
This also makes it clear that thorough historiography provokes new questions and helps to establish new connections and to transcend the usual frameworks. The city of Zwolle is the starting point for the research into Jan and Herman Heukels. But this book goes beyond the category of local historiography. With 'Wij Waren Supermannen' ('We Were Supermen') a successful attempt has been made to place the war years in a broader perspective in three respects. I have focused here on one aspect, the importance of visual culture in a world characterized by modernization. But I would also like to conclude my argument by highlighting two other merits of this study.
Vlasblom teaches us a great deal about the Second World War. Zwolle, in that regard, is the starting point but not the final destination. The life stories of Jan and Herman Heukels were, to a large extent, set outside the city limits during those years. The events described took place partly in the west of the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and The Hague, partly in the east and the south, in regions and countries like Belarus, Italy and Bavaria. The fact that the Second World War has a strong international dimension will come as no surprise to anyone, but it is nevertheless a valuable addition to our idea of the war years, which after all is still remarkably focused on experiences within national borders. The vastness of the cross-border vicissitudes of war is given hands and feet in this double biography.
The other aspect that deserves mention is the fact that 'We Were Supermen' transcends the usual limitations in time. Although the emphasis in the book is on the five years of war, it offers a history of the first half of the twentieth century, from 1904 to 1950, including the immediate aftermath of the war.
The view that this book casts on recent history also raises questions about postwar history. More than 75 years after the liberation, we have come to realize that visual culture deserves more attention. Photographs are not an objective representation of reality, nor are they merely light-hearted and innocent embellishments of text. Nazi propaganda was not only a German affair but was equally a Dutch phenomenon - such insights are not entirely new but deserve attention and call for reflection. Herman Heukels’ iconic images have been extensively and carefully framed in this study, but they also circulate elsewhere, sometimes in museums but also in cyberspace, where contextualization often leaves much to be desired. What meaning the images have and acquire there remains to be seen. But armed with the insights from Vlasblom’s new historical study, we can undoubtedly further stimulate critical approaches to the visual material relating to the Second World War.