IIt’s the family secret that almost fell into the grave. Gerrit Jongsma was a convicted war criminal – a small-town mayor and Nazi collaborator who sent at least one Jewish family to their deaths. He was also the great-grandfather of Eline Jongsma, a Dutch writer and director, who only discovered his identity ten years ago.
Far from further hiding his crimes, Jongsma, along with his longtime filmmaking partner Kel O’Neill, created a documentary about his relative, which was posted on Instagram this month.
His Name is My Name chronicles Eline Jongsma’s efforts to trace her great-grandfather’s life and crimes from fragments in the national archives while weaving her own childhood memories, both happy and painful. .
It’s a documentary for the ever-changing age of social media. There are 10 episodes, each one self-contained two or three minute story. The directors imagine that their audience could see an episode at bus stops or train stations. They eschewed the conventions of World War II filmmaking, using animation rather than photography, bright colors, and an ethereal synth soundtrack rather than stock footage.
“We had one rule from the get-go – no black and white, and no fiddles,” O’Neill said.
At the origin of the work is Gerrit Jongsma and the dark shadow he cast on his descendants. A customs officer in Rotterdam, Jongsma was a member of the NSB, the Dutch fascist party that had a dark fantasy of creating a Greater Netherlands empire encompassing part of Africa, the Dutch East Indies and Flanders in Belgium.
After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the NSB became their most loyal lieutenants. They were soon rewarded. Jongsma, known as Gekke Gerrit (Crazy Gerrit), was appointed mayor of the town of Krommennie, north of Amsterdam. He used his position to embezzle city funds and punish people for infractions, such as having a radio or evading conscription. After a denunciation, he ordered a raid on an attic above a hairdressing salon, where a Jewish couple, Esther and Benjamin Drilsma, were hiding. He then ordered a hunt for their six-year-old daughter, Fien (Adolphine), who was kidnapped elsewhere. The family was briefly reunited in a transit camp, but then separated again. Esther and Benjamin Drilsma were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. Fien was murdered in Sobibor soon after.
While Jongsma says she’s taken some professional distance since the year of filming, this unusually personal project has been strange and unsettling. “As a filmmaker and someone who thinks this is an important story, I want the widest possible audience,” she said. “On the other hand, I really don’t want to tell the story. Part of me just wants to hide. Some relatives were concerned about the project: “There was certainly some fear that I would tarnish the family,” she said.
The two directors wanted to discover the story of a wartime collaboration, but also to tell a story of the Second World War for a new generation, partly inspired by their experience of living in Donald Trump’s America. “We’ve really seen populism rise very quickly there,” said Jongsma, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, while O’Neill is from Massachusetts and New York. “Those four years of Trump in the United States were very much in our minds when we got into this business.”
O’Neill had a sense of history[ing] disappear” and become less engaging for younger audiences. “These war traumas last for a generation,” said O’Neill, whose parents served in the Vietnam War. “And I think the less we talk about these things, the more they fester and show up in unexpected ways in the family dynamic.”
The filmmakers had the opportunity via a commission to explore the perpetrators of war crimes from the memorial centers attached to three Nazi-era camps: Falstad in Norway, Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Westerbork in the Netherlands.
Eline Jongsma has a personal connection to Westerbork, once a Nazi transit camp that was the last transit station for more than 100,000 Dutch Jews who were loaded onto trains and murdered in concentration camps. She grew up near the forests and fields of the camp. She remembers family hikes where they would “find mushrooms in haunted ground,” as O’Neill puts it. Now, those trips have become another thread woven into their evocative and haunting documentary.