In memoriam Jaap Erkelens 1939-2023

By Harry Poeze

I was deeply touched to learn of Jaap’s passing. During and after his long service as representative of KITLV in Jakarta, from 1974 until 2003, Jaap was always there with his beard and inseparable pipe, which gave him an appearance and an identity. He looked as though the ageing process had no impact on him. But the inevitable conclusion was to come and hit his next of kin and friends on 30 September last.

Jaap’s career was to be closely connected with the KITLV. With his place of birth in pre-war Soemba, as son of a teacher with the missions, it can hardly be coincidental that he would return to his country of birth. Before 1974 he studied history at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and worked with a project to publish sources on colonial economic policies. He then contended for the office of KITLV’s Indonesia representative. The KITLV, established already in 1851, had a long tradition of colonial scholarly research. Its connection with the colonial authorities was always close. After 1950 the chance of resuming and sustaining such a role looked remote. Thanks to a ‘coup’ by Professors Teeuw and Uhlenbeck, in 1958, however, a new start for the KITLV was made possible. In 1968, Teeuw concluded a cultural agreement with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences LIPI. This was followed by the employment of two Dutch representatives in Jakarta. In 1969 the first of these scholars took office. Their tasks comprised translation and publication of Dutch texts, as well as acquisition and documentation. They were also to organize cooperative activities. Acquisition was paramount and resulted in a stunning total of 90,000 titles sent between 1969 and 1993 to Leiden. The first five years of the Jakarta office were difficult. They were marked by institutional and personal conflicts, which later resulted in resignations. Resink and Vredenbregt, both influential in KITLV matters, played a dubious role in them. Vredenbregt even went so far as to write a malicious novel about KITLV Jakarta. Jaap managed to remain aloof from the bickering.

In 1977, Jaap became the single head of the KITLV Jakarta office. His first task was to organize the acquisition of printed materials for Leiden. It was a Herculean job to collect the missing publications, published from 1940 until the early sixties. Jaap was a lover of as well as a hunter for books. When asked for a specific book, as I often did from my office in Leiden, he would search for the lost or unknown title and be elated upon finding it. In this way, he was contributing to the preservation of Indonesian heritage. He was particularly content, for instance, with the discovery of the shabby Islamic treatises in Arab script, often of local or regional provenance. These became a whole new category of publications. Jaap actively collected Indonesian dime novels, of which hundreds were published. During that time, they were not considered worthy of serious research for the Dutch experts, let alone of value as library collections. Now they are a subject of study, for their literary, cultural, sociological, and political value. In Jaap’s opinion these vulnerable publications needed to be preserved, in a race against time.

I have had such an experience too, which may serve to illustrate the case. I was doing research in Yogya when in 1980 I visited the Regional Library (Perpustakaan Wilayah). In a room without air-conditioning, and open to all kinds of visitors – humans as well as crawling vermin – all newspapers and periodicals published in Java between July 1947 and December 1948 were stored. It was the only place where these were available: a treasure trove for historians working on the Indonesian Revolution. I spent a few weeks there, but of course could by no means cover all the printed material available. I was especially interested in a few newspapers published by followers of Tan Malaka, which could only be found there and nowhere else. I explored the possibility of filming these print runs, but as an independent researcher this was beyond my organizational and financial abilities. I asked Jaap whether he could mediate. He found a solution. He arranged for the newspapers to be filmed, using his budget earmarked for filming Dutch-language publications. He also took care of the logistics, not an easy task to do. Thus, an essential heritage of Indonesia was saved.

When in 1986 I visited the library again, the whole 1947-1948 colletcion was no longer there, and nobody wanted to disclose what had happened. Such narrow escapes were not rare in the eighties. Many other threats were similarly averted. Jaap was also involved with the National Library and the National Archives, both in Jakarta. After gaining the trust of the staff of these institutions by his unselfish and unobtrusive manners he became a regular visitor, spending long days between the stacks. Of course, his Indonesian colleagues in turn highly valued his linguistic expertise as a Dutchman. A special part of his activities was related to the Java Instituut in Yogya and the associated Museum Sonobudoyo in Solo. After 1950 both were in peril. A combined effort of the KITLV office and the Museum, supported by the Dutch Embassy, made the extensive archives accessible – a veritable treasure trove of information on Javanese culture and language.

Jaap also took responsibility for the publication of a whole range of new books, covering many subjects. Most were translations from the Dutch. Some were co-published in Indonesia with were from KITLV Press in Leiden, but most were published and marketed by Indonesian publishers. It was at times a tedious and time- consuming labour, as Jaap felt obliged to read all the proofs. Jaap was profoundly interested in photographs and other pictures. He organized a series of three photobiographies, dedicated to Soekarno, Hatta and Sjahrir. Expert texts by Bob Hering, Deliar Noer and Rosihan Anwar accompanied the numerous photographs.

Less well-known are Jaap’s connections with anti-Suharto groups, and particularly with political prisoners (Tapol) who had been released from banishment on Buru Island. The New Order regime watched these people closely and blocked them from working in the public service. These people also met with reluctance when applying for a job anywhere else. Jaap considered it his self-evident duty to collect the publications, pamphlets, banners, leaflets, and other forms of self-expression of the former Tapol. He built up close relationships with various groups still under surveillance. He supported them with his personal editorial, translation and publishing services. This gained him a lot of goodwill. His involvement was deep and exhaustive. He helped Pramoedya Ananta Toer and his brother Koesalah find an outlet for their publications. Jaap went far. When Pramoedya needed data to write his historical novels, he was, of course, not allowed to do research in governmental archives and libraries. Jaap solved the problem. He received Pramoedya’s ‘shopping-lists’ and collected the data Pramoedya wanted. Proof of this dedication is his archival collection of all these ‘subversive’ materials, preserved in the IISG in Amsterdam and measuring no less than 1.12 meters of paper. His activities were important but also risky. The KITLV Board chose to ignore this awkward state of affairs, or was indeed ignorant. The KITLV Librarian in Leiden felt uneasy, with all these subversive materials, free for consultation by whoever wanted to do so. It was rumoured that he locked the most uncompromising papers in his desk. Whenever Jaap’s working permit came up for extension, nervousness grew as the fateful expiry date came nearer.

In 2003 Jaap went into retirement. Differences of opinion had slowly arisen between the KITLV Board and Jaap. They centred around policy and priorities. The Board asked for more ‘visibility’ in a diplomatic role. Jaap defended his view: working at the grass-roots.

After retirement Jaap was actively involved in a number of projects. He made an inventory of the subversive publications, and another of the archive of J.W. Schoorl, Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a long-time Chairman of the KITLV. He expressed his fascination for music theatre in a voluminous collection of documents and records on the theatre group Dardanella, part of the Komedi Stamboel. This resulted in a book: Dardanella: Perintis teater Indonesia modern: Duta kesenian Indonesia melanglang buana (Jakarta: Kompas, 2022). Herewith he concluded his self-imposed mission. But he never stopped researching on Dardanella, and its great stars Dewi Dja and Miss Riboet. His Dardanella, published in time for Jaap to see and hold it, is a tribute to a lifelong dedication.

Jaap is survived by his wife Mariëtte, two children Tamara and Bart, and other family.

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