(on Holocaust Memorial Day)
Today, I’m paying respects to Chaja Laufer Blaug, and Ignaz, Eva, and Gustave Dicker. But here too, are some personal and anecdotal memories and photos from the life of Mark Blaug (1927–2011) who, thanks to the foresight of his father, got out of the Netherlands in time, together with his brothers, George and Maurice. (Chaja was Mark’s grandmother, Eva and Ignaz his aunt and uncle, and Gustave his cousin.)
Mark became an economic historian. His expertise was in the thought of David Ricardo (hence the unlikely forenames of his son, David Ricardo — known to the rest of us as Ricardo).
But Mark’s extensive scholarship may be remembered just as much for a ground-breaking essay on the 1834 Poor Law, The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New, published in 1963. When I came to study 19th century History at Birkbeck College in London, my father-in-law was most generous in his support, enthusiasm, and detailed knowledge of the period.
Late in his career, Mark returned to Amsterdam as an emeritus professor. He lived in Leiden for two or three years, recovered his Dutch — Grote Verdicky — he was prone to say, while his Dutch colleagues would gently remind him that was an old expression, not so much in use as Grote Verdomme. Anyway, I believe both expressions loosely translate as ‘Oh damn’ (more literally, ‘big damn’) and Mark was likely just recalling a version more current in the 1930s or 40s, the period in which Dutch was his first language.
With one or two exceptions I know of, Mark was not given to talking about the period. The most memorable exception was the day he walked me around Amsterdam. We went to the Jewish Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, Tuschinski Theatre, the street where his father (a raincoat salesman) had his business, the neighborhood where the family lived. As we walked, he told me stories of people he had known in various streets, shops, the theatre itself — and that they had virtually all perished in the camps. He showed me where the Frank family lived, and recalled that his father knew Otto Frank and that he had once attended a birthday party where Anne was present. Finally, though never one to take his own accomplishments too seriously, Mark commented that his father would have been proud to know his son had returned to Amsterdam as an emeritus professor.
The other exception consisted of numerous passing mentions — over the years — of his cousin, Gustave Dicker. Gustave, Mark said, was the most generous person he had ever known. If you liked something Gustave possessed, he immediately gave it to you. Gustave was taken soon after the occupation began and eventually died in the terrible camp at Mauthausen. The local police convinced his mother, Eva, that they could help her find him if she gave them money. They kept her bringing money and family treasures for many months until she had nothing left. Then they closed the door on her. Eva died not long after. Her mother, Chaja (Mark’s grandmother), and (Eva’s) husband, Ignaz, died in the camps. Bernard Blaug, Mark’s father, died in the 1950s, having failed to recover his Amsterdam business after the War. Sarah Toeman Blaug, Mark’s mother, died in New York in 1977. (I remain grateful to Peter Dicker for helping me piece together some of this history.)
As he grew older, Mark spoke more often of his past. But he remained determined to live in the present, and he was truly one of the most joyous people I’ve known, most especially during his retirement years in Leiden and Devon. He traveled, visited the theatre, cinema, museums, walked on Dartmoor, got to know the local farmers in Devon, tried all the restaurants in Leiden. He took up cooking — enrolling in a Rick Stein class — and regaled us with fish cuisine on every visit. I can recall at the end of every meal, I would leap up, politely, to clear the table and load their fancy Zanussi dishwasher. Mark would say, “No, Amy, you don’t have the Zanussi diploma!” This was partly his kindness to a guest, but knowing Mark, he truly did believe he was the only one who could load a Zanussi properly. I got past his defenses eventually.
He was so pleased by the birth of a grandson, Isaac, and always planned special outings when we visited. Boat and beach trips to Cornwall, rambles on the moor, pub dinners. There were narrow lanes from their Devon home, with those tall hedgerows we have down here. Each time we drove through a particularly tricky series of bends in the road, he would say to Isaac, “Here comes the dangerous lane. Time to pray! I do believe in God! I do believe in God!” When we drove out of the lane, he would turn to Isaac and grinning mischievously, say, “Ok, we’re fine now. I don’t believe in God.” Mark’s atheism was serious, as was his scholarship and life’s work, but he had a capacity for silliness that delighted Isaac, and the rest of us too. I think this, as much as his many accomplishments, was what saved Mark and gave him a long and good life, after a painful early history.
So, as the Dutch might say, altijd onthouden (remember always). Well, I think that is how they might say it, anyway.