Sonja Witstein

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COC board member and professor of literature


Sonja Witstein was the first woman on the board of the Utrecht COC in 1951. A year later she was elected to the national board. In the same period (1950-1952) she corresponded with the writer Anna Blaman with whom she had a brief affair. In various ways she tried to strengthen the position of women in the COC.

Sonja Fortunette Witstein was born on May 22, 1920 in Rotterdam. She had a Jewish father, a clothing merchant, and a non-Jewish mother, a housewife. In 1943 they went into hiding in The Hague where they were betrayed in June 1944. Sonja and her parents, like Anne Frank, were deported to Auschwitz on the last train on September 3. Sonja’s parents did not survive the concentration camp, but she did. With three other women she tried to return home on her own, barefoot, without a map, compass or watch. They ended up in Leipzig where American soldiers arranged transport to Roermond.


Literary aspirations

During her time in hiding, Witstein wrote the novella Confession to Julien Delande, which was published in 1946 by Contact publishing house. The story about Francine and her stepfather’s sadomasochistic upbringing received little attention, but was positively assessed by the important Dutch writers W.F. Hermans and Anna Blaman. The reprint in 1986 was described as a ‘forgotten masterpiece’, but again the book was not a sales success. In addition to Confession, Witstein alone wrote about ten published and unpublished stories.

Witstein’s big dream before the war – to become a writer – was abandoned immediately after the war. The camp experiences and the post-war culture in which she saw no room for her individualism had robbed her of literary aspirations. She resumed her Dutch language studies in Utrecht in 1945, which she had already started during the war. She lived in an attic room at the Mgr. van de Weteringstraat 61, just like Gerhard Durlacher, whom she recognized as a fellow sufferer thanks to the tattoo of his camp number and who would become a lifelong friend. Durlacher later became known for the publication of his war memoirs. In the story ‘Sonja’ (1995) he looks back fondly on their student days and their friendship.


Women in the COC

Sonja Witstein probably became a member of the Utrecht COC in 1950. In October 1951, she was the first woman elected to the Utrecht department board, and a year later she joined the national board. The percentage of female members was still less than 10 percent at the time and within the association, just like in society as a whole, they occupied a subordinate position. Witstein tried to strengthen the position of women in the COC in various ways.

For De Kleine Kring, a study group within the association, she organized a lecture about women and the COC together with the well-known lesbian writer Anna Blaman in November 1952. They then sent out a call to the female members to submit an autobiography that would provide material for a study on ‘lesbianism’ to be written by them together. That never happened. And there were hardly any reactions to the article that Witstein wrote under the pseudonym Tine van der Velde for the COC magazine Friendschip (Vriendschap) of February 1953. Witstein calls the COC unique because the men in the association, unlike their peers elsewhere, did not see women as a sexual object. Instead of making ‘eager use’ of that position, women in the COC, according to her, form no more than ‘a vague gray rearguard’. Witstein calls on lesbian women to increase their visibility, not only within the COC but everywhere in society.

Another initiative in which she was at the forefront was the ‘women’s working group’ that organized monthly lectures and discussion evenings. The first on ‘monogamy or polygamy’ resulted in all women present ‘making the monogamous position normative’. Because she was too busy with her work as an assistant in Dutch literary history at the university, Witstein resigned as a member of the national board at the end of 1953.


Anna Blaman

In April 1950, Sonja Witstein wrote an admiring letter to Anna Blaman about her novella The Crusader. It became the beginning of a correspondence lasting almost three years, of which mainly Blaman’s letters have been preserved: 37 compared to only 5 from Witstein to Blaman. The passionate-intellectual tone of the letters continued in their mutual visits. After their first meeting in Utrecht, Sonja wrote to Anna: ‘We, I believe, threw ourselves into eroticism with the élan inherent to our very special breed, without being able to wait to see if we could get a clear picture of each other, driven as we simply become by a quick amorous heart and a thoroughly sensual physique.’ (letter November 1, 1950). Sonja fell madly in love with Anna, who was 15 years older. However, she kept her distance: ‘I cannot say, I am your loved one, with all the assumed consequences: faithfulness, being exclusively occupied with each other, seeing each other as much as possible, later living together. I’m writing it to you in all honesty.’ (letter June 3, 1951). They continued to see each other for a while, including around Blaman’s performances in the COC Amsterdam and Utrecht, but the friendship came to an end at the end of 1952.


Professor in Leiden

In November 1954 Witstein became a Dutch teacher at a the prestigious high school Stedelijk Gymnasium in Amsterdam. Two years later she started her university career, first as a lecturer at the University of Utrecht and from 1974 as professor of Dutch Literature in Leiden. The subject of her 1969 dissertation was funerary poetry (mourning poems) in the Dutch Renaissance. Witstein developed into the specialist in Dutch seventeenth-century poetry. She was a member of many literary juries and literary committees. In 1952 she became a board member of the newly founded Society Jacob Israël de Haan.

In Utrecht, where Sonja Witstein was loved among her students, she experienced her best years. She lived for a long time in an apartment on the Tolsteegplantsoen where the carpet had to be replaced regularly when it was bitten by the shelter dogs she cared for. When she became a professor at Leiden University, she moved to Alphen aan de Rijn, halfway between the addresses of her old and new work. She died there on July 11, 1978 after a serious illness. Three days later she was cremated at the Daelwijck cemetery in Utrecht.

Maurice van Lieshout



Blaman, Anna, Ik schrijf het je grof-eerlijk. Briefwisseling met Emmy van Lokhorst en Sonja Witstein. Ingeleid en bezorgd door Aad Meinderts (Amsterdam 1988).

Boon, Els, en Han Lentinck, Joods Utrecht (Utrecht 2022).

Durlacher, Gerhard. ‘Sonja’, in: Verzameld Werk (Amsterdam 1997) 438-473.

Meinderts, Aad, ‘Is dit ernst of flirt? Vier brieven van Sonja Witstein aan Anna Blaman, 1950-1951’, Jaarboek Letterkundig Museum 5 (1996) 99-105.

Sas, René t’, ‘Begrensd door wanhoop. Bekentenis aan Julien Delande, novelle van Sonja Witstein herontdekt’, Vrij Nederland Boekenbijlage 1 november 1986, 3-4, 16.

Stamperius, Hannemieke, ‘ “Ik stel mij tevreden met een kleine kring”. Over Sonja Witstein, in: Margriet Prinssen en Lucie Th. Vermij (samenstelling en redactie), Schrijfsters in de jaren vijftig (Amsterdam 1991) 211-218.

Valk,  Arno van der, ‘Sonja Witstein, hoogleraar letterkunde en schrijfster’, in: Els Kloek (samenstelling), 1001 vrouwen in de 20ste eeuw (Nijmegen 2018) 1104-1106.

Witstein, Sonja, Bekentenis aan Julien Delande. Met een nawoord door Aad Meinderts. 2e dr. (‘s-Gravenhage 1986).



Sonja Witstein ca 1947, Literatuurmuseum

Anna Blaman ca 1952, Literatuurmuseum

Omslag herdruk Bekentenis aan Julien Delande uit 1986, particuliere collectie

Sonja Witstein ca 1970, Literatuurmuseum