A tale of two cities

Bath – l know – is very proud of its links with the Dutch city of Alkmaar and boasts a town twinning association that can proudly claim over 70 years of friendship between the two communities – a bond formed straight after the second world war.

How it came into being can now be explained in a new book – just published – called The Remarkable Journey of Mr Prins: WWII, Jewish Refugees and the Bath-Alkmaar Friendship.

Profile pic Aletta Stevens
Aletta Stevens.

It’s written by Aletta Stevens – a writer and professional translator – who was raised in Holland and graduated in English Language from the University of Sheffield. Married to an Englishman, she has two grown-up children and lives in Wiltshire.

The book has been published in Bath with the financial support of the Trustees of the City of Bath and members of the Rotary Club of Bath, with a Foreword by Chris Davies, the Chairman of the Bath-Alkmaar Twinning Association.

I know Aletta and everyone is thrilled that the publishers and printers managed to get the book out – despite the current crisis.

Because l am in ‘lockdown’ l haven’t been able to do my normal video interview so, instead, l asked Aletta to answer some set questions sent to her.

Here is our ‘Q and A’ session in full!

What’s the book about?

The book is about escape, war and friendship. It is the story of Eli Prins, a Dutch Jew who in 1940 escaped by boat to England as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. He came to Bath, because his sister was living here. At the end of WWII, during the Dutch Famine, Eli Prins and the Rotary Club of Bath started a fundraising campaign to help his hometown of Alkmaar and its children. This led to a friendship and eventually to the twinning of Bath and Alkmaar. 

image

How did you come to write it?

I was struck by a vintage photograph of Dutch children in Bath tweeted by the Bath Chronicle in 2016. Intrigued, I got in touch with the Bath-Alkmaar Twinning Association and became a member, later a committee member. I began to research the history and made contact with Eli Prins’s son, after which I had enough material for a book. I felt uniquely placed to write it. I was brought up in Holland, studied in England and have lived just outside Bath for more than thirty years. I had just written a book about my Dutch uncle who was killed in Holland in WW2, and so had done a lot of research into that particular subject. As a professional translator, I was able to access Dutch sources and render them into English.

How did you write it?
By making a reconstruction of the first-hand accounts of refugees who escaped on the same boat; by recording personal testimonies and using diaries and other unpublished sources to paint a picture of the war in Bath and Alkmaar; by reading the handwritten letters of Eli Prins’s parents from the Amsterdam ghetto; and by tracking the Adoption of Alkmaar Appeal through the Mayor’s correspondence and reports in the Bath Chronicle of 1945/46.

Why do you think this twinning has been so successful?

I think it is because it is more than a twinning, it is a bond that was born out of true solidarity at a time of dire need. Alkmaar was terrorised, robbed and starved by the Nazis, and Bath came to its rescue with a kind of unconditional love and an incredible generosity, especially in wartime. Alkmaar will always be deeply grateful to Bath for that, just as the Dutch will always be grateful to the British for liberating them. The occupation is still an emotional subject for the Dutch.

What do you hope your book will achieve?

I hope that my book will explain how the Bath-Alkmaar twinning came about by showing how and why Eli Prins escaped, how each city experienced the war in a different way, and how out of persecution and deprivation came a friendship that has lasted 75 years. More than that, the book is intended as an act of remembrance for the Jews of Alkmaar who perished, in particular the parents and brother of Eli Prins.

Bath's Dutch twin city, Alkmaar
Bath’s Dutch twin city, Alkmaar

What does it mean to you?

For me, this is a profoundly touching and uplifting story for several reasons. On a personal level, it brings together the country of my childhood with the country of my adulthood and takes me back to the period in which my Dutch uncle was killed. On a local and international level, it is a perfect example of European cooperation before the European Union was founded and one that has the power to transcend any political landscape. 

The Remarkable Journey of Mr Prins: WWII, Jewish Refugees and the Bath-Alkmaar Friendship is published in Bath by Brown Dog Books. Paperback and e-book available from amazon.co.uk and signed copies available from the author’s website with 20% discount: www.alettastevens.co.uk

Aletta Stevens is also the author of Looking for Uncle Joop: A Long-Lost Story from Nazi-Occupied Holland (London: Ashgrove, 2017).