Johan van Hulst

On March 22 Johan van Hulst died in Amsterdam at the age of 107. He was a member of my chess club, Caissa, and until a few weeks before his death, an enthusiastic player. However, in his long and fruitful life, he had also been a university professor of pedagogy and a prominent politician. Most importantly, during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, he had been able to save hundreds of Jewish children from deportation and death.

He was a good player. In his best years he was never among the strongest Dutch players, but he could compete with them. In the 1930’s, the Dutch federation asked him if he would play in the qualification tournament for the Dutch championship and if he would be available to play in the Warsaw Olympiad of 1935.

Van Hulst played in the qualification tournament, but he didn’t want to play in the championship or in the Olympiad, not yet knowing that the Netherlands wouldn’t take part at Warsaw anyway. He was a school teacher and apart from that, he had to take university examinations. He couldn’t combine it with so much chess.

That’s how it would be for the rest of his life. In 2011, when he had turned 100, his club produced a book about him with the title Johan van Hulst, Een leven lang schaak als sublieme bijzaak (A Lifetime of Chess as a Sublime Sideshow).

During World War II, when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany, he was director of a training school for prospective teachers in Amsterdam. Opposite the school was the Hollandse Schouwburg, a former theater that was then used as a detention center for Jews who were rounded up to be sent to concentration camps. Next to the school was a crèche for their young children, who would be reunited with their parents when they would be sent to their doom in eastern Europe.

The school and the crèche were separated only by a hedge. Children from the crèche could be handed to helpers in the school and from there brought into hiding at other addresses. After Van Hulst’s death, the British BBC had a long obituary with details about the rescue operations and the excruciating dilemmas when only a limited number of children could be rescued and ghastly choices would have to be made.

The link is

Near the end of the war, Van Hulst was sentenced to death. Sentenced in absence, as he had been warned and gone into hiding.

As he said later in an interview, after the war he had shed his wartime experiences like dirty clothes. He didn’t want to hear about them and pursued his career as a professor of pedagogy at one of the two Amsterdam universities and later as an influential politician. In the Dutch Senate, he was a longtime chairman of the group of Christian Democrats in the period when that party was the backbone of every Dutch government.

He was deeply religious and in politics a conservative; the opposite of a fanatic, as he knew that politics was not the highest realm of life. When around 1970 his university was occupied by rebel students, he gave a simul for them and made them promise to water the plants when they had the building for their own.

Some colleagues were critical of this behavior and later Van Hulst commented on their criticism: “It was jealousy. It’s always good to be on the right side of jealousy.”

He kept playing chess and I remember that he told some fellow members of our club about an incident in 2010 when he was 99 years old and still able to come to the club on his own. Late at night on his way back, he had crossed a road near his apartment. There were no cars in sight, but the pedestrian traffic light had been on red.

Suddenly a policeman had turned up, taking him to account as a traffic offender and preparing to write a ticket.

Dutch pedestrian traffic lights show a little man, red or green. “That little man is there for me, not the opposite way,” had Van Hulst protested.

The policeman asked for his age and Van Hulst said that he was 99. The policeman didn’t believe him. Van Hulst showed his identity card and threatened to file a complaint because he had been called a liar. The policeman, understandably intimidated by the combative old man, backed off. At the club, Van Hulst had much fun telling this little episode.

When I met him, I sometimes said, “Hello professor, still above ground?” I knew he liked that, people marveling at his longevity. After he had passed 100, his bodily health deteriorated gravely, but his mind remained sharp.

I think 2011 was the last year that he participated, at the age of 100, in the Tata Steel tournament in the group of former members of Dutch parliament. But in later years he kept coming there as a guest of honor and even this year, like every year, he gave a humorous speech at the final dinner.

At his funeral, Jan Nagel, a fellow chess-loving politician, told me that only a few weeks earlier he had still played chess with him as part of a match that had stretched over the years. Van Hulst had been a conservative, Nagel a lefty, but of course at the board, that didn’t matter.

He had long been reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences, but approaching the end of his life he gave some interviews. In one of these he said that since the war, the faces of the children had been with him every day. I think it obvious that he did not mean the hundreds of children that he had helped saving, but the many more that he had not been able to save. This was the burden of those who had heroically acted during the German occupation, and knew that they had saved lives, but that many more lives were lost.

In the viewer there are two games that Van Hulst played in simuls. The game against Karpov is quite interesting, that against Euwe less so. In both games he agreed to a draw in a superior or even winning position. I think it was because he hated losing.

Click here to play through the games:

Euwe-Van Hulst, Simul, 1976
Karpov-Van Hulst, Simul, 1979