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《TAIPEI TIMES》Book’s translation details fate of Selma Vos

Selma author Carolijn Visser of the Netherlands speaks at the International Book Exhibition in Taipei yesterday.
Photo: CNA

Selma author Carolijn Visser of the Netherlands speaks at the International Book Exhibition in Taipei yesterday. Photo: CNA

2024/02/22 03:00

By Alison Hsiao / CNA

“Escaped from Hitler, a prisoner of Mao” is the subtitle that Dutch author Carolijn Visser gave to her biography Selma and a sad epithet embodying the irony and tragedy of the life of Selma Vos, who died during the Cultural Revolution.

The biography, first published in Dutch in 2017 and recently released in Taiwan after being translated into Chinese, was the idea of Vos’ children, Cao Zengyi (曹增義) and Cao Heli (曹何麗), who grew up in Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China before leaving the country in 1979.

It is one of the works being highlighted at this year’s International Book Exhibition in Taipei.

Visser gave a talk about the remarkable story of Vos and her family at the six-day fair yesterday afternoon.

Vos, born in 1921, survived the Nazis with her father, but her mother and other family members perished in the gas chambers of the Sobibor concentration camp in eastern Poland.

Still in her 20s at the end of World War II, Vos studied at Cambridge University, where she met her husband Cao Richang (曹日昌), a psychologist who became one of the founders of the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Cao and Vos moved to China in 1950 with great aspirations, but were persecuted and died in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution.


It was a story Vos and Cao Richang’s two children were keen to tell. They found an ideal partner in Visser, who has an interest in communist and post-communist societies, and in the early 1980s wrote a book about China after visiting the country.

“Zengyi heard my talk [in the Netherlands] about China in the 80s. He and his sister later attended more of my lecturers, and it was only after they retired did they approach me for the idea of a biography for their mother,” Visser said in an interview.

Cao Zengyi and Cao Heli first approached the author in 2008 with the idea, and work began in earnest in 2012.

Nakao Eki Pacidal, the book’s Chinese-language translator who spoke with reporters from the Netherlands, explained the motivation of Vos and Cao Richang’s children.

“Zengyi and Heli told me that many years after the incident, they found that no one living in their compound [home to families of CAS academics] had tried to document the events, so they assumed the task themselves, lest history be forgotten,” Nakao Eki Pacidal said.

Testing their memories as the book was being written “took an emotional toll on them, as they had to constantly go back” to their pasts, Visser said.

Although they knew the story, reading the Chinese version was still hard for them, because “Chinese is their native tongue,” Nakao Eki Pacidal said.


Vos’ children were the main source of the information in the book, but Visser also conducted interviews with many people, including the siblings’ childhood friends and members of the circle of foreigners who resided in China at the time.

The result is a story that chronicles the family’s daily life in calmer times, including trips to Beijing’s outskirts and Bedaihe, a resort town only privileged people could visit.

Inevitably, it also delves into the tensions that built as the Chinese regime launched one campaign after another, including a “small” one that resulted in the death of a neighbor’s husband and a major one that resulted in a nationwide famine.

At the same time, the family was always aware of being under the Chinese Communist Party’s watchful eye. For example, Cao Richang could not converse with a foreign academic without providing a written account of the conversation to authorities.

Vos was even afraid of a spy among her foreign friends.

Sidney Rittenberg was a loyal “friend of China,” Visser said.”

Rittenberg “felt honored to be a spy for the” Chinese government, he said, citing his book. “He may be traumatized [from his decade-long solitary confinement that started in 1968], but he made many victims.”

Another source for the book were the letters Vos wrote to her father, Max, which were taken out of China by Vos’ foreign friends and sent from a third country to provide a more honest picture of what was happening.

One of them, sent in September 1966, said that Cao Richang had been labeled as a reactionary academic authority and assigned cleaning work for two months.

It was a coincidence that might have sealed Vos’ fate, Visser said.

Until 1964, Dutch law required women who wanted to marry foreign citizens to relinquish their passport and switch to their husband’s nationality.

However, the law was amended and Vos regained her Dutch nationality in 1966 during a five-month stay in the Netherlands.

Although news of the turmoil caused by the Cultural Revolution caused Vos to hesitate about returning to China, she went back, but did so as a Chinese national, as a political incident between the Netherlands and China in 1966 meant Vos could not get a Chinese visa for her Dutch passport.

“This is a crucial difference [from other foreign spouses],” as the de facto Dutch embassy “could not act on her behalf,” Visser said.

Vos was incarcerated in March 1968 and died later that year, although the cause of her death has never been confirmed.

Cao Zengyi was told by the Red Guards that she “evaded her punishment,” a euphemism for suicide, the book says.


It was not until 2011 that the Institute of Psychology even mentioned Vos, when it published a collection of essays in celebration of the centenary of Cao Richang’s birth.

The essays, provided by Cao Zengyi, said that her husband was “rehabilitated and had regained his reputation,” but Nakao Eki Pacidal said that Cao Zengyi had told him the institute had no credibility, as it did not admit fault.

The institute could only describe what happened to Cao Richang in abstract terms, with an example being how the essays described his “sacrifice for science,” Visser said.

No monuments have been built in China to honor the victims of the Cultural Revolution, but monuments help keep memories alive, she said, calling her book “the monument for Selma.”

Cao Zengyi and Cao Heli hope that this “monument dedicated to Selma” would be seen by many people in Taiwan, Nakao Eki Pacidal said.

The message they want to convey is “that this is not simply something that happened 60 years ago, but something that until today has not been recognized,” she said.

“The regime has not changed. What it could do then can be done today. It serves Taiwan no good if this is not well understood as it is currently under the threat of China,” she added.


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