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5 questions for Rosa de Jong


In our ‘5 questions for’ section, we talk to interesting people and dive deeper into the field of oral history. Rosa de Jong is a historian at the University of Amsterdam and researches refugees to the Caribbean during World War II.


1/ Can you (briefly) introduce yourself?

“I am doing my PhD at the UvA on refugees who escaped from the Low Countries to the Caribbean during World War II. They arrived mainly in Suriname, Curaçao, Jamaica and Cuba. This research is funded by NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) and I was a fellow at the USHMM (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) in Washington DC for eight months last year. Before starting my PhD, I was working as a junior researcher at the KITLV (Royal Institute for Language, Land and Ethnology) among other things on the research project on the colonial past of the city of Rotterdam.”

Please note that this research is funded by NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research).


2/ You are doing research on refugees who fled from the Netherlands to the Caribbean during World War II. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

“I am in the final stage of the research: writing. In about a year, the dissertation will be finished if all goes well. I follow the many hundreds of mainly Jewish refugees who travelled from the Netherlands to the Caribbean via Spanish and Portuguese ports aboard various ships. Almost all of them were (temporarily) interned there, but they also survived the war that way. My research extends into the 1950s to see where they ended up after this flight. The pandemic prevented me from making all the trips necessary for the research. But fortunately, only Cuba dropped out: I was able to do research in archives in Suriname, Jamaica and Curaçao. It is so important to visit the places you write about yourself.”


3/ Do you apply the oral history method in this research? If so, can you tell us a bit more about it?

“Definitely! Oral history is very important for my research. I was still able to track down and speak to quite a lot of eyewitnesses, which is extraordinary for an event so long ago. All the eyewitnesses I interviewed were logically children or teenagers during the flight, but some still had very clear memories. For example, they remembered exactly what it was like on board the ship that took them across the ocean or what they were thinking on arrival in the colonies. In addition, I also use recorded interviews from the 1990s, which provide other insights.”


4/ What do you think is the value of oral history within the research world?

“I think the value of interviews is still sometimes underestimated. There is rightly a lot of debate about the distortion of memories and the accuracy of facts, especially so long after the fact. But a lot can also be answered correctly through interviews. For instance, the effect of the flight on subsequent lives or how the eyewitnesses themselves give meaning to what happened to their families.”


5/ How did the interviews you conducted for your research go?”

“Very different. For some eyewitnesses, I was the first to ask them about their war history. They were surprised that someone was researching their family history and were not sure what to make of it. Sometimes it took a while before they were convinced that I was really interested. While others were happy that “the academy” was finally showing interest in this unknown history. A few had told their story before, for instance in schools. This provided a different interview experience because the story was already a bit more “fixed” in a narrative. Moreover, sometimes they still owned a whole bunch of letters, photo albums or even diaries from that time. All in all, eyewitnesses are invaluable to my research.”


Read more about Rosa’s refugee research in an article for War Resources.