An extraordinary love story
‘Sonny Boy’, the title of an Al Jolson song from 1928, was the nickname given to Waldemar Nods and Rika van der Lans’ little boy. 1928 was the year their impossible love began, a love they kept alive against all the odds. The contrast could not have been greater: Waldemar was a seriousminded black student from Paramaribo in Surinam, not yet twenty, son of a gold prospector and grandson of a woman who had yet to free herself from the chains of slavery; Rika was the daughter of a Catholic potato wholesaler, warm-hearted and obstinate, a married mother of four, approaching forty when they met. She was his landlady. When he moved in she had only just left her husband and was penniless, living with her children in a tiny rented apartment in The Hague.
Drawing on archives, correspondence and interviews with family members, Annejet van der Zijl has reconstructed their astonishing love story. When Rika became pregnant the scandal was complete; her own family responded no less harshly than the outside world. Didn’t Waldemar came from a culture where male fidelity was notoriously lacking? And who would look after the moski moski, as the Surinamese would call him, the little brown-skinned boy with dark curls and blue eyes? They had no work, no money, no friends, and the Depression had begun. Perhaps hardest of all, Rika lost her other children after a fierce battle in which her husband was awarded custody.
Contrary to all expectations, the ‘impossible’ but hard-working and harmonious couple managed to create a prosperous business that generated a good income. Under Waldemar and Rika’s unconventional management, Pension Walda became a favourite haunt of revue artistes, colonials on leave from the East Indies, and German seaside holidaymakers. But Sonny Boy is more than just a love story. It describes the everyday racism of the 1930s and the horrors of Nazism. When Pension Walda was requisitioned by the Germans during the occupation, Waldemar and Rika moved to a house where they soon had guests of a different kind: Jews in hiding. In 1944 they were betrayed and arrested. Both died in captivity.
Sonny Boy, in whom they invested all their desperate hopes and dreams, was left behind, alone. Annejet van der Zijl has done an excellent job of interweaving the personal history of one specific couple with the larger mainstream history of crisis, war and betrayal.