Stichting Kriterion: More than Cinema
We take a look at Stichting Kriterion - a Dutch movement created by anti-fascist students who helped hide and save countless Jewish children in occupied Amsterdam. The founder, Piet Meerburg, became a cinema exhibitor, film distributor and opened a film theatre in 1945. We spoke to Piet’s son, Krijn, about the impact of Kriterion and how the movement now has a network of art house cinemas in post-conflict cities across the globe, all connected by the same philosophy.
On Roetersstraat - a typically bike-laden Amsterdam street - not far from Oosterpark and across the road from a language school and university, there is a small independent cinema. Except for the bright-green, neon lights that adorn the facade, it’s a relatively unassuming space, with film fans, families and students going there to catch the latest art house and Hollywood releases. The cinema has three screens and there is a cafe at the front with a relaxed atmosphere: board games, coffee, beer. It’s called Kriterion.
This type of venue is not uncommon; Amsterdam is a city of cinemas. There is a vibrant and active scene of keen moviegoers who are blessed with a wide and varied range of film theatres. From the mighty and impressive Eye Film Museum - where over 700,000 people experience exhibitions, tours, screenings and presentations each year - to Pathé Tuschinski, a wonderfully extravagant tribute to cinema that incorporates Dutch architecture and Art Deco with a main auditorium that needs to be seen to be believed. In short, the Dutch do cinemas very well indeed.
Kriterion, however, is a unique and special cinema with a remarkable story that begins at the end of World War II. Following the German bombing of Rotterdam in 1940, the Netherlands was placed under German occupation. When the Nazi Army began deporting Jews to concentration camps, Piet Meerburg, a Dutch law student at the time, decided that he wouldn't sit back and watch the horrifying genocide unfold. Although the atrocities are well known, the statistics don’t cease to shock: in 1941, a census declared that there were some 140,000 Jews living in The Netherlands. By 1945, only 35,000 were still alive.
With help from a student organisation based in Utrecht, Meerburg was inspired to set up an Amsterdam-based collective known as the Amsterdam Student Group (ASG). It mainly consisted of students who had been forced to stop their studies - the occupation of the Dutch capital had meant that many could not continue. The resistancs group’s philosophy - born in the face of fascism - would have far-reaching consequences, the presence of which can still be felt today.
During this period, Meerburg contacted Philip Fiedeldij Dop. Dop was a paediatrician who was given, through contacts at the police, tip-offs about Jewish raids in the city. The two men struck up an alliance and were able to use their knowledge of the raids and the determination of the ASG to smuggle children to Utrecht or safer places in the city. Eventually, Meerburg managed to establish safe houses across the Netherlands. Their mission was highly dangerous: the pair would speak to the parents of the children and if agreed, a member of the ASG - couriers were always women - would take their child in an attempt to ensure their safety.
In one extraordinary instance, Meerburg and the ASG were able to make links with a crèche opposite the Hollandsche Schouwburg - a theatre that was being used as a deportation centre. Walter Süskind, a German Jew who had been appointed to manage the centre, had built a relationship with the Nazi officer in charge by speaking German, telling jokes and offering cigars and alcohol. It has been documented that he was so convincing, he was often accused of being a Nazi collaborator. Hiding behind the facade of aiding the regime, he began to manipulate records and smuggle children across from the deportation centre to the crèche. The number 9 tram that runs between the two buildings was used as a screen to hide the movement of children. Then, with the parents and staff of the crèche aware of the arrangement, when the children were outside or went for a walk, the would be taken by the ASG.
This remarkable act of defiance and bravery resulted in around 140 children being saved from the chrèche alone and it has been estimated that the Meerburg and ASG managed to safely hide as many as 350 Jewish children.
In the winter of 1945, towards the end of the war and after much of The Netherlands had been liberated, Meerburg (who was 25 at the time) established Stichting Kriterion. His foundation, based on the same ideals that underpinned the ASG, worked from a ‘flat’ organisational structure, designed to help students in being independent from their parents and the government for financial aid. And, on 6th November, his cinema on Roetersstraat opened its doors, screening to more than 200 film fans. Until his death in 2010 he continued to be involved in film, ensuring screenings of classics at Kriterion and working as an exhibitor, establishing the Dutch Historical Film Archive (Nederlands Historisch Film Archief).
When speaking to Krijn Meerburg, son of Piet, it’s clear that his father was passionate about giving students creative opportunities in a time where that privilege was scarce. He explained, ‘First and foremost he loved cinema. He was also always a very practical man. He knew that people would need money to study. There were, however, a few problems. Students had to be very independent through the war - there was no support from the government to help them study. They had to earn money. Piet and his friends looked for a property and within a year they managed to find the cinema. I cannot stress how important that time was; he made important friends and important decisions. They were looking for an opportunity to rebuild society. Since then, the idea has been and will always be the same.’
What's so impressive about the foundation is just that: the idea has stayed the same. Krijn is also clear on how the foundation is more than just a cinema: ’There was a time where it almost went wrong. The board - all ex-students - were going to sell the cinema but they managed to step in and stop it from happening. Now it's not the case. It’s still completely run by students and it’s become a community, not just a cinema.’
Although it's clear that Stichting Kriterion has kept its philosophy, it's had to adapt and evolve over the last 30 years. ’The one thing that has changed is that the programming of the cinema has input from others,’ Krijn explained. ‘I was involved in that role from 1994 - 2010. Before this, the students were doing it completely alone.’ Kriterion currently has two programmers, and they are still guided by ex-Kriterion members. ’Apart from that, ’ Krijn said, ’the system that was created in 1945 - it still works today.’
Jan-Pieter 't Hart, a 23-year-old student who currently works at the cinema, started without fully knowing the philosophy from which Kriterion had been built. He, like countless others, needed a job. ‘I didn’t realise it was more of an association than a company,’ he explained. His understanding of how Kriterion’s democratic outlook became clear over time. ‘Policy changes aren’t decided by a few managers. They go through a voting system. Everyone is able to make a contribution.’ Having worked there for over a year, the foundation has enabled him to develop skills in the PR department and through coordinating exhibitions.
Jan-Pieter discussed how the projects from Kriterion are varied and support a wide range of cultural issues: ’There's the yearly collaboration surrounding Pride Amsterdam, also an exciting set of events we held in March of this year called Project Femme.’ The programme - which aimed to break down gender and sex stereotypes - gave a range of lectures, workshops and film screenings. This was an example of the movement in full swing and how the foundation guides students through a creative project.
In Amsterdam, an eclectic range of projects now run with the same philosophy as Meerburg’s Kriterion. There is a restaurant, Skek, located near the Red Light District; two other popular and stylish art house cinemas - Studio K and The Uitkijk; a gas station and even a babysitting service (Oppascentrale Kriterion). All are linked through ideology, structure and outlook.
Kriterion has since grown further afield than Amsterdam. The Young Urban Achievers (a name that nods to the ’Little Lebowski Urban Achievers’ from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 classic The Big Lebowski) was founded by past members of Kriterion and has set up arthouse cinemas and projects in Sarajevo, Monrovia, Ramallah and has organised multiple events in Mitrovica.
Marthe Singelenberg, who worked at Kriterion for 6 years and is now a director of the YUA (a term she uses carefully - one that is for organisational purposes rather than a hierarchical statement), explained the reason for these locations: ’We work in post-conflict areas that are in a similar situation to Amsterdam in 1945 when Piet Meerburg founded Kriterion. The most important aspect is that we find areas that don't have enough opportunities for young people to work, they don't have labour market experience or their own space where they can express themselves. In these cities, the cinemas are mostly owned by multiplex giants. There is, therefore, a lack of spaces that promote independent culture. We have developed the projects with the young people and students from the areas. We help them create their own spaces for culture and entrepreneurship. These places are not subsidised, they are all self-sustainable businesses.’
Marthe also outlined the YUA’S commitment to providing opportunities for the students to link up and learn from each other. Each year, they head to the YUA headquarters in Amsterdam. Connecting these people from all over the world is seen as a vital experience for all involved, a chance to talk, learn and share with one another.
When you understand the full story behind Kriterion, you can’t help but be filled with admiration and respect for an organisation that works with a core value to support young people and students in their creative endeavours. Generating growth, development and innovation is at the heart of what they do. Projects and are not based on the amount of financial return they generate, but the possibility of giving creative experiences and work to other students.
Their message is promoted through their actions; they don’t preach or shout too loudly and money is not the objective. There is a true belief in the power of young people, their talents, intelligence and innovation - those that are shaped by the past and creating the future. TS
With thanks to: www.yadvashem.org / Jan-Pieter ‘t Hart / Krijn Meerburg / Marthe Singelenberg