Public Diplomat Joseph Kleijntjens - By S. Barten S.J.

Edited and translated from the original by Jim Braafhart

The previous story of this triptych dealt with the economic connection between Latvia and the Netherlands, and the dangers of doing business without the proper research. Our next story shows a more human connection between our the Netherlands and Latvia through the figure of Jean Chretien Joseph Kleijntjens. His curiosity and love for humanity took him across the continent where he helped build the ties between peoples of different nations and backgrounds, something which could be considered a kind of public diplomacy avant la lettre.

Jean Chretien Joseph Kleijntjens was born on the 3rd of March 1876 in the Dutch city of Maastricht. He spent his childhood in this city and finished his pre-university education there. When he was seventeen, he became a Jesuit and started his education at the seminary to eventually become a priest. Once he had done so, he was given the assignment by the Church authorities to start his schooling to become a teacher in history. This path fit him so well that next to being a successful teacher, he also managed to have an influence on Catholic education of history through the publication of a number of textbooks. These books, published with in cooperation with Prof. Dr. H.F.M. Huijbers, a prominent Catholic historian, saw an impressive amount of editions in the early twentieth century.

But Mr. Kleijntjens was not just very capable in regards to education, he was also passionately involved in historical research. The publication of his books happened almost simultaneously with the onset of his research activities. In cooperation with the then municipal archivist of Nijmegen, H.D.J. van Schevichaven, and Ms. L. Sormani, Kleijntjens released an eight-part work on the city’s financial accounts. These documents do not only give us an insight into the finances of Nijmegen, but also into the political and economic contacts, cultural developments and social aspects like labor and wages. For such merits, at the age of thirty-five, Mr. Kleijntjens was elected to membership of the prestigious and exclusive Dutch Society for Literature.

Print from a historical textbook published by Kleijntjens

The start of the First World War brought out one of Joseph’s most characteristic qualities, his love for his fellow humans. He was soon involved in organizing the operation to receive and care for the thousands of Belgian refugees that fled the horrors of the war in their country. The Netherlands remained neutral during the entirety of the conflict and was therefore able to welcome many of their Southern neighbors and ensure their safety. Many of them arrived in Nijmegen where Joseph Kleijntjens was a teacher and he showed great care and empathy in his humanitarian work.

However, his educational and scientific efforts were seriously affected by these good deeds, so it was decided that his potential was better put to use somewhere else. He was transferred to a college in Katwijk aan de Rijn, where he benefitted from the existing scientific circles and the greater access to libraries and archives for his research. His voluminous production of articles in newspapers and magazines domestically and abroad would from then on become a reality.

'Refugees from Belgium' by Leo Gestel, 1914

Next to being a scientist, he also remained a highly-respected teacher. He was known for being able to switch from giving a tiring symposium to lectured gentlemen, to explaining the catechism in a plain and simple manner to his more humble students. His impulsive behavior might have estranged some of his potential followers, but his incorrigible readiness to help his fellow man attracted them all the more. Because of this, he managed to create and maintain a broad network of contacts that helped him find an occupation for many unemployed intellectuals during the Great Depression.

The international career of Mr. Kleijntjens starts in 1925 when Bishop L. Schioppa became the internuncio in the Netherlands. An internuncio is the representative of the Papacy abroad, usually appointed as an interim representative until a nuncio is appointed. Mgr. L Schioppa believed he would benefit from the aid of a Dutch secretary, and Kleijntjens was proposed as the perfect candidate. This did entail the end of his teaching career, but he continued giving the occasional lesson nonetheless. His research activities on the other hand were actually given a boost, because, as secretary to the Papal nuncio, he was able to make long and far-reaching journeys. He made use of these travels to dig through archives and libraries in all over Europe.

After ten years, the curtain also fell on his career as clerical diplomat. His merits in the field of historical research had been recognized by the Papal authorities in Rome and he was invited to join the college of historians where he could dedicate his time to the pursuit of science. Here his focus shifted to Eastern Europe and particularly to the state of Latvia. He took on the impressive task of publishing the Litterae Annuae of the Latvian Jesuit order. These documents are like yearly reviews of regional developments that were sent to the headquarters of the Jesuit order in Rome. After some years of in-depth studying of these primary historical accounts, he offered the fruit of his labors to the Latvian Government. The Latvians were so impressed and honored that they provided the funding for the publication of the work. This study therefore also became the cause of a long term stay of Mr. Kleijntjens in independent Latvia until the Second World War brought an end to his mission.

©Latvijas Valsts arhīva, 2250
Consecration of the flag in Latvian refugee camp „Saule“, 1946

The Soviet Union occupied the independent Latvian state and our protagonist saw himself forced to return to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, he was unable to put as much time into his studies as he would have liked, also because he had to keep a low profile during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. After the liberation in 1945, he managed to recover his former productivity and his interest in Latvia had not waned during the turbulent years of war. It was his intention to travel back to Latvia to continue his work there, but this was unfortunately not possible. Instead, he made himself useful by investigating documents in Germany. During this work, he came into contact with many displaced persons from Eastern Europe who had fled westward to find refuge from the destruction of war. The misery and woes of these people re-awakened the priest’s passion for humanitarian work. Many of the people he helped are still grateful for his selfless efforts to help them in their times of need. He would fill the rest of his days with helping those who suffered from the terrible scourge of war.

On the 10th of November 1950 in ‘s Gravenhage, Joseph Kleijntjens suffered a stroke and thus ended his productive and laborious life. He lived to the age of seventy four. Mr. Kleijntjens was a very productive writer, many of his numerous contributions to newspapers and magazines have survived to the present day. These writings can be found not just in the Netherlands, but also in various other countries such as Latvia and Lithuania, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Poland and Switzerland. Baltic examples of his prolific writing career are contributions to the magazines Židinys (Kaunas), Athenaeum (Kaunas), Senatu un Maksla (Riga), Latvijas Vestures Institutum Žurnals (Riga), as well as to the Latvian Encyclopedia.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kleijntjens was a jack of all trades who worked his whole life to help others and to expand the breadth of human knowledge. Fueled by his empathetic character and curiosity, he helped to bring people from different nations and backgrounds together. Next to his formal clerical, diplomatic career, he played a role as an informal diplomat for the greater part of his life. The Embassy of the Netherlands in Riga appreciates this kind of story of former ‘diplomats’ improving the ties between our countries. This story was first published in Dutch in the ‘Baltische Wijzer’, number 104. If you would like to contribute a similar historic account, feel free to contact us.