For years Hollerado singer Menno Versteeg has had a fantastic story to tell about family, war, forgiveness and incredible humanity in the face of impossible adversity.
On the Toronto band's second full-length release "White Paint," he finally told it, while also adding a personal epilogue just as unlikely as the relationship his grandfather once had with his wartime enemy.
In our premiere of the longform video for "So It Goes" embedded below, the singer relates the tale of his grandfather Karel Versteeg, an active member of the Dutch resistance during WWII who survived thanks to an act of surprising clemency offered by a Nazi SS officer.
Interview continues after the video
After his capture in Leiden in 1942, Karel Versteeg was imprisoned in the "Oranjehotel" in Scheveningen, where many Dutch resistance fighters were imprisoned — and where some were executed. It was also where other prisoners —mostly Jews — were held before being sent to away concentration camps. It is most likely that "inmates" of the Oranjehotel were sent to Mauthausen, an "extermination through labour" camp, in Austria. (About 80 per cent of the Jewish population in this area around The Hague were deported and most killed.)
The singer tells The Huffington Post that his grandfather was imprisoned rather than executed after a soldier-to-soldier conversation with his captor, a career policeman who became head of German counterintelligence in the (occupied) Netherlands around 1940.
“He wasn't killed because of the guy in charge of counter-resistance — he knew that my grandfather was a pretty big deal in the resistance, and so right away he wanted to meet him. He was intending to kill him, apparently, as that was the protocol."
But as Versteeg elaborates in the documentary preamble preceding the music video for "So It Goes," his grandfather said, "If you were in the same situation that I'm in, if your country has just been occupied by another country, if your city was Rotterdam and it was on fire, if it had just been leveled to the ground, what would you do?' And the German officer said to him, 'I would do the exact same thing as you're doing. I would fight back.'"
So instead of being executed, Karel Versteeg was held in solitary confinement in the Oranjehotel for two years, eventually released in 1944. In 1946, he used his life to save the life of the very person who spared him by testifying on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal and explaining the circumstances of his own imprisonment. According to the story, the Nazi officer walked free in strong part due to Karel Versteeg's testimony.
Menno said the two men developed a mutual respect for each other upon meeting, a driving force behind Karel Versteeg being imprisoned rather than killed.
"That's what my grandfather said about [the German officer] — that he wasn't a bad guy, that he was a guy doing his job stuck in a shitty situation."
Putting aside the narrative, we asked the Hollerado frontman why he thought his grandfather's life was spared — something that likely would not have happened if he were Jewish, homosexual or a gypsy.
"I don't know. I've never really, really thought about it. I guess it was just a 'I wouldn't want to be killed in this situation.' I think [the German officer] was compassionate. It's so hard to speculate, but it’s interesting to speculate.
"So It Goes" was written when Menno learned of his grandfather's death in 2011. It is a testament to a great story, but also to the man the singer referred to as "one of my closest friends, and one of my role models."
The day his grandfather died, the songwriter said he began putting words to paper.
"I actually wrote a poem, which was so lame," he explained, "just about how fleeting our time here on Earth is, and how magnificent every little detail is. I started thinking about the stories that make up every little thing." Menno knew that he had to tell a story about his grandfather's life, and, unsurprisingly, the Oranjehotel story was what featured most prominently in his mind.
"His life was so fantastic and up and down," Menno said of his grandfather. "The things that he went through; he was the toughest man I ever met, and he bellyached about crappy wine, or he'd bellyache about some person who was giving him a hard time, but he would never complain about the things he had a right to complain about."
When it came time to film the video for "So It Goes," the idea was conceived to film it in Holland at locations including the tiny Oranjehotel cell that Karel Versteeg spent years locked up in.
"It was unbelievable, being in that room," Menno said, pausing briefly to reflect on the words "keep going" tattooed on the inside of his left arm — his grandfather's wisdom etched upon his body in indelible ink. "I don’t want to sound cliché about it, but it was something bigger than myself being in that room. I tried to put myself in his shoes just sitting there, and it was like, wow, I can't imagine being put in prison for fighting for your freedom."
Of the ethical dilemma presented by the story — choosing to somewhat celebrate the life of a man who was either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of many during WWII — Menno seemed stuck. He repeatedly referred to "one of the darkest moments in modern history" and/or "of human history." And, while he noted that "there were truly evil people" — the suggestion being that the Nazi officer who, in essence, saved his grandfather was one of them — he also referred to the "impossibility of understanding where anyone was coming from."
"This song is about a moment of hope in a horrible time," he continued. "The song I wrote focuses on the forgiveness, because that is what I am grateful for. All I can do is focus on that. That is what [has] allowed me to live."
During this European sojourn, the last chapter of this incredible story took place. With assistance from the Dutch government, Menno tracked down the grandson of the Nazi officer [the full names of the German officer and his grandson have been redacted at the request of both families] and sought a meeting. The phone conversation that led to this meet-up and parts of the meet-up itself are detailed in the intro to the longform "So It Goes" video.
"At first he was very cautious," Menno said, referencing the conversations that led to meeting his grandfather's savior's grandson.
"He didn't know what I was about. I explained to him that this story is about what happened, for sure, but my desire to meet him was very much...I wanted to meet this person who, we would not be alive were it not for this giant act of forgiveness.
“At first he didn't [want to meet up], but then I told him it was about me and him having a drink together, and getting to know each other, and becoming friends. Because why not?"
The ten-minute video, which includes the grandsons' eventual encounter, continues Hollerado's history of outstanding music videos. However, unlike the deservedly praised efforts for "Juliette" and "Americanarama" — both of which were creative, funny and a little weird — the video for "So It Goes" exists to strengthen the songwriting rather than to go viral.
"I wanted to tell a story. When you have an electric guitar these days, people don’t take you [seriously] as a singer/songwriter. You have to have an acoustic guitar and be like [adopts hilarious bard voice]: 'listen to my lyrics.' "Our band is not known for the lyrics, it's not ever been a thing that people talk about, but I put a lot of thought into the lyrics. I like to tell stories, and so I kind of thought [of doing the extended video] because this was a story I really wanted to be told. I wanted people to hear what was going on in the story instead of just listening to the song and being like, 'Upbeat! Catchy! So it goes! Woo!'
"We get written off because we're a poppy, fun, party band and I wanted to make it clear: please read these lyrics, please check it out. This is an important story."