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  • Writer's pictureMaria Flori

From Prison Village to Urban Leader. The Remarkable Journey of Roelof Eleveld

Roelof Eleveld (65), our protagonist, shares his memories of growing up in an environment with unique advantages and challenges, a prison village, Veenhuizen.

Click on me if you want to learn the history of the prison village

Far from the idyllic scene of Veenhuizen in the hectic life of Rotterdam is where I met Eleveld. He kindly offered me coffee and showed me to his office, with his courteous manners evident to the staff. His well-rounded education and highly authoritative position were hidden behind the figure of a humble man.

Roelof Eleveld at his office in Rotterdam

Despite his busy schedule, he wasn't rushing into anything. He took his time and invited me on a trip back in time, vividly reminiscing his early life in the rural scenery of the prison village, far away from the noise of the fast-paced life of the big city.

A Childhood in a Unique Environment

"Early life was very nice actually because you had a lot of space in the village, but it was special because it was a closed village," Roelof reminisces. His childhood was marked by both endless space and remoteness. Back in the 60s, he felt as if he was living in a bubble experiencing what he thought as freedom in an isolated community. Its entry was restricted only to those with jobs, just like Eleveld’s grandfather and father, who were prison guards.

“We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either,” says Eleveld. His family lived in a house with a lawn in the front and large forest at the back providing endless possibilities for play with his siblings. "It was a healthy life... we had our food from our own garden," Rule recalls. People exchanged vegetables, fruits, and other products with each other, ensuring that everyone had enough. This self-sufficiency and healthy diet were integral parts of his childhood.

Growing up in a village like that, Eleveld speaks fondly of the sense of community. This was the hub for various activities, from music lessons to sports, fostering a pleasant environment. The autonomy, mutual support, and warm interactions left an impression on him. "I think the second, third positive part was that it was a bit of a warm community... that's the positive part," he says.

Re-anacting Eleveld's childhood. Scenes from Veenhuizen 2024

Yet, beneath this landscape that seemed to pop out of a 19th-century painting, lies a different aspect of the village. The community is built around criminals serving their time. Especially at that time after World War II where all five prisons were filled with war criminals, mostly Germans. “Prisoners were around us…we had a gardener, someone else was working for the farms, or painters or for constructions,” Eleveld naturally shares.

Prison Uprising

One of the most dramatic memories from Eleveld’s childhood was a prison uprising. While it was a tense situation, his brother and him found it exciting. The event itself serves as an example of how through a child's naive eyes, they failed to fully understand the unique nature of living in a village next to prisons.

“Other students were curious about the prison village, but for us, it was completely normal,” says Eleveld. The isolation of a village life provided him with plenty of time for reading, playing the music and studying which eventually contributed fruitfully to his later academic career. He managed to get two university degrees, attributing his success to the discipline he got from growing up in the village.

Challenges and Sexual Orientation

“And if I could say a negative part, when I was about 15, 16, you want to meet the world. And there, I discovered that we were pretty isolated,” he sighs.

It wasn’t until he left Veenhuizen for the city that Eleveld felt the freedom to speak out about his identity. The conservative environment made it difficult for him to explore and express his true self. In the small village, there was little to no acceptance of homosexuality. This became evident when another boy from the village, suspected to be homosexual, committed suicide.

"In the village, there was no room for difference," he recalls. With less than 1.000 residents, news could spread like wildfire and the messenger could appear rather gossipy,making it difficult for Eleveld to live openly.

Looking back at that specific time, there is a sense of gratitude for the supportive environment provided by his family. With whom he moved to the Hague, embarking on a journey that would lead him far from the quiet streets of Veenhuizen.

"Growing up in Veenhuizen shaped my values," he says. The sense of community and the importance of support systems are lessons he carries with him. These values influence his work today, both as a teacher and a politician to this day.

Every once in a while he returns to there with a mix of nostalgia, bringing him closer to his ancestors and his childhood. "Once or twice a year, I go back, take a hotel room, and walk or bike around. I love the natural environment," they reflect. "But the village has changed. Other people with different cultures live there now, and I don’t know if I would fit in."

Eleveld’s journey from Veenhuizen to the urban stage is a story of contrasts—between rural and urban, isolation and acceptance, past and present.His story highlights self-preservation, discipline, the importance of community, and the continuous pursuit of freedom. And with that, we come closer to a unique part of Dutch history and a remarkable individual that was shaped by it.

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