Engelschman was born on November 12, 1913, in Amsterdam. He was the son of the traveling salesman Nathan Engelschman and Hendrika van der Star and the eldest of their five sons. He spent his primary school years in Amersfoort, after which the family returned to Amsterdam. He came from a "mixed" marriage; his father came from a Jewish family of merchants and his mother came from a Lutheran middle-class background. Both were neither religiously nor politically engaged. Due to the crisis years it was not possible for Engelschman to attend secondary school, and at the age of thirteen, he started working as the youngest servant at an import company that organized goods transport to and from the former Dutch East Indies. He worked there from 1926 to 1942.
Politics and early activism
Engelschman became socially involved through his work during the crisis years and poverty during his youth and first became a member of the trade union for office workers "Mercurius". He read works by Karl Marx and Lev Trotsky and in 1927 joined the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale and the Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij (SDAP).
Later, in 1935, he would join the more radical communist movement of the Leninistische Jeugd Garde. Here, he became secretary of the national board and also editor of a number of magazines, Arbeidersjeugd, De Jonge Leninist and De Rood Gardist. He participated in actions and demonstrations against youth unemployment and the policy of the conservative Colijn administration. In 1936, he wrote the booklet "Aanslag op de 160.000" - which referred to the number of youth unemployed. He also wrote the one-act play "Fascistische Terreur" in that year for performance at the theater club of the Leninistische Jeugd Garde. The play was about the fascist regimes and their misdeeds in Europe.
World War II and homosexuality
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Engelschman and his brother joined the resistance. At home with their parents, they made illegal door-to-door papers. From January 1941, the illegal magazine "De Vonk" was stenciled there. The editors later met in the house that Engelschman moved into in 1943; the basement of Keizersgracht 518 in Amsterdam. During the war, Engelschman stayed at various addresses to avoid arrest, both at home with his mother and with friends. In addition to the production and distribution of magazines, Engelschman and his brother also helped Jewish friends and acquaintances find hiding places.
In 1942, Engelschman enrolled at the Theater School in Amsterdam. Although he was not formally Jewish, the school did not dare to accept the training. However, he was allowed to join them informally for some time. He then took acting lessons with Louis van Gasteren and Louis Saalborn. He made his living during the last two years of the war by performing illegal plays in his home.
While Engelschman had crushes on other boys during the resistance, he only came to the realization that he was gay after he turned 24. He began to delve into the subject and read books on homosexuality. He came into contact with Jacob Schorer, who fought through his Nederlandsch Wetenschappelijk Humanitair Komitee (NWHK) against the legal ban on homosexual acts. However, he did not agree with the tactics of the somewhat elitist Schorer. Engelschman was mainly concerned with social deprivation. He started to participate in the emancipation of homosexuals and quit his other social activities.
Engelschman decided to continue the emancipation struggle for homosexuals. The magazine Levensrecht made a new start in September of that year, and from its readership the Shakespeare Club was born; the first Dutch association by –and for– gays. On December 7, 1946, the first meeting of the association was called: Cultuur en ontspanningscentrum. Engelschman saw The COC as a social emancipation movement.
He based himself on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations had drawn up in 1948. Homosexuals should be able to be full, equal and respected citizens in public. In every New Year's speech he gave, Engelschman spoke about equality and equated discrimination based on sexual orientation with discrimination based on origin, sex or race. He argued for equality before the law in all kinds of areas for homosexuals, the removal of discriminatory provisions, the elimination of prejudices. He also advocated scientific research into homosexuality. Together with Jaap van Leeuwen, he introduced the word 'homophilia' in 1949.
For nineteen years, Engelschman was the face of the COC, under his pseudonym Bob Angelo. He was director of the bureau, editor of the magazine Vriendschap and president of the association. When he retired in 1962, he was named honorary president.
In 1959, he was part of the "Studio" theater company, which performed modern pieces on stage under the direction of Kees van Iersel. On television he played in the youth series Floris van de NOS. He also had film roles in "Geen Paniek" (1973), "Keetje Tippel" (1975) and "Het Verleden" (1982) and he was regularly seen in supporting roles in various television series.
- Engelschman has a street named after him in the city of Nijmegen, the Niek Engelschmanlaan.