Articles and Publications

A Real Dutch Treat

Originally published in Woodworker's Journal, April, 2000 — By Joanna Werch Takes

In the early 1940s, Nora (Leereveld) Hall was a young woman fresh out of a Dutch art academy, ready to go to work teaching high school drawing in Holland. Then World War II broke out, and everything changed.

Instead of teaching, Nora apprenticed to her carver father. He had her do "hundreds and hundreds of same direction cuts," according to Nora's son, Wendell Langeberg. "He taught her almost like an assembly line." Once she had conquered a specific cut with her right hand, he would switch her to doing it with her left. "I used to love to master the wood, and to have the wood do what I wanted it to do," Nora said in her adopted language.

Besides learning carving during the war, Nora also learned how to survive. Her home appeared to be part of a larger house — so the occupying German army mistakenly believed they had searched both residences. Nora's brother, fugitive Jews and dissidents routed there by the Dutch Underground all took refuge in the small house.

Meanwhile, she and her father worked for clients who could obtain wood because they were exporting to the Germans. The style, too, was what Nora called "German" or gothic.

By the end of the war, everything — including wood — was in short supply. "The last year of the war, there was no food, nothing," Nora said. "I went mostly to the farms to get food for my parents." The trip was a two day bicycle journey — and if she'd been caught, she would have been sent to a labor camp. The meat was intended for the German army.

By the end of the war, Nora was famous as the only female woodcarver in Holland. She once received a letter addressed simply to "Nora Leereveld, woodcarver." In the 1950s, however, she spent her time raising a family — and immigrating to the United States. She soon discovered that many Americans had taught themselves how to carve, and in the process had picked up a lot of bad habits that made their task harder. In the 1970s, Nora began teaching the European method of carving to a variety of American students, ranging from the young to the elderly.

Today, at 77, she's still teaching and carving full-time, mostly in basswood, but sometimes in cherry, curly maple or even mahogany. Nora's love of carving is something she feels compelled to share with as many people as possible, through her classes and her teaching videos. "Everybody's only really happy when they're creating something," she said: "Carving has lots of nice possibilities to express yourself."