Why Spend Just A Few Hours in My Birth Place, and Why Now?
NIJMEGEN, GELDERLAND, THE NETHERLANDS
Home Town Revisited
Being in Brussels for business, and realizing this may be my last Brussels visit (last year I thought the same thing, but the business I came here for is now wrapping up for good, so, this may have been it).
So because this may be my last chance to come near my home town on business, I took a day off after the business was done and took a train to Nijmegen. This was not a planned trip. I had planned to do this "some day," but the continuing expectation that I would be back next year was mistaken, I found out. The next review for this project will be done remotely, meaning each of us will do it from home and email in our findings. No travel.
OK, that put the "some day" in a different light.
I love my Dutch cousins. One of them had taken me to Nijmegen and driven me to see the highlights of the town and our old house about 20 years ago. I appreciated that trip. About 15 years ago I rented a car and drove my wife and two youngest children around Nijmegen. That was also very satisfying. I appreciated both those trips.
Jack, me (Abe or Bram) and bear visiting cousins in Nijmegen.
But both those trips involved just "seeing." I still had a hunger to re-experience Nijmegen the way I remembered it, either on a bicycle or on foot. The bicycle route was not available as far as I could see on leaving the train station, so I hoofed it, well over 10 miles' worth, to see a few selected sights I remembered as having impressed me in my childhood (I was 12 when we left here).
Since I did not plan this 2008 visit in advance, I made no attempt to visit my cousins in the Netherlands. I hope they understand that this Nijmegen walkabout was something I needed to get out of my system, and there simply was no time for making other stops. Next time, perhaps if I have another Paris trip that is not in cold weather, I will take several days and visit my cousins and my aunt in the Netherlands again.
This is what we looked like about three years before leaving Nijmegen (sister Corrie was not yet born):
Jack is in the back, Alex on the right, Abe (me) on the left.
Parents Jack (Jaap) and Adriana (Sjaan) married during the war in 1941
and produced little Japie (Jack) in 1942. Two years later when Pa was on a short break from slave labor in Germany, I was conceived and born. Alex came along seven years after that, Corrie another four years later.
So, what was it like to go and see Nijmegen and remember?
It was very good for me to see that I did remember a lot of what I saw. And it was also good to see that the city has grown and prospered, as have its citizens.
What was the big deal about walking? I remember walking to school, of course, and making a sizable deviation at times in order to just happen to be on the part of my own street where a girl I fancied lived. I think in the nearly six years I went to the same school I managed to intercept her and walk with her maybe 3 times, out of at least a dozen tries.
Persistence is a virtue, doing the same thing over and over with no result is foolhardy. So describe me as a virtuous fool.
I also remember bicycling into the city from home, and back. On the back of my father or mother's bike when very little, on my own bike the last few years in the Netherlands. So I thought that "if we biked it then, I can hike it now."
Not really, I found out, but I did it anyway.
From home we also frequently walked into the Goffert park, and the nearby woods, the "Jonkerbos" [a name suggesting these woods beloged to a nobleman as a private preserve at some time in the past] at the edge of which there is a World War 2 memorial and cemetery. Past the Jonkerbos we would walk to the Maas-Waal Kanaal, a large canal that connected the Maas (Meuse, which starts near Joan of Arc's house in France), and the Waal, a branch of the Rhine.
The main Rhine runs parallel to the Waal about another 10 miles to the north. The Waal is larger than the Rhine and carries most of the Rhine traffic coming from Germany going to the ports in Holland like Rotterdam where my mother was born.
The bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem is the "A Bridge Too Far" where allied soldiers were trapped for a long time by the Germans, and where the war continued about 6 months longer then it lasted in most of the Netherlands. "A Bridge Too Far" is a good movie in that it gives a good overview of the dire situation of those soldiers stuck at the Arnhem bridge, unable to retreat to Nijmegen or advance into the city. Another place to go for an impressive recounting of this decisive part of World War 2 history is the website of the Liberation Route (choose Dutch, English, or German as languages).
My memories of the Jonkerbos, were of fascination and terror. I was a boob about being in these woods alone especially after dark, and was left there a time or two as the sun surprised me by setting and my older brother had already gone home presuming I was soon to follow at my own irritatingly slow (for him) pace. I was probably a block from the road and two blocks from home, but that was not so evident to a young boy in dark woods.
So, now, in December 2008, to finally overcome my phobia, I took an off-path walk through the very little that now remains of these woods. I was not afraid this time, but it was not yet dark, so maybe I am not yet healed of my phobia? It will have to do.
The memory of the Maas-Waal Kanaal was not of terror but of being quite scared and quite enjoying it. I called my older brother, now in Washington State, from Nijmegen and asked him if my memories of what we did in that canal were correct, he said they were. I asked if our parents knew what dangerous stuff we were in to, he said we never told and they never asked. They assumed we were being careful, which we were. Obviously: we survived.
Looking at the scene now, we were not being careful. We would scramble down rip-rap (sharp rocks lining the canal) and slide into the water, stay close to shore until a barge came by, then swim out toward it to catch the bow-wave and subsequent waves. The rise and fall were quite exhilarating. Of course if one gets too close to the barge, the fear was that there would be undertows that would make one disappear right around the end of the barge where a large metal screw turned madly and mercilessly and would not even notice a boy floating into its path. So half the thrill was the potential for being chopped to bits.
But we managed to stay at a safe enough distance, my brother made sure that I did not get as far out as he did. If I caught my kids doing stuff like this, they'd be grounded for life.
My older brother's and mine elementary school no longer exists even as a building. New housing stands where it used to stand. I walked the entire length of the Hazenkampse Weg, saw no shred of evidence it ever existed. Oh well. I do have fond memories of that school, I still get a thrill remembering my first day of school when the young and pretty Miss Zantbulten picked me up, and kissed me while she hugged me. I had her for two years and waited and waited day after day for this scene to be repeated. I'm still waiting.
I remember also being thrilled when the girl I mentioned before actually acknowledged my existence and talked with me, once in a great while. Then there were classes too, and I discovered I could actually learn. I remember my teachers, after the first two years of the same yummy teacher came Mrs. Dijkstra for third grade, Mr. Ahuis for fourth grade, Mr. De Bruin for fifth, and the Principal for 6th. We were not in 6th grade long, we left for America, hence his name is not imprinted as the others were.
Downtown Nijmegen, the bridges and parks and churches, were about as I remembered them. I had lunch in the Hema, a department store my mother liked. Walked past the huge church in the center of town, St. Stephens', where we once attended a midnight mass (as Protestant spies), and saw again the city hall where we had come several times for official papers of one sort or another to prepare us for emigration.
I was quite proud of myself, found the Sint Anna Straat right away which I remembered went from downtown to my neighborhood. I had forgot how far it was, more than 3 kilometers later I finally walked into my old street, the "Vossenlaan." Was amazed how far from our house was the house of this girl that I stalked in a rather young and innocent way when I was 10 through early 12. Perhaps a fast 20 minute walk, during which time anticipation would build. The anticipation and accompanying romantic fantasies (even at that age) were always better than the reality, even when it included "participation" in terms of actually walking beside her and exchanging a few words. I don't think she ever felt anything for me, just didn't mind me is all. Oh well. We actually corresponded once or twice after coming to America, but local life got busy on both sides of the Atlantic.
I remembered very well the duck pond in the park with the medieval tower used to store munitions (the Kruidtoren) into relatively modern times. I also had a few facts right about the park by the bridge, and a few facts wrong about the ages of the ruins there.
The bridge is pretty much what I remembered. My mother used to tell a story of her and a few girlfriends going to the park overlooking the bridge and watching the Germans coming into Nijmegen from their staging areas close to Arnhem (where they also made their last stand as you can see in "A Bridge Too Far").
Some soldiers spread out from their marching column and came close by them, and my mother says she yelled at them to go home, they had no business here. She said they either simply ignored her, or smiled at her, she was cute, and then ignored her and kept on marching into the city where they took over everything. My mother's complaint the rest of her life was an irate one: "They came into our homes and took what they wanted and called it 'love gifts' from the Dutch." They did the same to food production facilities and labeled the trains and trucks with banners saying "Love Gifts from the Dutch" while the Dutch were close to starving.
The distances I walked seemed long to me, but I need to remember that we never walked to the canal and also to the city on the same day, it was one or the other, and we used bicycles, a lot.
I was so pleased, near the canal, as the sun set on my weary feet, to find a bus stop. I did not have either the time or the energy to walk all the way back, in the dark, and still make it back to Brussels in time to sleep and pack.
The few people I chatted with in Nijmegen were very friendly and eager to offer advice like "don't walk there, take a taxi or bus." I remember the place from my childhood as full of friendly people (excluding the one who was too friendly and hurt me in the process of trying to molest me, but that is something that can occur to a young boy walking alone away from anyone else, anywhere in the world, I never held it against this locale).
Why mention this? Because childhood was not idyllic or worry free even here in this friendly place.
At home my older brother and I were in trouble a lot. We found our parents to be quite unreasonably (to us) demanding and controlling and harshly punishing where little acts of disobedience were concerned. Perhaps because life at home left a few things to be desired I learned to love school, and stayed in school forever until finally I went to work when my wife said "your turn" after putting me through the last 8 years out of 10 years of college (I did work part time all the years I was in school, don't get the wrong idea).
All in all, when things are taken as a whole, it was a good youth. We had splendid family adventure outings to cultural and natural places, we did get on an occasional train to visit relations, and our father made us toys, and our mother clothes, for Christmas and birthday presents: he was very good with wood and she with cloth. Some of our play trucks and other rolling stock like tanks were the envy of the neighborhood.
Speaking of home and houses, my older brother remembers a previous house, I do not, even though I spent my first two years in it. I was the only one of the four children born in a hospital because the doctor could not come to the house during air raids. So my mother and father bicycled to the local Catholic Hospital (which is still there, but in a different location) and I was born on a gurney as it was being rushed from the hallway into the delivery room where the doctor was getting ready but was too late, there I was almost falling off the cart!
My mother says that while she was pregnant with me she never feared for her life, so air raids did not bother her, sitting in basements waiting for the all-clear or death did not bother her, she knew she would be fine and deliver me. Cool.
The first house I remember is the one at Vossenlaan 303, although we did not move there until almost two years after the war when this neighborhood was constructed. It consisted of identical temporary bungalows quickly thrown up to provide emergency relief from the housing crisis created by the (Allied, by mistake) bombing of the city toward the end of the war.
They were supposed to be 10-year housing units, but here they stand, 63 years later and counting. They are not impressive and some look a bit run down. Across the street are nice brick two-story homes with large windows, quite a contrast. But my first memories stem from this house, and my younger brother and sister were born in this house. It was a good house.
With some exceptions already noted I have generally good memories of my Dutch life, good experiences at school, and both school and family trips into the countryside by bicycle, and to Rotterdam and a Dutch castle and to Hagen in Westphalia, Germany, by train.
In Hagen, at the age of 10, I got drunk for the first time in my life (it may actually be my only time) because of my brother and I discovering the family's beer cellar and drinking all the sweet dark beer a child could ever have dreamed of. My brother and I had gone there for a summer month (coming back alone on the train, with a train change in Dusseldorf where a nice old man took us to a movie to help us -and himself- wait the hours between trains, a German war movie my brother was disgusted by, calling it propaganda, I don't remember it but it may have been "Das Boot").
After our month we were coming back on the train and were taken off at the border by the border patrol. Our parents were called to come and get us: I could not be allowed into the country drunk. I was simply happy to be going home, not drunk, but the border police did not see it that way.
Why did we go to Hagen in Westphalia to stay on a farm? That was the home and family where my father was housed when he served his second term as a slave laborer in Germany, and this family saved his life when he was hurt during an American air raid. I tell this story elsewhere on this site.
Me, Jack and Alex at the Panten's farm in Hagen in Westphalia, Germany. Parents and Alex went home, and left us two nice boys for a month during which we discovered sweet dark beer. Then when we two were coming home, we were pulled off the train and detained at the border. Border guards said I was "drunk." I deny it.
My father earned "refugee" status because of his injuries as a civilian during American action. And this is what the refugee troupe looked like arriving at the Amsterdam airport for our flight to New York:
Six refugees ready for travel to a New World. Corrie is the youngest and cutest, then the next youngest and cutest was Alex, then neither so young nor so cute came Bram (Abe, me), Jaap Jr (Jack Jr), Adriana and Jaap Sr (Jack Sr).
Neither my mother nor my father had had an easy time during the war, in fact they experienced horrible times, both of them.
It colored their perceptions of people ever after, largely with distrust always being assumed until friendship developed and showed it was not warranted. Paranoia is not too strong a word for my mother's attitude toward persons she did not know yet, and that is understandable when you have fought to survive among people who were out to survive at your expense by stealing from you, or who wanted to pleasure themselves at your expense. She had to fight for her virtue since as a temporary but official orphan she was considered fair game with no legal repercussions for the males of families where she was sent to serve as a domestic helper by her orphanage.
The orphanage turned a blind ear to her complaints. Until one of the girls got pregnant in the same house she had been accusing, and then finally some legal action was taken, because there was now real evidence (and liability).
So. Society in this time and place was not idyllic, it is easy to gloss over and romanticize the times of one's youth. But the harsh realities were also there. And human cruelty and indecency seemed to have few bounds back in the days when there were severe divisions between different classes of people, and orphans were fair game for all the upper crust. In addition to having to fight off males, a father and son in one home, she also had to deal with being starved and not paid in this same home, with the matron of the house telling lies to her orphanage director about her not being paid as punishment for being lazy and dishonest, stealing from the family. These lies were told to save very little money, a guilder per week, but guilders were very scarce in wartime.
When the priest Andreas Capellanus told his noble male audience in the 12th century that if they really felt the need, go rape a peasant girl, but don't force a maiden of your own class (next to last paragraph in this link). He was telling it like it was, for countless centuries, right up to the present day in some places in the world. Life was tough for the lower classes, and being preyed upon and abused by higher classes just added to the misery, there was no recourse.
In the 1960's the Netherlands underwent an internal revolution of sorts where a lot of this class nonsense was done away with and as a nation they set an example to other nations in terms of defense of the less fortunate in their midst. Europe as a whole came into modernity about this time.
Just before we left the Netherlands, a Dutch Minister of Education lamented in a radio address that the new "working student" phenomenon was sullying the reputation of the previously superior Dutch universities. If you could not afford to study full time, you should not be there, was the message.
Luckily, after the mild social revolution of the 1960's the working student was fully accepted and several of my cousins went to college, something that seemed very unlikely for me and my siblings, and one of the primary reasons my father and mother wanted to bring us to America.
I was very happy to have come here, and I believe the rest of my siblings feel the same. But as the lives of my Dutch cousins have shown, doors of opportunity were thrown open there too, and we would also have done well had we stayed in the Netherlands. The cousins there have also done well in terms of education, careers, businesses, etc.
Want a few more photos? OK, here is a selection of shots:
Me on a sled.
Corrie as a baby.
Corrie in elementary school (not any longer in the Netherlands of course).
Jack Sr. looking sophisticated.
On the page about our neighborhood and house below I have added photos we had of us at home.
Go to Part Two: Arrival and the Kruidtoren in the Kronenburger Park
Go to Part Three: The River Waal and its Bridge
Go to Part Four: The Historical Valkenburg Park
Go to Part Five: Downtown Nijmegen
Go to Part Six: My (Our) Old Neighborhood
Go to Part Seven: The Jonkerbos woods
Go to Part Eight: The Maas-Waal Canal
Go to Leuven, Belgium, and see the Groot Begijnhof (Grand Beguinage)--same trip
Go to Brussels and see the Christmas decor--same trip
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