It was a sunny Saturday morning in June. I arrived at 9.45am in Bergen op Zoom, a former military town in the western part of the province of Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands. This was the moment that I would meet an American couple: Jim and Kathy VanVliet of Tacoma, Washington. Four months earlier they asked me if I was able to be their guide on a heritage trip to see some ancestral places in the Dutch provinces of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland. Literally they said: “Ideally we would love to have someone who could spend a half day or day guiding us through the area so we can make the most of our time.”
From the moment they arrived by train, we spoke about genealogy. Not so much about their family history – we would do that later that day – but more about what it is like to be a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. We also spoke about new developments in genealogy, for example DNA research. As with other couples that I met before on heritage trips, Jim and Kathy were very much interested in the Dutch culture, history and landscape.
The house was the last one in a row of six identical houses, used to house several ‘poor’ families. These houses were owned by the local Poor Relief Committee. Although I did not find a photograph of the house itself, I did find several photos from the street. Kathy got a clear idea what the area looked like in the middle of the 19th century when Jan and Cornelia lived in one of the houses with their big family.
We walked from the café to the church, where Kathy’s ancestors went for church services. Next stop was the street of the ‘poor houses’. At the corner of the street I introduced Kathy to a distant family member: Johannis de Rijke (1842-1913). Both Kathy and this famous civil engineer are descendants from the Liefbroer family. A short biography of Johannis de Rijke is available on Wikipedia .
From Colijnsplaat we drove over the ‘ Oosterscheldekering ’, the largest of the 13 series of dams and storm surge barriers that are part of the Delta Works. These dams protect the province of Zeeland and other (large) parts of the Netherlands against floods. From there we drove on to Brielle , a fortified town with a very interesting history and a wonderful place for lunch. Because of the nice weather we could enjoy our meal on a terrace.
The afternoon was reserved for Jim’s ancestors: the Van Vliet family from Pernis. As part of my research I spoke with Jan van der Schee who is a member of the historical society in Pernis. He was more than happy to meet with us and he had some surprises!
First he took us to the house where Jim’s great-grandfather Huibrecht van Vliet lived before he decided to emigrate to the United States. The house still exists and Jim could literally stand on his great-grandfather’s doorstep.
Jan told us everything about the fishing boats that would sail all the way from Pernis to Iceland to catch cod. The crew was away from home for several weeks and many of the fishermen never returned, but drowned at sea. A remarkable coincidence: Jan’s grandfather Aalbert Groenendijk worked on the same fishing boat as Huibrecht’s father Ruth van Vliet!
After a short walk through the center of Pernis, Jan took us to the museum that is run by volunteers from the historical society. Part of the museum looks exactly like a fisherman’s house from about 1900. It gave Jim and Kathy a wonderful insight in their ancestors’ lives.
Jan also showed copies of documents from the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s that mention Ruth van Vliet as part of the crew of several fishing boats. Some of the documents also show Aalbert Groenendijk’s name.
At the end of the afternoon we had a little bit of time left to visit the church of Poortugaal, a small town close to Rotterdam. It was in this town and in this church where Ruth van Vliet’s 2x great-grandfather, also a Ruth van Vliet, married in 1730. I took a couple of pictures of Jim and Kathy standing in front of the church.
When I dropped Jim and Kathy off at the Schiedam train station, they were very much impressed by all they learned, saw and heard that day. Later on they shared their experiences with me. Jim said: “You were able to take the black and white facts of genealogy and discover the colorful story of our family history.”
Kathy said: “My perspective is that you helped us find details and locations that we either could not have found on our own, or would have taken us weeks, if not months, to find. You seemed as interested in our families’ stories as we are, and to genuinely enjoy the discoveries made. Thank you for the connection and time spent with Jan at the Pernis historical society and how greatly that impacted our learning about what life was like for Jim’s great-great grandfather. It was not only interesting but helped us to feel a connection to him and appreciate the difficult life that he must have lived. He’s no longer just a name with dates on a page. It was really a thrill to walk in our ancestors’ footsteps. This has been a highlight of our trip to the Netherlands and the time spent with you was invaluable for learning more about our ancestors and our heritage.”
She was absolutely right: I enjoyed the research and the trip, but most of all the company. It was – again – wonderful to help people understand their past.