Cruel Paradise: Life Stories of Dutch Emigrants

Cruel Paradise: Life Stories of Dutch Emigrants


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Cruel Paradise deftly weaves together the firsthand stories of men and women who emigrated from the Netherlands throughout the twentieth century. A skilled stylist with an unassuming presence, Hylke Speerstra brings readers along as he circles the globe interviewing transplanted Netherlanders in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Combining elements of memoir and travelogue, his narrative speaks to universal human experience as it vividly recounts the trials and successes of these emigrants.

Common themes of personal identity and family, uprootedness and loss, nostalgia and bittersweet joy run throughout this book. Yet these emigrants have had very different life experiences. Some have become affluent beyond imagining, brushing elbows with Rockefellers, Kennedys and movie producers; others have spent the better part of a lifetime eking out their living as farmers. Often poignant, sometimes amusing, always memorable, these stories provide a moving tribute to those who left their homeland behind with little more than uncertain hopes for their children.

Cruel Paradise will interest all readers of memoirs or travel literature, especially those with Dutch connections or with emigrant tales of their own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780991998128
Publisher: Mokeham Publishing Inc.
Publication date: 03/08/2018
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Hylke Speerstra is one of the most acclaimed authors to write in the Frisian language of the Northern Netherlands. He is former chief editor of the daily newspaper Leeuwarder Courant. His novella 'The Comfort Bird' was published in English in 2017.

Henry J. Baron is professor emeritus of English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Read an Excerpt


Life Stories of Dutch Emigrants
By Hylke Speerstra

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

ISBN: 0-8028-2801-9

Chapter One


Hindrik Jeens Baron from Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

* * *

Prologue: The Shattered Springtime

The day came that the suitcases were packed and ready to go. The luggage of Dad and Mom and their five children. The farm, the cows, the land, the tools and equipment - none of it was theirs anymore. As if they had become strangers in their own house, that's how the family felt as they looked out the window of the small farmhouse on the Skieding in Opende, Groningen (known to all the Frisian-speaking villagers in this border town as the Grinzer Pein). Even the clock, ticking away the last hours, didn't belong to them anymore.

An incident, in the second half of May 1948, through the memory of a boy of fourteen. It happened on an evening when the air was soft as silk, when the smell of spring hung over the fields, and the sun descended slowly, slowly to make the last day as long as possible.

People were coming up the path to the farm. Two men in the lead. One carried a trumpet under his arm, the other was the cornet player. More followed, men with shiny instruments hanging from their shoulder. Soon the whole membership of the Christian brass band "Crescendo" from Grinzer Pein had gathered on the yard of the small farm on the Skieding: the small and large bass horn were there, the small and large drum, the tubas, trombones, bugles, trumpets, and the cornet.

The men of the band tried to stand stiffly at attention, but it seemed as if they were waiting for a signal from on high. The man with the large bass rapped on the iron lid of the cistern with his wedding ring, and it became deafeningly quiet. And then the band played, exploding the last springtime on the Skieding in Grinzer Pein. Whether it was a chorale or a march, the boy from that time isn't sure anymore, but in any case it was music played so stately that it sounded like the death march from Beethoven's Third.

The family stood in the low side door and listened. Except one. The father, who had the tickets for the boat trip to America already in his pocket, did not appear. And the children, standing there without him in the low side door, did not understand why not.

* * *

The boy of fourteen eventually became an American. The images of their final hours were stored in his memory as a movie fragment that froze at their departure into a static picture. And now he looked back and began to tell the story. Everything was projected anew and the images became sharp again: the father with his secrets and sadness, the strong mother who saw her family through the tough times, and the good things that eventually came their way in the new land.

The boy would later return to the Skieding and discover that the camera had never stopped there on the old place. The country was not the same that he had left.

In one lifetime, the earth changed from a huge planet full of unknown places to a well-traveled world, and thus farewell serenades went out of style. But in the life stories of old emigrants the distances were beyond imagination. They ventured into endless space and had no idea where they landed. "To us New Zealand was even farther than the moon, because we could at least see the moon," said an old Frisian woman on the other side of the world. And to those who remained behind, the leaving of their dear ones felt like a live funeral.

The testimonies of the Frisian wanderers of the twentieth century teach us that emigration is in the final analysis the multiplication of life. One begins a new living in a new land with a new language, but at the same time hangs on to all one took along from the old country.

* * *

The band "Crescendo" from Grinzer Pein was finished, and the springtime was shattered. Quietly, the musicians left the yard that evening of the small farm on the Skieding. The family in the low side door that had listened to the farewell serenade went back inside the house that wasn't theirs anymore. And then the father, who had not wanted to listen to the music, reappeared. He had stopped the clock. Now it wouldn't be long anymore for the bus to come to take them away.

The boy from that time doesn't remember exactly what happened in the hours immediately after. And for a long time he had no idea why the music of "Crescendo" sounded so false in his father's ears, more false than the rasping of the first scythe in his last Frisian spring.

The American Henry James Baron (b. 1934), a good fifty years later, living comfortably in Grand Rapids, Michigan, doesn't often talk about that leave-taking. But now as he tells the story, the dimmed and neglected details begin to take on sharper contours, and he is again the boy from that time: Hindrik of Jeen Sytses Baron and Afke Hoekstra.

Before he continues the story, we're going for a ride on his motorcycle around his city of Grand Rapids in Michigan-USA. It's been hot for several weeks already in North America. The wind is muggy, the fields are dry, and the corn stands in withered rows. "That crop isn't going to amount to much," observes Hindrik Baron. We pass a lot of farms, many still farmed by descendants of families who bought their land from the Indians.

Kalamazoo. Now we've wandered far enough. Back to the city. It is late afternoon when Grand Rapids comes back into view. The freeways crisscross the suburbs like concrete ribbons. On the exit ramps swarms of cars creep toward an ocean of homes, but that same ocean spews them out again because just ahead the concrete curves are still strewn with metal on wheels.

Before us lies a city of a good two hundred thousand residents. The southeast side appears less crowded and greener. There the outskirts of the city feature quiet avenues, the brick homes show off their Reformed Church grandeur, and the way of life proceeds calmly and conservatively along orthodox and Republican lines.

Hindrik Baron pushes the motorcycle inside the open garage, drops down in a chair on the deck, and tries again to begin with the beginning. When the band came to their place, it must've been one of the last, if not the last, evening in Grinzer Pein. In the middle of the night, the family walked from the Skieding to the Provincial Road. The bus stood waiting.

His first conclusion sounds like a variation on the first sentence, "The ashes of our mother," from the famous book, Angela's Ashes, by the son of Irish immigrants, Frank McCourt: "... Dad and Mom for their own sake could better have stayed in Grinzer Pein." But Jeen Sytses Baron and Afke Hindriks Hoekstra took the step, and then there was no going back. Their five children went along, of course. Hindrik was the middle child.

Events occurred in the village of Grinzer Pein that did not pass the Barons by. In the twenties, when Jeen and Afke threw in their lot together as husband and wife, there was hope for better times to come. They were happy. But then came the time of crisis, the Depression, and it knew no mercy. Just when things began to look somewhat rosier, the German trucks rattled over the brick-paved road of Grinzer Pein. A time of much betrayal followed. Men like the German collaborator Pier Nobach also knew no mercy. Jeen Baron, elder in the Christian Reformed Church, didn't slink away. He read Nobach the riot act. Not without serious risk. And that's how the family on the Skieding farm, including the people they kept in hiding, went through the eye of the needle.

But eventually, the Canadian vehicles came roaring through the neighborhoods, also in Grinzer Pein. Liberation. A new day; now let the good times roll! But in the liberated Netherlands nothing seemed to change. Where was progress? Where were the promised improvements?

Jeen Baron wasn't the average small farmer and feed dealer, that was true. He was a well-read community leader with a competent pen, and one with musical talent. As a former member of the military band in the time of mobilization of World War I, he helped found the Christian brass band "Crescendo" in Grinzer Pein. Baron was able to transpose whole pieces of music as well as compose new arrangements. He was able to inspire others. And so he became the band's conductor.

Then there was the Gereformeerde Kerk (Christian Reformed Church). As elder he was concerned not only for members in the congregation, but also for others. In the Grinzer Pein of today, old people who knew him still talk about Jeen Sytses with respect. But what often happens in a village? What happened in this community of mostly pioneer types from other places? What happened in this rather young community that stood with one leg in Fryslan and with the other in Grinslan? Were the people always agreeable? Oh, it didn't go too badly, but sometimes the bickering made it seem like they were still struggling for position or power.

In the Christian Reformed Church in De Pein a depressing conflict developed between those adhering to a synod ruling (the synodicals) and those rejecting synod's ruling (the liberated). A split followed. Elder Baron was a leader on the side of the liberated. That was in 1944. The whole world was practically aflame; why not add a church war too.

In time, the church conflict eased up a bit. Well, true, on the school yard the children of synodicals and liberated were of course not allowed to jump rope together. In less than a year, the separated liberated had built their own church. The split acted like a watershed: a river begets a side river and neither stream wants to have anything to do with the other anymore, even though they owe their existence to one and the same source. When four years later the household of Jeen and Afke left their village, the sharpest edges of the church conflict had worn off. No, that could not have been the main reason for their leaving.

There was more pain. Something happened that hurt the small farmer and feed dealer deeply and plagued him to his death. Not until years later would the children discover the how and what. The music. "Crescendo." Jeen would do anything for his community and for the band. For his role as conductor and all his efforts he didn't expect a penny. What counted for him was the unity of the village, the harmony, the musical development of the youth.

The band got better and better. Everyone was greatly impressed. Soon "Crescendo" moved from the third division to the second in the association of Christian bands. It was time to participate in another music competition, the board concluded.

It was a unified group that traveled to the competition in Grijpskerk. They practically knew their whole repertory by heart, that's how much they had practiced. They would show their stuff with "Au Printemps" ("In the Springtime"). How does a farmer, a man of nature who spends much time in all kinds of weather, experience the springtime of his Frisian woodlands in the western district? The interpretation of Jeen Sytses Baron was this: first a restrained volume, then a gradual unfolding, followed by an almost majestic expression of the life force. All the members of "Crescendo" felt the springtime in this "Au Printemps" permeate their being. They played their hearts out.

The decision of the jury was bewildering. The men behind the jury table, those gentlemen who might never have watched a sunrise in the spring, did not share the interpretation of "Crescendo." The band fell from grace and was dismissed with a third instead of a first prize.

On the trip home, even before they reached Grootegast, some members of the board began to point the finger. The gentlemen of the jury must be right. They were experts, after all, and must know what they were doing. Their own prophet among them must've been dead wrong. And so it was secretly decided, in the delusion of the moment, that they needed a new conductor. One who was qualified and had papers to prove it, who knew exactly what the experts were looking for.

A few days later, the board sent a "representative" from "Crescendo" to the Skieding with the decision. On behalf of the board, Jeen Sytses Baron was dismissed. He felt humiliated and betrayed. What hurt him the most was the way it was done. After that encounter, Jeen Sytses never touched his conductor's baton or his trumpet again. Harmony was shattered. And each springtime after that, when in the woodlands and western district nature at first tried to restrain itself, but then in an almost majestic expression of the life force let itself be seen and felt, the small farmer and feed dealer from Grinzer Pein felt like weeping.

Hindrik Jeens Baron, on the deck behind his home off Burton Street in Grand Rapids, begins again. "It was still dark, very early in the morning, on the twentieth of May in 1948. We walked the path together to the Provincial Road, five of us as kids with Dad and Mom. Crates packed with furniture had already preceded us to Rotterdam. In one of those crates was a trumpet for me and a saxophone for my brother. Shortly before, we had gone to Ljouwert with Dad to buy them. In Grinzer Pein, playing had become taboo, but now it was going to be different. Dad had also packed his own trumpet. A new land, a new springtime, a new sound. To America, where everything, the whole way of life, would have a new chance."

Emigration. What objection could one make as a boy of fourteen? At that age one doesn't need a new beginning in a new world. One had barely begun to sink his roots. "For me the trip had something intimidating about it, but at the same time it held challenge. I think I smelled adventure. Though it's also true that I had just spent my first year at the Ulo in Surhusterfean, and I had enjoyed that because I liked to study. Now farewell to all that, to friends, to everything. I hoped that I'd be able to continue my education on the other side of the world.

"It was about half past two that morning when we left the place on the Skieding. I heard the mournful cry of a bird, a cry I would never forget. And then, all of a sudden, I heard myself say: '... Never again, never again....' I thought I was speaking for all of us, but it turned out that I was speaking only for Dad: he would never return.

"Mom had heard what I'd said in my elementary, Ulo-school English, but for her they were foreign words. I felt her arm, her hand. I stopped as if waiting for and wanting a hug. 'Come on,' brother Sytse urged, who was carrying the heaviest suitcase, 'the bus is already waiting for us!'

"It was the bus of Uncle Marten Hoekstra from Feanwalden. The door of the bus was wide open for us, but the engine had been turned off. 'Rotterdam, chauffeur!' Dad tried to break the tension with a joke. He put his suitcase on the running board, then turned. In the darkness appeared the faces of a few of my friends. Then all of a sudden I recognized relatives. Uncles and aunts, and cousins too. Dad was still standing right in front of me. He was not breathing quite so hard anymore. Then he went in. Uncle Marten dropped behind the big steering wheel and started the engine. The bus was almost full with people who were going to take us to the boat in Rotterdam.

"What I recall here may not be exactly the way it was. A half-century has a way of fading and shifting the images and conversations of so long ago. But I do know that in the very early morning hours we rode through the darkness toward a new day. A strange sort of tension hung over us in the bus, and I felt the old country glide under me mile after mile; I felt it glide away from me.

"What was that in my coat pocket? A mouth harmonica? Did Uncle Marten, who behind the wheel tried to lift the general mood, succeed in getting me to play and have the others sing along? I'm not sure anymore. I think it was my brother's friend who did the playing.

"The images of the harbor where the boat was docked, all the people, all the good-byes there - it's somewhat of a big blur to me now. We landed on the Veendam of the Holland-America Line. We discovered that Dad had booked first class because otherwise we would've had to wait another six months to get passage in tourist class. Now it became clear tome why we were all so dressed up. The dining room. The first dinner. All of us were overwhelmed, Dad and Mom included, by all the elegance. Satin table cloths, crystal glasses.


Excerpted from CRUEL PARADISE by Hylke Speerstra
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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