Before I went on my trip to Europe in 2015, I had lunch a couple of times with a good Polish friend of mine. Although my main purpose in Poland would be a daunting visit to Auschwitz, I would be staying in Krakow a couple of days, so I asked Przemek for some basic tourist information along with a few useful phrases of the language. I didn’t want to seem like too much of a tourist, stammering out even the most fundamental phrases in pidgin English. Besides, it is a great way to introduce oneself to a new culture, even if only slightly. If I could pronounce a name like, Przemek, surely I could handle a couple of more key phrases.

But when we came to the phrase for, “Thank you”, which is “Dziękuję Ci”, I seemed to have some sort of tongue-twisting mental block. “Dziękuję Ci” is phonetically pronounced “jen-kooyah chi”, but for me it often tumbled out in error as “jow-jenkies or ju-jinkies”. Przemek and I laughed at how this sounded like Velma from Scooby-Doo. Wasn’t this her catch-phrase that she would exclaim in the midst of a crazy turning point in their fictional adventures?!

velma_20_scooby-doo_Not to let such a simple phrase of courtesy escape me, I decided to practice it until I got it down pat, yet I never seemed to be able to consistently remember it! From time to time before I arrived in Poland, I would mentally practice in my mind: “Come on, Ian! Jen-kooyah! Not jow-jenkies!…Geez. Jen-kooyah…Jen-kooyah…Jen-kooyah…” I gave up even worrying about the “chi” part.



The moment of truth finally rolled around. On a spring afternoon in early May, I left Berlin‘s Südkreuz bus loop on a Deutsche-Bahn bus bound for Krakow via Wrocław and Kattowice.

My seatmate was an attractive young lady; a student I supposed, perhaps traveling home from studies in Berlin. We never actually spoke during the whole journey, but she must have supposed, correctly, that I was a tourist and probably English speaking.



The bus ride was at once familiar yet unfamiliar. Although traveling through a distant land, the freeway between the southeastern Germany city of Cottbus and Poland’s Wrocław, once the German city of Breslau, was in many ways just like the I-5 in central Oregon. Farms with bright-yellow blooms of canola painted the countryside. And yet, the vehicles and the road signs were distinctly European. Alike but not quite.

When the young student got off the bus at Wrocław, she turned to me and smiled, “Have a nice holiday.” Her English was perfect.

“Jow-jenkies!” I answered confidently but immediately recognized my mistake in what should have been my well-rehearsed moment of triumph.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Oh…I mean..’thank you’. How do you say it in Polish again?”

“”Dziękuję Ci,” she smiled politely and was gone.

“Well,” I thought to myself. “That went as well as could be expected; didn’t it, Grommet?” I stared out the window at the ruins of what used to be called Breslau, shaking my head. I gave up on Polish for the rest of the trip.



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Time and Tombstones

It was a cold December day in 1941, my mother remembered; more than a year and a half into the German occupation. They had to travel a long way into the neighboring Dutch province of Overijssel to the small village of Bruinehaar near Almelo. In the funeral cortege of her paternal grandfather, the coffin was carried on a horse-drawn carriage, the undertaker and driver dressed in the formal clothes of another age, the horses clip-clopping sadly forward, and the wooden wheels cutting through the icy mud and snow.

My great-grandfather, Gerrit Jan Alberts, was buried in a small cemetery in this very remote corner of the Netherlands, literally a stone’s throw from the German border. His father is there too, along with many ancestors, as are many descendants, including his son, my opa. The cemetery lies in the midst of rich farmland, tucked into a clearing of a tiny forest on the property of a hereditary earl who ceded the land in perpetuity for this cemetery and a farm which is held by lease. The cemetery still exists today thanks to this arrangement, which is unusual in a small European country where land is at a premium and not typically used for burials. In many places in the Netherlands today, cemeteries are typically short-term affairs of 10-30 years maximum. The dead essentially lease their graves for much less than a fraction of eternity, are dug up when their term expires, and whatever is left is cremated and interred in a columbarium. Although my family doesn’t get to Bruinehaar and the cemetery very often due to its remote location, I made sure it was part of my visit this last summer.

Most cities and towns are easily accessible by rail throughout the Netherlands, but not Bruinehaar. My cousin, Claire, and I rented a car to get there. I was even surprised that the journey from Nijmegen, barely 100 km or so away, took almost three hours! Although main highways can take you to the fairly substantial town of Almelo, after that you must rely on small country roads, many of which do not even have formal bi-directional lanes. You must bear to the shoulder as oncoming traffic passes you, something I never expected in modern Holland. The area is truly a farming community, with sparse, quiet villages, huge fields of alfalfa, hay, or canola, and signs warning you of slow-moving farm vehicles. Interestingly, the folks in this area of Overijssel, Twente, are known as “Tukkers” due to their typically laid-back attitude. Perhaps that is a timeless characteristic of farming communities everywhere.

Although I had visited the cemetery with my parents and sister in 1972, I was only four-years-old at the time, and I have absolutely no memory of being there. In the picture below, it seems that I was not paying too much attention while I was there either. So, my visit there this summer, in scorching hot, dry weather, which was totally the opposite weather of my mom’s stories of past visits, felt unique, different, and not quite what I was expecting. It was hard for us to even find the small road off the small highway that led up to the graveyard and farmhouse just further along. It was remarkably scenic, however, and the arching trees along the dirt road made a tunnel through which we passed…I could imagine the funeral procession passing underneath these same trees and perhaps up to the farmhouse where the farmer would often receive far-traveled visitors who had come to attend to the graves of loved ones. The clip-clopping of shod horses seemed to still echo there today.

We actually visited the current leasehold farmer before leaving the cemetery, and I believe Claire mentioned that he was the son-in-law of the one who had been there during the war, taking over the farm around 1948. Indeed, he was way over 90 years old, and although now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was still cracking earthy jokes. Since returning home and sorting out more aging family photographs, I’ve stumbled upon ones of my parents visiting the farmer and his wife in the 1990s. It is a wonder to think of someone who has witnessed that much history, but perhaps it all seems just like yesterday to him. From the pictures of him and his wife posing with my mom and dad, he is the only one of the lot still alive, even though he was the eldest.

Speaking of witnesses to history, the cemetery itself would have some tales to tell, as quiet as it is, almost forgotten in its small corner of rural Holland. It is a witness to generations.

I was amused to find that my opa had insisted on being the first person buried in the front row, away from his mother and father and everyone else, as the cemetery expanded forward in the early sixties. “I’ll be easy to find”, he had said. Indeed he is the very first grave at the left side of the front row after you enter the gate and is now being kept company by a full contingent of graves from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His headstone, laid in 1964, looks somewhat incongruous amongst the shiny new granite of the much newer markers. As I wrote previously, Opa had a thing about graveyards. Given the theme of my posts recently, I suppose I come by the same trait honestly enough.

Still on the left side but very much towards the back in the older section, is the grave of my groote-opa, Gerrit Jan Alberts, who is buried with his wife, Hermina Ekkel, who predeceased him by four years. It is amazing to think that these folks were born a full century before me. Even though Hermina had a bit of a sour face, my mother remembered that she was a very kind oma, and quick to smile and hand out the cookies.

Oma and Opa Alberts

Hermina and Gerrit Jan Alberts, probably in their home in Almelo ca. 1923

Perhaps graveyards are indeed a “thing” in my family. As I walk through one, I always seem to feel the expanse of time contract around me and the subtle presence of so many who lived as witnesses to it. Perhaps not many people personally partake in the big events of history, but even the day-to-day lives of little folks count in the big picture of our shared human experience. And it reassures me to think that these people who came before were so much like us. They worked and learned, fell in love, married, raised families, and handed out the cookies and the smiles to their grandchildren. The times and trappings may change, but the themes remain the same.

And the headstones. There they stand, through the days, months, and years. While you are at work at your desk half a world away, at the dentist, or driving your kids to soccer, there they stand until the next time you see them. They bear the wind and the rain and the passage of time itself. They stand as silent witnesses to the world, a world that still spins beneath the same stars that those in the earth beneath once gazed up in wonder, just like us. They are silent, yet they remind us that, even with all that history, time itself may be just one of our many illusions.

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The List

My small carry-on suitcase wheels clattered across the cobblestones as I wound my way through downtown Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands, my mother’s hometown where she grew up during the war. It was mid-morning and already quite warm, unusually warm, as northern Europe was in the grip of a summer heat wave in 2018.


Downtown Nijmegen

I passed outdoor cafes, some of which were the standard European coffee spots, while many others hosted middle-easterners getting an early start on their hooka pipes. Nijmegen has certainly become an interesting mix of histories and cultures in this second decade of the twenty-first century.

In fact, I was on my way to study my own history and culture. Documents were waiting for me at the regional archive, close to the city center, and I was excited to see what secrets the morning session might reveal. Would I finally see the infamous city register that my mom had mentioned in passing and that my cousin had seen some years ago? The one where the J signifying Jewish heritage had been carefully erased by some friend, protecting my grandmother and her family from Nazi persecution during the occupation?

The Nijmegen Archief is situated in a fairly modern building, with a modest Dutch architecture of contemporary blockiness, overlooking a square with the church of a medieval-looking convent on one side and a very modern-looking movie theater complex on the other. I was buzzed in through a huge wooden door, and made my way to a modern reception area of glass and steel. The archivist I had contacted previously by email promptly came down and took me into the basement floor where several large work tables and computers were available for researchers.


The Nijmegen Regional Archive building in the background behind the renaissance Marienburg Chapel.

He handed me the set of Dutch Persoonskaarten that I had requested of various family members, along with some wartime documents on the “Status of the Jews of Nijmegen” in which I’d expressed my interest. I sat down at a large table and eagerly examined everything.

The Dutch Persoonskaarten or Personal Cards of citizens are truly a genealogists dream. In the 1930s the Netherlands instituted a citizens registry in which an administrative card was created and then followed you to whichever city or region you lived in. It kept a running record of the following data:

  • First name(s)
  • Last name
  • Date and place of birth
  • Date and place of death
  • Information about the parents (full names, dates and places of birth)
  • Religion (not public, redacted on photocopies)
  • Addresses (public if person died at least 20 years ago, otherwise redacted on photocopies)
  • Information about spouses (full names, dates and places of birth and marriage, whether the marriage ended by death or divorce)
  • Information about children (full names, dates and places of birth and death. Sometimes not all children are mentioned. If the children had already moved out before 1938 they are often not listed on their parents’ cards).

As you can see from the list above, the religion is redacted on the photocopies they make from the microfiche record. However, in my email correspondence with the archives before I came, they were able to confirm for me that my Oma Alberts-Schaap was “definitely not” listed as Jewish. When I received my mother’s card data, a religion entry of “Geen” (none) was actually left unredacted, and I assume that is what she inherited from her parents. Perhaps Oma (with Jewish parents) and Opa (a Gentile) had had the foresight not to list any religion on their family cards, given the anti-semitic atmosphere and strong possibility of hostilities with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother Vrouwtje Schaap-Calo, her son Maurits (my mother’s uncle), and no doubt his family did have their religion recorded as P.I. (Portuguese Jewish community). The employees at the archive could not tell me that officially, but hinted that was the case. I have since discovered that I can actually see a faint backwards P.I. visible on the copy, bleedthrough from the reverse side of Maurits Schaap’s card.

When they saw how efficiently the Dutch had set up an identification system for everyone in 1941, I imagine that the German occupying authorities must have rubbed their hands with glee! They had a collection that carefully noted everyone’s addresses, their parents’ names and their childrens’ names, and, most helpfully for the Nazi cause, their religious affiliations. With legendary German thoroughness, they even made further lists, making it easy to go door to door to collect Jews. It is no wonder that the Netherlands had one of the worst survival rate for Jews in all of occupied Europe at about 25% compared to 60% in Belgium and 75% in France. Poland, of course, had it the worst with a survival rate of less than 10%.

In fact, one of the other documents set aside for me, was the request that the Nijmegen civic authorities received from the superintendent of the national population registry in the Hague to create such a list for their area.

“In regards with an assignment given to me by the German authorities, I have the honor to ask you to gradually send me, in any case before January, lists of extracted information from the personal cards of all heads of households with a J.”


Request from the national population registry to regional authorities to compile lists of Jewish residents, with specific requirements as to data and format.

The second document in my folder appeared to be the generated list itself, a “List of persons of Jewish Blood residing in Nijmegen”.


“List of persons of Jewish Blood residing in Nijmegen”

Although Oma and my mother and aunt apparently never made it onto this list, holding original typewritten copies of such documents used by the Gestapo and Dutch police chilled me to the bone. It certainly drives home the reality of the Holocaust. I could imagine the different roles involved going about their business, rushing headlong into the unfolding nightmare generated by this document: from the Dutch authorities, obligated by their new Nazi masters to collate such a terrible list, to the Gestapo and Dutch police who went door to door to check up on, harass, or question these poor people (or ultimately take them away for work duty or deportation), to the actual victims amongst my family’s neighbors, waiting fearfully for the hammer to fall. Perhaps this last group even included my oma and her daughters themselves…Can one even imagine the terrible dreaded fear? What would it be like to know could be on such a list, day after day waiting for a dreaded knock at the door or a letter of summons in the post. “Report to the Centraal Station by 10:00 am the day after tomorrow for deportation. Pack only the essentials; the state will confiscate the rest of your property.” Typically a few days to pack up your life to leave your home and community for the complete unknown and rumoured death…Indeed, I still puzzle over how all of this played out for Oma, who lived estranged from her husband then working in Rotterdam. Was she considered the head of a household? Had she simply recorded “Geen” for her religious affiliation on her persoonskaart from the start, thereby eliminating her immediately from such lists? Yet, my cousin says she saw a list in which the entry beside Oma’s name faintly showed the trace of a missing, dreadful “J”. Perhaps more than one list was made? Her name was certainly not on this one I was holding. Perhaps someone changed the persoonskaart and then that eliminated her from the “Jewish Blood” lists.

Yet, we know that the authorities were suspicious. My mother told me vague yet frightening stories of pounding on the door and policemen coming into the house from the night’s darkness to search for Jews. It was actually in 1941 that Oma’s house was searched for the first time, and Opa stated this in his post-war deposition of his war time activities, “About that time [early 1941] there was a night search at my residence in Nijmegen. Therefore I provisionally decided not to take more [of a role in the resistance], also because I’m married to a Jewish woman who has not reported herself.”
[I’d love to be able to access this “purification” interview file in the Dutch national archives, but it can only be studied on site after making a personal appointment. Transcriptions will not be available for public photocopying until 2022.]

Why was the house search if the were not listed as “persons of Jewish blood”? Was there another overall population registry that was changed? If someone changed the records at the Nijmegen city hall, who was it, and when did they change it? Did the authorities suspect some tampering? Did anyone look at her father’s and mother’s names and cross-reference them to Jewish heritage? The archivists were helpful but couldn’t really help me with my questions. If there was a more comprehensive list of the population, it was likely stored in Amsterdam in the National Archives, they offered. A friendly researcher who overheard my questions and found it all quite interesting helpfully suggested a local author of a book detailing the ordeal of Nijmegen through WWII.

I suppose it ultimately does not really matter how Oma was able to keep her name off such lists, but my goodness, I would sure like to know. This was key to her family’s survival. My family’s survival. It is even possible that I may not have been born if it were not for this administrative tampering of official documentation. If any genealogical researchers out there have any ideas or tips as to how I might proceed to find out more, what steps I may not have considered, please let me know!

So, my first foray into the world of formal genealogical research made little headway on this bright, sunny morning in early July 2018, 80 years after it all happened. Instead it probably opened more questions than it answered.

And yet, sometimes breakthroughs and other discoveries in genealogical research come unexpectedly. Later that same week, at a family function, I was to meet a second cousin, the granddaughter of Oma’s sister Regina, whose family had spent the war years in Indonesia, and therefore, in a Japanese internment camp. Indeed, we may never have met Marjolein if my cousin, Claire, and I had not posted our family’s information on a Dutch Jewish memorial site. Marjolein, engaged in her own genealogical research, recognized the name of her great-grandparents and contacted Claire. A lost connection, suddenly reconnected. Oma had never really talked about her sisters, so we never knew anything about any surviving cousins.

And it gets even better. Marjolein presented me with a little package during the family gathering. It contained two items. One was a sketched-out pedigree that takes Oma’s family, Schaap, back through to the 15th Century, when the names seem to take on a definite Iberian flavor. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it seems we really could be descended from the Portuguese Israeli community! The second item was a copy of a small pamphlet in honor of E.E. Schaap, our common great-grandfather, on the occasion of his 25 Silver Work Anniversary with the Dutch railway company. This was the great-grandfather whose grave I had just visited for the first time the previous week!


This little document has lots of good stuff to say about Railway Agent Schaap, which was why Marjolein’s grandparents submitted it to the occupying Japanese authorities. You can see they marked it on the upper right of the first page.

So perhaps my first forays into the challenges of genealogical research were not all in vain after all. Indeed, I suppose I also have certain challenges with grandparents who did not want to actually leave accurate records of their family history, so I should count myself lucky that my cousins and I have discovered what we have. The fun so far has been in the journey of discovery and in meeting folks that are so helpful along the way. And, of course, how incredible is it to meet previously unknown members of one’s own family? That, in and of itself, is a genealogical discovery to treasure!

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