The Immigration Story of John Vandenberg (Dutch immigrant)

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The Long Journey 1951-Memories of a Dutch Boy

In 1951 I was a 10 old echt Hollands jongen (real Dutch boy) living in a flat on Couwael Straat-3a, in Rotterdam, Holland.
I was quite happy to have neighbourhood friends and cousins to play with. We had a great time playing marbles, board games, go-carting and hide and go-seek on our street. There was also a neighbourhood playground where we played. I loved to slid on a carpet down a very tall twenty foot slide.
For a day trip my whole family - Moeder (Mom), Vader (Dad), Broer (Brother) Bob ( 14 years old)) went to the Bljidorp Dierentuin (Zoo), Rotterdam. We saw huge African elephants and roaring Indian tigers in their smelly indoor cages. What a great education and wonderful time!
In the winter I skated on my wooden skates with my cousins Jopie, Corrie and Shilee behind my Opa's (Grandfather) house on his canal.
For entertainment I went with my older brother Bob to the bioscoop (movie theatre) and saw American Western Cowboy movies.
During the summer month of 1949 my parents thought it was a good idea for me to live on a farm. I think my Oom(Uncle Jan) knew the farmer and arranged for me to stay there for the month of August. So off we went in Oom Jan new Ford black convertible to the farm located on Westdijk B10-N.Helvoet, Holland. During the first night I became very stressed out. Living with a strange family. I missed my Mother who protected me from the outside world. After awhile I got used to staying with my Pleegouders(Foster Family). They treated me like a son and fed me plenty of food . My Mother commented how healthy I looked. After my Mom and Dad and brother Bob visited me on the farm. My job on the farm was to feed the chickens. I used to carry the baby chicks on the top of mt head. I even started wearing klompen(wooden shoes) with black leather insoles. I did not like them because they were hard on my feet. On Sunday morning the Boer(farmer) Langesveld hitch up the family buggy to his horse. The farmer's wife and me climbed aboard and drove to attend a church service in a nearby town. This I found very educational and inspiring.
One day the Boer took me out to the fields to milk the cows and found that very interesting. When Bob came for a visit I decided to go and milk the cow. I had no sitting stool and milk pail. The dairy cow became very angry and chased me and my older brother out of the pasture.
I got to know the farmer's daughter who was a young adult in her 20's . She gave me a series of three Dutch books(Benito De Jonge Zwerver) Benito the Young Wanderer-Door(By) C Joh. Kieviet 1930. Which I still have to this day and read all of them.
I was walking in a valley full of very colourful wild flowers growing on a hillside. All at once I felt a deep sense of inner happiness and felt at peace with myself.
My Mother sent me a picture post card from Rotterdam. On the back of the card a letter(translated from Dutch to English)
Thursday 18 August 1949
“ Darling Johnie”
“By this postcard photograph you can see how beautiful the street(Paradijs Laan) look like. You can show your foster parents where you live. The street 3a Couwaelsraat where you live off Paradijs Laan you can't see. Miepie is just now playing with the nice kitty from the shoemaker, who every time wants to eat all the food from Miepie's plate. But he then catches a tap from Miepie. However he doesn't use his claws. Nice hey? Dickie from Tante(aunt) Sjaan says that you look so healthy and that is just fine with Mama and Bobbie. How are the horses and cows and chickens with the baby chicks. We are hoping good. Good bye darling Johnie. Lots of kisses from Mama, Bobbie, Papa and Miepie.”
Life was fun. Life was good.
Then one day in early 1951 my Dad decided to move to another country. Why move to an unknown country with a different culture and language we could not speak? My Mother certainly did not want to move. She came from a large family of nine brothers and sisters, whom she did not want to leave. Her Father had told her “you'll be back”.
Dad had joined the Dutch military on April 6, 1940. The war broke out on May 5, 1940. German Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam into submission on May 14. Reference Wikipedia
I was told during a High School reunion in 2003 by a high school student. Who lived in Delft (10 Km North West ) saw the Inner City burning. The bombing caused a fire storm which destroyed the Medieval City Centre – South Rotterdam bordering on the harbour ( in a bend part of the Maas River). Rotterdam is the largest sea port in Europe. As the fire spread outwards from the destruction 2.6 Sq. Km. Which lasted for several days. 1000 people were killed and 85,000 made homeless. Reference Wikipedia.
Our family were very lucky to be alive. We lived about 1.5 Km on the northern outskirts of the destruction, and no damage was done to our home. This was never explained to me by my parents. They wanted to save me from the horrors of WAR!
The German deportation November 1943 of all males between 17-40 years old , my Dad said good bye to us, and left Holland by transport truck for Germany as slave labour.
After the War. I nine years old saw the destruction of the Medieval City Centre. The very large train station, viaduct and tracks and very many other buildings all blown up. All the damaged buildings were demolished by Dutch construction workers. I saw huge empty fields covered with black coal gravel when I had to walk to a special school for stutterers with learning disabilities. In the middle of the empty field, the Historic St. Lawrence Church totally wiped of the map. The Bell Tower was left standing and rest of the Cathedral Nave and Altar were severely damaged. No God presence. The Church was saved and rebuilt after 1951. Reference Wikipedia.
After the War. Dad struggled to support his wife and two school-age children with the small income he earned from his business, that manufactured Delft's Blue table lamps, with painted Dutch windmills and landscape. Dad was always complaining of being heavily taxed by the Dutch Government to pay for the rebuilding of Rotterdam.
Mother took me shopping for groceries during the end of November 1944 to the bakkerswinkel ( bakery store). A series of coupons was given to the store owner for 500 gr bread, 1000 gr potatoes, 125 gr peas or beans. 2500 calories per person per week (Ref-Groeten uit Rotterdam- Greetings from Rotterdam-West - H.A. Voet en A.Tak . Rationed food was given to you then. Vegetables were difficult to get hold off. A rationing stamp card book was marked off for whatever food was given to you.
January 1945 rationing got worse. No food. Starvation diet on 500 calories per day.
I can remember standing in a large line of people with my mother at a Soup kitchen outside on the street, waiting to be fed. The bowl of soup consisted of boiled tulips bulbs ( small chunks) or sugar beets (small chunks) and potato peels.
The German Military cut off all food and fuel shipments to Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and the rest of the Western Provinces, Holland. Hunger Winter 1944-45. 25,000 people starved to death. Reference-Wikipedia
Late at night my mother had to risk her life(during the German curfew) to go outside the city limits on her bicycle to purchase some potatoes from a farmer. She had to exchange her ring for food. Farmers only wanted gold,watches and jewellery. Anyone caught outside after dark by a German soldier would be shot to death.
I was four years old. My Mother and older brother Jacob (4 years older) were alerted by a neighbour at home on April 29/45 to go and have a look outside. We followed the neighbour and walked about a couple of blocks and came to his house. In front of us was a huge park, Kralingse Plas and Bos(Lake, Forest and Fields - 300 hectares or 3 square kilometres). We saw hundreds of Lancaster planes flying above the roof tops. Pilots were instructed to fly five hundred feet above ground before dropping their boxes and gunny sacks of food without parachutes. From that height none of the supplies were destroyed.
The Allied Command was given permission by the German Military beforehand. Gunny sacks and boxes contained dried eggs, milk powder,cheese, margarine, dehydrated meat, salt, luncheon meat, tea, beans, chocolate, yeast and white flour ( The Dutch called “ Liberation Bread”). 11,000 tons of food delivered over 10 days. 2200 Allied Mission Flights were made over Holland. 3.5 million people were saved from starvation. Reference -. Wikipedia
Mother baked a loaf of white bread for the family. I enjoyed eating this very much. Bread tasted good with butter spread on top of a slice. She baked a pot full of oliebollen (doughnuts) and I ate too much. I got a bad case of diarrhea and soiled my pants. Mother and my brother Jacob stood around my crib laughing their heads off. And I felt deeply embarrassed.
The Canadian Army, our liberators, entered Rotterdam May 6. The War had ended!
My mother attended a street party celebration on May 7,1945, in front of our house on Couwael Straat (street), Rotterdam.
Dad came home soon after. He had peddled all the way (417 Km -259 miles) on a rickety old bicycle from Brunswick(Braunschweig), Germany. I did not know who he was standing by the living room table with my Mother. He was a total stranger. Dad did not hug me and I felt I was not being loved.
I developed rickets. My Mother took me to see the Doctor after the War. He saw how skinny I looked. The deformed lower deformed breast bones caused by the lack of calcium and lack of sunshine. No milk available during the War. All I had was my Mother's breast milk for the first couple of years of my life when I was a baby. I was not allowed to go out on the street to play by my Mother. German soldiers were patrolling the streets. The Doctor told my Mother to feed me, one glass of hot milk and a teaspoon of cod liver everyday.
My Dad chose Canada as our new home as it was a land for advancement and a better income. The decision was made easier as he already had a sister Semmie and family living in Montreal. Who had just moved a few months before. Uncle Freek , her husband, worked for KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) and was stationed in Montreal.
To prepare for the move Dad enrolled in English classes, and then in July 1951 he boarded a plane for Canada.
My mother, brother and I were to follow by ship after he had found a house for us to stay. He did, and we booked tickets to leave Rotterdam for Canada on September 5.
In the mean-time, Uncle Freek, took him to get his drivers license and accompanied him to job interviews. No need to take a driver's test. You filled out a paper, paid $2 and you had a license.
Moving to Canada meant I had to leave family and friends. A few days before we were to leave. I was walking home with my friend Ton. I told him I was moving to a new country. I turned around and he was gone. He never said goodbye to me, and no handshake. I felt stumped.
I also had to leave my black and white cat behind, Miepie, as we weren't allowed to take him on the ship. I was sad to leave my pet . He had been given to me as a birthday present. I certainly did not want to move.
Before our departure, our many relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Rotterdam gave us a big send-off. The night before we left we slept overnight at my Opa Wismeijer two storey house in Rotterdam.
We said our goodbyes on departure day at Aunt Bep and Uncle Dik van Alphen's house in Hillegersberg. Oom Jan Wismeijer (Moms brother) picked us up and drove us in his new black Ford automobile to the shipping docks.
A picture was taken on the dock with family and friends, Johnie in the middle-front row, Jacob and Mother left of me, Corrie(cousin) with hair ribbon-left of me.
We boarded the ship S.S. Volendam on Sept 5, 1951. It was a Dutch 2 funnel steam ship and carried 1134 passengers. The ship, originally built in 1922 (575 ft length by 67 ft beam), was to be on her last voyage across the Atlantic, and was to be scrapped the following year in 1952.
Oom Jan boarded the ship with us to have a look for himself where we bunked. We did not have our own separate one room cabin. We stayed in a large cabin that had bunk beds with a small number of other families. Public bathrooms were located below our deck.
Seeing where the other passengers were staying in other parts of the ship was a luxury to us. At least 500 beds were lined up in a huge one room cabin on the deck below us. I was overwhelmed and amazed seeing all these people sleep together in separate beds and no privacy. We were quite relieved, we weren't staying in that room. So many people on this huge immigrant ship.
We said goodbye to Oom Jan and the ship sounded a loud horn. We were on our way. I was 11 years old and had just completed grade 5, and my brother Bob was 15 years old and had just completed grade 9. We were now on a new and long 11 day adventure.
Life on board ship was very different than living in a apartment flat back in Holland. The ship had very large lounges with comfortable leather lounge chairs where the adults could sit and chat , smoke, drink and play cards; however, entertainment on a very large immigrant ship for children was nonexistent. No play centre. My brother, Bob, and I spent our days exploring the ship.
One day we had a very bad storm while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I went outside on top deck when the storm was already in progress. Very large waves started to roll in and the ship started to toss and plunge into the heaving and mountainous sea. This was very thrilling to me.
I went back inside the ship and saw chaos. Hundreds of people went running up the stairwell to the main deck outside.
I think these people were getting sea sick and were told to go outside to throw up. The waiter in the dining hall told us to eat regular meals so we had something to throw up if we had motion sickness. We ate some soup and crackers. We were lucky as neither I or my family got sea sick.
On another day of our journey my brother and I wanted to check out his brand new bicycle. A birthday gift given to him. My brother did not want to part with his bicycle.
Special arrangement had to be made with the shipping company and proper paper work filled out for the customs agent at Pier 21, Halifax N.S., Canada. I don't know how many guilders it cost to ship it.
We were quite relieved. It sat stored in a wooden crate, tagged with family name and destination Montreal P.Q. , in the cargo hold far below deck.
Due to the cost of shipping we could not take any furniture, and household items like pots, pans etc. The only things we took were our two suitcases filled with clothes and personal stuff, and the precious brand new bicycle.
Then one day towards the end of our 11 day journey I was on the main deck outside, and I saw rocky cliffs coming towards us along our ship. I was awe struck by the sheer enormity of the Nova Scotia shore-line. This was our new country, Canada where we were to live.
Soon afterwards about 5 hours we docked in Halifax. My mother, brother or I could not speak English, but somehow my brother managed to secure his bike stored in a dock warehouse, from an immigration official in Immigration Hall .
We declared our two suitcases and bicycle with the proper custom papers with Canadian Immigration Officials. The bicycle was then loaded with the luggage on the train. We boarded.
We had no separate cabin on the train. We slept and sat in booths with the other passengers. There were no dining facilities on our train. If there was, it was very limited. You pretty well had to get your food before you boarded the train.
I was quite impressed by the Canadian scenery along the tracks. The train crossed huge tall wooden trestle bridges across very deep ravines. The landscape with all the huge forests, rivers and towns and villages along the track was very interesting.
The sheer immensity of this huge country Canada compared to Holland, which is very small in comparison. Was mind boggling. Holland is about three-quarters the size of Nova Scotia and about one percent the total size of Canada. My mother commented how “very old this land looked-many millions years old.”
We arrived in Montreal in the evening after about a 21 hour trip. My Dad and Uncle Freek were waiting for us at the station. All four of us were extremely happy to be together again and to look forward to our new home and a bright new future.
We then drove to an apartment building. Where we were staying on the second floor with an Italian named Frank. Frank's father owned the apartment building.
The apartment consisted of a kitchen with gas stove, one bedroom and living room and bathroom.
I did not like attending school in Montreal. Two languages at the same time, French and English, I found it very hard to learn. The teachers did not know what grade to put me in, as they had no School Report Card. They decided to put me back one year in Grade 5.
I was expected to read, the all French text book, with the French pupils at the French Immersion School. “Talk about a culture shock. This was it! ” All I knew was to read, write and talk in Dutch. I felt it was very unfair.
A lady teacher, kept me after class to teach me English, and I am grateful for that.
The French song I liked singing in class was “ Frere-Jacques, Frere-Jacques – Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? -------------------Ding,ding, dong Ding,ding, dong.” I did not know what the words meant but it sounded pretty good.
The apartment building where we were living was close to a ravine which bordered alongside a railway yard down below.
One day the snow started to fall, and my Mother, I, and Bob were going to do some sledding. I was dressed in a snow suit(long black baggy pants, winter jacket, toque with fur lined ear flaps and black snow boots).
We headed towards that hill and not having a real snow sled we used a blanket. This proved to be kind of cumbersome but somehow seemed to work as the hill was steep enough. We had great fun.
I did not have any friends beside family, who I could play with. My cousin Margaret, younger than me, wanted to go tobogganing. Down we went a very steep hill in the in the winter of 1951-52. We had lots of fun that day too.
I and Margaret attended a Sinter Klaas (St. Nicolas) party for recent Dutch Immigrants that December 5, 1951. A very distinguished tall Sinter Klaas dressed in a very colourful red and white clothes and tall red Bishop hat, and accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) , entered the room. Zwarte Piet then threw a very large bag of kruidnootjes (very small gingerbread cookies) all over the floor. I and all the other kids then scramble to get as many cookies as possible.
Living in a small apartment was becoming to stressful. Frank woke us up in the middle of the night and wanted to talk to my parents. My Dad and Frank then got into a disagreement which could not be resolved. We did not want to make trouble, and who would believe us? We were new immigrants and foreigners too!
My Dad knew a Dutch immigrant named Henk, a chauffeur, who worked for a rich landowner. This man lived on a mansion estate and a large farm on Ile Perrot close to Montreal. My Dad and the chauffeur had a talk. Henk told my Dad he would talk to his employer the French Colonel about us living on the mansion estate.
My parents were invited to a Maple Syrup festival in March 1952 at the estate so they could get the meet the Colonel and all the other invited guests. Bob and I stayed at home.
The Colonel gave his approval and we moved to Ile Perrot.
My Dad had a job as a factory painter in Montreal. He commuted back and forth to work , and he was expected to speak only French with the employees.
The acreage had many maple trees, some dairy cows, fish traps sunk along the river system, and a carpenter workshop.
The mansion had a beautiful designed front entrance, large size kitchen with dining room, large size living room, many bedrooms and bathrooms. My parents had their own bedroom and we boys each had a bedroom.
In the morning Mother made breakfast. We dined on bacon and eggs, cooked oatmeal cereal spread with dairy cream and cranberries, toast , coffee, milk, and orange juice. For supper we had fish (pike) and French fries.
Living in a large mansion estate on a very large acreage close to the Saint Lawrence River, Quebec was quite an adventure.
One day in early spring 1952 Bob and I found a wooden river raft in a grove of partly submerged trees. We had to try it out, so we hopped on board and started to float into deeper water. Then to our amazement the raft started to sink . We found ourselves in big trouble.
Bob could swim so headed towards shore. I could not swim, I was afraid of water. I could barely touch the bottom. I started to cry out to my brother for help. He told me me to stay calm and swim for shore but I actually tip-py toed across the bottom of the pond toward the edge of the pond. I could hardly keep my head above water. Terrified I kept my attention on my brother.
Bob, who was already on the bank, reached and pulled me out. That day Bob, saved me from drowning, and I am very grateful for that.
We headed home to our Mother and she was very angry with us seeing the dripping wet clothes. She told us to take all our wet clothes off so she could wash and dry them. My older brother explained what had happened. I think she was more concerned about our safety, and relieved that I did not drown.
Jacob and I attended a very large French Immersion School in Montreal. One day we were coming home from school, walking along the front driveway of the mansion. Henk approached us and in a stern Dutch voice said “Quiet you boys are making to much noise and wake up the Colonel.” I think he was a recluse and avoided people. The Colonel had some hunting dogs for retrieving small game, and decided they were no good, so he shot them.
While living on the estate I also became fascinated with large painted turtles that the fishermen found in their fish traps. I told the fisherman I wanted to keep the turtles as pets. Soon afterwards a farmhand built me a round metal wire enclosure with a sunken water pail in the middle to house my new pets. After 3 months I had at least a dozen of these large painted turtles. I was sad to leave my pets behind. My Dad decided to move to Calgary and English the official language spoken there.
“Why did we move out West?” I think the incident at the apartment and temporary living at Ile Perrot mansion. I wasn't asked if I wanted to move. My Dad was the bread winner and provider of the family. You went along with what he said. You would not contradict him. He was the law.

We arrived in Calgary the middle of Stampede week July 1952. My Dad had seen pictures of the Canadian Rockies, and was struck by the majesty and beauty of the landscape, and told us that is the place where he would like to move to. I had already saw a film of the Calgary Stampede at the School in Montreal.
My Dad found a place for us to stay in a second floor apartment, Villa Guest House, downtown Calgary. After we had settled in our family we went to Stampede Park. With wonder I saw the horse races and chuck wagon races, for free, in front of the Stampede Grandstand..
Our family then moved into a rented basement suite in Sunnyside N.W., Calgary. The place was not big enough. It had a living room, small kitchen, bathroom and no bedroom. Dad built a bedroom in the undeveloped part of the basement for him and Mother. My brother and I slept on a double bed, but Dad finally decided we should move out because the landlady was stealing bathroom towels from us.
We then moved into a rented two storey house on 13 ave and 5 street S.W. (Connaught) Calgary. Our family lived on the main floor and basement, and Dad was sublet the second floor to renters.
This French Lady from Ile Perrot, knew I liked keeping turtles, sent me a big box of baby turtles by mail. I met her only once while living there , and I never got to really thank her. Dad build me a cement pond in the back yard and I filled that with water and the turtles. After awhile the turtles started disappearing. I think the neighbourhood cat must have eaten them.
I attended grade six at Connaught School from September 1953 to June 1954. The final comment by school teacher. M.F. Coates -June 30 , 1954 - Report Card - “ John came into Parkway School, Bowness, June 14. He was recommended to Grade VII by his previous teacher. He has difficulties in English. M.C.” I was a stutterer and had great difficulties in talking to another person.. Comment from same Report Card January-February 1954 by another teacher J.Veale. John is making good progress.
In front of the class a Connaught teacher commented how excellent my writing penmanship looked. This sure boosted my confidence.
I joined a boys volley ball team at Connaught School. I really got very good in serving the ball over the net and returning the ball. It did not matter to me if we won or lost a game, as long as I took part.
I found a new friend in the neighbourhood, but then he moved. I played with some kids in the neighbourhood and started to like this one girl, around my age.
I did not like it when my Dad bought a house on Hillside Avenue, near a golf course in Bowness 1954, and we had to move again.
I had my own room in the basement. Where I started my tropical fish hobby. I built my own 10 gallon fish Aquarium with help from my Dad. He knew somebody from work to build the steel frame from steel angle bars. I cut my own sheets of glass with a glass cutter and used some black aquarium putty sealant along the inside of the corners. I bought some guppies and swordtails and gold fish. After awhile the fish started to have fry (babies) and I had to add another tank.
I applied for a job, to pay for this, at the Hudson Bay Store restaurant, downtown Calgary. As a bus boy. “WOW.” I was making some real money $1.25 per hour. Part-time Friday night and week-ends. I was fourteen old at the time.
I bought a folk guitar. And I took private music lessons. My parents could not afford to give me an allowance.
I found a new friend Mike who lived across the street from us. I went biking with him and we wound up at the Bearspaw Dam, west of Bowness on the Bow River. There we picked Saskatoon berries, and went exploring in the many caves along the Dam reservoir. Other times we just played NHL table hockey game at his house. I was never more happier, than in those days.
I am thankful to my parents for immigrating to a rich and bountiful land called Canada-my home.