Coming to America: Leaving the safety of the Netherlands
For this 12-year-old boy, it was the beginning of a great adventure. It was far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. My dad, a pastor in the Reformed Church in Rijssen, The Netherlands, had accepted a call to two congregations (one Dutch speaking and one English speaking) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, America. Our family, seven children and a seven-month pregnant wife, dutifully accepted our fate.
We were going to America. My dad was convinced that God was calling him. We were not so sure. On the happiness scale, we would have registered a -10.
For a teenager, growing up in Rijssen, a small farming community in the North-Eastern part of The Netherlands, this whole thing was beyond my, and my family’s, scope of understanding. It was almost two years since we had been liberated by Canadian and American soldiers. They had fought the Germans, beat them, and made us free.
Our home, the parsonage, was a large home. and the liberating Canadians had asked us for permission to use the grounds around our home to set up their field kitchen. Permission was granted, of course.
We benefited in many ways. The soldiers were friendly and very polite. They respected our home, the grounds and they shared their food. They even allowed us to ride on their tanks and in their trucks.
They seemed amused by the fact that boys my age were allowed to smoke. They taught us a few English words like “yes, no, maybe, good, and thank you!” It was our first exposure to the English language.
Wanting to learn about the land to which we were going, I consulted our school library. It offered little help. The books I found mainly described cowboys and indians. It seemed like it was a wild kind of place. People settled their disputes with “six shooters.” They rode horses and used covered wagons for transportation. It certainly did not sound very civilized.
On the Sunday before we would be boarding our ship, the large congregation of over 1500 gathered with us for the last time. There were many prayers and well-wishes. At the end of the service the congregation stood and sang the 121st Psalm. It promised that “The Lord will watch over you.”
A lot of people were crying. It all sounded very serious, and ominous. It seemed like the congregation never expected to see us alive again! Somehow the thrill of the adventure began to disappear, and we were filled with a lot of apprehension.
Mother’s family, business people who owned cars, brought us to the Holland America Line boat dock in Rotterdam. It was near the home where I was born and where we had lived for the first eight years of my life. It added to my sense of dread. My birth home; would I ever see it again?
Our ship, The S.S. (steam ship) Veendam, was huge. It carried over 1,800 passengers. It was going to be our home for the next 10 or 11 days, depending on the weather crossing the Atlantic. A little smoke and some steam came out of the two huge smokestacks. It looked like “she” (I later learned that ships are “she’s”) was anxious to get started.
The few household belongings and part of dad’s library that we were allowed to take (based on the weight restrictions), were stored in the ship’s hold. All of our beautiful furniture, our bikes, and our very nice pump organ had to remain behind. Dad promised we would replace all of that in “America.”
We said “goodbye” to our relatives and friends and then we were escorted to our cabins. What a big disappointment they turned out to be. On land, we had lived in a beautiful, large home with large bedrooms. This definitely was a step in the wrong direction; bunk beds, one above the other. It reminded me of pictures I had seen in the school’s library of prison cells. Straps on the upper bunk, we were told, were there to keep you from rolling out of bed when the ship would start rolling from side to side as we crossed the ocean. Definitely not cool.
Three blasts from the ship’s horns was the signal for visitors to disembark the ship. The Veendam was getting ready to begin its journey. We looked at each other and bravely fought back the tears. We went up the stairs and crowded along the railings and started to wave to our relatives and friends.
We silently wondered if we would ever see them again. Slowly the huge ship pulled away from the dock and we were on our way. Carefully, we made our way through the Rotterdam harbor and eventually entered the New Waterway Canal (a man-made canal that connects Rotterdam to the North Sea).
When we entered the North Sea we became part of a long line of ships, all heading west towards the English Channel and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. Our convoy was escorted by mine-sweepers. It was only two years after the war, and the English Channel contained countless wrecks of ships that had been sunk during the war. Unexploded drifting mines also posed great dangers to passing ships.
We began to realize that this was not a joy ride. We wondered had we survived five years of war only to drown at sea? Of course when you are twelve years old and you are standing in the bow of an ocean liner going to the land of cowboys and indians, thoughts of drowning quickly disappear. Your sights are focused on the future…… In America.
We learned that France was on one side and England on the other. There, in the distance, glistening in the sunlight, I saw my first mountains. Someone standing nearby said, “Those are the White Cliffs of Dover.” Mountains for me. Rising 350 feet above the Channel, they were the highest land masses I had ever seen. Holland is basically a flat country; so for me, they were mountains.
The Channel became wider and soon we passed, what I learned, was the last land lighthouse, Land’s End. It is England’s most westerly tip. Much later in life, I learned that from this point to New York was 3,147 miles of nothing but water. The convoy began to break up. The minesweepers turned around and began escorting other ships that were heading towards Rotterdam and German harbors. The ships in our convoy set their course for their individual transatlantic destinations. Waiters appeared on deck ringing dinner bells. It was time to eat. When we entered the dining room we were asked our name and then escorted to our tables. We were informed that we were to use those same tables for each meal.
This was 1947, two years after the war had ended. During the war we had never lacked for food. There were a lot of small farmers in the congregation, and part of their tradition was to share with whoever had less, like the minister’s family. In addition, our meal session usually included around 20 or so people. Some of whom were “divers” (a term identifying people hiding from the Germans).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.