Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dutch connection (Part II)

        Coenraad Rood was a survivor, in many, many ways.
        He was a Holocaust survivor, like my parents. He spent three years in 11 different German labor camps. He lost almost all of his immediate family in the concentration camps, then returned to Amsterdam after World War II. He tragically lost a little boy. His first wife died only two years after they came to the United States with their daughter.
        Coen just kept putting his life back together. He died last Oct. 1 at the ripe age of 94, a longtime resident of White Oak, Texas.
        He was "Ome Coon" (Uncle Coon) to us. He was one of the most interesting, most engaging people you could ever meet. He was a piece of work.
         Of all the Dutch people my family would find in the U.S. and Canada, Coen Rood was the one with the longest ties. He was two years older than my dad, and here's the significant part: He was my dad's older brother Hyman's best friend as boys. So my dad knew Coen -- Coentje he called him -- practically all his life.
          I have distinct memories of Coen, his wife Elisabeth (everyone called her Bep) and daughter  Marleen, a couple of years younger than me, in Holland. Somewhere, there is a nice picture of Marleen and me  as little kids.
           Coen was a master tailor; he had a tailor shop in Amsterdam before and after the war. When his family came to Shreveport -- and Sunset Acres -- in 1960, with the encouragment of my parents, he found work as a tailor. Given a chance to buy a tailor shop in Longview a couple of years later, he did so.
            And then Bep -- always haunted by the loss of their little boy -- died soon after they moved to White Oak, which is just outside Longview. Coen, always the resourceful one, found another woman in Holland a year or two later, talked her into coming to the U.S. with him, and they married.
            In a couple of years, she bore him another daughter, Josepha. And last year, as Coen's health declined, Jo gave him his first grandchild, Felix. Those pictures of Coen and Felix together brought tears to my eyes.
           My mother was an excellent seamstress, so she knew the inner workings of Coen's business. But she probably never put together suits the way Coen could. Marleen always marveled at his skills, and he tried to teach her as much as he could.
          Coen was an upbeat, hearty guy, with wavy hair and bushy eyebrows that rivaled Andy Rooney's. He always had loads of stories, and corny jokes, and a loud laugh. He could talk to anyone, and connect, like my dad could. And he could talk. He talked often about his war/camp experiences and, with my parents, about the old times and old friends in Amsterdam.
          He could out-talk my parents, which was quite an achievement. When they got together, it was time for me to go find a quiet place.
           And when my mother and Coen disagreed ... whoa. But he frustrated her; she could never outlast him. My dad, though, loved Coentje like a brother.
            Like my mother, Coen was interested in politics and, like her, he was interested in educating students and civic and church groups about the Holocaust. Like my dad, he loved professional wrestling, although his sports interests weren't as broad or deep as my dad's.
            And he took care of his wives and his daughters.
           When I saw Marleen at Coen's funeral, it was our first meeting in maybe 45 years. She reminded me of the day in Sunset Acres, at their house, when she bashed me in the head (and drew blood) with an Etch-a-Sketch we were fighting for. I got sweet revenge a couple of years later (spare you the details). She's been a special friend for as long as anyone I know.
            Coen made a life for himself and his family in the U.S., and our connection with him was easily the strongest of any of our Dutch connections here. I hope one day Felix will know what a great character his grandfather was.
             But there are a lot of Dutch connections in our experience. Read on.
               In the previous blog, I wrote about the Thaxton-deBruyne families. There's an extension to that. In 1961, Jack deBruyne's sister -- Johanna ("Annie") -- and her husband, Jules Vercruysse, also came from Holland to Sunset Acres, with Yvonne (who was my age and by attending school at Oak Terrace and Woodlawn made it two Dutch kids there) and Hans.
            And just as we came to Sunset Acres, so did Herman "Van" VanderWal and wife Ann -- and young Jan, the blondest little boy I'd ever seen until I saw our Jason. They moved in only a couple of blocks from us. Nanette was born a few years later.
            Then there was the van den Boom connection -- three brothers who came to the U.S. from Holland.
          Somehow, we found Marinus "Took" van den Boom and Rini -- and their kids Will, Patricia ("Tootsie") and Terry -- just a neighborhood over in Werner Park. Took's brother, Pete, came to Shreveport in 1960, eventually married Katie Cascio at St. John's Catholic Cathedral (we went to the wedding) and they wound up living in another closeby neighborhood, Garden Valley, with their two little boys, Pete and Mike. Yet another brother, Dick, also came to the U.S. and settled in the Seattle area.
            Coen Rood wasn't our first White Oak connection, though. We already knew the fabulous Gosschalk family there. They were so much fun to be around.
            Ben and Jetty Gosschalk had come to the U.S., in 1948, following Jewish German friends with whom they had worked in the Resistance together during the war. They first came to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with son Joost and daughter Conny (my age), and another son, Bobby, was born in America.
           My dad met Ben (by then working in Longview), I believe, through a business contact. We became regular visitors to White Oak, which I soon learned had won a share of the Texas 1957 Class A  state football championship (7-7 title-game tie). So because Joost -- a young man to admire -- was a sub running back on that team, I became a Roughnecks fan.
           The Gosschalks' connection continued, too, when Ben's brother Bert, wife Dora and daughers Frieda and Josine moved to Shreveport in the early 1960s. Frieda, in fact, graduated from Byrd High in 1963. Both the girls were our house guests for a week at a time, and we loved their personalties.
        Just as with White Oak, another special place for us was Minden, Louisiana, 30 miles from Shreveport. There was a strong Dutch connection there, too. Again, it began with a remarkable story.       
         Leo Elshout was a tall, rangy Dutch soldier who was a part of Operation Market Garden -- which helped turn the war in September 1944. He met an American soldier, Tinsley Connell from Minden, and they became friends.
          After the war, with Connell's influence, Leo and his new bride Lenie immigrated to the U.S., to Minden.
          Five kids -- Jerry, Martin, Tommy, Maria ("Sister") and little Mike -- made it a lively place in Minden. And there was more to the connection. Joining Leo and Lenie there was her brother, Martin VandenOord, who we all called "Tini." I liked him because he was as much a fan of the Dutch national soccer team as I was. He actually was our first contact with the Elshout family.
            Martin surprised us all, too, when he went back to Holland and brought back a wife, Ria. Together they ran the Holiday Inn in Minden for years and they had a son, Marcel.
          We went to Minden, to the Elshouts' home, often in the late 1950s, and I soon learned it was a golden age for Minden High athletics ... "The Home of Champions," the city's people called it.
          A brand-new school building, a heated indoor swimming pool, state championship teams in women's swimming, football, basketball and baseball. George Doherty as the football coach; the great Jackie Moreland the star basketball player.
          In my newspaper career, I covered Minden teams often, and I always had a fondness for that town, and that school, and the people who ran it and coached there. So many people from Minden  would become friends at Louisiana Tech and later on. But it started with the Elshouts and "Tini."
        Our Dutch connections also included Jewish friends from Amsterdam, even Holocaust survivors like my parents, who came to North America -- Leon and Lidy Van Witsen (and son Freddy) to Toronto, Max and Greta Himel to Culver City, Calif.  There were recripocal visits.
         And on and on: A couple of Dutch priests who resided in Natchitoches; a dairy farmer in Logansport, where we visited a couple of times; an older couple named Lejeune, who lived south of the Shreveport city limits near Forbing.
        Yep, my folks were partial to anything Dutch. Elsa and I still are. We miss a lot of those people, especially our dear Bep, who made the greatest meatballs to ever go in chicken soup and died far too soon, and our sweet Ann VanderWal, who we lost at age 86 to a massive stroke just a year ago.
         All our old Dutch friends came here as we did, with hope and prayers, and a new start. I trust their experiences were as rewarding as ours.
         NEXT: The Van Thyn connections

1 comment:

  1. Nico, I was catching up on your blog this morning. It has been a very busy summer, adding a new granddaughter, making it 2 for us, vacationing in Florida, getting the last child ready for his first year in college, and getting ready to becoming emptty nesters. It incredible how much you remember about your early years. I have enjoyed your writings and especially the Dutch Connection. Thanks for the memories. Will van den Boom