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Waterman passenger of 1947 traveled at their own risk

Vanguard of 200,000 Dutch immigrants arrived 50 years ago

Tags: Immigration

For a ten year-old boy moving to Canada in 1947 was a very welcome adventure. As oldest of the Koos and Nell VanHemert family, I could not wait for June 17 to arrive. When the Waterman would depart from Rotterdam, my mother and her brothers, Gerrit and Arie VanderKooi and their families were also to leave for the 'promised land'; 23 people in all. The story has been well-documented in the book To All Our Children by popular Dutch immigration writer Albert VanderMey (Paideia, 1983).

Opa Johannes VanHemert said something very personal at the departure that I would never forget: Maak je zelf onmisbaar (make yourself indispensable). There were a lot of tears and wet hankies. Many family members were present. My Dad was the 11th of 14 children in his family and Mom was 14th of 17 in hers.

Most of the family had witnessed the bombing of Rotterdam in May of 1940. This I believe was the beginning of our uprooting. Dad would say that he saw no future in Oudewater's 'Touwfabriek' (rope factory). He just dreaded the thought that his boys would end up working there.

During the war, as young as I was, I saw my dad and mom always helping people, feeding them, hiding them and working for the underground resistance movement. I remember house searches by the nazi's which left my mother crying; the house in total disarray and Dad more than ever resolved to stop the aggression. He had so many close calls, that I often think that it is no wonder that he and his family were out of there and on the first boat to Canada.

This Waterman was still a troopship even slightly leaning to one side. Women and children were all in one area of the ship on bunks, four high, men were in another part. The "Waterman" was not exactly a luxury cruise ship. We were told we would be travelling at our own risk (there were still plenty of mines that had not yet been recovered and which were a hazard to ships, editor). However, after the horrors of WWII this seemed to be the least of anyone's worries. On the ship many were eating big, hard crackers to fight seasickness. Looking at the numbers staying in the cots or hanging over the sinks or railings, many did not succeed in fighting this off. I escaped this ordeal and often was on deck right in the bow. How awesome I found the distance and heaving waves at sea. At one time whales swam along the ship. At another time an huge iceberg floated by rather too close for comfort I thought.

For me this journey was a perfect adventure. In my thinking then the world could not improve much. There was so much to see. After arriving in inland waters, the blue St. Lawrence was much more peaceful than the Atlantic. Frigates and pleasure yachts came so close and people appeared so friendly. They were always waving. White homes and red barns could be seen in green hills. One thing I could not figure out. With all these straight trees in the forests, how come that the telephone poles were so crooked?

In Montreal many fellow travelers were happy to have solid ground under their feet again. Many still looked very pale and sea-weary. After eating all those biscuits the very best tasting dessert I recall, was an ice-cream bar from the Salvation Army. This was a first and unforgettable Canadian experience.

The first big English word I learned was 'fertilizer'. I saw the word on so many white bags on the black muck of the Holland Marsh in Ontario. Little did I realize what tremendous lettuce, carrots and onions the fertilizer and the black muck would produce, see also And the Swamp Flourished by Albert VanderMey (Vanderheide, 1994). It is here that my Dad - he died a month short of this 50th anniversary - also firmly rooted in Canadian soil.