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Search for family concludes with Michigan man visiting South Africa

Cache of decades-old Bonnema letters leads to reunion

Tags: Genealogy

GRANVILLE, Michigan - Former college instructor and long-time car salesman Jim Bonnema as a child heard his grandfather Mattinus Bonnema at times mention Mattinus’ brother Harm who in 1896 had left the parental home in Zijldijk, Groningen for South Africa. Only 15 years old at the time, Mattinus had been too young to go along but had promised Harm to join him within a few years. However, the Boer War scuttled any travel plans for Africa and the brothers never saw each other again.

When ready to strike out on his own in April 1903, Mattinus with his bride Gertrude, boarded the s.s. ‘Amsterdam III’ for the U.S.A. where the couple - following the example of numerous other Groningers - settled in Chicago. All the other Bonnema siblings later followed to the U.S.A.

When Jim Bonnema’s grandparents died in the 1960s, awareness of the South Africa family connection faded further from memory still. Then a student, Jim Bonnema had earned a scholarship at the Free University and spent a year in the Netherlands - he also visited Zijldijk.

In 1994, Bonnema took home some boxes with family photos and letters he had found at his mother’s home after her death. It took another five years and retirement before he finally perused the cache. One of the pictures he found, dated 1902, read on the back: “Uncle Harm, So. Afrika” while a more recent picture with a headstone stated, in a mixture of Dutch and English: “Broeder Harm’s grave. So. Afrika.” Bonnema also found a picture of two girls, captioned on the back as “Janet Bonnema and her Vriendin.” Another picture showed a large family but the penciled description on the back had faded so much it no longer could be deciphered. Who were these people and where in South Africa did they live? The letters in Afrikaans - Bonnema reads Dutch - failed to disclose any hint of location.

Bonnema’s curiosity was piqued. He took a genealogy course, obtained an Afrikaans-English dictionary and translated the letters. The latest one, dating from 1945, had been written by one of Mattinus’ nieces who somberly informed him of the passing of their father, his brother Harm. But how does one respond to a letter written 50 years earlier and that had no return address?

A book listing Bonnemas in various parts of the world, also gave an address in South Africa to which Jim Bonnema send a letter requesting information. A month later, there was a reply: a previously unknown second cousin had been the recipient of the letter. Soon letters were written going back and forth and in South Africa the letters apparently were passed onto other clan members, as became evident when another second cousin, Harm Bonnema and his wife Susan, managed to trace Jim via Grandville’s police station! When he returned the call, they wanted to know when he would be coming to visit them!

This past summer, Jim Bonnema took up the invitation and spent several weeks visiting family he had never met before, staying at as many as eleven homes, joining a reunion of over eighty Bonnemas and traveling parts of South Africa.

Since then it seems that the family ties have further cemented if ongoing contact is an indication. The Bonnema saga came full circle one day recently when South African cousin Susan lamented that her 19-year-old son had on a trip to England had decided to stat there. The Michigan Bonnemas understood. It was Harm’s story all over.