Finding Family History in the Pages of the CRC Archive – Part I

Finding Family History in the Pages of the CRC Archive – Part I

On August 27, 1955, Pieter Duinkerken showed up at the offices of the Calvinist Resettlement Committee to speak with Miss Agnes Flonk, the assistant secretary. The committee was created by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), whose headquarters were in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mr. Duinkerken himself was a recent immigrant from the Netherlands. He asked if perhaps his good friends, Johan Vos and Hendrikja Kluvers, fiancés planning to marry, might be able to immigrate to Grand Rapids to reunite with him.

typed letter, multiple paragraphs under letterhead
Letter from Agnes Flonk to M. Reinsma

Flonk was not thrilled about this request. She had been working for months at that point to get Johan a position as a printer in Seattle, and she had finally submitted the paperwork to the State Department and the American Consulate in Rotterdam. She told Mr. Duinkerken that the matter was out of her hands. She would have to write to William De Rooy in Seattle to ask him to relinquish Vos as a potential employee. It had been difficult to find a Dutch immigrant with printing experience in the first place, so Flonk told Mr. Duinkerken that Mr. De Rooy had priority.

Luckily, Mr. De Rooy had no desire to stand in the way of friends reuniting, and so, despite the late stage of paperwork, efforts were made to change the future Mr. and Mrs. Vos’ destinations from Seattle, Washington to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I say luckily, because had Mr. De Rooy not been so generous, I might not be here today. Johan and Hendrikja Vos were my Oma and Opa.

Much of their story has been passed down through my family, but I learned more about the bureaucratic tribulations they went through to immigrate to the United States by looking through the collection of papers from the Resettlement Service Committee located in Heritage Hall. Seeing their story told through a series of forms and correspondence gives more insight into the role of the CRC in my family’s history. It also underscores the importance of community in helping immigrants and refugees find footing in a new country.

Hendrikja and Johan were born in 1930 and 1932, respectively, in the eastern province of Overijssel in the Netherlands. They were still young children when the Second World War broke out, but they saw their fair share of horror during the Nazi occupation from 1940-1945. Johan and his family were living in Arnhem by that time and lost their home to Operation Market Garden.

Meanwhile, to conserve food rations Hendrikja was sent to live with an aunt and uncle on their farm near the German border. While there, she and the family risked their lives to hide Jewish neighbors escaping the Holocaust.

After the war, Johan enlisted in the Korps Commandotroepen (KCT; Dutch special forces), serving from about 1954-5. During this time, his unit was sent to help with the aftermath of the flood of 1953. While there, he developed jaundice from contaminated water.

The couple met and began dating some time in the early 50s while Johan was in the KCT. By 1955 they were engaged and living in Hendrikja’s hometown, Hengelo. While planning their new life together, they ran into an issue that many of their Dutch countrymen were facing: a housing crisis.

click on images to enlarge

In 1950, the Netherlands was one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. There were 800 people per square mile, and the population was growing rapidly. The birth rate was the highest in Europe: 22.5 per 1,000 in 1952, compared to nearby Belgium’s 16.7 per 1,000. The babies that were born in the Netherlands had a higher rate of survival—nearly double Belgium’s. Furthermore, by 1952 the Netherlands had one of the lowest mortality rates ever recorded: 7.3 per 1,000 in 1952 compared to 11.9 in Belgium and 9.6 in the United States.

For centuries, the Dutch made up for the small size of their nation by reclaiming land from the sea and by colonizing other territories. Indonesia was an extremely valuable and strategic part of what was called the Dutch East Indies. After the Netherlands surrendered to the Nazi army in 1940, the Axis powers, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Japan divided colonial holdings into spheres of influence. Indonesia was given to Japan’s sphere. After the war, the Netherlands expected to retake control of the colony, but the people of Indonesia saw this as their chance to take independence. Indonesia declared independence in 1945. After four years of armed and diplomatic conflict, the Netherlands recognized Indonesia as an independent country in 1949. As a result, many Dutch citizens who had been living in the former colony returned to their homeland. This further exacerbated the housing crisis.

scanned page of book with section heading and typed paragraphs
Page from 1955 Acts of Synod

The Dutch government did its part to alleviate the housing scarcity by providing financial and bureaucratic assistance to those willing to emigrate elsewhere. In the early 50’s that mostly meant Canada. But in 1953, the United States passed a Refugee Act that expanded the definition of refugee to “include those who have been uprooted by World War II, those whose homes were destroyed by the great floods of 1953, and those who have been obliged to leave the Republic of Indonesia.” Thanks to the bombing of Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, Johan Vos was now eligible for immigration to the United States.  

The Refugee Act of 1953 allowed for an additional 15,000 immigrants from the Netherlands to the United States on top of the previous quota of around 3,000. To handle the sudden influx of immigrants from the motherland, the heavily Dutch Christian Reformed Church of North America formed its resettlement service. It was one of 26 similar agencies recognized by the Department of State that were trusted to organize sponsors and jobs and provide general assurances that potential immigrant refugees would have a place to go and a way to contribute in America. Agnes Flonk of Grand Rapids, served as the assistant to the secretary of the Resettlement Committee. She worked tirelessly to match refugees with sponsors but was not immune to the frustration of having her carefully crafted plans upended at the last minute. Thankfully, Flonk sympathized with a group of friends asking to be reunited and gave the Voses’ case another go.

Read part II here

Jen Vos is an assistant archivist at Heritage Hall at Calvin University

Images courtesy of Edward Vos, scanned documents courtesy of Heritage Hall

Cover image: Johan Vos and Hendrikja Kluvers on the shore of the North Sea, ca. 1954

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