Talking to the dead: Ancestors who were reputed to be mediums

A stack of notes.

This is what’s currently at the top of my stack of ancestry notes. If you’re like me, you have plenty of notes written by random family members that need to be deciphered.

I’m one of those people who likes to think things through logically and at times I can be downright cynical, but I will also admit that while I would like to think ghost stories aren’t real, I’ve had some very strange, inexplicable experiences in my life.

It would seem I am not alone.

As I was organizing my ancestry documents and photos this weekend, I came across some notes I believe my grandfather Johan Siersema wrote about the Siersema line of my family, which mentioned two reputed mediums.

Klaas Nicholas Siersema, who went by his middle name or “Nico,” was born Feb. 3, 1836 to Ettje Wolthers and Gerrit Siersema (1813), and was christened two days later. He had two sisters, Attje Siersema and Maike Siersema, and a half brother, Nanno Claussen Siersema. He married Elisabeth Clasina van Eijsden (or Eysden) on Sept. 30, 1863 in Groningen.

Klaas was reputed as a medium who would stand above graves and speak to the occupants, according to my grandfather’s note.

Klaas and Elisabeth had two sons, Gerrit Siersema and Johannes Elto Siersema. Gerrit’s daughter Elisabeth Helena Siersema (or “Bets”), who was born July 22, 1894 to Gerrit and Arentje Vermaas, inherited her grandfather’s talent for talking to the dead. Bets may or may not have been mentally handicapped (Cousin Anje found records of employment for her), according to one note, and did not have any children.

Anyways, as always, if you do have any info the share, please post the details in the comments!

Note: I should add that the sources for this post were handwritten notes and results on FamilySearch.org and the old Genlias.nl website.

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#tbt photo: Christina Siersema (n. Kool) and Joy-Anne Siersema

Christina Siersema (n. Kool) with daughter Joy-Anne Siersema.

In this photo (circa 1960s), Christina “Tineke” Siersema (n. Kool) plays with daughter Joy-Anne Siersema at brother Maurice “Morris” Kool’s home in Scarborough, Ontario. Christina was born in Eindhoven, Noord-Brabant, Netherlands, on Aug, 2, 1927. She and Johan Siersema eloped in or around North London right around the end of WWII and were later married in front of family and friends on July 29, 1950. They had three children: Nick, Michael and Joy-Anne. Joy-Anne, shown here in Canada where the family immigrated to after the war, was the youngest.

I’ve decided to adopt the ongoing Throwback Thursday (#tbt) social media trend of folks posting old pictures on this blog. I have to have about a couple thousand that I’m afraid will never see the light of day unless I share them out, so I plan to highlight one a week with an extended cutline.

POW letters from Klaas Siersema at Oflag XIII-B to wife Maria Wilhelmina Siersema-van Erp

A POW notice was sent from the Nazis to Maria Wilhelmina Siersema-van Erp on May 15, 1942, saying what she should send to her husband and why he had been taken into custody. Klaas Siersema was imprisoned at Oflag XIII-B, a prisoner of war camp for officers that was at the time in Hammelburg, Germany. I am not sure of his  exact rank at the time, but I’ll add it to this post if I am able to narrow it down. Later, he or someone he knew drew this sketch of the camp. Although I can’t read them, I did want to share them in case anyone else can. Here are photos/scans of the letters he sent back, in order of postmark:

June, 1, 1942

Front of the postcard from Klaas "Niek" Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Front of the postcard from Klaas “Niek” Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Back of the postcard from Klaas "Niek" Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Back of the postcard from Klaas “Niek” Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

June 26, 2014

Front of a letter from Klaas "Niek" Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Front of a letter from Klaas “Niek” Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Letter from Klaas "Niek" Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

Letter from Klaas “Niek” Siersema at the Oflag XIII-B prisoner of war camp in 1942.

July 8, 1942

Letter front from Klaas Siersema at Oflag XIII-B in 1942.

Letter front from Klaas Siersema at Oflag XIII-B in 1942.

Notice on POW stationary saying it's only for prisoner of war use and they must write on the line. The words are in German and Polish.

Notice on POW stationary saying it’s only for prisoner of war use and they must write on the line. The words are in German and Polish.

A letter written in pencil from Klaas Siersema to his wife while he was a prisoner at Oflag XIII-B in 1942.

A letter written in pencil from Klaas Siersema to his wife while he was a prisoner at Oflag XIII-B in 1942.

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POW LETTERS: To Gertrude van Lier, from Joseph Terraubella at Stalag VB 19

Front of a letter from Joseph Ferraubella at Stalag VB 19 to Gertrude van Hier in 1942.

Front of a letter from Joseph Ferraubella at Stalag VB 19 to Gertrude van Hier in 1942.

Back of a letter from Joseph Ferraubella at Stalag VB 19 to Gertrude van Hier in 1942.

Back of a letter from Joseph Ferraubella at Stalag VB 19 to Gertrude van Hier in 1942.

This letter was in a box of my great-grandmother’s things and it stood out to me for obvious reasons. Turns out, one beautiful thing did make it out of the war -this painted rose by Joseph Terraubella. I don’t even know how painting materials make it into a prisoner of war camp.

Anyhow, I would really like to know more about Joseph and Gertrude, who I am guessing was a friend or relative of my great-grandmother’s. I’ve scoured the Internet with no luck. My great-grandmother, Helena de Wit, also lived in Utrecht, a fact which lends itself to my theory that they were friends or relatives.

UPDATE: After reading through Anje’s comments below (thank goodness she can read cursive better than I can), I remembered this newspaper clipping I also found in a box that originally belonged to my great-grandmother:

Newspaper clipping about Gertrude "Truus" van Lier.

Newspaper clipping about Gertrude “Truus” van Lier.

As Anje notes, van Lier, a CS-6 Dutch Resistance fighter, was executed Oct. 27, 1943, at a POW camp. She was 22 years old. Please see Anje’s comments below for links to webpages about her.

Bio: Johan Siersema (1924), the early years

Johan Siersema is seen at bottom right in this family photo.

A young Johan Siersema at the foot of Maria Wilhelmina van Erp and Klaas Siersema in this undated photo.

The early years

In his own words, Johan Nico Siersema had a hard life.

Hans, as he was called by family and friends, was born on the 9th of October, 1924, in Venlo, Limberg, Netherlands, and was the first son of Helena “Lenie” de Wit and Klaas “Niek” Siersema.

Hans later had one brother, named Tonny, but Tonny died at the age of 2. After Hans’ parents divorced when he was 5, he was essentially raised by his step-mother, Maria Wilhelmina van Erp, and never really had a good relationship with his birth mother thereafter.

Johan "Hans" Siersema and cousins.

Johan “Hans” Siersema and cousins. Date unknown.

Hans was 13 when he started smoking and drinking, and those became lifelong habits. Later in life, he sometimes smoked from a pipe, but preferred unfiltered cigarettes — Pall Mall — and Scotch.

He attended Gooisch Higher Citizens School in Bussum from 1937 to 1943, when he graduated, according to a Dutch newspaper (De Gooi- en Eemlander : nieuws- en advertentieblad June 5 1943).

During that time, he was a strong competitive breaststroke swimmer, coming in second in a local race in 1941 that was reported by a newspaper. In one tale of family lore, he missed a chance at being in the Olympics because it was cancelled for the war.

He met his future wife and my grandmother, Christina “Tineke” Kool, in wartime during the end of his high school years (he was 17 and she was 14), but I don’t know the story of it.

Hans was very smart — with an 139 I.Q. — but he was waylaid from attending university by the war.

Wartime

During the German occupation, he was a member of the Dutch Resistance and was involved in clandestine operations. Some of these included exerting pressure on Dutch police to set an example as to why it was a bad idea for local police to help the Nazis.

Hans went by at least two aliases: Ferdinand de Wit and Johan de Wit. The way he put it, the Nazis couldn’t really confirm his identity one way or the other. They didn’t have the technology that we do.

At some point during the war, Hans found himself as the only remaining living member of three resistance cells, according to a story Hans told my Uncle Nick. According to the story, each cell had about 20 members and then a person from one cell would have contact with the next so they could coordinate. As the only living member, he was made to go identify the dead bodies of resistance fighters lined up on sand dunes. He managed to identify a couple, but then said he couldn’t do it anymore.

Johan "Hans" Siersema in the POW camp where he was forced to dig up the un-detonated bombs dropped from air forces. In one story, he reached a bomb and it started ticking. He scrambled out of the hole and started running and when the Nazi guard started shouting at him to get back down there, Hans shouted back that the guard ought to run too.

Here, Johan “Hans” Siersema is shown in the POW camp where he was forced to dig up un-detonated bombs dropped from airplanes. Helena de Wit reportedly bribed a guard in order to visit her son and this photo is a product of that visit. In one story, he reached a bomb and it started ticking. He scrambled out of the hole and started running and when a Nazi guard started shouting at him to get back down there, Hans shouted back that the guard ought to run, too.

In 1944, Hans was a prisoner of war and was held in Kamp Amersfort, about 20 miles from Arnhem, Holland. His job as a prisoner was to dig 10-foot deep holes around the perimeter of the camp in search for buried land mines. Consequently, he watched his friends who worked with him be blown up and die, according to what my mom remembers from a conversation with him.

He attempted to escape several times before he was eventually successful in September of 1944. According to an interview he did in the 1980s with my mom, English planes were landing at Arnhem, 20 miles away…

“When that happened, the Germans … let the Red Cross in and the Red Cross insisted that anybody that was sick would be released immediately, so that there would only be healthy people there.”

“…I had a friend who was a medical student who worked for the doctor and he took a blood sample and switched mine with one that had T.B. So I had to leave and they gave me my walking papers and I got out.”

Hans returned to his family then. When the car pulled up to Klaas Siersema’s house to deliver him to his family, Klaas was worried it was the Nazis coming to take him, so he went and hid in a tobacco patch he had grown in the back yard.

When my mom asked Hans what he did between the time of his escape in ’44 and when the war ended in ’45, his response was, “I was hungry.” They were on rations then of two pounds of potatoes and four pounds of sugar beets per week. In the same interview, he talked about his aunt Leentje Siersema and his uncle Leendert Vlaasbloem, who died of starvation just three days apart.

According to a story Hans told emotional and late into the night to Cousin Michael, “Later in the war he said he was in France with his best friend. They were waiting on a British sub to come carry them to the British Isles. They went to a bar and got into a fight. That landed them in a french jail. They we then given to the Nazis by the French and he spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.”

“When the British we coming to liberate the camp, he told me the Nazis decide to kill the prisoners and he stood beside his best friend and fellow freedom fighter as a Nazi shot his friend in the head.”

I am not sure at what point, but on the run from the Nazis either before his capture or after his escape, Hans went to his mother looking for a place to hide. She turned him away for fear of being found out, so the story goes, and their relationship was further damaged.

Johan Siersema

Johan Siersema

Hans enlisted in the Royal Netherlands Army in Eindhoven on the 9th of July, 1945. At that time, the German Occupation had ended, but the war with Japan was still going. He was sent to England, where he was a small arms instructor for the new Dutch Army until 1946, when the military wanted to send him to Indonesia. Hans resigned his commission then, wanting to get away from the fighting, which he’d just done for five years.

In a story Hans later told my Uncle Nick, Hans once found himself guarding Nazi prisoners. One of them spoke up, saying Hans looked familiar. It turned out the Nazi prisoner had guarded Hans before and their roles were reversed.

Later, he was commended to be of good character by the mayor of Doorn, but I am not sure why.

Following wartime, a 23-years-old Hans enrolled in university. Because he felt like he’d lost so much time already, he rarely went to classes. Instead, he studied books and showed up to take exams. He graduated with a degree in economics after two years instead of the typical four.

“You know, I’d lost a number of years,” he explained his motivation.

Between July and September of 1949, he and Tineke eloped in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England.

Christina Kool and Johan Siersema in 1945.

Christina Kool and Johan Siersema in 1945.

“What happened is, we started sleeping together, and in those days, Sweetheart, that wasn’t done — that was not done. But we wanted to keep on sleeping together, so we secretly got married,” he said in the interview with my mom.

They were officially married with family present the following year.

Note: I will continue my grandfather’s story in a second bio post. Here, I tried to be as factual as possible, but if I’ve learned anything looking into my family history, it’s that everyone can have a different story about the same events. I welcome anyone who wants to share their story of Opa John in the comments and I will continually update this post as more information become clear to me. I would love to do a separate post with everyone’s memories. For instance, until recently, I’d forgotten how he made a sort of whistling noise through his teeth when he spoke.