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.

Johan Siersema’s University of Amsterdam student ID from 1947

Student identification for Johan Siersema for a university in Amsterdam, dated 1947-1949.

Student identification for Johan Siersema for a university in Amsterdam, dated 1947-1948.

Student identification for Johan Siersema for a university in Amsterdam, dated 1947-1949.

Student identification for Johan Siersema for a university in Amsterdam, dated 1947-1948.

These are scans of the student ID my grandfather Johan Siersema was issued while attending the University of Amsterdam following WWII. By that time, he had fought in the Dutch resistance, been a POW twice over, and lived through a difficult period of starvation during which he lost some family members. The new Dutch army wanted him to stay on, but he decided to go to school instead.

Now, by “go to school,” I don’t mean that he went to classes. He was incredibly intelligent, with a 139 IQ, so he simply read the books, showed up to take the tests and then graduated with a degree in a economics — in two years instead of the usual four.

I’ll write more about him in his bio, but I’m still collecting information on that!

Klaas Siersema’s pocket photo book

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I recently borrowed a box of old photographs and documents from my uncle Philip Siersema, and in it I found this little gem. It’s a pocket photo book with images of Klaas Siersema’s second wife Maria Wilhelmina van Erp and his son, Johan. Klaas (born 1895), as I’ve noted before, was a career military man, so it would make sense that he was away from home a lot and wanted something with him to remember his loved ones by. I also like that it shows a softer side of him, especially since his reputation wasn’t exactly super warm and fuzzy.

Trend Setters: Klaas Siersema, Helena ‘Lenie’ de Wit call it quits

Helena de Wit and Klaas Siersema in Oostvoorne, South Holland, Netherlands, in 1922, about a year before they were married.

While Klaas Siersema and Helena “Lenie” de Wit were very much in love when they wed, all things, as they say, must come to an end. A little less than six years after they were married, Klaas filed for divorce in Ginneken en Bavel, North Brabant, where they lived at the time. Helena did not protest.

The request was filed on the 30th of January, 1930 — about a year and a couple weeks following the anniversary of the death of their second son, Tonny. That’s according to a FamilySearch.org scan that a friend, Jan Brul, who I met on the Ancestry.com message boards, kindly located.

Leading up to their divorce, Klaas was away a bit as a career military man, and Helena was at home, building a relationship with the family doctor, Gerard Broeders, according to family lore. Rumor was, they became close through Tonny’s illness and death.

I believe that, at the time, divorce was rare (although it was even rarer when Klaas’ mother Arentje Vermaas divorced his father), which may have been why the divorce was registered on a marriage form. Interestingly, none of Klaas’ and Helena’s descendants in the following two generations had lasting first marriages.

In the aftermath, Helena left Klaas and their son, Johan, to be with Gerard, whom she remained in a relationship with indefinitely. She never married again.

Klaas eventually remarried to a woman named Maria Wilhelmina van Erp, who raised Johan, but I don’t know exactly when that was.

Mayor of Doorn commends Johan Nico Siersema

Bewijs van goed zedelijk gedrag Gemeente van afgifte: Doorn Datum van afgifte: 20 Juli 1949 De burgemeester van voormelde gemeente verklaart, dat de hieronder genoemde persoon, voor zoveel hem bekend, van goed zedelijk gedrag is. Geboren te: Maasbree L Geboren op: 9 October 1924 Beroep: Zonder Alhier wonende (van - tot): 1 November 1948 tot heden  De burgemeester voornoemd, [signature]. Evidence of good character Municipality of issue: Doorn Date of issue: 20 July 1949 The mayor of that municipality declares that the person mentioned below, so far as known to him, of good repute. Born in: Maasbree L Birth: 9 October 1924 Occupation: Without Local resident (from - to): 1 November 1948 to present The mayor said, [signature]

In this document from the 20th of July, 1949, the mayor of Doorn commends my grandfather, Johan Nico Siersema, as a person of good repute and good character. I’m not sure exactly what for, but possibly for service in the war. Still, it’s pretty cool to see.

Portrait of young Johan Siersema and Helena de Wit

This is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved photographs of any that I’ve come across in my research. I would place this portrait of a young Johan Siersema and his mother Helena de Wit at about 1926, since it appears that his brother Tony had not yet been born (otherwise, I would expect him to be in the picture) and she isn’t showing — although, that could be due to 1920s fashion as well as a thin stature otherwise.

Helena “Lenie” de Wit and son Johan Siersema. Likely taken around 1926.

ARMY BOOK 64: Johan Siersema’s Solider’s Service and Pay Book

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 Note: Please find links to individual static pages at the bottom of this post.

Along with many other old family documents and photos in the box I got from my grandmother’s house was this find: My grandfather Johan Siersema’s Soldier’s Service and Pay Book from when he served in the Royal Netherlands Army-Section Expeditionary Force in 1945-46.

Interestingly, he signed up in Eindhoven, but the book is written in English (Thank goodness! Something I can actually read.).

It has a lot of tidbits of information, some of which I can make out and some of which I cannot. Since I decided to post in a slide-show format, I’ll run through the parts that were filled out below…

Page 3: Lists that Johan enlisted in Eindhoven on 9-7-45
Page 5: He went through lots of rifle training, as well as some for live-grenade throwing, machine guns, and mortar/smoke, noting an entire section (mostly with rifles) with “won courses”
Page 6: Notes corps training, swimming test, and gas chamber qualifications
Page 10: Lists vacations, including five days for Easter in 1946 and movement
Pages 11-12: Lists several vaccinations/innoculations, including TAB for Typhoid
Page 13: He lists Klaas Siersema as his next-of-kin in Bussum
Pages 15-26: The form area for the solider’s will was left blank
Back page: Most of the writing is too difficult to make out, but I can clearly read a “T. Kool” and see that it is followed by an address (my grandmother was called Tineke and her last name was Kool)

If you want to view static images, please click on the following links: Cover, Pages 1-2, Pages 3-4, Pages 5-6, Pages 7-8, Pages 9-10, Pages 11-12, Pages 13-14, Pages 15-16, Pages 17-18, Pages 19-20, Pages 21-22, Pages 23-24, Pages 25-26.

Bio: Helena de Wit

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Helena “Lenie” de Wit was born Oct. 24, 1903, in Beverwijk, North Holland, to Dirk de Wit and Wubbina Engellina Johanna Petronella Swalve.

When she was 19, Helena was married Col. Klaas Siersema in the Netherlands Reformed Church in Hertogenbosch and later gave birth to two children, Johan Siersema and Tonny Siersema.

She divorced Klaas after the death of Tonny, which happened when he was two, and spent much of the rest of her life in a committed relationship with Dr. G. Broeders, who was also a military man; although, they never married.

Helena earned certificates in both stenography and typing in 1932, and regularly wrote and sent packages to prisoners during WWII. During the war, when Johan, a member of the Dutch Resistence, was captured, she paid off a guard and went to visit him, having to stand on the other side of a fence. She came from a wealthy family and often traveled in Holland.

Later, she was known as Oma Utrecht by her grandchildren, since that was where she lived later in life.

She died in 1984. She was 81.

Personally, I never met Helena, because she died shortly after I was born, so if you did know her and are inclined to leave a comment sharing a story or memory about her, I would be grateful.