Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Flemish Influence on the Pilgrims - Part 1

Romantic 19th century depiction of the Pilgrim's arrival from Leiden in 1620 at the mythical Plymouth Rock

"There is thus strong ground for the assertion of Mr. Griffis, that many Americans who boast of their “unmixed English stock” are descended from Dutch or Flemish ancestors who first saw England in the Duke of Alva’s time. One hardly sees how it could be otherwise. In the days of Charles I. a considerable part of the rank and file of Puritans were children and grandchildren of Netherlanders, and of these surely many must have been included among the 20,000 who came to New England between 1629 and 1640. "

The Flemish: a Source for the Pilgrims’ Thought and Practices?
Most Americans view the Thanksgiving holiday, held on the fourth Thursday of the month of November, as the quintessential American holiday. The story, of course, celebrates not only the Founding Myth of America – oppressed English Separatists abandon the Old World to create a utopia in the New World – but includes elements that appeal to almost everyone. Religious conservatives stress the explicit thanks to God; secularists look at it as a time of familial togetherness in lieu of Christmas. Regardless of creed and ethnicity, virtually all Americans – with the notable exception of some percent of the Native American community – celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. As one modern Pilgrim historian idealizes:

The historical fact that the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving saw them sitting down with Native Americans in peace and friendship provides an ideal icon…for today’s multi-cultural society.”

At the beginning of every retelling of the Pilgrim’s saga in schools across America is the explanation for their departure to America after spending 12 years (1609s-1620) in the city of Leiden (spelled “Leyden” for American audiences) in the Netherlands. In school textbooks the story goes something like this: after several years’ shepherding by the Reverend John Robinson of Norwich, and without any apparent connection, the Pilgrims move from Scrooby in East Anglia to Holland hoping for and receiving religious freedom to practice their syncretic blend of Anabaptism and Calvinism. They settle down, some become citizens, many marry, and most raise families and become an integral part of the community. But they grow restless and are unhappy with their children speaking Dutch, forgetting English and otherwise adapting to their surroundings. So they resolve to leave Holland and set up a utopia in America. They land in America, and after a year filled with hardship alleviated by generous Amerindians, give thanks for their deliverance with the first –seemingly spontaneous – Thanksgiving feast.

Brownscombe's popular 19th century depiction of the First Thanksgiving

As children we accept this story at face value. But as adults, with the benchmark of our own life experiences to set against the tale, it appears that key elements have either been lost in the retelling or intentionally obscured. For example, where did the pilgrims pick up their Calvinist beliefs? Why did they maintain them when the Church of England and the monarchy (Queen Elizabeth I for the half-century before1603/King James I afterwards) viewed religious dissent as treason? Finally – and, from my viewpoint, most importantly – is there a Flemish element to this story?

In fact of course, there is a strong Flemish connection. This connection comes from not only the daily contacts that key figures in the Pilgrim hierarchy had with Flemish migrants to England and in Leyden, but also seminal events that were imprinted on their psyche, collectively and individually. However, these influences are tempered and offset by the biases and fears of the unstable environment they lived in. In this essay I will attempt to explain the setting and trace the paths that lead from America’s Founding Fathers back to Flanders Fields.

The Pilgrims’ Story
The most complete retelling of the adventures and tribulations of the Pilgrims’ origins and journey were written by one of the leaders of the colony, William Bradford, in 1650 under the title Of Plimouth Plantation. But as one of the most prominent of modern historians has written:

Bradford was disingenuous at times. He was not above politic distortion of facts, and did not hesitate to suppress whole chapters in the history of his brethren…More than once he misrepresented the sequence of events, cleverly transposing cause and effect.”[ii]

Important elements of the Pilgrims’ story are of course accurate. In recent decades as shibboleths have been shattered in other national myths, some parts of the Pilgrim odyssey have been subject to serious scrutiny. However, although a number of serious historians have attempted to brush aside the cobwebs of historical myth and time to clear up the romanticist picture painted by our 19th century predecessors, no one has felt a need to explain or clarify the Flemish influence on the Puritans, the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. To do so we must examine the place and the times.

William the Conqueror's half-Flemish sons were the first of many colonists to England

Medieval Flemish Colonists in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland
A Flemish connection to the British Isles of course did not surface overnight. Flemings have been recorded as resident in England at least since the so-called “Norman” invasion of 1066
[iii]. The Flemings in fact were the key component[iv] that swung the tide in favor[v] of William the Conqueror. Flemings immediately were involved in subduing the British Isles for William and were awarded fiefs – especially in Scotland where they adopted names such as Stirling, Graham and Malet. Other Flemish nobles who assumed Scottish fiefs along with Scottish surnames included Bruce, Bethune, Buchan, Lindsay, Lyle, and Stewart[vi]. Records of trade between Flanders and England are recorded to as early as 1066[vii]. Those strong, early trade relations were manifested in the first recorded example of two countries signing a treaty recognizing their respective flags[viii].

William the Conquerors' fiefs in 1066

Successive waves of Flemings arrived in England at the invitation of English monarchs in every subsequent century. William the Conqueror’s half-Flemish (through his mother, the Bruggeling Matilda of Flanders) son, Henry I, possibly in successive waves beginning as early as 1106 (due to flooding)[ix] and continuing as late as 1127. Starting a precedent that would frequently be copied by his successors, Henry enticed and incented a large colony of Flemings to occupy Mailros in England and later to Haverford in Pembrokeshire in southwestern Wales. This area retained a distinctive, Flemish-influenced dialect up until modern times. Henry I's son Stephen I added more Flemings to the realm – some as builders in Carlisle and others as mercenaries under a William of Ypres[x] – although Henry II saw them as a threat and banished them to their ‘cousins’ in Wales. The queen of Wales, Nest ferch-Rhys, even had a child by a Flemish settler there in the 1100s. Her progenity are claimed to include “half of Wales”[xi].

Brugge - unchanged since the 13th century

Further Flemish immigration came as early as 1169[xii] in response to an appeal to the English by one of two warring Irish kings. But also later, in the 1200s, most notably as mercenaries in Ireland[xiii]. These men carved out a fief on the eastern coast of Ireland, near Waterford, in the baronies called Forth and Bargy, almost on a direct line across from Pembroke in Wales. The Flemish settlers kept themselves separate to the extent that residents not only continued to use a Flemish-derived dialect[xiv] at least until the early 19th century[xv] but also supplied many emigrants, en masse, to America in the 1840s. Common names from the Forth and Bargy region with Flemish ancestry include Gifford, Stafford, Jenkins and Seys.

The Baronies of Forth and Bargy in southeastern Wales, across St. George's Strait from Pembrokeshire in Wales, the parent Flemish colony

Better known and more often cited are the well-announced draws of Flemish weavers that Edward III resettled in Bristol, Manchester as well as the traditional Flemish refuge in East Anglia beginning in the 1330s. In each of these venues the new immigrants not only added to England’s burgeoning cloth making but set the stage for a boom in trade. For example, the Flemish contribution pushed Bristol into the forefront of British overseas trade from the late 14th century well up to the early 17th century (and played a role in the early voyages to the New World both before and after Columbus – but that is another story).

The arrival of Flemish weavers in Manchester in the 1300s is celebrated in this 19th century painting

In fact the Flemish were so prominent a presence throughout the British Isles that William Caxton, who himself spoke Flemish after a long sojourn in Brugge (1441-1476; where he produced the first book printed in English), claimed that the Flemish “formed the seventh race in the island”[xvi]. Caxton later added to this.

The Flemings living in West Wales have now all become like Englishmen because they live alongside English people: they are mighty, fierce fighters and the greatest enemies the Welsh have; they engage in trading, especially the wool-trade; they are very ready to risk adventure and danger by sea and by land for the sake of great profit; they are willing sometimes to plough the land; and sometimes they engage in deeds of arms as the occasion demands…They discern reliably what is done in distant lands, signs of peace or war, the state of the realm…”

The dialect frontier between the descendants of Flemish settlers and Welsh natives in Pembrokeshire

Part II will discuss the massive Flemish migration to England in the 16th century and the religious, advisory as well as intellectual and financial contributions the Flemish made to America's Pilgrim Founding Fathers.

[i] Jeremy Dupertius Bangs in “Thanksgiving Day – A Dutch Contribution to American Culture?” in New England Ancestors Holiday 2000, p.38
[ii] George F. Willison in Saints and Strangers (New York: Time Life Books, 1981) p.4
[iii] Elisabeth van Houts, "The Norman Conquest Through European Eyes" reprinted from The English Historical Review, Sep 1995 v110 n438 p832(22) http://www.geocities.com/athens/aegean/3532/1066Euro.htm
[iv] http://www.battle1066.com/wforce1.shtml
[vi] “The Rise of the Flemish Families in Scotland” by Annette Hardie - Stoffelen http://www.amg1.net/scotland/flemfam.htm
[vii] See “De Vlaamse handel op Engeland voor het Engels-Vlaams Konflikt van 1270-1274” by C. Wyffels in Bijdragen voor de Geschiednis der Nederlanden Deel XVII, 1963, No.3, pp.205-213.
[viii] “The first flags identifying nationality were used at sea. The oldest international legal obligation on record for ships to display flags as identification was agreed by King Edward I of England and Guy, Count of Flanders, in 1297. It explicitly compelled merchant ships to ‘carry in their ensigns or flags the arms of their own ports certifying their belonging to said ports.’” The World Encyclopedia of Flags by Alfred Znamierowski (London: Hermes House, 2006) p.44
[ix] For a brief overview see the BBC posting at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/migration_flanders.shtml . The detailed and extensive study of the Flemish contribution can be culled from Dwaard A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, Its Causes and Its Results, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876), p.855
[x] Ibid p. 276 http://books.google.com/books?id=xFc0AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA276&vq=flemish&dq=%22flemish+settlements%22&source=gbs_search_s
[xi] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/dec/21/britishidentity.uk This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday December 21 2007 on p34 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 15:15 on February 09 2008.
[xii] The Atlantis By Dublin University College, Published by Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858 p. 236 http://books.google.com/books?id=fusAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA236&vq=flemish&dq=flemish,+forth&source=gbs_search_s
[xiii] "Ireland History: The Normans" http://www.irelandhistory.org/irish-history/normans/the-coming-of-the-normans/the-normans.html
[xiv] "Origins of the Dialect of the Baronies of Forth and Bargy" http://www.forthandbargy.org/research_hist.htm
[xv] Studies in Middle English Linguistics by Jacek Fisiak (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997), p.181 http://books.google.com/books?id=RppwKv9Oh8EC&pg=PA181&vq=flemish&dq=flemish,+english,+linguistics&source=gbs_search_s&sig=ACfU3U2tFAn-BLwei7KHLSArZrc_efou_w
[xvi] Caxton: The Description of Britain by William Caxton; edited by Marie Collins (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988) p.109.
[xvii] Ibid p.114.
Copyright 2008 by David Baeckelandt All rights reserved. No reproduction in any manner allowed without my express, written permission.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wapenstilstandsdag/Veterans Day - In Flanders Fields

Flanders' Fields....of Mud: Passchendaele 1917

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae December 8, 1915. McCrae died January 18, 1918 - and is - buried in Flanders

Armistice Day

Today, November 11, 2008, is Armistice Day. Although commonly referred to as Veteran's Day here in the U.S., it is of course meant to mark the date ninety years ago when the guns fell silent on the Western Front in World War 1. In Dutch, this day is called Wapenstilstandsdag and just as here in the U.S., in Belgium it is a national holiday. In both countries we are meant to remember the fallen dead and the futility of war. We are also called to reflect upon the purpose of their sacrifice and ensure that such sacrifices were not in vain.

Flemish Americans as well as Flemings would do well to re-examine our own special tie with this date. It is from the crucible of this war that not only new waves of Flemish immigrants left a wrecked and lunar landscape and came to America. But, equally important for our history, is that the sacrifices on the fields of battle birthed a stronger self-consciousness of and for the Flemings.

The military artist Joe English (1892-1918), born in Brugge of an Irish father and Flemish mother, served on the Ypres front and his artwork not only captured the Flemish-Catholic consciousness of his fellow front-liners but also served as the inspiration of later generations of Flemings.

Invasion and Occupation

Many commentators forget that for the Western Front, the First World War began with an invasion of neutral Belgium. And it was Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality that brought Great Britain into the war. The German plan - called the Schiefflen Plan, after its author - was to slip behind the French frontier fortifications facing Germany via relatively defenseless Belgium. The German High Command's belief was that by doing so they could knock France out of the war early - and before either the British could field a meaningful expeditionary force to support France or, more ominously for them since Berlin sat only 100 miles from the Russian frontier - Russia could mobilize and bring to bear their overwhelming numbers on the Eastern Front.

Within the first 3 months of the war - August through October, 1914 - Germany had occupied more than 75% of Belgium. Immediately, coldly-efficient German authority was imposed on the local, Flemish-majority populace. But the harshest repression was inflicted on that part of Belgium closest to the front: West Flanders.

The initial impact of German occupation was harsh. As one German officer in November, 1914 recalled (according to Larry Zuckerman in "The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War 1" (NY: NY University Press, 2004 p.94):

“’Only a month ago, this country might have been called rich; there were cattle and pigs in plenty.’
Now, requisitions had emptied the place.

‘We have taken every horse, every car; all the petrol, all the railway-trucks, all the houses, coal, paraffin, and electricity, have been devoted to our exclusive use.’ “

German occupation troops requisitioning supplies in the West Flemish town of Koekelare.

It may be hard to believe now, but on the eve of World War One, in 1913, Belgium produced 4.4% of the world’s commerce (Zuckerman, op.cit., pp. 44-45, 50).

“[Belgium’s] population, in short, on the 31st of December, 1913, numbered 7,685,000 souls. … This means an average of 676 inhabitants to the square mile. …. “Finally, we shall find that the national trade of Belgium - that is, the sum of her imports and exports (through freights being deducted) – amounted in 1913 to L350,000,000, or L46 5s. 7d. per inhabitant, which was – proportionately – three times the trade of France or of Germany: an enormous figure, which gives Belgium the fifth place in the statistical table of the world’s commerce.”

The above quotes are from "Belgium in Wartime" by Commandant De Gerlache De Gomery (New York: Doubleday, 1915). Certainly not the most objective of sources. Yet it captures the impact of Germany's barbaric, systematic, despoiling of occupied territory. Zuckerman - and others - in fact claims that the lessons learned by the Kaiser's military administrators in Flanders in 1914-1918 were copied and refined by Nazi Germany and applied to Europe in 1940-1945.

The Westhoek corner of West Flanders where the bulk of the fighting in Flanders took place from 1914-1918. It is also the home of dozens of military cemetaries holding the war dead on both sides as well as the world's largest peace memorial to the First World War, the Ijzertoren.

What makes this more shocking perhaps was that this did not occur in some lawless land on the fringes of Western civilization but smack dab in the heart of Europe. In 1913 Belgium was not only the world’s most densely-populated country but it ranked sixth among all countries in terms of GDP (contradicting the good Baron above). Antwerp was the world’s second busiest port (after New York) – busier than London, Rotterdam or Hamburg. Belgium was also the most densely populated country in the world with an average of 250 inhabitants per square mile. And since the bulk of the population of 7 million (nearly 70%) were Flemish and Flanders comprised less than half of the total Belgian land area, the densities in the area most wracked by warfare – West Flanders – meant that the impact of the war was devastating and concentrated on an area where the human impact was extreme.
The fighting on the Yser Front, the tiny corner of southwestern West Flanders that the Belgian Army held behind the Yser River from 1914-1918, was characterized by vicious actions like the one depicted here.

In other words, Belgium in 1913 was one of the 10 largest industrial powers. By 1919, the first full year of peace after the war had ended, Belgian production was up to 64% of its 1913 levels, according to a New York Times article. Not only had her fields and farms been destroyed by the battles raging across them and her towns - especially the Flemish towns - but the Germans had imposed wholesale deportations of working age males to German factories. German soldiers also inflicted atrocities on the civilian population - in part perhaps due to the savagery of war but these atrocities became not only widely known but helped tilt public opinion in the U.S. against Germany and the Central Powers (as Germany and its allies were collectively known as).

Even in 1918, four years after the war began, the American public's desire to wage war in Europe for the Allies was easily stoked by references to brutal German atrocities against Belgian civilians, as depicted in this suggestive Ellsworth Young poster.

The Cost of War

When, on November 11, 1918 at 11 AM the guns fell silent on the Western Front in World War One - or as it was known for more than twenty years in nearly every language, the Great War, the full scale of human losses could only be guessed at. It was a 'Great War' in large part because of the horrendous loss of life. Superficially, the United States and Belgium saw relatively low military casualties. In the case of the United States, this was due to our late official (April 6, 1917) and effective (Summer, 1918) entry into the more than four-year war. For Belgium, the numbers do not tell the full story. Although 270,000 men were mobilized for war only 100,000 men remained under arms in Belgium at the end of the war (see table below). tens of thousands were interred by neutral Holland - and not released until more than four years after the war's end. Tens of thousands more were MIA. An innocuous designation for those dead not recovered. Thus the true toll is far, far greater than simple tables below suggest.

Numbered tables also hide the human element. The human element for the Belgian army was overwhelmingly - some documents claim 85% - the Flemish element. And, as in many wars, some families bore this sacrifice in greater numbers than others.

In his book "The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War One" (p.83) Larry Zuckerman gave horrific descriptions of the plight of the refugees.

‘The forty-mile road to Ghent [from Antwerp] “was a solid mass of refugees,” as was “every road, every lane, every footpath leading in a westerly or northerly direction.” And when the army retreated, the soldiers slogged the same routes. “White-haired men and women” clung to harnesses of horses hauling guns, and “springless farm wagons literally heaped with wounded soldiers with piteous white faces” leaked bloody trails. The din was dreadful. Wheels rattled, drivers cursed, the wounded groaned, women and children cried, and one heard “always the monotonous shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of countless weary feet.”

Flemish refugees fleeing the German attack on Antwerp, October, 1914

“The [Belgian Government] cabinet left Belgium for the French port of LeHavre, whereas 1.4 million or perhaps even 2 million less distinguished Belgians, almost 27 percent of the prewar population, had also fled. More than a million civilians went to Holland, and so did thirty thousand soldiers, whom the Dutch interned, as the Fifth Convention required.”
(Zuckerman, op.cit., p.85)

Take also the story of the last surviving WW1 Belgian veteran, Cyriel Barbary (1899-2004). Barbary volunteered, fought in the Belgian Army on the front line at the Yser Front while his refugee family eked out a living near the Belgian front lines taking in wash and doing odd jobs. After the war ended, the family returned to their farm in Klerken, West Flanders to find it literally obliterated. All they found of a thriving farm and home were posts marking their property boundaries. At that point, as his great-granddaughter later recalled in an award-winning essay, the family gave up on Belgium to emigrate to the promise of America. Thus, the last surving veteran of World War One's Belgian Army was not only Flemish but died a Flemish-American in Michigan.

The Van Raemdonck brothers, Edward and Frans, as sketched by Joe English in 1917.

Other Flemish families gave even more. The story of the Van Raemdonck brothers, Edward (22) and Frans (20) captures the sacrifice of Flemings. The two brothers, who had volunteered as teenagers in 1914, died on a patrol to try and rescue a Walloon soldier lost behind German lines in March, 1917. More than two weeks later their bodies were found in the pose sketched above by Flemish frontline artist Joe English. Although hastily buried due to wartime exigencies, the Flemish frontline troops wished to arrange a brief truce to retrieve the bodies. Senior Belgian Army generals rejected the idea - reportedly in part because the brothers had been outspoken in defense of Flemish rights - such as receiving orders in the language they understood, Flemish, instead of a foreign tongue such as French. Not only do the brothers' deaths underscore the commitment to the ideal of sibling devotion but the reality that although Flemings had spilled their blood in disproportion to Belgian demographics, they remained second class citizens in a country where they numerically were the majority.

On the front lines, this translated into tragic events. Walloon officers shouting commands in French to Flemish farmboys whose French was imperfect while the din and confusion of battle, which made even regular discussion impossible, resulted in what in effect was tragedy but by Walloons was perceived as insubordination or treachery. Flemish soldiers - and even in so-called Walloon regiments, the majority of serving soldiers were, in fact Flemings - felt that they were oppressed by a country where true universal suffrage did not yet exist and where the majority not only were politically disenfrachised but forced to abandon studies in their mother tongue for a foreign language (French) and culture. Thus, more than 100 years after the American and French revolutions, in one of the most industrialized countries in the heart of Western civilization, the Flemings whose own history in fact inspired the ideas of universal suffrage, were prevented from exercising not only universal suffrage but also more basic rights such as secondary education in their native Dutch. Flemish soldiers began to ask: "Hier ons bloed, wanneer ons recht?" ("Here is our blood; where are our rights?"). This consciousness sparked the Frontbeweging or 'Front Movement' for Flemish rights. Later this would become known as the Flemish Movement.

The AVV-VVK - "Alles Voor Vlaanderen - Vlaanderen Voor Kristus" superimposed upon a celtic cross gravestone was designed by Joe English and became a symbol of the futility of the Great War.

Cyriel Barbary in other words fought a futile war. Not just because of his personal sacrifices or the mindless waste of young lives. But because the sacrifices he made were for a country whose birth was by deception (see Paul Belien's superb "A Throne in Brussels: The Belgianization of Europe"). A country, Belgium, where demographically the Flemish majority were a disenfranchised and subjected minority in their own land.

The image that many Flemings had of their work toward building an equitable, new world was captured in this Joe English pen-and-ink sketch of a Flemish soldier building upon the foundations of the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Guldensporenslag) in 1302 through the battles of WW1.

Although now the stuff of legend, these stories of sacrifice deserve retelling here. In part because they are formative for me and other Flemish Americans. They form the bedrock of familial remembrance of things that were unnecessary and needless. The insensitivities of one community upon another. They tie very directly into the Flemish community here in Chicago. Less than three years after the war's end, in 1921, the Flemish colony in Chicago laid the cornerstone of the Belgian-American Club of Chicago. The legend was an aspiration still not realized today: "All Belgians Are Equal."

If we then wish to commemorate those who have served, sacrificed, and died on Flander's Fields ninety years ago today, what better way than to commemorate the peace they strove for and the rights they died for: the rights of Flemings and Flemish Americans. Perhaps Flemings are best served by remembering that the monument to Flander's contribution to "the war to end all wars" is the largest peace monument in Belgium, the Ijzertoren. And the annual August pilgrimmage to commemorate this peace, the Ijzerbedevaart, is the remembrance of this urge for world peace.

For Flemish Americans, it is important that we not only recall what our forefathers fought for at the Yzer, but also what they dreamed of: equal rights for Flemings in their own country. For those rights to happen - and for our 'cousins' in Flanders - the best service we can render is to remember that we are not 'Belgian-Americans'. As Jules Destree, the prominent Walloon politician, stated in his Lettre au Roi sur la separation de la Wallonie et de la Flandre ("Letter to the King concerning the separation of Wallonia and Flanders") to King Albert in May, 1912, as war clouds loomed over Europe: "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges, il n’y a que des wallons et des flamands" ("Sire, there is no such thing as a Belgian; there are only Walloons and Flemings"). And, if there is no such thing as a 'Belgian', as this prominent Walloon parliamentarian pointed out, and we are indeed either Walloons or Flemings, then it is hardly likely that there is anything such as a 'Belgian-American'.

Jules Destree's detailed and rational letter ended with a plea. "A dishonest unity, imposed...that exists in official proclamations but not in the hearts of citizens, will never be worth a union freely agreed to" (quoted from "The Flemish Movement: A Documentary History, 1780-1990" edited by Theo Hermans, et.al. London: Athlone Press, 1992; Document 31, pp 206-217). I for one, could not agree more.

As Flemish-Americans, it is time all those of us with Flemish ethnicity recognize and catelogue our unique cultural roots. To our cousins in Flanders, we Flemish Americans here ask that you recognize that the literally millions of Americans with Flemish roots will only begin to connect with their cultural and ethnic origins when the haze of ambiguity over the status of Flanders is cleared up. Only then will the suffering, death and destruction inflicted on Flanders' Fields 1914-1918 be atoned for. Only then will the "wapen" truly 'stand' 'still'.

© 2008 by David Baeckelandt - All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written, consent.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Flemish in Chicago - Part 2 The Story of Arnold Van Puymbroeck

Arnold Van Puymbroeck is a legend in Chicago's Flemish-American community. He was elected the third president of the Flemish Belgian-American Club of Chicago (BACC) and served from 1980 on. But effectively he was the force majeure behind the BAC and the Flemish community In Chicago from the mid-1950s onward. A successful businessman and real estate investor today, Mr. Van Puymbroeck served as President of at least 9 different Flemish Belgian-American organizations in Chicago. The Belgian Government recognized Arnold Van Puymbroeck’s contribution to Belgium's Flemish colony in Chicago by awarding him the “Ridder in the Orde van Leopold II” (Knight in the Order of Leopold II), the highest decoration bestowed by the Belgian government upon civilians.
Mr. Van Puymbroeck was born 1930 in the town of Vrasene (now part of Beveren-Waas) about 15 km from Antwerpen in the Province of East Flanders. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1952. Today his two grandsons, both blessed with the solid Flemish name of Van Puymbroeck, carry on the tradition of Flemish-Americans here in Chicago. Below is Arnold’s story, in his own words. Please note that all dates are approximate.

When I was 18 years old (1948) I met a lady who lived on the same street as I did in my hometown of Vrasene. Our parents did not approve of us getting married. They did not even speak with each other. I will tell you more about this later. So I said to this young lady who became my wife, ‘Why don’t we go away’?

At that time I wanted to go to the Belgian Congo. It was a land of opportunity for Belgians back then. My girlfriend instead said, ‘Why don’t we go to the States?’ You see, she was born in the U.S. in 1930. Her family had lost everything in the Great Depression (1929 – 1933) and went back to Belgium in 1933 when she was three. And, as you know, when you are born in the U.S. you automatically become a U.S. citizen. So because of my future wife’s citizenship we decided to move to the States.

But first I had to do my military service (eighteen months). After I completed my military service (1951) we applied to the American Consul in Antwerpen. My wife’s parents decided to go back with us to the States. They still had family in Detroit and Chicago. In those days there was a quota on the number of Belgians allowed into the U.S. We started the application process in 1951. In the spring of 1952 we received our visas.

We came over on the Nieuw Amsterdam which was a ship on the Holland-America Line. I was seasick for seven days – until I stepped off the boat in New York. I only had one good meal. Most of the time, I just ate crackers. This was a big ship with thousands of other passengers – there were other Belgians on the ship, too.

When we arrived we took a train from New York to Detroit. We all stayed with my wife’s uncle’s family there. His name was Paul Verhulst. By training I was a dental technician. So I worked for six weeks at a dental lab there. After a little while, my wife’s parents went to Chicago to stay with my wife’s other uncle, Florent Verhulst. The family of my wife-to-be said, “Come to Chicago!” So we took the train to Chicago. We arrived on July 4, 1952. That is a date you do not forget.

I had some money saved but I did not want to dip into my savings, so I went to look for a job. In the beginning I did some window washing for Belgian janitors. Then I went to see Ray Van Heck. Ray was the Business Agent for the Chicago Janitors Flat Union Local No. 1. His father Gus Van Heck was the most important man in the Belgian community in Chicago in those days. Gus Van Heck had started the Chicago Flat Janitors Union Local #1 around 1915 with about a dozen other Belgians. A large number of the Belgians in Chicago worked as janitors. Gus was also the President of the Belgian American Club and other Belgian organizations here. This meant that Gus had great influence in the Belgian community here through the social clubs that were part of the Belgian-American Societies of Chicago. There were at least 9 clubs including the Belgian American Club, the Queen Elisabeth Club, the Ardennes Post (Belgian-American veterans of WW2), the Athletic Club, the Belgian-American Ladies Club, the Belgian-American Bow and Arrow Club, the Belgian Popinjay Club, the Wooden Shoe Archery Club, and the Kunst en Broederliefde [Art and Brotherly Love] Club.

Anyhow, Ray Van Heck told me that one of the other Belgians, Frank Claes, was going on vacation for 3 weeks with his wife. They needed a vacation janitor to take care of his three buildings. While I did the work, I stayed in his apartment – usually janitors have a free apartment. After two weeks Frank’s wife came back and said that Frank had had a massive heart attack and would not be able to take care of his buildings anymore. So, Ray asked me to take over and I accepted. My first apartment as a janitor in Chicago was at 5433 N. Kenmore. The other buildings that I also was janitor for were all in the neighborhood around Kenmore and Catalpa.

With a steady income I could now get married. We were married on September 20, 1952 in St. Ita church at the corner of Broadway and Thorndale in Chicago. No family came from Belgium back then. My best man was Marcel Zegers and one of the groomsmen was Leon Van Wolvelaer. Both were also from my hometown of Vrasene. We had our reception in the basement of the building where my father-in-law was a janitor, down the street at Kenmore and Thorndale. The beer was kept on ice in laundry tubs. Another Belgian lady, also from Vrasene, was the cook. We had 60 people at the reception. We rented a juke box and played music from Belgium. But we did not have a honeymoon.

As you may remember, my wife and I left Belgium because my parents and her parents would not even speak to each other even though they lived on the same street. In 1953 I brought my mother and father over to Chicago. They started talking to my wife’s parents. Before I knew it they were playing cards – whist – three times every week! They became best friends with my wife’s parents. But if they had been friends in Belgium, maybe we would never have moved to America.

Meanwhile every day I worked as a janitor. We were on duty 24 hours a day, every day of the week. The job of a janitor was to take care of all parts of the building, of course. One of the things we had to know was how to operate the boilers. We had to shovel coal into the furnace to keep the steam hot for the heating in the winter. Every morning we had to collect the garbage and burn it in the furnace. We would carry a big garbage bucket with a strap on our back and pick up the garbage from the back stairs of each apartment in each building, and carry it down to the basement to burn.
After that we would shovel out all the ‘klinkers’ [Flemish term: metal slag objects left over after burning trash in the furnace] and ashes into barrels. The trucks would come two times each week to pick up the ashes and ‘klinkers’.

Of course later, in the ‘60s, maybe about 1965, we had to stop burning garbage because of the pollution. The city would come and pick up the garbage then.
In the early ‘60s, most apartments changed from boilers to gas furnaces. This made life easier for us. Of course there were still many things to do. Sometimes there were emergencies we had to take care of. Someone would be locked out and we would have to let them in. We had to fix leaky faucets and unclog sinks. But we had rules, and if you worked hard you could save money.

When I joined the Janitors’ Union it cost $200 to become a union member. That was almost one month’s salary. Later it became more – up to two month’s salary. Usually the pay of a janitor was 10% of the rental revenue. When I joined in 1952 that was $250 a month ($3,000 a year). Plus we got a free apartment. Until 1953 all apartments in Chicago were rent-controlled. After the rent control ended, my salary doubled to $500 per month ($6,000 per year). My first pay raise was in 1960 when they increased our salary by 25 cents an hour. That was good money back then. Also, the union used to negotiate with the Committee of Real Estate Owners and gradually we also got eye care and dental care in the 1960s. But I never knew a Belgian to take unemployment, ever. That is why the Belgians had a good reputation for being hard-working.

Early in 1953 I moved to a new position at 4429 N. Whipple. I had three buildings to take care of. In 1958 or 1959 I bought my first 3-flat with the best man from my wedding. We each invested $5,000. We sold it after 3 years and each made a profit of $3,000. Next I bought a 13-flat with some money from my in-laws. In 1967 I bought this building (3835-3837-3839 N. Janssen). I have lived here ever since. Most of the Belgian janitors in Chicago eventually bought their own buildings.

After some time in Chicago many of us had saved up some money and wanted to go back to visit Belgium. In 1958, under the auspices of the Belgian-American Societies, I chartered an airplane called a Constellation (propeller plane) through The Flying Tiger Airline from Midway Airport to Brussels. This was the first time a plane was chartered from Midway airport.
We were going right at the time of the World’s Fair in Brussels when the Atomium was built. Altogether, we had 96 passengers. We flew to Brussels. While we were over the Atlantic, one of the motors caught fire. We saw smoke but did not know what was wrong. The plane had to land in Gander, Newfoundland. It took a whole day to get a new engine from London. The wives and children stayed at a hotel but all the men stayed at a tavern at the airport. Over 200 people were waiting for us at Zaventem. They were bored and began drinking. We were bored and were drinking while waiting for the new motor. So when we finally arrived in Brussels everyone was feeling very good!

We stayed in Belgium for 6 weeks. Belgian TV interviewed us. They wanted to know how life was in the U.S. Near the end of our stay we had one big dinner at Sint-Niklaas in Belgium with everyone but most of the time in Belgium we each visited with our own families. At the end we all were sad to leave our families. Belgium had not changed much but we did not know when we would see them again. Everyone enjoyed this visit so much that later I repeated two more charters from Chicago to Belgium in 1961 and 1964.

Because I wanted to try and keep the Belgian heritage alive, in 1958 I started The Belgian Bow & Arrow Club with a few other Belgians. Within 2 years we had more than 100 members! There were also other archery clubs in Chicago like Wooden Shoe Archery. Archery is an old Belgian sport. It captures the old spirit of Belgium. But in Belgium I did not know this sport, so when I came to the U.S. I used to practice by myself. We would meet every Friday night at the Belgian Hall on Fullerton Avenue (2625 W. Fullerton; built in 1921). The idea was to shoot the ‘birdies’ (in Flemish we called them ‘vogels’) off the tree. We would all put money in the pot. The top bird would win $25. While we waited for our turn to shoot, we would play card games like whist and Belgian card games like ‘bien’. Of course, everyone spoke Vlaams; mainly dialect from East and West Flanders, which is where 95% of the Belgians in Chicago came from.

At the Belgian Club picnic (usually every August in a forest preserve in Winnetka, a suburb north of Chicago) we would also have bow and arrow shooting contests. We would simply tie a rope between two trees and hang a painter’s tarp as a backdrop. Then we would shoot. But the park rangers stopped us and the insurance for that became too expensive so we had to stop in the 1970s.

We would also have tournaments with other Belgian clubs around North America. Within 10 years, there were 20 clubs: eight in the U.S. and 12 in Canada. Every year one of the clubs would host the tournament and the other clubs would send their members there. Mostly we had exchanges with the three clubs in Moline, one from Detroit (they won in 1967), and the Broederkring from Mishawaka, Indiana. In 1963 the Chicago Belgian Bow & Arrow Club went to Tillsonburg near Chatham (in Ontario, Canada) and won the championship! In 1964, 19 clubs came to Chicago. The club that hosted the event also paid for all meals. So we spent a pretty penny. In 1965, I became President of the International Belgian Archery Association.

'Vogels' or in English 'birdies' at a Belgian Bow and Arrow Club meet. Note the slant of the prongs made it extremely difficult.

Besides archery, bike racing is another sport that Belgians have always been very good at. In Chicago three Belgians went to the Northbrook Park District and requested that a bicycle racing track, called a 'velodrome', be built in Northbrook. They were Al De Saegher, Frank Van Houten, and Wally Vertenten. They must have been persuasive since shortly thereafter the track was built! Every Thursday night in the summer the Belgians and other nationalities would go to Northbrook to race. The bike track was built by the park district of Northbrook. But during the races they would collect donations for the upkeep of the track.

Eddy Van Guyse used to run the races. We held six races every Thursday evening. Eddy made the announcements first in Flemish and then in English. He also started one of the bike-racing clubs. The Belgians had the Windy City Wheelmen, the Lakeshore Wheelmen, and other racing clubs. We also had races at Moline, in Kenosha, WI, and at Mishawaka, IN. In fact there are still some young Belgian Americans who race today. Ray Van Puymbroeck from Mishawaka rides for the U.S. national team with Floyd Landis.

From the 1950s through the 1970s we had our strongest years. The Belgians dominated the Janitors Union. Also, in the 1950s and 1960s the Secretary of State of Illinois was Flemish (Charles F. Carpentier, 1896-1964*). And in the 1960s we even had the “Belgian Connection” in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Over 1,000 Belgians gathered in a stadium there. So it felt like we were making good progress.

Postcard of the first Flemish Illinois Secretary of State Charles F. Carpentier
In 1960 I started “Van Arnold and His Orchestra” to keep up with Belgian music. You see, I had taken some drum lessons for 6 months at a music studio on Irving Park Road. Our orchestra had 3 Belgians and 3 Hollanders. My accordion player was Omer Bogaert, and I was the drummer. Our first time playing was for a dance for Ray Van Heck. We played polkas and waltzes, mainly for weddings and from about 9 PM to midnight. We earned good money and, of course, they would feed us and we got our drinks for free.

“Van Arnold and His Orchestra” lasted for 12 years. Some of the guys are still alive and living in Florida. Although we no longer play, I gave my drum set to one of my sister-in-law’s grandsons, so the tradition stays alive.

The 1980s also saw a low point in Belgian activities in Chicago. We sold the Belgian Hall on Fullerton in the 1970s because the neighborhood was getting bad. Sometimes we would come out of the Hall and find our car windows broken or our tires slashed. In 1980 we sold the Hall for $23,000. Ray Van Heck and I and some others went to look for a new hall. We asked the Belgians to support this and in a short time we had pledges of $500 to $1000 that added up to $100,000. We found a good place at the intersection of Southport and Irving Park Road for $175,000. But Ray was still the boss and he did not want to have a mortgage, so we returned the money and the pledges to everyone. Today that location has become the headquarters of the Filipino Club.

Since we did not have a place of our own, we began holding our meetings at the Ardennes Post VFW Hall. By 1998 there were only 6 or 7 people attending the actual Belgian-American Club meetings. But of course we still had to pay rent. So that year I paid all members $500 and, except for $1000 in the bank, we closed all the accounts. Lucky for all of us that shortly afterwards, in 1999, Bart Ryckbosch formed the new Belgian-American Club. After holding the position of President of the Chicago Chapter of Vlamingen in de Wereld for many years, I recommended that Bart take over. Bart threw his heart and soul into the Belgian community in Chicago. Bart is the current President of the Chicago Chapter of Vlamingen in de Wereld and President of the Belgian American Club of Chicago as well as Secretary of the Belgian-American Historical Society of Chicago. Bart has revived the Belgian community here.

Arnold Van Puymbroeck (4th from the left), Miss Belgium, Bart Ryckbosch, current President of the Flemish Belgian-American Club of Chicago (2nd from left) and other prominent members of the Flemish colony in Chicago.

Over the years the Belgian Consulate in Chicago (the oldest foreign government consulate in Chicago until it was closed a few years ago) would often ask me to host visitors from Belgium. I would show them around and take care of them. They would also ask us to host the Food Booths at the International Folk Fair and at Navy Pier in the 1960s every year. For 8 years we hosted a booth and staffed it with volunteers from the Belgian community. We sold waffles, Belgian pastries, and made everything by hand. The waffles we made with a commercial waffle iron we brought from Belgium and converted from 220v to 110v. The dough we would make and then let it sit overnight. The pastries were made by a janitor who had been a pastry chef in Belgium. We had a sign that said “Potatoes From Belgium” and we used paper cones from Belgium for the Belgian fries. People all told us that our potato fries tasted much better than American ones. The funny part is that those potatoes were actually from Idaho!

In 1980, I was awarded a knighthood by the Belgian government: the Order of Leopold II. This is the highest civilian decoration awarded by the Belgian Government. I was awarded it for all the years of service to our Belgian colony in Chicago. There are only four or five Belgians in America who have received this award. Leo De Keersmaecker from LaPorte, IN, who just passed away earlier this year [2007], received one, and so did Ray Van Heck [former head of the Chicago Flat Janitors Union Local #1].

My son’s name is Eugene but we call him Gene. He works as a real-estate appraiser in California. He spoke Flemish dialect at home when he was young. My two grandsons are 29 and 26 and both live in Chicago. My grandsons do not speak Flemish but the younger grandson has a keen interest in his Flemish roots. My hope is that the younger generation does not forget about Flanders.
Arnold Van Puymbroeck (2nd from the left), his son Eugene, and on the far left and far right, Arnold's two grandsons at a Belgian picnic.

June 16, 2007 11:00 AM to 12:40 PM

This article originally appeared in De Gazette van Detroit as "Arnold Van Puymbroeck in his own words..." By David Baeckelandt. The author has modified some phrases slightly for purposes of clarity and/or succintness as well as added some photos not originally part of the printed article. Copyright 2008 by David Baeckelandt