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Feature Stories

Dutch Festival Celebrates 25 Years

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 11
5/30/2014


By Kirt Ramirez


Kirt Ramirez

An estimated 3,000 people turned out for the annual Dutch Festival at Gemmrig Park on Sunday, May 25.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Memorial Day weekend tradition, where visitors celebrate Dutch and Indonesian-Dutch heritage. Vendors sold knickknacks, presented arts and crafts and provided authentic Dutch and Indonesian food and drink, while guests partied on the dance floor to live music.

“Everybody’s having fun on a day like this,” said Long Beach resident and native Dutchman Frank Groen. “It’s amazing to see people you haven’t seen in 50 years.”

Groen came to California in 1955. His father struggled as a baker and the family left the Netherlands – a tiny country to the right of England, left of Germany and atop Belgium and France – to come to America.

Groen comes from the Dutch province Friesland and speaks Frisian, which the Dutch consider a dialect but the Frisians consider a language. The English language as we know it has its roots in the part of Europe that is today the Northern Netherlands and Western Germany – the Friesland area – and Frisian is the closest relative to English, according to English textbooks.

Television programs and books have educated on the closeness between Frisian and English. A popular rhyme is often used, “Buter, brea, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk (butter, bread and green cheese is good English and good Fries).”

Cornelius Johannes Stamm, 90, sat in a folding chair under the trees and enjoyed the Dutch picnic with family and friends. Stamm lives in the City of Orange but originates from Amsterdam. He had to work in coal mines when he was 19 doing slave labor in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII until it was liberated by the Russians in May 1945.

Stamm made his way home to Holland and returned to skinny parents. Planes flew overhead and dropped liquid food after the war ended, he said. Then he was given notice six months later to serve in Dutch Indonesia to fight off Japanese that were still occupying the then Dutch territory. “I saw how people got tortured by the Japanese. It was just unbelievable.”

Lou Verhoeven, secretary of the Dutch Soccer Club, attends the Long Beach festival every year. “Every year you see old friends and make new friends,” he said. Verhoeven left the Netherlands in 1955 and immigrated to Canada first before coming to California in 1963 (along with the grandfather of a reporter.) Verhoeven played soccer at Heartwell Park during the 1960s and 70s. He worked as a realtor for 40-plus years and currently lives in Whittier.

Luke Siemensma, vice president of the United Netherlands Organization, said, “We’ve been doing this for 25 years. It’s always a great time.”

The Netherlands, like England and Spain, colonized other parts of the world in history, like Indonesia, South Africa, New Amsterdam (which today is New York) and Suriname South America. And Holland itself was under rule by Spain and France for periods of time in the past. The southern part of Holland is sometimes referred to as “the Spanish Netherlands.”

The people range from being stereotypical blond and blue-eyed to having dark hair and brown eyes.

A rainbow of colors came together at the festival.

Gerdy Ungerer lives in Oceanside and comes up every year with her husband Daniel. Ungerer, who will turn 86 next month, was born and raised in Dutch Indonesia. The Japanese took over the country in WWII and Ungerer was forced into the Bangkinang women’s camp of 2,400 on the island of Sumatra. She had to do hard labor. “I suffered a lot there.”

Her mother and grandmother also were in the camp.

One day Ungerer tried to smuggle food for her family by selling jewelry provided by others in the camp. She talked about the jewels with a safe and friendly Indonesian guard only to be seen by an enemy Korean guard, who worked under the Japanese.

Ungerer went into the camp’s bathroom to hide but the Korean guard caught up with her in one of the stalls, where the toilets were holes. The guard pulled her up and when he looked away for a few seconds, Ungerer quickly threw the jewels over her shoulder into a neighboring stall. The guard took her to the office and questioned her about the “bundle” and “I said I do not have a bundle.”

The guard beat her and she fell and hit her head on the edge his desk. He then beat her again and made her stand in a corner until night. Ungerer found out years later during an MRI in 1986 that a crack was in her skull.

After the war ended, 17-year-old Ungerer was free to leave the camp but still lived in the camp. One time she roamed the jungle and came across an empty tiger’s den, which she crawled into. It was like an igloo made of bushes, she said.

“I thought ‘God you create fantastic animals.’ It was so beautiful and roomy inside.” She found baby tiger fur and brought it back to her mother, only to be scolded for doing something so dangerous. The mother threw the fur away and told her not to do that again.

Today a heart patient having had five pacemakers, Ungerer thanks the Lord for helping her get through everything.

She said Kaiser Permanente doctors pronounced her dead two times in recent years and that she saw a light and experienced paradise before her vital signs showed she was alive again.

Now she tells her stories to school children throughout Southern California. She does not charge and will not accept payment for her lectures. “All I ask for is a box of tissues and a bottle of water,” she said.

A strong Christian lady, Ungerer has a philosophy which she tells the children, “Never give up. Believe in yourself and always believe in God. That’s where all the good things come from.”

kirt@longbeachcomber.com