Sunday, March 20, 2016

Guidebook research: Noord-Brabant (west)

Miniature carnival ride at Markiezenhof palace, Bergen op Zoom. 

Train to Bergen op Zoom. It is practically empty. How can they make any money on it? Pulling into Rosendaal. The day is gorgeous.

This is the beginning of my research for a guidebook on the Netherlands. I've got my bike along, though I won't be riding all the time. I'll use the bike to a) get to places that trains don't go, and b) to try out promising fietstochts (cycle tours) in the vicinity of towns.

(original date of this entry: May 15, 2015)

The cycling aspect makes this guidebook project different from previous ones. Instead of driving or catching buses I'm cycling, which is a natural extension of my usual activities. And instead of staying at hotels, I'm using Vrienden op de Fiets, who I'm hoping can provide some useful info.

There is always the initial what the f**k am I doing now? when I start a project like this. Bergen op Zoom has plenty of attractions -- an interesting place -- but how do you squeeze it in and how much research needs to be done? To what extent can I simply enjoy the place?

The editor asked me if there was anything worth mentioning about West (Noord) Brabant. Well, the Kalmthoutse Heide is certainly a highlight, though much of it is in Belgium--but that's what makes it special, that it straddles a border.


This morning I took the train Amsterdam Muiderpoort - Rotterdam (Sprinter), smooth connection to Vlissingen-bound train. In Bergen op Zoom. I stopped at the tourist office, friendly, and I picked up a fiets map to Brabant West. Everybody's talkin' bout the 3 A's: aspergesaardbeien (strawberries), anchovies (which are traditionally fished from the Schelde or Oosterschelde).

I found the Antwerpseweg and headed south out of town. For some reason BoZ has sparse knooppunten signage, but I seemed to be heading in the right direction. I finally reached a highway/railroad track overpass where knooppunten directed me to kp 39 and 31. I chose the former, then followed signs to Woensdrecht, dull suburban community with some WWII history. Continued east to the adjoining community of Hoogerheide, follwing the 'fietsnetwerk' signs (why not just post the numbers?). This led to the busy Putseweg (N289), which I followed down to Putte.

Restored gravestone of Esther Plutzer
Found the cemetery turnoff. Arriving at Machsike Hadass gate, no sign of anyone. Phoned Friedman -- he said he'd arrive 'in 5 minutes.' Presently a weathered BMW drove up, a bearded man at the wheel. He spent a long time fiddling with his phone in an attempt to punch in the gate code. Finally he emerged and keyed it in manually. A stone-faced character with a serious belly, Friedman spoke passable English. He didn't seem to mind that I wasn't wearing a kipah.

We walked over to the children's section of the cemetery and there it was: Ester Plutzer's stone, now gleaming white amidst the drab gray stones, with the girl's name clearly inscribed.

(Esther, as I explained in an entry of summer 2014, was my mother's older sister who died of at age 9 of polio in Antwerp. My mother, Dorothy, was too young to have known her. She was buried in this cemetery across the border in the Netherlands because, like other Jews from Antwerp, they wanted 'a final resting place' for her, which the Belgians could not guarantee.

Oizer Friedman
(Last year, I went looking for Esther's gravestone, whose existence my Aunt Anna in Cleveland had told me of. But when I located it, it was lying face down on the ground. Some Antwerpers who were in the cemetery at the time put me in touch with Oizer Friedman who agreed to restore the stone for me. )

I took many photos, changing angles as instructed by Friedman. He told me that when he found it, it was almost impossible to discern any lettering. He spent many hours cleaning the stone until the letters appeared. Only then did he know if it was the right tomb he was working on. The inscription appeared on a marble plate attached to the front of the stone, which he said was made of 'blauwsteen.'

Jacob Birnbaum, Titanic victim.
Friedman had also painted in the letters of the inscription and cleaned up the back of the stone. I asked him if he had a workshop. He said he kept his tools in his car. He wasn't doing it for the money; he was retired. Restoring gravestones was his hobby. He then showed me some other examples of his handiwork amid the rows of stones. One stone had a small sculpture of a ship on top. This was of someone who had perished in the sinking of the Titanic! He was just 25. Apparently his body had been recovered.

I thanked Oizer Friedman, gave him some money. He seemed satisfied. Then he went to get his car to drive into the cemetery--he had work to do. I got my bike and after briefly discussing the deterioration of religion in America and the savagery of the Nazis, we said goodbye. "Have a nice future," said Friedman.

Bergen op Zoom to Putte and return via Kalmthoutse Heide

I continued down the cemetery road to kp 83. Then jogged south toward Putte and struck east toward Kalmthout, a suburban woodsy stretch. Up through the Kalmthoutse Heide: woods, swamp, croaking frogs, wide-open heath, nice and peaceful with plenty of walking trails. I stopped at the same spot where I stopped last summer, a patch of sand at the bank of a marsh with islands of spiky vegetation.

North of the reserve, flat farmlands for quite a ways with the typical high sand furrows. The sun made it warm while the wind slowed me down. Crossed back into Holland. Then through a forest, the Wouwse Plantage -- pleasant but the two-lane trail ran alongside a busy road. Finally on the way to kp 17 there's a lovely pastoral stretch, a creek on my left, old pastures on my right, white sprays alongside the trail. Then I was riding into Bergen op Zoom under a glaring sun.

Using city-maps-to-go on my ipad I located Janni Landa's place near the hospital. My vriend op de fiets was out, so I continued into town via Rooseveltlaan. The old center of BoZ is a zealously preserved version of one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands. The cobbled streets are narrow and lined with restored houses of merchants and aristocrats. I reached the Grote Markt where the terraces were crowded at 7 pm. Had a beer at a cafe called the Locomotive, then inspected the restaurant options. It came down to the Grand Café Hotel Bourgondier, clearly the most popular option where people were chomping on Flintstones-sized ribs, or on the opposite side the Teerkamer, which had been recommended to me by the woman at the VVV (tourist office). It was inside a grand old building but felt temporary. I chose the latter. I had the famous white asparagus, prepared as is the custom with slabs of ham. I found it greasy and unappetizing.

After my overpriced, indifferently served dinner in Bergen op Zoom, I rode back to Janni's place near the hospital. The woman must be 75 with wrinkled chest but she's energetic and talkative. She lives by herself with a little white piranha of a dog that farts on occasion. It was cold and I was tired but Janni wanted to chat. I was losing track of all the daughters and grandchildren she described.


Flea market at Kijk in de Pot park, Bergen op Zoom

This dialogue continued in the morning as I ate my bread and cheese and soft-boiled egg. I then explored Bergen op Zoom, only to find that it is an interesting historical place, one of the Netherlands' oldest cities with a highly strategic location that's made it the target of invasions for centuries! Continued ...


  1. hi. my name is Eli Moskowitz and i am a Titanic researcher and i found your blog while searching for good photos of tombstone of Titanic victim Jacob Birnbaum. i wish to use the photo from this blog in my book that will be published in the near future. i will credit you as the owner of the photo. my book is about the Jews of the Titanic. please confirm.

    1. Oops, just saw this. Your ok project sounds really interesting and you may certainly use my tombstone photo for it. Please credit me as Daniel C Schechter. What else do you know about Birnbaum?

    2. thank you so much. i will credit you in my book. i know a lot about him. he is my favorite Titanic victim. his watch is (or was) on display in the Greenwitch Museum in london.