End of a journey

From Brussels, we took the train back to Paris.  A side trip to Reims, to see the Cathedral and to enjoy a private tour and tasting at Chateau Pommery.  Dinner at Roger the Frog, a tiny quaint delicious bistro in Paris near our hotel,  St. Germain des Pres. And then back to New York, full of information about the family history, and filled with more questions.

There is the issue of Alexis Vanderdonck.  Though I know more about him, he remains a mystery.  Was he really Freda’s father, as indicated on her birth certificate, or was his acknowledgement of her a form of adoption?  I think it’s unlikely he’s the father.  But who was the father?  I doubt we will ever know. 

And then, the divorce.  Was it really for adultery, or was that the only ground for divorce at that time (1891)?  We know that divorces were rare in Holland.  We also know that great-grandmother Paulina Vanderdonck-Kool left Mr. Vanderdonck and emigrated to the US when Freda and Theodore “eloped.”  So she did desert him.  Thereafter she used the name Van der Pijl, or Vanderpyle, but no Mr. Vanderpyle appears in any of the records I’ve found.

There is a story that Grandmother’s stepfather (Vanderdonck) was “chasing her around”  as she grew older, and that’s why mother and daughter came to the US. 

But there was also the story that Grandmother and Grandfather “met on the ship coming over.”  So who knows?  The fact that Freda looked up her father, probably visited him in Belgium with her four oldest children, and wondered if he was still alive in 1919 tells us that she didn’t hate him and did think of him as her father.

Finally, the business Paulina and her sister Cecelia supposedly had, making baby clothes for the Royal Family.  I have found no trace of this, yet I believe there is some truth in it.  More on my suspicions soon.

The story of our trip through Belgium and Holland is over, but I still have documents to post, theories to discuss, and other genealogical tidbits to share.  I’ve managed to trace the Jansen family back many generations, for instance.  More on the family tree in the next post.

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Posted by on January 26, 2010 in Uncategorized


One more note about Brussels

Having found the birthplace of Mr. Vanderdonck, we would have liked to see his grave.  But I have no record of his burial-place, other than Brussels, a pretty big place.   

I know only this about his end.  

Inquiry from the Elks Club


This letter, dated August 14, 1919, and written on Elk’s Club stationery,  is sent to the city hall in Brussels.  It asks “as the daughter of Alexis Egide Diuedonne Vanderdonck,”  whether “my father is still alive.” It is signed Mrs. Theodore F. Jansen Vanderdonck, and gives the family’s address in Trenton, 209 Lamberton Street.  

It seem s an odd letter.  For one thing, I am not sure Grandmother wrote it.  I never met her, but from what I’ve heard  I can’t imagine her writing on Elks Club letterhead.  More likely Grandfather Jansen wrote it, perhaps at her request.  Perhaps on his own.  

And why would anyone have to write to ask about a death?  Surely those “doodbriefs” would have let the family know?  

Yes, but World War I put an end to the free flow of letters.  And “poor little Belgium” had suffered in that war.  

On 2 August 1914 Germany issued an ultimatum to neutral Belgium, demanding permission to march through the country en route to Paris.  The Germans assured the Belgian government that Belgium would suffer no territorial loss as a consequence of permission being granted.  

But Belgium, under King Albert I, refused the troops passage.  And so the German troops invaded Belgium, and that brought Britain into the war in Belgium’s defense.  

German troops entered Brussels on August  20, 1914.  Contemporary accounts tell of rows and rows, miles and miles,  of German soldiers, marching in step for hours, their gray uniforms striking fear in those who saw them.  The citizens of Brussels hid, with shutters and doors closed and locked, waiting for the German Army to pass.  

They had reason to fear.  In what came to be called “the Rape of Belgium,” German soldiers burned homes and exeuted civilians, including women and children, in the early days of the war.   

None of this was witnessed by Mr. Vanderdonck, as the back of the Elks letter indicates.  

Answer from Brussels


Alexis Vanderdonck died in Brussels on the 22 of February, 1914, and was buried in Brussels on the 18th of September, 1919.


Posted by on January 14, 2010 in Uncategorized


Another Jacques Markus letter

Here’s another letter from Jacques, this one addressed to Madame Janssens, Magasin du Modes, Domplein, Utrecht. 

Letter to Great-grandmother Jansen


Dated Oct 29, 1901, it looks for information concerning the whereabouts of “your son,  Theodore Jansen,” who, the correspondent believes, ran away with Frederika Vanderdonck in 1890.  The two are believed to be living in Paterson. 

This is eleven years after the young couple ran away from Utrecht!  The search is no doubt on behalf of Mr. Vanderdonck ,who had by this time moved back to Belgium. 

We looked for buildings on the Domplein that might have housed Magasin du Modes, but really, it’s been too long.  Here, though, is a shot of the area of Utrecht where great-grandmother Janssen (or Jansen!)  had her shop. 

Shop on the Domplein, Utrecht


The fact that the shop had a French name and that it was a “store of styles,” as well as its central location in Utrecht, indicate that the operation was fairly high class.  This, clearly, is where Frederika and Theodore met  — Frederika was working as a seamstress in Utrecht at the time of her disappearance. 

It would be possible, I think, to search the Utrecht archives for news of the Magasin du Modes.  Another time, another trip.  Perhaps even another traveler?  I have other assignments if anyone is willing to go! 

I’ve asked my genealogist friend in Leiden about the s or double s in Jansen.  I am awaiting his reply.

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Posted by on January 4, 2010 in Uncategorized



We arrived in Brussels by car on a Sunday, and left the following day by train for Paris.  It was an exciting 24 hours.  First, we couldn’t find our hotel — the names of the streets are different from block to block,  different on different sides of the street, and the maps bear no relation to reality.  When we finally did find the Montgomery, it was a little out of the city center in an area of embassies, and absolutely lovely. 

In the short time we had, we decided to look for one of the addresses of Mr. Vanderdonck while he lived in Brussels.  We had it from a letter sent to Grandfather Jansen by Jacques Markus, an “international agent” who seems to have acted as a go-between several times in the Jansen-Vanderdonck story.  Here’s a copy of the letter, clearly a reply to an inquiry about Alexis Vanderdonck. 


Basically, Mr. Markus is saying that Mr. Vanderdonck still lives in Brussels, his address is 59 Rue du Vieux Marche aux Grains — street of the old grain market.  He adds, “He was just in my office.”  The letter is dated 22 February, 1903. 

Vanderdonck Territory


Rue Du Vieux Marche aux Grains is located in one of the oldest sections of Brussels.  We took the subway to the neighborhood and asked at several places until we found the street.  Unremarkable, yet very nice. 

Rue du Vieux Marche aux Grains


Impossible to say whether this is the same building or a rehab or a new building on the same lot.  Across the street, a building that’s much older with characteristic crow-step gables. 

Older building, Rue du Vieux Marche aux Grains


From the old Vanderonck haunts we thought we’d look up the offices of Jacques Markus, but it was too far and we were too tired.  I’ve since learned it’s in the heart of the red light district, so just as well we didn’t go. 

Instead, we decided to walk as far as possible back to our hotel. Our route took us through the lower (older) city, with its impossibly gilded guild halls surrounding old squares. 

Brussels, old city


When we walked up to the upper city, we could look back over gardens and the old town. 

View from the upper town, Brussels


Back to our neighborhood, and the Leopold Gate, and so to bed. 

Leopold Gate

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Posted by on January 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


Bruges — a side trip

After our stay in Maastricht, and our visits to the neighboring Belgian towns of Rekem and Beek, we headed west to Bruges.  No genealogical work there; we went merely to see the city, the so-called “Venice of the North.”

Old house, Bruges

Bruges was pretty.  It rained.  Our hotel smelled like sewage, as so many places do when they are situated on or near canals.  We had an excellent “beer dinner” — perhaps our best meal while abroad — with each course prepared with beer and served with the beer used in its preparation. 

 All in all, though, Bruges was disappointing.  So much of its charm comes from changes made by British expats who discovered it in the late 18th and early 19th century, and stayed on to make the town even more of a story-book village than it had been.  The whole place had a slightly Disney-like quality for me. 

In addition, the city was overrun by Brits who had come for the weekend via the ferry to Ostend.  And we were tired of traveling, having been on the road at this point almost three weeks.

 Next, to Brussels.

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Posted by on December 29, 2009 in Uncategorized


A trip to Beek, Belgium

First, let me apologize for the silence.  It’s my busy season, and I’ve been decking halls since the first week of December.  Yesterday I finally decked my own, and now, before the Christmas madness starts, I want to get back to the journey.

I left you in Rekem, where we found the church great-great-grandmother Vanderdonck was buried from, and the building where her husband worked as a customs official.

We had learned, easily enough, from the Vanderdonck family card in Rotterdam that Grandmother’s father — or stepfather — had been born in Beek, Belgium.  The hard part was finding Beek itself.  We were told by several people who it was a suburb of Antwerp.  Others said it was near Maastricht.  Still others said “Beek,” which means “brook,” is a common ending for Belgian towns, and there would have to be some word before it. Maps were no help.  We didn’t have a clue.

Finally, the man we met in Rekem told us that Beek was nearby — it had become part of another town, as Rekem had become part of  Lanaken.  He named a few towns it might have been swallowed by, and we drove through several, looking for Beek without luck.

Town hall, Bree.

Our last stop was a small town called Bree.  It had clearly been a market town, and had its own small but lovely church. It also had a town hall, where we learned that Bree had indeed consumed Beek  — the two towns merged in 1965 —  and found a map.  

The village of Beek had become a neighborhood.   New houses lined roads in subdivisions where the black top seemed barely dry. 

Parish church, Beek

But the Catholic church is still there.  Dedicated to St. Martin, its Romanesque tower was built with field stones  in 1007. 

Interior, Church in Beek

Inside, the church holds some late Gothic statues, and a restored organ  dating from the 18th century.  The pipes are from 1593, making Beek’s organ the oldest in Belgium.

Church interior, Beek

A small cemetary surrounds the building, but we found no Vanderdoncks among those graves.  Still, we knew that if Alexis Vanderdonck was baptized in Beek, it  would have been in this ancient, peaceful place.

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Posted by on December 23, 2009 in Uncategorized


The Next Generation

 Most people reading this are probably family members, and familiar with the offspring of the Vanderdonck/Jansen union.  And most of us have a copy of this photo, taken on my parents’ wedding day, August 29, 1936.

The next generation

From the left, back row: Albert, Fredericka (Freda), Petronella (Nellie), Pauline, Theodore. 

Front row, from the left: Cecelia, Grandfather Theodore Jansen, Anna Cornelia,  Grandmother Jansen-Vanderdonck, Joseph.

My mother’s wedding dress was royal blue lace; it was the Great Depression, and you wouldn’t wear a white wedding dress — you needed something you could wear again and again.    Behind the group, a tapestry showing gleaners with a windmill in the background. The picture was taken in the living room of the Newkirk Avenue house.

See what happens when you run off to America?

It’s slightly maddening to keep coming up with the same first names while doing genealogical research.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell one generation from the next. This is because of naming traditions in Dutch families. 

Up until very recently children were  named after family members. Usually, the first son is named for the father’s father.  The second son is named after the mother’s father. The third son is called after the father’s paternal grandfather, the  fourth son, after the mother’s paternal grandfather; the fifth son,  after the father’s maternal grandfather; sixth son, named after the mother’s maternal grandfather.

The same thing happened for the daughters except that you always started with the mother’s side first. The first daughter was named after the mother’s mother, the second daughter after the father’s mother and so on.

So the oldest daughter of Theodore and Fredericka is Pauline; the oldest son in Theodore — after grandfather’s father, not himself.  The next daughter, Petronella, is named after grandfather’s mother, Petronella Jansen-Ashof. The next surviving child is Albert, named after grandfather’s brother, not Grandmother’s father or stepfather (Alexis).  Freda is named, most likely, for her Greatgrandmother; Cecelia, for grandmother’s great-aunt, Paulina’s sister.

Anna and Joseph seem fully Americanized in their naming, though there was Anna Dery on the Vanderdonck side, and quite a few Cornelias among the Jansens.  Anna was of course the mother of Mary.  And Joseph the earthly father of Jesus. Given the worship of Mary, this is the most likely source of these names.

Two children of the Vanderdonck-Jansen marriage did not survive into adulthood:  Mary and William.  They were named, it seems to me, for Dutch royalty, though Mary may have been named for the Virgin as well.

One more note on names: in Dutch,  a married woman used her married name between her given name and her family name — so grandmother would be referred to as Fredericka Paulina Jansen Vanderdonck.  And, as you may have seen in the doodbrief posting, a woman’s family name was always included in such missives.  It’s very helpful in doing genealogial research!

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Posted by on December 9, 2009 in Uncategorized