Cor Linssen sits behind a table in his seventh-floor apartment in Roermond. He takes the picture that was handed to him. Then Kaur, 76, sees for the first time the face of the man who gave birth to him. The same ears. The marked lines above the cheeks. Same hairline. “Oh my God,” says Corinthians. “how did you get it?”
All his life Kaur knew only one thing about his biological father: he was a black American soldier who helped liberate Holland from the Germans. As documentary filmmakers, we have followed Cor Linssen and colleague Wanda van der Kleij (76) for two years in the search for their causative agents.
Core and Wanda’s lives are inextricably linked to a little-told part of war history: the role of black American soldiers – several hundreds of thousands in Europe – in the liberation of the Netherlands. In the separate US Army of the 1940s, they often did logistical work. The Ninth Army, which advanced into Germany through the Netherlands, was logistically supported from southern Limburg by black units that ran warehouses, took care of the transport of food and digging graves. “The military didn’t think black soldiers were brave or smart enough to fight,” said Joe Wilson Jr., who wrote two books about two battalions of black tanks that liberated Europe. “They had to fight for the right to fight.”
Black combat units, such as the 784th Tank Battalion that helped liberate Venlo, were an exception. It wasn’t until 1948 that then-President Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces.
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Black American soldiers have been in the Netherlands for more than half a year around liberation. However, there is little evidence of their existence. Apartheid is rarely mentioned in Dutch reports since that time. “Black American soldiers have always been kept off the history books,” says Joe Wilson Jr., himself the son of a black editor. However, their long stay in Limburg has left traces. Black soldiers built the American Cemetery of Honor near Margraten. But forgotten history also lives on in the people who live there.
“The whole village turned”
There are dozens of Limburgers like Kaur and Wanda: Children of Black Liberators. The reason can be guessed: they lived near the Dutch population. They participated in the liberation celebrations and came to people’s homes. The Romans arose from which children were born. Some of their life stories were recorded in the book children of black editors by Mickey Kirklees. It was very noticeable at a time when the population of Limburg was mainly white. Skin color played a special role in their lives.
Kaur remembers visiting the fair in Pogenum Village. He was photographed sitting next to a friend. “The whole village has been transformed,” Kaur says. “They had never seen a black child before.” Even the policeman came to see him. “It really felt for me,” Kaur recalls. “Or that the color just didn’t pay off.”
As a young employee in home care, Wanda was sometimes treated very unfriendly. For example, one of her first clients shut the door in her face because of the color of her skin. Decades later, Wanda still remembers the words: “Black? Also who doesn’t speak Maastricht?” She came home crying while carrying her bike.
However, there is a huge difference between the way Cor and Wanda lived their childhoods, even though they were the only ones in their family who looked different.
Kaur never suspected his family. His stepfather embraced his illegitimate child and Kaur still speaks warmly of his “real” father. Provide support when young Core has questions. Other children called him “Zwart Bet” and said that his father was not his father. He answered unequivocally in a tone: “Doe bis van mich” – you are mine. And that was it, and not much was said about it. She gave Kaur a gentle and familiar childhood, but questions remained.
For Wanda, the discovery was even more painful. There was violence in the family. Wanda only discovered the thorn in her thirties. She found her mother crying at home, in front of her stepfather who was threatening her to leave. “Tell your mother that she will find that American you belong to!” Wanda remembers his words. Wanda’s mother gave her daughter a name: Edward Brown would be her father’s name.
Searching DNA databases
It is now more than three quarters of a century since the war. Some of the children of black liberators died without knowing who their father was. What connects Cor and Wanda: They are two of the last people still unknown about the identity of their ancestors.
Advanced and easily accessible technology also brought the answer they were looking for. By sharing their DNA profiles in commercial genealogical DNA databases such as Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage, Cor and Wanda were able to identify dozens of more distant and less distant relatives. By searching for the missing puzzle piece from the resulting family tree, the unknown father can be identified.
Cor seems to have many American relatives in the databases, so the puzzle is relatively easy to put together. Core’s California father’s grandson and Core’s cousin, Marian Cheema, are enough to recognize Core’s father: William A. Bates Jr., born 1924. The obituary shows he served in the 1317th Engineering Battalion, and a comrade of arms from that unit is at Margraten American Cemetery.
Wanda has only one relative in the Ancestry DNA database, which is also hidden behind a pseudonym: Saints4llife, in reference to the New Orleans soccer team. A similar pseudonym has the Instagram account of a chef who apparently has roots in that city: photos of the traditional dish of the American South, gumbo, adorn his account. His real name can be found on his Facebook account: Charles Brown. He has two grandparents who are old enough to serve in World War II, and both, oddly enough, were called Edward Brown, the name Wanda’s mother used. A DNA test from a relative on one side of the family tree reveals Wanda’s father: Charles Edward Brown Sr.
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Parents are no longer alive, but there is another family. For the first time in their lives, Cor and Wanda are able to meet relatives they never knew before. They are very surprised when they hear the story: they say they never knew the children were born in Europe. Their cousins look back with mixed feelings about how their ancestors liberated Europe, at a time when they were not yet free in the United States. “It’s unbelievable to live in a country that is so okay to risk your life in a war, and that country itself does not give you the right to be a full citizen of your own country,” said Cor’s niece Marianne Chima. “We were half Americans at the time.”
The connection between Cor, Wanda and their American families immediately became warm. For the documentary, they go to Virginia and New Orleans, for a meeting they’ve been able to imagine for decades. It radically changed his life, says Kaur Linsen. “You can’t imagine how this feels. I finally know where I came from.”