Cor Linssen sits behind a table in his apartment on the seventh floor of Roermond. He takes the picture that he is given. Then Cor, 76, sees for the first time the face of the man who gave birth to him. Same ears. The distinctive lines over the children. Same hairline. “My God,” says Cor. “How do you get it?”
Throughout his life, Cor 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 followed Cor Linssen and fellow sufferer Wanda van der Kleij (76) for two years in search of their causes.
The lives of Cors and Wanda are inextricably linked to an untold part of war history: the role of black American soldiers – hundreds of thousands in Europe – in the liberation of the Netherlands. In the separate U.S. military in the 1940s, they often performed logistics work. The Ninth Army, which advanced to Germany via the Netherlands, was logistically supported from South Limburg by black units manning depots, taking care of food transport, and digging graves. “The military did not think black soldiers were brave or wise enough to fight,” said Joe Wilson Jr., who wrote two books about two black tank battalions that liberated Europe. “They had to fight for the right to fight.”
Black combat units, such as the 784th Battalion Battalion, which helped liberate Venlo, were the exception. It was not until 1948 that then-president Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces.
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The black American soldiers were in the Netherlands for more than half a year around the liberation. Yet there is little evidence of their presence. Racial segregation is hardly mentioned in Dutch reports from that time. “Black American soldiers have always been kept out of the history books,” says Joe Wilson Jr., himself the son of a black liberator. Still, their long stay in Limburg left traces. Black soldiers built the American Cemetery of Honor near Margraten. But the forgotten story also lives on in the people who live there.
‘The whole village turned out’
There are dozens of Limburgers like Cor and Wanda: children of black liberators. The reason can be guessed: they lived close to the Dutch people. They attended liberation parties and came to people’s homes. Romances arose from which children were born. Some of their life stories were recorded in the book Children of black liberators by Mieke Kirkels. They were very noticeable at a time when Limburg had mainly white inhabitants. Skin color played a special role in their lives.
Cor remembers a visit to the fair in the village of Buggenum. A picture has been taken of him sitting next to a friend. “The whole village turned out,” Cor says. “They had never seen a dark child.” Even the constable came to see him. “It really came to feel like me,” Cor recalls. “Or that color did not come off.”
As a young home care worker, Wanda was sometimes treated extremely unkindly. For example, one of her first customers slammed the door in her face because of her skin color. Decades later, Wanda still remembers the words, “A black man? And also one who does not know Maastricht?” She went home crying and holding her bike.
Still, there is a big difference in how Cor and Wanda experienced their childhood, even though they were both the only ones in their family who looked different.
Cor never doubted his family. His mother’s husband embraced his illegitimate child, and Cor still talks warmly about his ‘real’ father. He offered support when little Cor had questions. Other children called him “Zwarte Piet” and said that his father was not his father. He answered unequivocally in dialect: “Doe bis van mich” – you are mine. And that was what not much was said about it. It gave Cor a nice, familiar childhood, but the questions remained.
For Wanda, the discovery was more painful. There was violence in the family. It was only when she was in her thirties that Wanda discovered the fork. She found her mother at home crying in front of her stepfather, who threatened to leave her. “Tell your mom she needs to find the American you belong to!” Wanda remembers his words. Wanda’s mother gave her daughter a name: Edward Brown wanted to be her father’s name.
Search DNA databases
The war has been over three-quarters of a century ago. Some children of black liberators have died without ever knowing who their father was. What connects Cor and Wanda: they are two of the last still in the dark about the identity of their ancestors.
Advanced and more accessible technology also brought them the answer they were looking for. By sharing their DNA profiles in commercial genealogical DNA databases like Ancestry, 23andMe, and MyHeritage, Cor and Wanda were able to identify dozens of distant and less distant relatives. By looking for the missing puzzle piece in 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. A grandson of Cors’ father in California and Cors’ first cousin, Marian Chima, is sufficient to identify Cors’ father: William A. Batts Jr., born in 1924. An obituary shows that he served in 1317. Engineer Battalion, a comrade-in-arms from that unit is located in the American Cemetery Margraten.
Wanda has only one close relative in Ancestry’s DNA database, which is also hidden behind a pseudonym: Saints4llife, a reference to the New Orleans football team. A similar alias has an Instagram account of a chef who clearly has roots in that city: photos of the traditional dish in the American South, gumbo, adorn his account. His real name can be found on his Facebook account: Charles Brown. He has two grandfathers who are old enough to have served in World War II, who bizarrely enough both were named 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.
Also read: An unknown soldier became the father of him in 1943. A lifelong search ensued
The fathers are no longer alive, but there is another family. For the first time in their lives, Cor and Wanda can meet relatives they have never known. They are very surprised when they hear the story: they say they never knew that children were conceived in Europe. The cousins look back with mixed feelings on how their ancestors liberated Europe, at a time when they were not yet free in the United States. “It’s unbelievable that you live in a country that is fine with risking your life in a war, and that same country does not entitle you to be a full citizen of your own country,” Marian Chima, niece, told Cor. “We were half Americans at the time.”
The contact between Cor, Wanda and their American families is immediately warm. For the documentary, they travel to Virginia and New Orleans, to a meeting they have been able to imagine for decades. It has changed his life radically, says Cor Linssen. “You can not imagine how this feels. That I finally know where I come from.”
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 5, 2022