From Holland to the Holy Land

A devoted 70-year-old Dutchman rode his bicycle from Utrecht to Jerusalem in pursuit of peace.

pilgrim 88 298 (photo credit: )
pilgrim 88 298
(photo credit: )
Every year thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but few choose the route or mode of transportation taken by Dutchman Pieter Bergsma. Bergsma set out on his bicycle for Jerusalem from his small village near Utrecht almost three months ago. Last week, 5,500 kilometers and 11 countries later, he pedaled through the City of Gold. In doing so, the Catholic pilgrim both realized his dream of reaching Jerusalem and raised funds for a Givat Haviva peace project. Just short of his 70th birthday, Bergsma left his village of Doorn on April 23 and headed for Germany, then on to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. From there, he crossed over to Israel via the Sheikh Hussein bridge near Bet She'an. "I am so happy to finally arrive in Israel," said the slim, sandy-haired, retired pilot-navigator who served for 35 years in the Dutch navy as he first set foot and wheels on Israeli soil. Unlike most cyclists who take to the highways and byways, this pilgrim was not kitted out in expensive state-of-the-art cycling gear. He has pedaled away three months and thousands of kilometers dressed in denim jeans and long-sleeved cotton button-down shirts, sandals and stretch socks. Apart from his cycling helmet and leather riding gloves, he looks more like he is on the way to a day in the office than negotiating kilometer after kilometer of hills, dales and vales. The modest, quiet Dutchman has his basic travel necessities carefully packed into two panniers strapped either side of the rear wheel and two much smaller ones straddling the front wheel. Another small bag containing laptop, cellphone and maps sits snugly on the handlebars. Born to Dutch parents living in Indonesia when colonized by the Netherlands and known as the Dutch East Indies, Bergsma lost both parents and a brother during World War II. "My father was for many years a sailor in the Dutch merchant navy before managing a sugar factory in Java, where I was born. When the Japanese invaded Java, we were thrown into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; women and children in one, the men elsewhere. I spent more than three years in the POW camp and was freed shortly before my ninth birthday," he said during a break in the journey last week. In Java, hunger and disease took many lives, including Pieter's mother, and a brother was killed in an accident. His father managed to escape from Java and reached Australia but returned to Java, having agreed to undertake a secret mission on behalf of the Allies. He was dropped offshore by a submarine, only to be captured almost as soon as he set foot on Java's soil and was shot by the Japanese. "I came out of the camp an orphan," said Bergsma. Sent to Holland with other orphaned children, he was brought up by an aunt and his father's parents, but local Dutch children gave him a tough time. "They didn't accept us, made fun of us and said we should go back where we had come from," says Bergsma, the painful memories making him silent for a few moments. "I'll never forget being asked what camp I had spent the summer in because the Dutch children, even though there was a war on, had still gone to summer camp and said that we should go back to our 'summer camp,' wherever it was," he added. After finishing high school, Bergsma joined the Dutch navy and became an officer pilot-navigator, spending much of his service time in Britain, the West Indies, Puerto Rico, Florida and the former Dutch colony Surinam. In l989 he retired from the navy. At almost the same time, his wife passed away. Bergsma explained his love of bicycling. When he was repatriated to Holland, the Red Cross organized a recuperation period for war orphans, and in 1947 at the age of 11, he was sent to stay with a family in Bornholm, a 587 sq km island some 150 km east of Denmark. The island, known for its splendid forests and scenery, is crisscrossed with bicycle routes, and he learned to ride a bike. This is not his first long-haul bicycle trip. "I had an urge to return to Bornholm to visit the family that had been so kind to me, so in 1999 I bought an all-round road bike and decided to ride to Bornholm, although for the last stage I had to put my bike on a ferry." The next two-wheeled challenge came the following year when he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, the final destination of the legendary medieval pilgrims' route Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) still walked by Catholic pilgrims today. On that journey, Bergsma burned tires for 4,900 km. "My pilgrimage to Jerusalem was in the planning for a few years - and I have promised my children and grandchildren that this will be my last long trip, as they worry too much," he said. The catalyst was a peace project for children in Israel. "A few years ago a lady named Nancy Schwartz from the Dutch Friends of Givat Haviva came to give a talk at my church about various projects for peace, and I was really impressed, especially by the Children Teaching Children (CTC) program that encourages dialogue and understanding between Jewish and Arab children and teachers," he explained. Bergsma's church community and a pensioners' organization are now fundraising for CTC, having followed his progress by reading accounts published in a local Dutch newspaper. The last article penned by Bergsma and sent from Jerusalem will appear in Holland next week, when he will be on his way home. He has already been invited to talk about his pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a number of venues in Holland. "I hope that through the publicity, more funds will be generated for the CTC project. I feel content with having achieved what I set out to do, not only to reach Jerusalem but to also contribute funding and awareness for what I consider to be an important project," said Bergsma, whose own experience of being treated as 'different' all those years ago is still very vivid in his memory.