HAL Announces Essay Contest Winner, and It's a Must-Read Cruise Tale

April 19, 2011

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(5 p.m. EDT) -- Has she sold the movie rights yet? Maria Dominica Henderson has been named the winner in Holland America's Transatlantic Essay Writing Contest.

Her tale, which links two Holland America cruises -- the first from 1956 when she emigrated as an infant, the second a 2010 anniversary cruise featuring a miraculous meeting -- was selected from 434 entries.

The contest, which asked entrants to write about their most memorable Holland American ocean crossing, helped commemorate HAL's 40th anniversary as a pleasure cruise line. The company's nearly century-long tradition of offering regular transatlantic service ended in 1971, when the line dedicated itself to modern "cruise travel." The top 30 entries will be published in a book that HAL will sell on two July transatlantics.

Henderson's winning entry was selected by HAL president and CEO Stein Kruse with help from a panel of judges, including Cruise Critic Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown. For her efforts, Henderson won a nine-day "Classic Crossing" for two on Holland America's Rotterdam.

Here is her two-part winning entry, titled "My Most Memorable HAL Transatlantic Crossing":

Part 1

My name is Maria Henderson, and I can't wait to tell you a story that spans nearly 55 years and two amazing Holland America cruises. My story begins with a tale of my first and only transatlantic voyage from Rotterdam, Holland, to New York City.

The year was 1956, and I was not quite 15 months old. I was the youngest of five sisters. My memory of that voyage is from the stories my parents and sisters told, and from the pictures that are now archived in our family photo albums. On April 4, 1956, we set sail on the SS Groote Beer (the Big Bear), a Holland America Line ship used at the time to transport immigrants to the United States and Canada. The ship was nothing like today's luxury cruise ships that are designed to treat passengers with the very best of every accommodation. That voyage was not like today's cruises that cater to our vacation spirit, but an undertaking to establish a better life for my parents and their children.

We were assigned two separate quarters with my mother and her five daughters in the women's section, and my father in the men's section. With some pleading from my father, and kindness shown to our family, we were given a stateroom with a small port hole and three sets of bunks. I slept in a buggy that we brought from Holland. All of our belongings were tucked away in a 6' x 6' x 6' wooden crate buried in the storage hold of the ship. Meals were cafeteria style, and activities were minimal. Throughout the nine-day voyage, all my family but my father and one sister got very sick. We landed in New York City with the Statue of Liberty in the background. A very long train trip across the country would eventually deliver us to our new home in Salem, Oregon. This trip was not like any of the six other cruises that I have enjoyed with Holland America.

Why would we leave everything behind and start over in America? There were many reasons, but dad's desire was to become a U.S. citizen. My father was so filled with gratitude to the American GI's in General Patton's army because they liberated him from Buchenwald concentration camp in April of 1945. He was an active part of the first wave of the resistance movement in Vlaardingen, Holland. He was getting ready to blow up the shipyards in Rotterdam to prevent the Nazis from using it, when he was captured and nearly killed. He was soon sent as a prisoner to Buchenwald in Germany, and forced to work hard labor for his captors. He was 20 years old when captured, and was liberated the month before his 25th birthday.

Eleven years and five daughters later, our immigration number came up. Our future was in America, and Holland America took us there. We would become the distant relatives to all our extended family that still live in Holland.

Dad was a war hero and a true patriot to the people in Holland. On September 16, 1981, my father received the National Medal of Freedom Award and was awarded the Resistance Cross by the Queen of Holland. There is a monument created across from the court house in Vlaardingen dedicated to the resistance fighters of which my father was a surviving member.

After my father retired, my parents, Dominicus and Suzanna van Lith, spent most of their vacations cruising with Holland America all over the world. Even after my father's death in 1993, mother continued to enjoy cruising with Holland America. Because of my parents' many adventures cruising, several of us siblings followed their example, and are enjoying cruising. My husband, John Mark, and I have no desire to cruise with any other line. Why would we? I go way back with Holland America after all.

Part II

What makes this story so special are the events that unfolded on our most recent Holland America cruise in December 2010 that reconnected me to my heritage and my first voyage.

On December 4, 2010, my husband and I boarded the Eurodam and enjoyed a week in the Eastern Caribbean. We were celebrating our 37th wedding anniversary. After our tour of old San Juan, Puerto Rico, we were walking back to our ship when I overheard two elderly gentlemen sitting together by the pier talking about their involvement as GI's during WWII. They had family with them, but I just could not resist approaching them.

I said, "Excuse me gentlemen, I could not help but overhear you talking about the war. Did I hear you say that you were at Normandy for D-day?"

"Yes I was," said the first gentleman.

I then asked both of them: "Were either one of you in the Buchenwald in April of '45 with General Patton's army?"

The other gentleman then said that he was there in April of '45.

I looked at him and said, "Thank you sir, you helped to liberate my father from Buchenwald, and saved his life!"

The families of these men were astonished. I again thanked both of them for their service and, with tears in all our eyes, wished them well.

This connection to my past was profound, but even more was in store for me on this special cruise.

On our last evening at sea, we were escorted to our table in the flex-dining area. Near the end of our meal the waiters and stewards brought a cake to the table of ten just to the left of our table. This was a new group of people we had not seen before. The cake was for the elderly matriarch's birthday. The Eurodam dining room staff sang a familiar Dutch tune to her in their native language, and I joined in by singing the same song "Lang zal je leven" in Dutch. Just after that, the staff came to our table with a cake and sang the same song to celebrate our wedding anniversary. This time the younger woman saw me singing the song in Dutch. We made eye contact and smiled across our tables. She then came over to our table to say hello. What happened next was extraordinary!

We introduced ourselves and confirmed that, yes indeed; we were both emigrants from Holland. Johanna Burrows and her husband, John, live in Canada. Johanna (nicknamed Joke) asked me when we emigrated. I told her 1956. She smiled and said that was the same year her family emigrated. She then asked if my family came over on a Holland America Line ship.

I said, "No, we came over on an immigrant ship called the Groote Beer" (at the time, I did not know that the Groote Beer was a Holland America Line vessel).

Joke's eyes got big and said that she came over on the Groote Beer. Then I got a little more excited.

I said cautiously, "But we came over in April of '56."

From the expression on her face, I knew. I started to shake; tears welled up and started to flow as I waited for her response.

"We came over on the Groote Beer in April of 1956," Joke exclaimed!

We both began to shake and hugged each other at that moment. We realized the tremendous odds against us ever meeting, and even greater odds meeting on a Holland America Line ship during, what turned out to be, our second cruise together. John took our picture at that moment. You can see the emotion and excitement on our faces. Everything had to have happened just the way it did that last night for us to meet.

Joke and I have become e-mail buddies and discovered many things we have in common. We have also confirmed that we truly were on the same ship almost 55 years ago. Our letters just kept getting better and better with more information of that first voyage. We found the passenger list with all of our names on the registry. Joke's family disembarked in Halifax, Canada two days before we arrived in New York City. One of our family photos shows us on the deck with the Halifax lighthouse in the background.

We both lost our mothers last year. I truly believe that our mothers had a hand in Joke and I meeting each other. The odds are just too amazing to think about. We shared and fantasized about reliving our transatlantic voyage, only this time in reverse. In addition, my siblings and I have been trying to figure out some special trip we could take to celebrate our parents' lives, in gratitude for the huge sacrifice they made for us, and to honor them both. Then, my husband found the Holland America Line e-mail invitation for this contest that might just provide such an amazing opportunity.

Do I deserve to win this contest? No more than anyone else. It would be a wonderful gift and a blessing. By the same token, winning would not be as complete without sharing my journey with my siblings and my new friend Joke. We all made the original transatlantic voyage together almost 55 years ago. What an honor it would be! What might the odds be after all? I guess you will let us know. I do believe in miracles.