Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kinderdijk, a folktale and the Hans Brinker story

Author: Dipesh Dey

Kinderdijk is a village situated 15 km east of Rotterdam. Its located in a polder at the confluence of the Lek and Noord rivers. To drain the polder a system of 19 windmills was built in 1740 and is the largest concentration of archaic windmills in Holland. It was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997.

The name Kinderdijk is Dutch for "Child's Dike". In 1421 during the Saint Elizabeth flood of 1421, the Grote Hollandse Waard flooded, but the Alblasserwaard polder stayed unflooded. It is said that when the terrible storm had subsided, someone went on to the dike between these two areas, to see what could be saved. He saw in the distance a wooden cradle floating. There was no hope that anything would be living in it, but when it approached, movement was seen. When the cradle came nearer, someone saw that a cat was in the cradle trying to keep it in balance by jumping back and forth so that no water could come into it. When the cradle eventually came near the dike, someone fished the cradle out and saw that in it a baby slept quiet and dry. In some of the stories the cat kept it balanced and afloat. This folktale and legend has been published as "The Cat and the Cradle" in English.

In the Netherlands, the drainage system is an important matter. The Dutch need a well developed water control system in order to keep large areas from being flooded, because some parts of the Netherlands are below sea level. In Alblasserwaard, problems with water became more and more apparent in the 13th century. Large canals, called 'weteringen', were dug to get rid of the excess water in the polders. However, the drained soil started setting, while the level of the river rose due to the river's sand deposits. After a few centuries, an additional way to keep the polders dry was required. It was decided to build a series of windmills, with a limited capacity to bridge water level differences, but just able to pump water into a reservoir at an intermediate level between the soil in the polder and the river; the reservoir could be pumped out into the river by other windmills whenever the river level was low enough; the river level has both seasonal and tidal variations.

Full control over the water level was never achieved. Throughout the centuries, the residents of the western part of the Netherlands suffered inundations, especially because of dyke ruptures; this is reflected the legend of the floating cradle at Kinderdijk and the figure of an anonymous boy commonly mistaken for Hans Brinker with his finger in a ruptured dyke.

The Hans Brinker Story and Flood Prevention in Holland:

In Holland, poor but industrious and honorable 15 year old Hans Brinker and his younger sister Gretel, yearn to participate in December's great ice-skating race on the canal. They have little chance of doing well on their handmade wooden skates, but the prospect of the race and the prize of the Silver Skates excite them and fire their dreams.

Hans' father is sick and amnesiac because of a fall from dike and cannot work. Mrs. Brinker, Hans, and Gretel must work to support the family and are looked down upon in the community because of their low income and poor status. Hans and Gretel learn that a famous surgeon, Dr. Boekman, might be able to treat their father, but the doctor is expensive and gruff following the loss of his wife and son. Eventually, Dr. Boekman is persuaded to examine the Brinkers' father. He diagnoses pressure on the brain, which can be cured by a risky and expensive operation involving trephining. Hans offers his own money, saved in the hope of buying steel skates, to the doctor to pay for his father's operation. Touched by this gesture, Dr. Boekman provides the surgery for free. Hans is able to buy good skates and skate in the race, but Hans lets a friend — who needs it more — win the precious prize, the Silver Skates. Mr. Brinker's operation is successful, and he is restored to health and memory. Dr. Boekman is also changed, losing his gruff ways.

The Brinker parents live a long life. Dr. Boekman helps Hans go to medical school and Hans becomes a successful doctor.

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