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A Man Hanging from his Thumb

The sun shines on Klundert, green lowland plains lying flat as far as eye can see. Tourists visit Klundert. They take pictures: fields of flowers and vegetables. Thunderheads rise, making rows of poplars alongside the canals of Noord Brabant look small. Long canals, they cut straight through the shimmering plains until they lose themselves in the haze where land and sky meet sea. "We like the peace of Noord Brabant," say the tourists, "It does the heart good."

But there is much the tourists do not know.

Klundert, tidy Dutch village in Noord Brabant, stands on blood. The blood of Anabaptists was shed here.

Anabaptists gathered at Klundert throughout the mid-sixteenth century. They came, sneaking out of nearby cities, to meet in secret on the fields. Sometimes they gathered in the homes of Elsken Deeken or Jan Peetersz, a servant of the Word. On August 5, 1571, about a hundred Anabaptists met at the Peetersz home in Klundert. Some came from Haarlem, some from Leyden, and many from towns not far away. During the meeting a young couple was going to get married, but they did not get that far.

The town magistrate and his assistant were sitting at Gerrit Vorster's house, drinking. Someone told him about the Anabaptist gathering. He said: "We will root up that nest and get rid of them at once!" Twice he sent one of his men to listen at the Peetersz house. "Straight Peter" a tailor lived in the front part of the house. Jan Peetersz lived in the back where the people met. After nine o'clock the spies found the meeting in session. They heard someone preaching and saw the light of many candles in the room. Then the magistrate and his men, well armed with guns, halberds, swords, and other weapons broke in through all doors at once. They grabbed left and right. But most of the Anabaptists, ready for such an emergency, escaped up the stairs, through a hole in the roof, or back through a hall and out of openings in the wall.

When the raid was over, the magistrate's men held six men and several women: Peter the tailor, Geleyn Cornelis of Middelharnis near Somerdijk, Arent Block of Zevenbergen, Cornelis de Gyselaar, and a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy who worked for Straight Peter the tailor. The captives were led to Gerrit Vorster's house where the women escaped. They handcuffed the men and kept them under guard. The next morning Michael Gerrits, an uncle of Cornelis de Gyselaar, came to see him. Also an Anabaptist, Michael came to encourage Cornelis to stand for Christ, no matter what might take place. The magistrate seized Michael too.

They confiscated the property of the prisoners, so their wives fled from Klundert with nothing. Then they called on the school teacher to dispute with the prisoners. He wrote up a report in which he said: "They do not baptize infants. They cannot believe that Christ had his flesh and blood from Mary, and they regard themselves as the little flock and the elect of God. But their lives are better than the lives of many others. They bring up their children in better discipline and fear of God than many other people. Their children in school are better students and learn more readily than the rest."

The magistrate kept the prisoners in Gerrit Vorster's house until noon of Aug. 7, 1571. Then he took them to Breda to be tortured. Straight Peter, the tailor, gave up the faith, so they only beheaded him. The rest, including his teenage worker, remained steadfast. One had his hands tied behind his back to be suspended by them and whipped. Another was pulled to the utmost on the rack. While in this helpless condition they held his mouth open to urinate into it and over his body. But Geleyn Cornelis was treated worst of all. They stripped off his clothes and hung him up by his right thumb with a weight hanging from his left foot. Then they singed off his body hair, burning him in tender places with candles, and beat him. Finally the men, tired of torturing the prisoners, took to playing cards. They played for over an hour while Geleyn hung, by now unconscious, until the commissioner of the Duke of Alba said: "Seize him again. He must tell us something! A drowned calf is a small risk."

At first they thought Geleyn was dead. They shook him until he revived, but he did not recant.

They burned Geleyn Cornelis, Jan Peetersz, and the young boy first. The wind came the wrong way and blew the fire away from Geleyn's stake, so the executioner had to push and hold his body into the flames with a fork.

When they led Cornelis de Gyselaar and Arent Block to the stakes, Arent dropped a letter hoping that some Anabaptist in the crowd would notice it and snatch it up. But the Duke's men saw it first and took the two men back to prison for another torturing session. They did not recant and they refused to betray any of their brothers in the faith. Shortly afterward, they burned Cornelis, his uncle Michael Gerrits, and Arent Block.

Since 1571 there have been no more Anabaptists at Klundert. Tourists come -- with Bermuda shorts, sunglasses, paper cups of Coke, and with camera strings flapping in the fresh spring breeze. They like Noord Brabant. But there is much the tourists do not know.

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