my mata hari

For twenty years I thought I was related to Mata Hari. After a thorough investigation I discovered that I wasn’t.

There IS a relationship with the Boonstra family’, snorts aunt A from Florida through the mail. ‘The mother of my grandmother was a Van der Meulen, and was related to Margreet Zelle’s mother. While still a small boy, my father always visited them on Sundays with his parents. I've heard him tell that story a thousand times.’

Aunt A refused to accept it. She has believed this story her entire life. And now here I am, a long-lost cousin saying that it isn’t true because I so badly needed to write about Mata Hari? That her father might have lied about aunt Antje and uncle Adam?

The latter is probably not the case. At that time children often addressed the friends and acquaintances of their parents with ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, and we were no different. Our entire street was full of aunts and uncles, all neighbours and friends of my parents. And this is probably how it was for aunt A’s father.

Foto van Mata Hari op mijn bureau

Cousin Steven once told me that we were distant relatives of Mata Hari. We went to the Museum of Friesland, still at its old location, where a separate room was dedicated to her. I wrote a story for my newspaper, put her framed picture on my desk, and that was that. When I told Steven that it didn’t add up, we sifted through the archives in Friesland together. And we reached the conclusion that Mata Hari was related to a lot of people, but not us.

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But Aunt A. persisted and probably for other reasons. She’s lived in the US for a long time, away from her family in Friesland and Groningen. Memories become stronger the longer and further away you are. Read the book Het Wrede Paradijs (The Cruel Paradise) by Hielke Speerstra about Frisians abroad: it teems with nostalgia and imagination.

Aunt A had recently visited Madame Tussauds with her daughter. Look at that, she’d said, the same dark eyes, the same hair, nose, and skin, completely ignoring the fact that these features are because her husband comes from India. The Boonstras are related to Mata Hari, period. My research indicates that I am not among them. ‘As for Hanneke, she has no connection with Mata Hari’, she writes authoritatively.

For Aunt A it was always fun to talk about Mata Hari. She and her husband used to watch films about her, especially those with Greta Garbo. She recollected some memories at her school in Leeuwarden, which Mata Hari also attended.

In Steven’s home it was a different story; that is, apart from Uncle S naming his daughter ‘Hari Meret’ in a rebellious gesture. ‘My grandmother didn’t like talking about Mata Hari. If I asked about her she refused to look at me again and wouldn’t answer. She was a whore, a spy who was also executed! A disgrace to the family.’

There may have been links between the Boonstras and Zelles-van der Meulen, but a family relationship it is not. I couldn’t find any. Yet I do feel connected to her. And my blogs, in which the social context of Mata Hari plays a major role, have only made that connection stronger.