Honorary member Johan Cnossen retires as a board member after more than half a century

“I didn’t even know the word genealogy!”

Johan Cnossen (FCO from Lemmer is putting an end to his period as a board member of the Cnossen-Knossen foundation after 53 years. On the occasion of this farewell, we look back with Johan on more than half a century of sifting through, recording and administering our family history.

At a Dutch Cnossen reunion, ask for ‘Johan Cnossen’ and you run the risk that a large part of the men present will raise their hand: it is a popular family name. The departing board member was therefore called ‘Jehan’ or ‘Johan Lemmer’, at least then you knew who he was. It will have to do something with his background as a teacher that Johan himself remembers names and family compositions flawlessly. However, his love for and knowledge of history does not mean that the now 88-year-old Johan himself lives in the past. He was one of the first board members to switch to ‘paperless’ meetings: the documents were neatly stored on his iPad. Even when the board was forced to switch to video meetings during the Covid19 crisis, Johan was always there from behind the kitchen table.

After more than half a century, Johan stops his active work for the foundation. A number of the current board members were not even born when Johan took up his job. “In February 1970 I became a board member of the ‘association Cnossen-Knossen’, later it became a foundation,” says Johan. “In October 1969 I attended the very first Cnossen reunion. This was widely announced in the Frisian newspapers. It was the only way to make people aware of it, because there was no registration like we have now. I was already interested in genealogy at that time and asked a lot of questions about family history during the reunion. Not only was I curious, I was also good at making connections. The board noticed that and they asked me to join. By the way, I didn’t even know the word genealogy then, I especially liked the stories my father told so much!”

Stories become plays
That immediately makes it clear from whom Johan inherited his storytelling skills. His stories are often half plays, complete with gestures, winks and often concluded with a thunderous burst of laughter. A conversation with Johan is therefore a party. During the farewell interview, he explains in detail how the family history was mapped, of course including wonderful anecdotes. “The first chairman cycled past cemeteries in Friesland to look into the family past. He wrote it down neatly in a notebook. You can imagine the panic when the notebook was lost! We picked up phone books to call namesakes and map out their family ties. When board members came to another place for their daily work, they always checked whether a Cnossen lived there and then simply went there. But of course there are also the chance encounters. My son Willem had to get his truck driver’s license inspected. The medical examiner enters the waiting room and shouts: ‘Willem Cnossen can come along!’ The complete stranger sitting next to my son also stands up, it turned out to be just a namesake! That way you will gradually get your information. In the past we also had family reunions much more often, sometimes every few months. Then we always asked: ‘Who are you exactly?’.
At one point we had so much information that as a board we said: ‘We should have a book sometime’. But yes, how do you ensure that all that family data is clearly recorded? The then secretary gave us homework after a meeting. We had to come up with a system to archive the family ties. The next meeting: no one had made anything. And mad he was! In the end, we opted for a code system that you also use for financial administration. That was later adjusted, but the foundation was thus laid.”

Heroes and shot glasses
To brighten up the ‘boring’ family tree series, of course there had to be family stories in the book. “With the collection of family data, the stories naturally came out. For example, it was about heroic deeds or people who had made it. But there were also other stories going around, for example about family members who sometimes drank one drink too many. Often we were told to write only the positive stories. One of them once said: ‘There are also strange Cnossens, you know!’ Wonderful, isn’t it?”

Common motivation
Organizing the collected data was an enormous task, which ultimately took fifteen years. Over the past year and a half, Johan and Foeke, the board member who was appointed honorary member last September, have mapped everything out. Together they scoured telephone directories and collected obituary and wedding advertisements from the newspapers. At family gatherings, visitors were urged to pass on mutations. “It was a great time and really a spearhead of the foundation. We didn’t often have official meetings, we were just working together in the living room. We had a good relationship, because there was a common motivation. We were and are proud of our history.” That observation immediately elicits a nice anecdote from Johan. “We had just had letterhead printed with the family crest on it. A family member insisted on having it. It turned out that she had to write a leg up letter to the mayor and hoped that the family coat of arms would add extra force to her words. “Then he immediately knows who he has in front of him,” she snorted!”

The presentation of the first Cnossen-Knossen book in 1988 is the greatest highlight for Johan in more than half a century of board work. “The family came to Hommerts from far and wide, even from the United States, Israel and Spain. It was so busy in the village that the police had to come and direct traffic. The inhabitants of Hommerts had their reservations about this. ‘Kinst wol sjen dat se hjir eartiids foar master opshoegen, se hawwe no alwer de heele dyk yn beslach.’* That says enough about how proud we are of our surname and our history!

*translation: You can see that they used to be in charge here, now they are occupying the whole road again.