Pen Pals for Nearly 80 Years

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Imagine a friendship spanning continents, decades, and even a war. Now meet Marian Donkerbrook and Gonny vanBuuren, the picture of that enduring relationship.

Marian Donkerbrook and Gonny vanBuuren

Donkerbrook grew up in Englewood, in the Chicago area. In the fourth grade, her teacher introduced the concept of pen pals to the class. After Donkerbrook initially corresponded with an Iowa girl, her mother asked if she would like to write someone from Holland.

“I said, ‘sure, I could do that,’” Donkerbrook said. “So my mother wrote to the principal of the school that she went to in Amsterdam, and she asked if he knew someone my age who wanted to write to someone in the United States. He connected me with his daughter, and we have been writing to each other since then.”

The correspondence began in 1934 and continued even during World War II.

“I got letters that were stamped with the Nazi seal,” Donkerbrook said. “It would say that somebody read them. Then they were stamped and sent on—although some things were cut out. We didn’t write to each other for about three years, from 1942-45, but then after [the war ended], she wrote me to say that she was all right. I asked her if there was anything that she needed, and she said that they needed shoes and coffee. So I sent her coffee and I sent her shoes.”

Since then they have written each other three or four times a year, always through postal mail.

“We never forget a birthday,” Donkerbrook said. She turned 89 on September 3, while vanBuuren turned 90 on August 15.

The friends have met just once, in Holland, in 1998. They spent five days together, traveling to the town of Donkerbroek, among other locales.

“My love for her and her love for me, that’s what has kept us together all of these years,” Donkerbrook said. “And our faith is the same. It’s like I’m going to church with her next Sunday like I have my entire life.”

Donkerbrook attends San Jose (Calif.) Christian Reformed Church while vanBuuren attends Amsterdam Christian Reformed Church.

“I don’t think we have any differences. We talk about our children—she had three and I had four. It’s like she was my blood sister—it’s just beautiful. I can’t say enough nice things about her. I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend like her.”

About the Author

Melissa Holtrop

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