The Josh Groban episode – the Dutch part

A couple of months ago, I was asked by the producers of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? to help with the final leg of Josh Groban’s journey to uncover the story of his ancestor Johann Jacob Zimmermann. They had found out in Germany that Zimmermann came to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on his way to Pennsylvania, and died around the time of departure in August or September 1693. Could I please help find out where he was buried?

Wait, let me think. You betcha!

Searching for the burial

Before 1811, the burial records of the churches are the best source to find information about people who died. The Rotterdam City Archives has an online index of the burial records, but a search for Zimmermann did not produce any hits. I tried the Dutch translation of Zimmermann [carpenter], Timmerman and went wild with wildcards, trying Tim* and Zim*, but found nothing.

There was no guarantee that he would be in the database. He might have died shortly after departing and gotten a seaman’s grave. But that did not make sense, because there was a letter about his demise that the party sent back to Germany that arrived there by October 1693. If Zimmerman had died on board, they could not have sent word back to Germany until the ship arrived at its destination, which would take weeks. So I was convinced that Zimmermann had to have died in Rotterdam, and had to be in the burial records.

I tried the search engine again, this time filtering to browse all the burials in August and September 1693.

And there he was. Jacob Tijmmermann, buried 19 September 1693.

Burial of Jacob Tijmmerman (detail)

Burial of Jacob Tijmmerman (bottom entry)

I pulled a scan of the original burial record from Familysearch. The bottom entry reads:

Sa[turday] Jacob Tijmmerman “vremdt” [stranger] at the “Vijnhaven” [wine harbor] wk

A little above the entry was the first date of the week, 13 September 1693. I calculated that Saturday must have been 19 September 1693, which matched the index.

So was this Jacob Tijmmerman who was buried on 19 September 1693 the same person as Johann Jacob Zimmermann, the ancestor of Josh Groban? I am convinced it must be:

  • The timing is absolutely perfect. In Germany, they had found a letter from the end of September 1693 saying how Johann Jacob Zimmermann had died. If he died on 19 September, there would have been just enough time. Such a letter would have been sent immediately after such a catastrophic event.
  • Tijmmerman is a minor spelling variation of the Dutch word Timmerman, Zimmermann [carpenter]. The unusual spelling of Tijmmerman was the reason I did not find the entry in the index, it was indexed correctly after all.
  • Many Germans used their middle name as their given name. It would be unsurprising if Johann Jacob Zimmermann was commonly called Jacob.
  • The indication of the “stranger” indicates that Jacob Tijmmerman did not belong to the Dutch Reformed Church in Rotterdam, but was a transient, just like Johann Jacob Zimmermann.
  • The Wijnhaven [wine harbor] was in the harbor district of Rotterdam, where most transients would be staying.
  • The Dutch Reformed Church would have been the place where he would be buried. As far as I know, it was the only burial place back then.
  • No other candidates for Johann Jacob Zimmerman were found in the burial records, even though reliable eye witness testimony stated that he died there.

The “wk” reference is unclear and may refer to the “westkant” [west side] of the church. I checked with archivists at the Rotterdam archives and they did not know the meaning either.

Is the grave still here?

The next thing was to find out if the grave was still there. As a transient, Zimmermann probably would not have been buried inside the church but outside, in the churchyard (cemetery). Since graves are routinely cleared in the Netherlands, that meant that the chance was small that the grave still exists. But it would be nice to visit the church, so finding the church would be the next best thing.

The burial record did not indicate which church Jacob Tijmmerman was buried in. The original burial register is a part of the record group of the Dutch Reformed Church kept at the Rotterdam Municipal Archives, so I knew it was a Dutch Reformed Church. I consulted a map of Rotterdam to see just how many Dutch Reformed churches there were in Rotterdam at the time.

Rotterdam map by Jansonius (public domain)

Rotterdam map by Jansonius (public domain)

Map of Rotterdam - detail with the Laurens church

Map of Rotterdam – detail with the Laurens church

The map and legend showed that there was just one church in Rotterdam in the 17th century, the Laurenskerk [Laurence Church]. The fenced area at the north-west side might even be the cemetery.

Not being too familiar with Rotterdam, I wondered if the church would still be there. Rotterdam was heavily bombed by the Germans in World War II, which destroyed most of the inner city. I asked the archivists at the Rotterdam City Archives who told me that after the dust settled, only one building was still sort of standing. You guessed it, that was the Laurens Church.

The Laurenskerk has been fully restored and open for visitors. I went there to see if I could find any grave or cemetery, and as I feared, I could find nothing. The church itself is gorgeous though and I could already picture Josh Groban walking there to ponder over the end of his ancestor’s journey.

destroyed city with one church still standing

Laurens Church after the bombing of May 1940. Credits: Cultural Heritage Service (CC-BY-SA)

So what happened?

I can only imagine the tough decisions that producers have to make to fit centuries worth of stories in forty-five minutes worth of television. The decision was made not to include the Rotterdam part of Zimmermann’s journey in the episode.

Even though I’m disappointed, I can understand that decision. The Rotterdam findings did not advance the story that much since Josh already found out in Germany that his ancestor died in Rotterdam before leaving for Pennsylvania. Still, it would have been a nice ending to see Josh complete the journey of his ancestor.

As TLC’s programming in the Netherlands is different, I haven’t seen the episode myself so I’m very curious to see the result. I read Roberta Estes review of it and can tell that they did an amazing job. Did you see the episode? What did you think?

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. I was disappointed that the Rotterdam segment wasn’t there as well, but your name WAS in the credits at the end. Having been one of those lucky people to stand at my ancestor’s grave with you, or where the grave was, or near where the grave was, I know that would have been the perfect ending to the episode. And by the way, your knowledge of those old records and how to find “misspelled” or “misindexed” records is beyond remarkable. I know about that too from personal experience.

  2. Yvette,

    Could the letters “wk” refer to the institution that payed for the burial? The last column has payments in it, as far as I can tell, so it wouldn’t be strange if the grave diggers got their money from some institution. Rotterdam attracted a lot of strangers because of their harbour, so it would make sense I think.

    Just a thought!


    • Michel Doortmont says

      What I was thinking (3 years later). It could mean Weeskamer, which institution also cared for desolate estates (onbeheerde boedels), which is a characterisation that needs to be taken in the broad sense of the word.

  3. Sandra Johnson says

    I think they should have done another segment on Josh! Plenty there to look into.

  4. What I’m most curious about, and something that will probably never be known, is what was the cause of death.

  5. Miranda van Corbach says

    Hallo Yvette,
    Wat bijzonder om hieraan te hebben meegewerkt, en wat leuk om te ontdekken dat er een klein stukje Nederlandse geschiedenis in Josh Groban’s verleden te vinden is.
    Je kunt de aflevering hier vinden:
    Fijn dat je deze informatie met ons fans hebt gedeeld, bedankt!!
    Vr. groeten, Miranda
    actief lid van de Nederlandse Josh Groban fanclub.

    • Hallo Miranda,
      Ga je erg beledigd zijn als ik je vertel dat ik nog nooit van Josh Groban gehoord had? Inmiddels heb ik hem gegoogled en ben erg onder de indruk, wat een prachtige stem. Charmante man ook 🙂

      • Miranda van Corbach says

        Haha, niet beledigd hoor 😉
        Hij is nog steeds niet erg bekend in Nederland, ondanks dat hij al jaren in het vak zit – het aantal fans hier groeit langzaam maar gestaag. Gelukkig doet hij bij Europese tournees altijd Amsterdam aan, de laatste keer in juni 2013 in het Ziggodome.
        Mogelijk dat we hem in 2016 weer hier kunnen verwachten.
        Het is inderdaad een bijzonder aardige man, met een dijk van een stem en een hele toegankelijke, humoristische persoonlijkheid.
        Nogmaals bedankt voor alle informatie, en voor jouw antwoord 🙂
        Groetjes, Miranda

  6. Thank you for posting this! It answered the question I had after seeing the film.

  7. Sally Mowbray says

    Thanks for this blog section – I watched the episode and wondered what happened afterward. I assumed Josh (& Chris) explored the Rotterdam scene off-camera for personal reasons, which would be understood of course. It’s very interesting to know that you found the death/burial record and the church of interment. I also wondered about the cause of death, especially as it was the exact year he had (some time previously) predicted the catastrophic events (for the church) would take place! Almost seems like too big a coincidence? I would also love to know how the rest of the family (especially Mum, Lindy) felt about the revelations, since Josh was doing it primarily for her (he said). Great programme – I haven’t watched many of these, and only watched this one because I’m a big fan of Josh, but it has fired up my interest now and I shall do some catching up! Thanks again.

  8. Yvette,

    Do you have any way of contacting Josh Groban? There is a family Bible, containing the records of two of his direct ancestors, Samuel Zimmerman 1779 and John Zimmerman 1740.
    I would think he’d be interested in having a copy of it.
    Thanks for any help you can give me.


  9. I was wondering about the cause of death, but I understand that data isn’t always included. Just sad he died so young at only age 50.

  10. i am one who has been fortunate enough to stand at an ancestor’s tombstone. Having come full circle in all the research. Searching for records, photos and hearing stories of their lives. It is a journey that is bittersweet. You no longer see a stone but a man or woman who lived, loved, cried through hardship and contentment.
    Have I completed the journey? With this ancestor the answer most likely is yes.
    Now I start on a new journey with another loving the research, stories and if lucky photographs and news links. My love of cemeteries and graveyards have was given to me by my father. Learning that each name had a story a relative, not just a stone. Much more like a final hint that states I was here once as you are now. I have a story. If lucky my story one day will be told.

  11. Linda C. Zimmerman Hasekamp says

    Zimmerman connection of family tree; Great Grandfather was Samuel Zimmerman. His son William Zimmerman. His son Ralph Zimmerman. His son Ronald Zimmerman (my brother) has 2 sons Ronald and Michael Zimmerman.
    We had learned from Grandpa Willie we had ties to the land and deeded property the Pennsylvania court house was built on.

    Linda Zimmerman Hasekamp (daughter of Ralph Junior Zimmerman)
    St. Louis Mo. USA

  12. Yvette,
    I am so delighted you were involved in any way with WDYTYA?! I adore that show. I think I am caught up now on all the past episodes of the UK version and am now devouring any others I can find on YouTube. So sorry they didn’t use your segment! That’s okay, now you’re on their list, maybe they’ll contact you again.

    • Thanks, Teresa! Do you know of any Dutch-American celebrities that I could pitch to them? 🙂

      • Well, Josh Groban isn’t Dutch, nor were his ancestors. SO MANY people left for the U.S. from Rotterdam. I think you should become an expert on Rotterdam records. Position yourself as the go-to person for emigrant records through that port. Yes, don’t you like my career advice? 😉

        I was happy to see so much of this episode in Württemberg. I don’t have many German lines but my straight maternal line goes back to the old Duchy. And yes, those ancestors left for the U.S. through Rotterdam.

      • How about Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam?

  13. I’m just glad that you were able to find out information on Jacob. Mostly because he is one of my ancestors too. So me it was interesting to learn more about him and to see where I come from.

  14. Johann Jacob Zimmerman is my 8th Grandfather, so I was very interested in the Josh Grogan episode. I thought they did a fantastic job. I don’t believe he was “crazy”, just very zealous for his faith, and that can sometimes lead you down the wrong path. Thank you Yvette for your research into his burial. It’s amazing what you found.

  15. B B Carmen Johnson says

    I really liked the Josh Groban episode,but as always i was left with questions. I am new to your blog. I have been researching my family background. Came to Canada from the Netherlands in 1948 via Rotterdam. I have collected some of my fathers info from a site that listed births, deaths and marriages. Unfortunately I have lost the site and have been trying find it again. So far no luck but have had the pleasure of finding you. I’m signed up and am looking forward to more of your informative and interesting article.

    • Welcome to my blog and thanks for subscribing and leaving a comment! You probably used Genlias, which shut down a couple of years ago. All the information that used to be on Genlias (and plenty more!) is now available at A free registration is required to click through to the scans, which are available for a growing number of records.

  16. I really am grateful to you, as I too, believe I am an ancestor of Johann Jacob. I am happy Mr. Groban did the show, because it opened up some information to me that I was researching. I am still trying to figure out how the information that I have relates to what was presented in the show. I am starting over from scratch to research our family back to Johann (So many duplicate James, Johns, Christophers and Jacobs!) I think the story of the family getting property from William Penn in Germantown is also pretty interesting.

  17. Evelyn (Hoida) Roob says

    Happened upon your blog while googling Josh Groban genealogy. When the WDYTYA program aired my 1st cousin recognized the Zimmerman name from our ancestry and we believe Josh’s 9x great-grandfather, Matthias Zimmerman, is our 10x great-grandfather. We believe our 8x great-grandfather is Andreas Zimmerman but research wasn’t certain who his father was, possibly either Johan Sigmund Zimmerman or his brother, Johan Georg; and their father was Matthias. That would make Josh Groban our 10th cousin once removed!!

    Thank you for the research information you provided.


  1. […] Desperate to hold onto his beliefs without causing his family more suffering, he headed for Quaker Pennsylvania. He didn’t make it, but they did. (Here’s some behind-the-scenes, cutting-room-floor info on Johann’s burial site in Rotterdam.) […]

  2. […] Nederlandse gedeelte van zijn familiegeschiedenis is uitgebreid beschreven door Yvette Hoitink, die meewerkte aan deze […]

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