Dirk Willems

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An etching of a man leaning down to reach another man who has fallen through broken ice. Several bystanders are in the background, as well as a church.
Dirk Willems saves his pursuer in this etching from the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror.

Dirk Willems (died 16 May 1569) (also spelled Durk Willems) was a Dutch martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for escaping from prison and turning back to rescue his pursuer—who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems—to then be recaptured, tortured and killed for his faith.


Willems was born in Asperen, Gelderland, Netherlands, and was baptized as a young man, thus rejecting the infant baptism practiced at that time by both Catholics and established Protestants in the Netherlands. This action, plus his continued devotion to his new faith and the baptism of several other people in his home, led to his condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands and subsequent arrest. Willems was held in a residential palace turned into a prison, from which he escaped using a rope made out of knotted rags. Using this, he was able to climb out of the prison onto the frozen moat. A guard noticed his escape and gave chase. Willems was able to traverse the thin ice of a frozen pond, the Hondegat, because of his lighter weight after subsisting on prison rations. However, the pursuing guard broke through the ice and yelled for help as he struggled in the icy water.[1] Willems turned back to save the life of his pursuer, thus being recaptured and held until he was burned at the stake near his hometown on 16 May 1569.

Today, he is one of the most celebrated martyrs among Anabaptists, which includes Mennonites and Amish,[2] as well as a folk hero among modern residents of Asperen.[1] A historical drama based on his life—Dirk's Exodus—was written in 1989 by James C. Juhnke.[3] In 2018, a statue of Dirk Willems was unveiled at the Mennonite Heritage Village museum in Steinbach, Manitoba.[4]


  1. ^ a b Oyer, John S.; Kreider, Robert (1995). "Compassion For The Enemy". The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen College. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  2. ^ Unruh, Mark (September 2002). "A Story of Faith and the Flag: A Study of Mennonite Fantasy Rhetoric". Mennonite Life. Bethel College. Archived from the original on 2018-08-15. Retrieved 2008-12-15.
  3. ^ Juhnke, James C. (1989). Dirk's Exodus: A Historical Drama. North Newton, Kansas. ASIN B000726FG4. OCLC 24771600.
  4. ^ "Dirk Willems Statue Unveiled at MHV". Steinbachonline. Retrieved Nov 12, 2018.

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