I started this blog as a way to memorialize the history of my family. The intent was to capture their stories for posterity’s sake. However, the process, not the stories I have written so far, is what has taught me so much more. In the many hours of conversations about my grandfather, I learned more about my father and his life in the Dutch East Indies than I could have ever imagined. Like so many people, I always assumed I knew my dad from a lifetime of interactions with him. My lifetime. Instead, I now believe that his early years during the World War II profoundly shaped who he is and why he does what he does. While his life in the United States is significantly different from his youth, his Dutch-Indo roots and the trauma experienced during the war shaped him. By extension, those experiences also shaped me.
Growing up in Colorado, no one around me knew this history. The war ended there on August 15, 1945. A few years ago, I discovered that the Netherlands commemorates victims of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) every year on August 15th. The commemoration is called Herdenking. On this date in 1945, my grandfather, two uncles, and one of my uncle’s brothers were liberated from Japanese POW camps. Unfortunately, one of my uncle’s brothers died during a POW transfer on the Junyo Maru.
It would take many months before the removal process began for the Dutch POWs. Eventually, they transferred to hospitals in the region to recuperate. As mentioned in earlier posts (My Opa’s Experience as a POW – Part 1 and Part 2), they experienced difficult to imagine horrors. The willingness and ability to inflict pain on others in the name of whatever cause is truly beyond me.
Pakan Baroe Railway
I recently finished Lizzie Oliver’s book “Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway.” It is a well-researched history of the POW camps along the Pakan Baroe railway from a British perspective. Unfortunately, my ability to read Dutch books is limited, so most of the books I have read have a British bias.
Anyway, my grandfather was a prisoner at Pakan Baroe from May 1944 until the end of the war. Each chapter of the book contains a different perspective on life in the camps. While every chapter includes shocking information, the chapter about their bodies brought me to tears. Dysentery, rotting ulcers, malaria, beriberi, and death. An unbelievable amount of suffering.
It’s hard to imagine people you know experienced this. How can people be so horrible? I grew up with the illusion that, as a society, we are now better than that. Yet, I see atrocious behavior happening all around us today. It looks different, it might not be as far gone, but it’s there. That may be a very doom and gloom attitude, but unfortunately, it’s our reality. I mean, good grief, we’ve politicized a vaccine intended to help people. We need to do better to avoid repeating history.
While my grandfather was held as a POW, my dad, his mother, and sisters were buitenkampers (Dutch-Indonesians who lived outside the Japanese civilian internment camps). They weren’t imprisoned, but by no means was their life easy. The documentary film by Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, “Buitenkampers,” is an excellent portrayal of the experience.
Like most families, they lost their source of income when KNIL* personnel were detained, so they had to find other ways to survive. They encountered limited and often unsavory choices. As a teenager, my dad did various jobs suited for his youth and strength, including dismantling a tea plantation for scrap metal. I assume the work was done for Japan’s benefit because he mentioned that he was treated like a romousha (forced laborer). Located high on Mount Salak (Goenoeng Salak) just outside Buitenzorg (now Bogor) on Java, it was a 15 km walk from home every morning and evening. It was a risky walk with many dangers to avoid, particularly the Kempeitai or Japanese military police, whose brutality was notorious. The Kenpeitai’s purpose was to make sure that everyone was loyal to the Japanese. It didn’t take much to make a mistake and suffer greatly at their hands. In my dad’s case, he suffered a broken eardrum caused by a rifle butt to the head.
Obviously, I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience this trauma. My grandfather never talked about it with his family. My dad never spoke about it until I started asking questions because of my interest in genealogy. This silence was not uncommon. Many were told not to discuss it for mental health reasons. Others felt shame, and probably most relevant, they avoided reliving it through the retelling. Yet, there is still generational trauma.
People are a compilation of their lived experiences. Their behaviors are a result of that experience. As I’ve researched my family history, particularly during the war, I’ve learned so much about my dad. I have a much better understanding of his behaviors and fears. Plus, some of his annoying habits now make perfect sense, e.g., his inability to throw anything away or collect things others chose to throw away. He’s the ultimate recycler, as there is sure to be a use for this stuff down the road! Just making do with what he finds is most definitely a learned habit from the war.
At the end of the day, it has changed how I see my dad. It could have changed who we were as a family had I known earlier. The lessons I have learned from this process have been eye-opening.
With Herdenking coming up later this week, it’s a time again to remember what these people went through, learn from it, reflect, and recognize the impact on families into the future. This learning journey has brought so much understanding about who I am because of the people who came before me, so I encourage others to do the same. You never know what you might find.
* Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger / Royal Netherlands Indies Army