My parents survived World War II concentration camp. In Indonesia. Under the Japanese. My dad was 13 and my mom was 6 when they and their families were put there. My parents, who are both in Heaven now, were Dutch-Indonesian, born in Indonesia when it was still a Dutch colony. My mom used to joke that we were all a family of mixed nuts. What I know of our family history during that difficult time comes to me (and my brothers) through the lens of a young, adolescent boy and a little girl. So, some of the history I am recounting may not be complete, but it is as my parents remembered it. Very little of what we know of that time came from our grandparents (Oma an Opa). When my grandparents would come to America to visit us, my brothers and I were instructed never to ask them about the war. Those memories were too painful to bring up although occasionally, Oma and Opa would recount – in Dutch – some of the stories of friends and loved ones they had lost. They spoke in Dutch because it was their first language and because they had no idea how much Dutch my brothers and I actually understood, though we never learned to speak it. So, while those stories from Oma and Opa were precious few, when they were so inclined (and when I pestered them enough), my parents would tell me what they remembered of those days.
Prior to the institution of the concentration camps, the invading Japanese imposed martial law on the Indonesian islands. People could still live in their homes, but there were strict curfews and harsh enforcement of the law. My mom remembers the day when Japanese soldiers stormed into her family’s home to arrest her father. Mom was 5 at the time. Her father had been helping with first aid efforts in the area, but someone had accused him of spying. The anonymous accusation alone was enough for a conviction. Seeing her father being taken away, my mom tried to save him by grabbing onto his leg. To peel her off, one of the soldiers stuck his bayonet into my mother’s leg. She remembers that day as the last time she ever saw her father. It was a week or so later that someone showed her family a place in the jungle where her father had been executed. My mom always said “murdered.” They never recovered his body. And as I said earlier, by the time mom was six and dad was thirteen they were in Japanese-run concentration camps.
While the stories about those times were few and scattered throughout the years, the experiences had long-lasting effects. One of my mom’s favorite sayings was: “You’ll eat anything if you’re hungry enough,” and while that is not an original saying with her, it was something she and my father had lived. It wasn’t until after the war that my mom learned that the many “chicken” meals she had were really rat and snake (if they were lucky). When my parents were finally able to come to America as permanent residents thanks to an act of Congress, my dad ate so much that first year that he gained a good 30 extra pounds. Food was so plentiful and cheap in America! But what if it ran out? For the rest of his years on earth whenever dad bought anything, he almost always bought a backup. I found myself adopting the same habit and didn’t know where it had come from until I remembered my dad doing it all the time. It got me to wondering why he did it at all and then I learned that many people who have suffered near starvation often adopt the habit of buying at least two of everything because the fear of going without is always nagging at their subconscious. My dad was also an advocate of “Finish you plate!” He never said, “Finish your plate,” his English was always a little broken, unlike mom’s who improved her language skills by always reading, and by following the bouncing ball on a TV show called Sing Along with Mitch. But the “finish you plate” mantra was one of dad’s most remembered sayings. He still remembered what it was like to not have enough to survive.
Something else I remember about dad was how he cooked. One of his responsibilities was to cook for members of the camp. He was not the only one who did that, but he was one of the ones assigned to that task. After the war, he got even better at cooking, but he never mastered the art of cooking for a single family. When he cooked it was always enough to feed a small army.
What stands out most to me about mom was her willingness to stand her ground no matter how big the bully was, to call things what they were, and to defend family no matter what the cost. She went out of her way to remind us how much she loved my brothers and me because she knew how fast a loved one could be lost. She never gave up on any of us.
Though family stories about those times in WWII were few and scattered throughout the years, my mom, avid reader and family historian that she was, managed to find an English translation of a book called Four Years Till Tomorrow. It is a book full of stories about Dutch-Indonesians who had survived the Japanese concentration camps. One refrain that I noticed in many of the stories was “If it were not for the atom bomb, I would not have made it.” I know that is not a popular sentiment today because we’re supposed to be against atomic bombs. They’re terrible weapons. I agree. They are. But wars are terrible things and sometimes it takes a terrible weapon to end a terrible war. Do I advocate nuclear weapons for every war? Of course not, but for that war many more would have died were it not for that terrible weapon of mass destruction.
What does all of this have to do with Memorial Day? Besides the atom bomb, another terrible weapon of war is war itself. Countless men and women in uniform gave their lives to save people they didn’t even know, people like my parents and grandparents. When my parents were able to come to live in the U.S., my mom was homesick for Holland. (Holland was where the majority of Dutch-Indonesians ended up after the war.) When she learned she was pregnant with me, her first son, and realized he would be born an American, she forgot her homesickness and took great joy in knowing that her children would be born in a land of freedom. Both my parents raised my brothers and me to love this country, it’s language, its laws and its culture. Was their allegiance blind? No. They knew America had its flaws. They would often joke about “dumb Americans.” They’d even call us “dumb Americans” at times, but still they loved this country. It was the best country in their estimation, flaws and all. I recount my parents’ story to say, “Thank you” to all of those who gave their lives to make my parents’ story possible. In every war there are many, soldier and civilian alike, who do not make it. To those who died to make us free, I thank you. Your sacrifices have reached around the world and across generations.
Photo by: unsplash-logoDaniel Foster