This is the prologue to my grandfather's story that you can find by following a link at the bottom of this document.

This story is about the life of my grandparents, early 1900s to 1950s in the Dutch East Indies.


My grandfather was a quiet man who sat in his chair looking out of the window with a cigarette in his hand. He would roll them himself with rice-flour so that the cigarette would extinguish easily and he would have to light it again. He also smoked krètèk cigarettes, which smelt of cloves. As a child I didn’t like the smell, sat there with our noses pinched. He also smoked cigars sometimes and we were allowed to collect the cigar bands. We would put them on our fingers. We never asked why he sat there looking out of the window so silently. He was an inaccessible man to me and not a grandfather whom you would ask to sit on his lap. Nor was he a grandfather who sought rapprochement himself. So, he just sat and looked out the window. Sometimes with a drink in his hands. My two older sisters and I were just very lively children in his eyes, and we probably were too. What was going through his mind?


On Sundays we often went to granddad and grandma. Sometimes we ate a warm meal there, and my grandma would cook a delicious Indonesian rice table. My grandpa would really appreciate that. And especially ‘no dessert after that’, he would say, because that would ruin the delicious taste he still had in his mouth of the spices and sambal that are used in this cuisine. Sambal, yes, lots of sambal.


Jaap, their youngest son, who was about 20/30 years old when I was young, used to like the sambal that went into the food, until my grandfather thought that the food could use more sambal and added a touch too much. Since that time Jaap did not eat Indonesian food any more. Grandpa had ruined it for him, he said later. Grandma always had to cook a bowl of Dutch stew for Jaap instead.


Jaap was different, Jaap was a boy born with Down's syndrome. (Grandma was 47 years old when Jaap was born) But Jaap could do a lot. When I met him as a child, he already lived in Huize Vijvervreugd. A home for mentally handicapped people in Middelburg. Jaap came home every weekend by train to Breda. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his co-occupant and friend Adje. Adje could not travel alone, but Jaap could, and sometimes he brought Adje along to visit their parents in the weekends. It sometimes happened that while changing trains in Roosendaal, where the train would normally be on its way to Breda, the train for Antwerp or Rotterdam was waiting as well. My father, who was then waiting in Breda, did not find Jaap on the platform. Jaap did realise on the way that the view from the train was different than usual. But being autonomous enough as he was, he spoke to the ticket inspector who then helped Jaap onto the next platform to take the train back to Breda.


Jaap went to work by bike.  He had many jobs, from putting pencils in boxes (which he did not like) to guarding a bicycle shed or supervising in a museum. The only thing he could not be taught was to read and write.


My grandmother was a caring person and Jaap was never short of anything. My grandfather was not short of anything either. He got weekly pocket money from my grandma, because grandpa liked to spend money. My grandma knew from experience that sometimes they spent too much, so that they got into trouble at the end of the month. We had quite a few electrical appliances in the house via my grandfather, which he eventually could not handle. (Radios and alarm clocks for example. There was a Kijkshop in the shopping centre nearby, and Grandpa was a good customer there, eventually giving this surplus merchandise away to his children or grandchildren.


My grandmother's frugality came from the war period. She had learned to make ends meet with nothing. She watched over her offspring like a hen, making sure she could make something out of what she had. For example, the story my father told me about looking for empty snail shells in the camp (already eaten by the Japanese) so that my grandmother could make a broth from them.


Grandma would walk to a shopping centre half an hour away with her 'kangaroo', as she called her cart, because the milk was a few cents cheaper there for example.


Grandma had a certain way of writing, she held the pen between her index and middle finger, which intrigued me as a child, because that's not how you are taught to hold a pen at school.


My grandma called me Drupke. As far as I can remember, I was the only grandchild she gave a nickname.


In the corridor there was a saying carved into a wooden sign, which I only understood much later when I was older: " Nobody gets a programme of the concert of life". No, they indeed did not know what awaited them in the thirties, and many with them. They overcame all the obstacles in their path and lived their lives as best they could. 


When I was a child, my grandfather had an Opel Cadett type B. He didn't buy his first car until the early 60s, a Fiat 600. A tent in the back or on top, chairs and three days on the national roads through France to Spain to the campsite. It was cramped, but it worked. My grandfather didn't need a car in the Indies, he did everything on his motorbike or on foot. In case they needed to go somewhere that was further away and grandma came along, they went by bicycle-taxi.(Betjak) 


I knew that my grandparents had lived in the Dutch East Indies. My father was born there, as well as his older sister and half-brother. Jaap was born much later, in 1955, when they had already returned to the Netherlands.


Granddad and grandma lived in Breda-north on the corner of a row of townhouses. The furnishings reminded you of a past in the Indies. Wajang dolls and other decorative Indonesian objects. A stuffed turtle that nowadays is forbidden to export form Indonesia. The painting above the sofa showing two oxen ploughing through the rice paddies in the sawa (I recently heard from my father that my grandmother had this painting made on commission at the end of the 1940s to convert money into goods, as money at that time was reduced in value by half by order of the then Indonesian president, in the hope that the painting might increase in value), the camphor box, which was used as a blanket box. Grandma sometimes opened it so we could sniff the camphor smell. Books too, many books about the Indies. Grandpa did read a lot, but he thought that many books were too romanticised and full of nonsense. One book he could appreciate and that was Rimboe, about the life of a tobacco planter. Books also about Siam and Burma, as it was called then. Grandpa also liked to wear short-sleeved batik blouses, in summer, because in winter he wore warm clothes. He could never get used to the cold in Holland since his return. My grandfather dressed like a gentleman. Shirt, spencer or jumper and a scarf around his neck. When he went out, he wore a blazer jacket over it. Grandma wore floral dresses like every elderly woman did in the 1970s, this was real senior citizen clothing in those days. And when she was doing housework, she wore an apron on top to protect her clothes. 


Stories about the Dutch East Indies would sometimes come up. My grandfather would talk about 'the beautiful girls' he went to see (this was before his marriage). He talked about the good old days, which he missed enormously. Disillusioned, he and his family returned to the Netherlands in 1950. He had not foreseen this as he was sure to be growing old and retire there, but fate decided differently. Grandma sometimes talked about the time when she lived there from after the war until 1950, but only sporadically about the war and her own experiences, as this was too painful, I think. Don't talk about it, just forget it. I also think that they were able to survive the war in the camps by looking forward, and not thinking about the present or the past. One had to maintain the willpower not to think too much about the fate of others, or else you would die.


Sometimes you would hear a short anecdote about the camp, from grandpa and grandma or my father, but told without too much emotion. Showing emotion is weak, they soon realised that in the camp. Stay strong, only then can you survive! And they did, all of them. 


Grandma stayed friends with someone she met at the camp period until the end of her life. My father called her 'Auntie' Leen. I know her as a very fat lady, my grandmother made clothes for her because of her unusual size. You could say that after her time in the camp, she never suffered from hunger again. She ate a lot of sweets, and at Saint Nicholas we always got a lot of sweets from Aunt Leen.


Then there was 'Aunt Alie', she was a friend from just after the war until 1950. A frail woman who, at the age of 80, drove from Gelderland to Breda in her yellow Opel Kadet City. I have never seen grandpa meet any friends from his time in the Dutch East Indies. 


I remember a New Year's Eve that granddad and grandma spent with us. The TV had to be turned on because there was a New Year's Eve conference by the cabaret artist Wim Kan. As a child, that was absolutely uninteresting to me, but grandma and grandpa sat glued to the TV and we had to be quiet, because then they could hear everything better. My two sisters and I, who were waiting for my father to light the fireworks later on, were definitely not quiet. I think we spent the evening upstairs until midnight.


Later I heard that grandpa had met Wim Kan during the war in the prisoner of war camps in Thailand. Grandpa had an invisible connection with this man. It was not talked about, but you could feel that there was something there. The following years on New Year's Eve, when we now had a black and white TV upstairs, the grandchildren went upstairs before the show began.

Later I heard that grandpa had met Wim Kan during the war in the prisoner of war camps in Thailand. Grandpa had an invisible connection with this man. It was not talked about, but you could feel that there was something there. The following years on New Year's Eve, when we now had a black and white TV upstairs, the grandchildren went upstairs before the show began.

Because little was said at home about that period, I became curious. Who was my grandfather? How did he end up in the Dutch East Indies and why? How did he meet my grandmother? What about Karel, the Indo half-brother of my father?

In short, quite a quest. While searching, I found out the name of Karel's mother, my grandfather's first wife. Through the 'family history centre' I was able to obtain birth certificates about the period of this first marriage.

I researched about the camps the family were incarcerated and the exact period as well as research on the Burma Railway where my grandfather was put to work. I looked at Military archives on the internet and even visited the National Archives in The Hague (Red Cross Archive). All this was done to bring the story of grandfather and his family into focus. Both for myself and for our relatives, so that we realise that without the courage and strength of our ancestors, I would not even have been able to write this story at all.

Many book were read too:

Het Birma dagboek by Wim Kan,

Kimura’s Kinderen, by Marga Barentz-Drost

Tussen Banzaï en Bersiap, Elly Touwen-Bouwsma en Petra Groen

Tropenbruid by Susan Smit

De kleine krijger by Marion Bloem

Ervaringen van veteranen en Burgers uit Woonzorgcentrum Raffy in Breda, stichting Arjati

Tussen twee werelden(verhalenbundel)- Uitgeverij KJBB

Kan-Niet is dood by Betty Roos

I was able to get a lot of information from the above books and incorporated it into my report.

My father once started to write down his memories.

His experiences are woven into the story under the designation (G).

Christel Kuijsters, juni 2022