Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Onbekend - Letter from an Unknown Soldier

ONBEKEND:   unknown, unfamiliar, unacquainted
(Grave of an unknown soldier at the Makam at Pandu, the KNIL war cemetery in Bandung)
I never knew Hans, my Opa (Grandfather).  I knew that he was a land surveyor for GMB, a tin mining Company in Billiton, Indonesia, and that later on he became a KNIL Captain.  I knew that the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific in 1941 was the last time the family existed as the close-knit “four leafed clover” as he used to call it. To me, as a man, he was completely unknown, just like many of those men whose bodies lie underneath the earth at the KNIL war cemetery in Bandung, their last word simply “Onbekend”:  Unknown, Unfamiliar, unacquainted.

There are few stories that reveal the man behind the uniform, little to hint at what passions and fears motivated him.  I found myself looking for his name at that cemetery in the large, black, leather-bound book that had been pulled out from a lone wooden cupboard. Sitting at a small rattan table under a gazebo, my fingers traced the final pages of the alphabetical list of 4000 handwritten names. I walked slowly up and down beside row upon row of white crosses, each one standing to attention with clean and militaristic uniformity on the rich emerald green grass, bordered tidily by tropical plants.   Most of those crosses detailed names, dates of birth and death, but too many did not.
They asked me whether I wished to put some flowers on a grave.  I said yes.  I said yes even though I knew his would not be there, even though I knew it made no sense to look.  I thought that by standing in the presence of those who once stood beside him, I could approximate a familiarity that that war, at least in part, had precluded.
A 68 year old letter however, written by my Opa in prison camp and found amongst more papers from the attic, has since offered me a small insight into who he really was.
It reveals the hopes, dreams, regrets and demons that he dared to bring to the surface - a surface too often precise and regimented - only after two years of soul searching, when he was finally staring death right in the face. 
Photo of a prisoner of war at Changi, Singapore at liberation – from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/changi_pow_camp.htm
“In case this letter is found after my death, I ask you, if it is possible, to enquire at the addresses on the other side of this envelope.  My sincere thanks.  Kaptain Artillerie J C P Van Bael
To Mrs Marianne Van Bael-Knoll, Bandung,  Java

In case the recipient is unknown, information might be obtained through the following:
1)      Department of War
2)      Gem. Mynb. Maatschappy, Billiton [GMB], Batavia or The Hague
3)      Mrs H Den Hartogh, Bandung, 86A Nylandweg and 123 Nylandweg  (Austrian -  spouse of ex Finance inspector, Bandung
4)      Mrs Benschop,  previous address  Pahud de Mortagnes Laan 12, Bandung 
5)      Austrian Consulate
I wonder: the letter is ten pages long. How did he manage to get hold of the materials in order to commit his desperate thoughts to paper?    "I have been - you might not have imagined this - working hard for our future during this time in captivity. I have continuously taken a prominent place among the camp commanders” the letter suggests.
Changi (Singapore) – 4th April 1944
To my dearest “Big-eyes”, Hennypen and Lottekind,
Darlings, I will not even attempt to try and write you a long epistle, telling you what has happened since our last meeting together.  Nor will I ask you the thousand and one questions that I would so much like to ask.  What is the use of that?  If this letter reaches you through someone else, then all questions and answers will be futile.  And if I, which I furiously hope, can ever give you this letter myself, then it will take us years to talk everything through - years of luck, about which I dare not think.
This letter, dear Marianne, will therefore neither be a simple conversation, nor a love letter which we have so often written in the past.   It will only be a business letter.   Circumstances, for various reasons, have dictated that I cannot put off writing it any longer.  After all, life is getting worse by the day and the situation here is getting worse also in the camp.  In fact, Droompje [my dream], this IS a love letter because only my unbelievably great, unspoken love for you and our little Blondies makes me write down all of this that I have to now, in the hope that if we really do not see each other again, these points will be able to guide and help you.
There are two copies of this letter.  One is with other papers in my small sack and in case of my death, hopefully would be found.  It is very much in question whether it would ever reach you.  The second copy I will give to my best friend in this prison camp:   Major den Militaire Luchtvaart, J C Van Den Vloodt. We have been together now for two years and have shared all of the good and the bad – he is a magnificent, civilised chap.   Honest and of good standing.  I have asked him to help you wherever possible. 
The people who I trust fully  are the following.  Please Marianne, let them be your advisors.  They will do so willingly:
  • Major Van Den Vloodt for information and advice.
  • J A C Verschure [not in the camp] who will know all about the GMB and can help you in that respect.
  • Lieutenant Colonal J C Hubach – a well known flying Doctor who lived in Bandung and is also in camp with us.  [He] will also help you and give you advice.  Also, for instance, for medical concerns.
  • Lieutenant Colonal C Waltmann  [the fourth friend in our group here].  He is from Bandung and of the Military Air force where I had been for a long time. 
Darling, the abovementioned people, and their positions, are first class and will be able to help you with everything.  Believe me,  you can go to them, which you cannot do with strangers. 
My little Popperkind [Doll],  I wish I could leave you much more .  But that doesn’t really help us now, because who has got money?  Where is the money?  What is money?  All the present chaos, especially in [Netherlands] India, is so enormous that no one can answer these questions. [Netherlands] India will be empty, robbed, and completely worthless.  Will the Government be in a position to issue salaries and pensions?  And will the insurances even pay out?   How would the interest be?  High?  Low?  Nobody can answer. But, we have to trust that the Dutch Administration in London and the Indian Administration in Australia, have prepared for the future.
If, whilst you are dealing with all of this, you sometimes find it difficult, think then that I am with you and that I, my lovely, wish to look after you so that you don’t have any worries for the three of you for the future. 
He lists various possible sources of income and assistance that Tikus should explore, including  a year’s salary from his old Company, insurance funds, savings, widow’s pension, child benefit, Captain’s salary, back-pay during the war period, Department of War, Austrian Consulate.....
He writes out figures, in remarkable detail - the sums he thinks she may be able to claim after the war.
Oh Darling, there are more and other combinations possible – nobody knows but I hope that you will help me by looking into everything.   Be brave, as I know you will be. Then you will achieve what you need to....... and then I can be at peace.
No one can tell what is going to happen in the future.  What value money will have and what would be a safe investment and what would be the cost of living.  But, my Lieve Grootoog [my dear Big-eyes], you must promise me this:
a)      Don’t ever lend out money
b)      Don’t ever borrow money yourself – that will just give you more sorrow
c)       Never spend more than your income (debt makes you poorer)
Then there will be for the three of you the big question :  What now?  How will this struggle finish?  Will Holland still be Holland and will Austria still be Austria?  If I were to be returned to you, my goal would be to take up a place in the, by then necessary, Military Police, working for the reconstruction of the Dutch Indies. If possible, I don’t want to return to Billiton.   You know that I was never very happy working there -  I had imagined our future together differently.  Also, for the sake of our dear “Klaver blaadje” [Four leafed clover].  But all of this will not happen if I don’t return.  What then?  I don’t know.   Dear little Marianne, I will only set out a few important points and I sincerely hope darling that you will do everything to handle things.  That, I will depend upon.  Take this as my last wish. 
Don’t stay in [Netherlands] India!  After you have organised everything, then go to Europe.  Java will be for a long time in chaos and the three of you belong in Europe.  Only there will you find happiness again.
You know what I have dreamt of a lot in these years?  Don’t laugh!  Henny [will be a] Doctor and Lottje a Lawyer!  I don’t know why.   But if you can, let them study.
My sweet Marianne, Austria is your homeland.  Teach the children to love it as I love it because you come from there.  But next to that, let them also know about Holland.  Teach them that Holland was also their fatherland. 
The final thing my darling.  This is just for yourself.  You know Marianne I was never very jealous in our marriage.  If I ever have any regrets it is this:  Now I know darling that I have loved you more than I can ever say. Now I know how much sadness I have given you.  
Forgive me Marianne,
I beg you only to remember the beautiful things that we have done together and forget all the wrongful deeds I have done to you. 
I ask you this as the last thing!  Now that it is maybe too late.  Now I can’t get it out of my mind that you most probably will remarry but if that will happen, my love, I hope that you will find the happiness that I would like to have given to you forever. 
 Oh Marianne, to be able to return to you and ask your forgiveness for all the hurt I have caused you and for my disloyalty that I now myself deeply hate....how wonderful this would be.   To love you in different surroundings, a different work circle, and to remain unfalteringly loyal to you.  With no secrets between us.  Not one distrust.  Nothing but a beautiful, deep love for the four of us.  To be jealous, to live only for you. Darling, if this will happen, how happy we will be forever.   But if I do not return, tell the children that Daddy died for his fatherland. That means for the three of you.  Tell them that Hansepie loved his Marianneke and that we had a beautiful marriage.
Give them both, and yourself, one last big kiss from me, with my wishes for your luck and future.  Don’t ever forget that I have loved you above all else.   Don’t forget that above all else your love has given me inner happiness and take that as consolation.  
Farewell darlings. 
One last kiss from your Hans. 
Never forget your Pappa?!   
Servus   (goodbye in Austrian)
(Some parts of the letter have been edited out due to length or repetition)
This letter was hidden amongst personal effects sent to Lottie (my Mum) after the sudden death at 55 of their Mother, Marianne (Tikus) from a stomach ulcer in 1968.   Mum could never bring herself to go through those papers and so his heartfelt words and counsel remained unheard by his two daughters – until now.
Under the folded right hand corner of the envelope are hidden two words : “1st copy”, an addition reflecting Hans’ characteristic attention to detail.
On November 2nd 1945, two and a half months after the end of the Pacific War, Hans was finally handed over to Allied forces.

Also released were his best friend in the camp, Van der Vloodt,  and Hubach, the flying Doctor.  Waltmann’s records state neither that he was released nor that he died – Onbekend.   
Red characters written on his camp record indicate that Scheffer, Hans’ camp mate whilst still on Java, died of dysentery as early as October 1942, just months after drawing my Opa’s portrait,  two large red characters stamping indelibly his fate: “Died”.

 “Of the 42,000 KNIL (Royal Dutch East Indies Military) and Royal Navy servicemen in Japanese captivity 8,200 died: almost 20%”.  Beyond the scope of this blog but important to note is that 80-90% of the ROMUSAN, the Indonesian “coolies” that were sent to other parts of Asia to work died.
Hans headed directly to Bandung where we know that Tikus and the girls had arrived sometime in December 1945.  It was in Bandung, amongst the chaos of the post war search for loved ones as well as the terror of the Bersiap period, that he was finally able to deliver to Tikus by his own hand not only this letter but also his promise:   to remain unfalteringly loyal… to live only for you.”
For the next four years my Grandparents lived in Batavia (Jakarta) whilst Hans did indeed work, as he had hoped to do, for the reconstruction of the [Netherlands] Indies.  The girls, still weak and in need of a more stable environment for recuperation, boarded an evacuee ship bound for NZ where they stayed for six months in a relief camp before being sent to Australia to school (blonde girls on the left):

A letter from Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, 1945, reads:
“To the children who were interned.
Finally I can tell you that I've been thinking about you a lot, during that fearful time, when you were imprisoned in the camps…..
I was told of your cheerfulness and helpfulness for Mother and Father.
Dear children, I am proud of you, that you have so bravely endured through everything that was so difficult……
Now I wish you all happier days ahead.  Wilhelmina”
Happier memories in Australia 1945-1949

The family reunited after four years in Australia – a trip to the Puncak on Java before they headed back to Holland in 1949. 
In Holland, the family would yet again be separated:  Hans would work away during the week and return on weekends to the couple’s one bedroom rented flat in The Hague.  Henny and Lottie went to live in “foster” homes until they completed their schooling.  Very much behind in their studies as a result of being interned, they struggled.  They both find amusing the suggestion that they might have become a Doctor or a Lawyer:  “The whole thing left us a bit stupid!”  they laugh.  At the first opportunity, Henny headed for London where she met her Kiwi husband of over 50 years, and Lottie followed, putting herself through Nursing training at St Thomas’ hospital. 
But they always loved returning “home” on visits to The Hague – to the tiny apartment they had never lived in, and a country they had known for such a short period of their lives, a very long way from the beaches of Billiton and the hills of Bandung.  Having been uprooted countless times over the years, “Home” for them was simply wherever their Mother was. 
A young wife and mother of two entered a prison camp and emerged, three years later, a very strong and capable woman.  My Grandparents’ relationship – and the roles that each of them held within it – would certainly have changed as a result of this.   Many years later, and not long before her death, Hans broke his promise to Tikus.  An underlying estrangement, rooted in so many years of separation and fertilised by a closeness between mother and daughters through their shared experiences in the camps, meant that the two girls could never find it in their hearts to forgive him.  The tragedy of any loss, be it life, hope, trust,  possessions, a homeland, or indeed love, seems to be exacerbated by the time invested, suffering endured and sacrifices made in trying to build or hold on to that precious thing.  And so his betrayal was a burden that he was to carry far beyond his grave.
For Henny and Lottie, this letter was a bittersweet reminder of one of life's great challenges:  that of reconciling, within oneself and within others, the duality of love and hate, good and bad, strength and weakness.     

For me however, one step removed from all of those memories, I feel in touch with a more human side of my Grandfather than that which I have known.  For good or for bad – or a bit of both.    Reading his letter was like placing those flowers on the grave of the unknown soldier, relieving it of its own heavy burden:   obscurity.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to”.



1 comment:

  1. such a heart wrenching story so sad like so many of the dark days as a pow. my dad was also a pow in bandung and java then on to osaka , he returned only to die 20 yrs later .