By: Hans Vervoort
Translated from Dutch by Willem ten Wolde
“Homesickness is: knowing the way in a house that no longer exists,” is one of the most beautiful statements by writer Rudy Kousbroek (Pematang Siantar 1929 – Leiden 2010). Rudy undertook a nostalgic trip back to Sumatra in 1979 and later—with a television crew in his wake — returned again in 1994. He wrote a book about his trip: Back to Negri Pan Erkoms (Terug naar Negri Pan Erkoms).
When my wife and I traveled around that island in 2004, I visited some of Kousbroek’s nostalgic sites. One was the hotel Siantar in Pematangsiantar, the third largest city of Sumatra, a three hour drive from the capital city of Medan. Kousbroek stayed at a boarding school that he hated, from his 6th to 10th year, because it was near the plantation where his father worked. “Finally home,” he noted as he returned to the hotel during his search for Negri Pan Erkoms. He had pleasant and glowing birthday memories about the beautiful dining room:
“The panels along the wall, the curved windows, the hallway to the kitchen. The tiles, the tiles. An indescribable feeling (…) of being in a familiar environment, finally after so many years.”
After some searching I found that dining room, even in 2004 a nice place. I described Kousbroek’s ‘aha erlebnis’ in my travel book Return to the Tropics (Retourtje Tropen (2005). This year, I was shocked when I received an angry letter from a reader. She wrote that Kousbroek (and therefore also myself) could never have been in the original dining room. Because on October 15th, 1945, a bloody massacre took place in which not only the hotel burned down, but also the Swiss owner, a few Dutchguests, two Dutch soldiers, and a few dozen Ambonese and Menadonese were massacred by Indonesians.
One of the victims was her father-in-law, the planter J. C. Groenenberg.
After some research it appeared that she was right. The newspaper The Algemeen Handelsblad on November 21st, 1945, reported extensively about the incident, and I also found journals and various historical studies in which it was mentioned.
But why did Kousbroek not know that? The hotel was later restored as good as possible, but why didn’t someone tell him what had previously happened at this place during his nostalgic stay? Kousbroek spoke to the manager of the hotel, an old faithful, and recalled pre-war memories with him. But apparently the fire of 1945 did not come up during the conversation.
Kousbroek himself (17 years old at that time) left for the Netherlands at the beginning of 1946 by MS Noordam from Sumatra with his parents and should therefore have known about the massacre that took place before his departure during the so-called ‘Bersiap’ period. Even more so because his father — an administrator of a company — must have known Groenenberg and the Kousbroek family had regularly been guests at that hotel.
What did the ‘Bersiap’ mean? The word means “be prepared,” according to a statement from Sukarno. After the Republic Indonesia’s declaration of independence, the young government, of Sukarno and Hatta, did not actually have any means of exercising authority. The English liberators stopped the return of Dutch soldiers from Japanese captivity for as long as possible for political reasons, but had occupied and controlled only a few parts of Java and Sumatra. In the power vacuum that arose in many areas after the capitulation of Japan (15 August 1945), fanatical youth bands (called Pemudas, meaning ‘young’) set out to kill as many whites and half-whites as possible with klewangs (machetes) and spears. ‘Death to all whites’ (‘Boenoeh belanda’) was the slogan (current spelling “bunuh”).
This period of murder and robbery lasted from October 1945 to March 1946 and accounted for thousands of lives lost —especially Indo-Europeans who were permitted to stay outside the internment camps of the Japanese. They were regarded as pro-Dutch by the Pemuda’s and were declared outlaws. Because the able-bodied men were often still prisoners of war in the camps, they — women, children, older men — could not protect themselves against the violence. The white interned women and children and older men were safer: they stayed in the Japanese camps, where the Japanese camp guards had now been ordered by the British liberator to protect them from nationalistic violence. On Sumatra, they were housed in the district of Polonia, which became very overpopulated with about 15,000 ex-internees.
A few took the risk and went back — usually out of a sense of duty — to their place of residence. With often fatal consequences. And that was also the case here.
The Japanese respected the neutrality of Switzerland and Swiss citizens in the Dutch East Indies so they were free people during the war. Hotel Siantar was owned by a Swiss by the name of Heinrich Suerbeck. He was a chemist and botanist with great interest in tropical plants. In 1916 he founded the first soft drink factory of the Dutch East Indies and Indonesia, which sold very popular drinks under the brand Badak (rhinoceros), with sarsaparilla as topper. In 2016 the factory, now in Indonesia’s possession, celebrated its 100th anniversary. In early 1912, he built the hotel Siantar and made it successful.
During the war he and his two daughters stayed free, just like three other Swiss who had sought safety in hotel Siantar: A. Bauer (Sürbeck’s garden employee), H. Boner (machinist), and R.W. Schuepp (administrator of the palm oil company Dolok Sinoembah). During the war years they — and especially the two daughters — did their best to smuggle food into Siantar’s prison. There, 500 internees who stayed in miserable conditions and under the whip of the sadistic commander Nisjiuro Gyozo, who was sentenced and executed after the war. Their daily ration consisted of 50 grams of rice, so it is no wonder that half of the prisoners did not survive the war and died of hunger, disease or violence.
The sisters Lydia and Hedwig Sürbeck received the Resistance Star East Asia for their good deeds in 1950 and 1951.
Hedwig Sürbeck was the lover of J.C. Groenenberg, a cousin of prewar Dutch Prime Minister Colijn. On Sumatra he was an authoritative man because of his position as administrator of the Dutch Indisch Land Syndicate. Groenenberg was married, but his wife lived in the Netherlands and there was no divorce possible because of their Calvinist Protestant background. Everyone knew that Hedwig and he had a relationship, so it was not surprising that he rushed to his beloved in Siantar immediately after the capitulation of Japan. That Hotel Siantar was Swiss owned certainly played a role in his decision that it would be a safe place. Others who were in the hotel at that time were the doctor E.R.J. Boers and his wife:
“Doctor Boers was very much loved by the population and was nicknamed bapak Simeloenggoen (father of the people of Simeloenggoen). When he was in the camp, there was prayer in the mosques every Friday night for his well-being. After the Japanese capitulation, he left the camp at the request of the population”. (Quotation from the journal of the surgeon A. H. Smook)
By choosing to return to the Hotel Siantar, he signed the life of himself and his wife away. The hotel also accommodated four Dutch servicemen, an Indo-European, and three Ambonese. Presumably a small delegation of the Rapwi-corps (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) that was created by the Dutchman C.A.M. Brondgeest to bring as many interned Dutchmen to safety in Medan as quickly as possible. The leader of this group, Ensign Claessens, had asked the English in Medan for reinforcement, because he saw that disturbances would arise. In the absence of an answer, he drove to Medan to once again insist on the English in person, unintentionally saving his own life.
Until October 13th, 1945, after the proclamation of the republic, the relationship between the Sumatran people and the ‘belanda’s’ (literally ‘whites’, but in Indonesia the indication for Dutch) was hostile, but not violent. But then a rumor suddenly circulated: in front of a hotel in Medan (Sumatra’s capital city) in the Jalan Bali, a Dutch soldier had pulled the red and white emblem (colors of the Indonesian flag) of a school child’s uniform and stepped on it.
To date, this story in Indonesian historiography is mentioned as the beginning of a heroic uprising against the oppressor. Whether it ever happened is doubtful, but the rumor did its job and soon it also reached Siantar — leading to the assembly of a large crowd of Bataks (a Sumatran tribe) for the local hotel.
The Hotel Siantar was surrounded by a few houses, two of which were inhabited and guarded by Japanese soldiers. They stayed out of all these disturbances. In addition to those Japanese residences, some houses had been emptied for temporary accommodation. Many were awaiting transport to Medan including a few dozen Ambonese and Menadonese men, ex-servicemen from the islands of Ambon, and Celebes who had been released from prison and were weak and exhausted (they were previously threatened by the Bataks’s and had sought refuge in the hotel).
The Bataks mob was led by a well-spoken man from the Sumatran province, Aceh. The administrator of the hotel also turned out to be the instigator of violence. He was a protégé of Suerbeck and was educated at the Dutch high-school system, HBS, at Suerbeck’s expense. But he was radicalized during the Japanese occupation and now detested his benefactor. The crowd grew to more than a thousand men, Bataks people and Aceh people. They demanded that the Ambonese and Menadonese be surrendered to them. The Swiss Mr. Bauer stepped outside and tried to explain that the hotel was Swiss, a neutral place, and that there was no question of surrendering guests to the crowd.
They listened to him and suddenly there was a shot that hit Bauer in the head. He immediately fell to the ground. That was the signal for the raging crowd. The hotel was set on fire with Molotov cocktails. Then they entered and ransacked room after room and the guests were tjingtjanged (chopped into pieces with klewangs or machetes). Then the looting began. Photographs taken after the violence show empty spaces. Of the three soldiers, one (Ishaaq) survived the violence by playing dead, of the Ambonese and Menadonese a few dozen escaped, but at least twenty of them were murdered by the crowd. Both Boers and the Swiss Boner and Bauer did not survive.
Tjingtjang (current spelling Cingcang)
With the two other Swiss, namely hotel owner Sürbeck and planter Schuepp, the leaders of the crowd had special game plans. A century earlier the linguist Van der Tuuk had to flee from Bataks country because he heard that there were plans to consume him. Bataks were then men-eaters. On October 15th, 1945, they did it again. Sürbeck and Schuepp were brought to prison, where they (one after the other) were used as sacrificial animals. Smook, the surgeon who had dared to restart his practice in Laras (a town near Siantar), was arrested on October 16thand taken to prison, where he shared a one-person cell with five others. Including the son of Schuepp. He later wrote about it in his diary:
“We were obviously not in an enviable position. Thousands of Bataks’s had gathered around the prison and roared tirelessly: Boenoeh Belanda (murder the Dutch). I do not know how we got through the night! Outside the Bataks prison and in the main building there seemed to be a big party going on. Later we heard that the father of the Swiss boy was tjingtjanged during this party. That means being cut into pieces and still being alive while the bystanders were drinking their blood. The previous day that happened to Mr. Sürbeck, imagine, under the direction of the young man he had been giving the opportunity to study for free. It was awful! (…) There was a Javanese, a somewhat older man, who did not agree with the course of affairs for some time and who told me that tomorrow it would be my turn to be the daily murder victim.”
Fortunately for Smook, the rescue was near: at last a group of British soldiers had arrived. Smook: “And then this nasty thing happened: the murderers of Sürbeck and the others begged us to say that they had treated us well and that we were not mad at them! I thought that was a let down”. And there was another turnoff. “The next morning we took the Aceh man who was suspected of the murder of Doctor Boers with us and surrendered him to the British forces who set him free. He was sitting on a truck like a champion. According to the English commander, handling it this way was correct, as long as his guilt was not proven, he was a free man.”
A Festive Commemoration
The story told here is based on reasonably reliable Dutch sources and I think it reflects the facts. Some of the women and children who stayed at the hotel were taken to a nearby school and freed a few days later by the English. Among them are the daughters of Sürbeck, the son of Boner and an Indo (Dutch-Indonesian) mother (named Tellings) with a child. Boner junior, the surviving soldier Ishaaq, and one of the daughters Sürbeck issued a statement in Medan to the English with a detailed account of what had happened. The Indonesian version deviates strongly from this.
On Sumatra, it is remembered that the population gloriously put an end to a great grievance in Siantar. Their story: at the hotel Siantar a Dutch KNIL army unit of several dozen soldiers was present who behaved defiantly, hoisted the Dutch red-white-blue flag, waving their arms and holding parades. Until the population tired of it and they made an end of this part of colonial domination with great courage and decisiveness. Because after August 17thof that year, Indonesia existed!
The fact that some Swiss and Dutch citizens and dozens of Menadonese and Ambonese were also murdered are mentioned in the Indonesian stories, but not condemned.
A few weeks ago, historians started to research what happened during the period of 1945 to 1949 — researches were present from both the Dutch and Indonesian side. I wonder if that will lead to any adjustment of the Indonesian glorious version of what was probably no more than a massacre with the intentions of robbing and looting.
J.J. Van de Velde Letters from Sumatra (T.Wever, 1982)
Ronald Spector In the ruins of empire (Tantor Media 2007)
San Sridayanti Purba Persepsi masyarakat terhadap peristiwa Siantar Hotel October 15, 1945
(The public perception of what happened in the Siantar Hotel takes place on 15 October 1945)
Thesis published by Fakultas Ilmu Sosial Universitas Negeri Medan (2012)
The Algemeen Handelsblad of 21-11-1945 and various other newspapers.
Siantar report Statement made by Miss Sürbeck, Mr Boner (jr) and Mr (unreadable) to the English commander dated 19-8-1945 in Medan (the date is a typing error, must be 19-10-1945)
On the following pages the statement made on October 19th, 1945, and a number of photos: