© 2015, Inez Hollander, Ph.D.
Er ligt een roofstaat aan de zee tussen Oostfriesland en de Schelde!
There is a pirate state, bordering the sea, between the Scheldt and Eastern Friesland ~ Multatuli, Max Havelaar
Opgevangen in andijvielucht van Griselda Molemans
(Amsterdam: Quasar Books, 2014)
Griselda Molemans’s book Opgevangen in andijvielucht is the most important, comprehensive and groundbreaking book that has ever been written about the Dutch relief efforts in the Netherlands to house and assist about 380,000 displaced persons from the former Dutch East Indies in so-called contractpensions (state-contracted boarding houses) in the period 1950-1970, after the Indonesian independence and a very messy decolonization.
The Netherlands had been fighting a war on two fronts, one in Europe against Germany, and one in Asia, against Japan. As the country was crawling out from underneath its bombed-out cities and realized that more than 70% of Dutch Jews were not returning to the Netherlands, the first war widows and camp survivors from the Dutch East Indies arrived in Holland by the end of 1945, telling similar tales of hardship, camps, starvation and death. The Dutch government paid for the costs of repatriation and temporary housing, convinced that this operation would be terminated by 1948. They were proved wrong.
When the transfer of sovereignty happened in 1949, turning the Dutch East Indies into the independent Republic of Indonesia, thousands of mixed-blood Dutch citizens, Indo-European by birth and other ethnicities, refused to become Indonesian citizens and were forced to leave the country of their birth. Arriving in waves, these large groups were perceived as competing with the Dutch for housing, and despised for living off of Dutch tax money to rebuild their lives in The Netherlands (this was not true— they paid for the relief themselves, sometimes taking years to pay off this debt).
The so-called “Indies silence”, which has become a well-known phenomenon among the first generation because of the atrocities they had experienced at the hands of the Japanese during the war and Indonesian revolutionaries right after the war, became even more profound under the pressure of native (Dutch) resentment and prejudice. Years later, the Dutch government misperceived the silence as contentment and used it as propaganda to sell this particular migration of displaced persons (the largest of any population group in Dutch immigration history) as a successful integration and assimilation of the Indo Dutch population.
This book tells a very different story and with it, Griselda Molemans breaks through the wall of silence with compelling stories, interviews and facts. The key tenet of the book is Minister Klompé’s (Secretary of Social Affairs) blatant admission at the time that “The Indo Dutch population had been sacrificed for greater interests.” These turned out to be, as Molemans concludes in the end and epilogue of the book, financial interests, confirming an ugly stereotype about the Dutch government that is as old as the famous anti-colonial Dutch novel, Max Havelaar.
As the first Indo Dutch prepared for their new lives in the Netherlands right after Indonesia’s independence, they were given warm clothes (often second-hand) on board en route to the Netherlands, for which, as they found out later, they had to pay. Likewise, even though the Dutch were well organized and came into action with several organizations offering relief, the relief was not charitable in nature. As soon as the newcomers found work, 75% and then 60% of their paycheck was withheld to pay the so-called “contractpensions” (housing, providing room and board, contracted by the Dutch State) and other services, like clothes, furniture and social work allowances.
The “contractpensions” profited greatly from this model and were generally exploitative: many times, large families had to share one room, and the food quality was often sub par. The former colonials were a lucrative option for the owners of the contractpensions: “They could count on a high occupancy rate and the payments by the government were always made on time.” (p. 46). Clothing manufacturers (like the large department store V&D) profited, too: “The government couldn’t monitor the fact that many refugee families were forced to pay full price for what were essentially sharply discounted clothes.” (p. 156).
Also, even though 60% of salaries were withheld to pay the contractpensions and other allowances, when the rates went down for the pensions, the refugees still paid at the 60% rate. In the contractpensions themselves, food, heat and water were often rationed. Most meals consisted of cheap produce like potatoes and endives (hence the title of the book) while meager amounts of meat or fish were served once a week. The refugees weren’t allowed to cook themselves although many did so secretively, on gas burners in their rooms.
Molemans interviewed a great many families, and while she outlines positive experiences with some contractpensions as well, the majority of the experiences was negative, exploitative and alienating in nature. Few complained as that was considered taboo and not done: “The mistake we, Indo-Europeans, made was that we always kept our mouth shut. No one at the time filed a complaint against the owner [of the contractpension].” (Wilhelmina van Hout, p. 52). Priscilla McMullen remembers,“My father was broken. We were not like the Jews as in ‘you’re one of us’. Indo-Europeans keep their emotions to themselves and don’t support one another. They sometimes look down upon each other which goes back to the colonial system: you had to behave as Dutch as you could.” (p. 204).
What exacerbated the silent suffering was the general opinion of the Dutch population: “The native Dutch population was convinced that the repatriation occurred at the expense of the Dutch taxpayer. The term ‘repatriation’ may seem to have implied this, but ‘repatriation’ was a misnomer, for thousands of Indo Dutch families never returned to their ‘patria’. They were forced to leave the country of their birth (Indonesia), yet they had to pay for their clothing, food and temporary housing. Because of the strict rules and financial burdens, they just kept their mouth shut.” (p. 77).
Aside from the financial burdens, the forced move to the Netherlands also tended to be a career demotion. Highly schooled white-collar workers were forced to take on blue collar and inferior jobs because their diplomas from the Dutch East Indies were not recognized and the color of the newcomers’ skin triggered prejudice. The children of the families were discriminated in school (pinda, pinda— peanut, peanut) and Laura Echter-Ruchtie remembers: “Indies people were considered dirty but you ask yourself, who was the dirty one here? When my parents lived in a pension in Scheveningen in 1948, the owner put newspapers in the bathrooms for toilet paper.” (p. 147).
In the meantime, the situation for people who had stayed behind in Indonesia became more dire after 1955. The Sukarno climate and general discrimination made one thing very clear: you were a second-rate citizen if you stayed behind in Indonesia and the same status applied when you tried to rebuild your life in the Netherlands. Yet, this didn’t stop people from leaving Indonesia in a continued mass exodus that essentially lasted for more than twenty years.
As international relations between Sukarno and the Netherlands continued to sour, not in the least because the Netherlands tried to hold on to Dutch New Guinea which Sukarno considered Indonesian territory, the situation for those who stayed behind became impossible: on December 5th, 1957, Sukarno declared that all Dutch nationals and former Dutch nationals were practically considered an enemy of the state and they were summoned to leave Indonesia. This also triggered the influx of the so-called “spijtoptanten”: former Dutch citizens who had opted for Indonesian citizenship but because of increasing animosity of the Indonesian population, they wanted to leave Indonesia, despite the fact that the new influxes of people led to stricter intake, regulations and forms of relief.
For some, this led to a double diaspora. For example, thanks to the American Pastore-Walter Act, which increased the quota from the Netherlands between 1958-1962 to help families who had been forced out by Sukarno, 17,776 Indo-European, Moluccan, Indo-African and Chinese Dutch nationals left the Netherlands for good to embrace the American Dream. As if emigrating to yet another country wasn’t hard enough, they still had to pay back what they owed the Dutch government. For the second and third generation in these families resettling once again would lead to issues of cultural dissonance and identity problems: expelled from Indonesia, rejected by the Netherlands and landing in America, it became difficult to feel a sense of home, belonging and configure a national identity.
Although the Indo Dutch population in the Netherlands now forms a vibrant subculture that has managed to hold onto parts of its cultural identity and heritage, their integration and assimilation were anything but smooth. In light of recent assimilation and integration problems of some Moroccan newcomers, the Dutch government has argued that the Indo Dutch population had been a model minority, yet their welcome and integration was rocky, an experience which remained shrouded in silence for years. Jeanne Ham was quoted as saying: “For that big group of Dutch people with a Dutch East Indies background who experienced the tempo dulu (the good old days) of the colony and then ended up in some studio apartment in the Netherlands, the transition had been huge. But not one of them would talk about the real story of how they were received in the Netherlands. They would rather congregate together in an atmosphere that reminded them of the old days with Indo rock and spekkoek (p.371).
But the book doesn’t end there.
After this deep sociological analysis of the post-colonial circumstances and (shabby) treatment of what were essentially Dutch citizens and subjects and not immigrants, Molemans argues that the Dutch government, Dutch banks and Dutch insurance companies owe the former colonials more than meets the eye.
The epilogue is the real bombshell of the book, countering the misinformation that Minister Lieftinck (Secretary of Finances) articulated in the spring of 1950, namely, that relief efforts on behalf of the government had to be stopped as the Treasury had been exhausted.
This was a lie, and Molemans tells us why in the epilogue of the book, which is the most incendiary part and should have been a book, or books in themselves.
The most important question to be asked is whether the Indo Dutch population had any advocacy groups to right some of the wrongs of the past. There is such a group by the name of the Indisch Platform, which, curiously, started a dialogue with the Dutch government while also being subsidized by the Dutch government.
Nonetheless, in part because of the efforts of the Indisch Platform and in part because there may have been more time for reflection in the 1960s and 1970s about what happened during the war and after the war, there was a substantial change in Dutch government policy in the 1970s with a series of laws and provisions to pay victims of the German and Japanese occupations and the Bersiap. Since Jewish efforts with regard to stolen art, property and goods during the German occupation proved successful, the Indisch Platform continued to do battle for reparations for material and immaterial damages (including lost property etc. during and after the war). Thus the Indisch Platform ended up asking for 1.4 billion guilders in 2000 for the Indo Dutch population who had arrived after the war, and the Dutch government made available 385 million guilders, as part of ‘Het Gebaar’ (The Gesture) in the year 2000. According to Stichting Het Gebaar 93,363 received a one-time amount of 1822 euro, but according to Molemans’ calculations, the number of people who received this was more like 87,169.
Prior to the 1970s, the Dutch government had doled out money paid by Japan through the Stikker-Yoshida Agreement (38 million guilders) for people who had been interned by the Japanese. Many never claimed this money because they weren’t aware of the settlement that had been announced in only a few newspapers, and even if they had, 38 million guilders wouldn’t have covered the 200,000+ internees.
Members of the colonial army (or KNIL) filed a claim for back-pay and pensions. However, in a decision by the Hoge Raad (the Dutch Supreme Court), the (bizarre) argument was made in 1956 and 1958 that the Dutch government could no longer be responsible for this because the judicial obligation for this no longer applied due to the transfer of sovereignty: “in other words, Sukarno should have been responsible for the back pay of the soldiers of the former colonizer of Indonesia” (p. 377). Importantly, the Netherlands is the exception to the rule here: countries like the US, the UK, Portugal, Italy and Spain have always paid their back-pay and pensions to their military personnel, regardless of where the conflict took place.
As far as the KNIL is concerned, there is also a mysterious disappearance of colonial army files: the dossiers of the Ministry of Colonial Affairs were transferred to Foreign Affairs and then to State Affairs. Historian Bert van der Zwan of the Foreign Office stated for the record that there has been no transparency as to where these dossiers are: “All these files can’t have disappeared, but we haven’t been able to find them”. Molemans adds, “It’s remarkable that the papers of the colonial army and pension lists from the 18th and 19th centuries can be consulted in the National Archives, but that the pension papers of the 20th century seem to have been destroyed.” (p. 378).
In 2000, the Dutch government insisted that the Gebaar-payments were the final payments and that the state could no longer be suspected of holding onto any residual Dutch East Indies-related money (for which they might have received interest over the years). Among these funds, were payments from countries like Thailand (for the Burma Railway Line), Japan (above mentioned reparations for POWs and civilian internees) and Indonesia (reparations for lost business and properties owned by Dutch nationals whose companies were nationalized or whose companies had to be abandoned or sold for next to nothing when forced to leave Indonesia in 1957) who had paid the Dutch government, to pay the victims. While payments were made to victims, many of the claimants had died and many others never stepped forward to claim the money they were owed, often because they didn’t know about it or had moved abroad. An interesting side-note is that as far as the Burma Railway Line fund goes, even though we know that the Allied Command paid 6,802,000 guilders to Malaysia, Burma and the Dutch East Indies at the time, there was no transparency as to whether this money ended up with the Indonesian or Dutch government. Molemans has since succeeded in tracking down all payments involved, to be published in the near future.
In addition, there is the claim of the comfort women: as of today the Japanese government has refused to listen to claims with regard to the use of the so-called comfort women (forced prostitution by the Japanese army). “Due to shame and humiliation, the first testimonies of these women didn’t occur until 1991.” (p. 384). Because the Stikker-Yoshida Agreement, “The Japanese government has managed to deny its responsibility for these crimes and has maintained that ‘the matter has already been taken care of on the basis of postwar agreements’.” The Dutch government has done little thus far, to contest this or fight for these women.
Until 1991, Japan denied forced prostitution took place. However, when history professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi found archival papers offering evidence to the contrary, an investigation was started which led to the Kono declaration of 1993, acknowledging forced prostitution (p. 384). Significantly, the war tribunal in Batavia had already investigated the matter of forced prostitution and collected testimonies from the victims, which probably amounts to many more than the testimonies of the women who have survived today. These papers can be found in the NIOD (War) archives but this material cannot be accessed until 2025, a date at which currently surviving comfort women may all be dead.
Finally, there are the claims of insurance policies and the bank deposits citizens of the Dutch East Indies made before the war. In a secret capital flight in February of 1942, money and gold, along with the complete bank and insurance administrations, were moved offshore (to the vaults of the Federal Reserve in New York). Because many victims lost their homes and private papers when going to the camps, there was a burden of proof— even though they knew they had bought life insurance and had money in the bank, they didn’t have the paperwork to prove it after the war.
Molemans writes that at the end of 1938, seventeen of the largest life insurance companies in the Dutch East Indies had sold life insurance policies for the total amount of 252 million guilders (a total of 105,000 policies). In 1942, this was supplemented with 350 million guilders when Dutch insurance companies moved their business to the Dutch East Indies because of the German occupation. As of yet, there is no public access to the insurance companies’ archives.
However, in the US, the American Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act was created to enable Holocaust survivors and their descendants to sue never-paid life insurance policies based on access to the archives of the insurance companies (interestingly, this was an Act that Dutch companies Aegon, ING and the Verbond van Verzekeraars repeatedly lobbied against). It deserves mentioning that Molemans found a NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) report from 1944, which showed, contrary to what had been claimed by insurers, that there was a total of 3,256 billion guilders in invested capital in 1942, managed by the insurance companies. When the Jewish organization Centraal Joods Overleg negotiated with the government in 1999, it wasn’t aware of these numbers.
The independent Sjoa foundation (www.stichting-sjoa.nl) was called into life to handle claims. A total of 19,285 claims were filed but 17,076 were rejected. The rejections stemmed from the fact that the policy administrations of the Dutch insurers are still a closed book. Claims can still be submitted, but once the submission date lapses, 2/3rds of the available 6.6 million euro will flow to Centraal Joods Overleg and 1/3rd to the Verbond of Verzekeraars. Why the Verbond of Verzekeraars would be rewarded with this money when they, as it seems, have been conspiring with other insurers to block the insured families from getting their money (as was mentioned above) seems crass, and one wonders whether some of that the money wouldn’t be spent better on building a memorial or museum at one of the former camp sites on Java, as there are no such memorials or museums commemorating the Japanese internment in all of Indonesia.
Whether the Dutch government, banks and insurance companies have been sitting on money that wasn’t theirs (and which they have been receiving interest on) seems more than likely when reading the epilogue to Molemans’s book. The new book Indisch verdriet (Indies Sorrow) by H. Th. Bussemaker seems to have a similar thrust, i.e. of all the Allied nations, the Netherlands has been the only one to drag its feet when it comes to paying material and immaterial damages to the survivors of the Japanese camps and the bloody Bersiap. In contrast, the UK paid claimants of FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War) 10,000 British pounds (about 12,000 euro) in 2000 for their suffering in the Japanese camps, although this gesture, too, came far too late.
So where do we go from here?
As of January 15th, 2015, the Task Force Indisch Rechtsherstel (TFIR) has been officially instated as a non-profit foundation. This means that after almost 70 years, the claims of the Indo Dutch community will be laid before a court, the first one being the so called Burma-Thailand payment to former Dutch POWs. Many of them never knew they were entitled to this compensation. So far, 182 survivors and heirs have registered with the TFIR.
Potential claimants can go to this e-mail address for further inquiries and/or registration: email@example.com
Check our The Indo Project (www.theindoproject.org) website for updates on this important development.
The Indo Project will follow up this book review with an interview with Griselda Molemans. If you have questions you want to ask her in that interview, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org