StoriesTraumaPop with childhood friend

By Brenda van der Wilde

The author was inspired to capture some of her childhood memories after listening to The Indo Project’s latest podcasts, specifically the Transgenerational Trauma episode.

My dad could not go to funerals, and he had an intolerance for red cars. He could not stand to hear screaming, and as children we were not allowed to scream or yell when playing. It was important to be quiet. He did not talk about what made him this way; he just wanted to blend into American society, something easier said than done at that time. Over time, I’ve pieced together my own understanding of his quirks.

When my great-grandmother died, I was a toddler and I wanted to attend her funeral. My mother did, but us children waited for her outside in the car. After that, it just seemed normal to not go to funerals. We later learned that my father couldn’t go to funerals because of the constant death he had experienced in the Japanese internment camps, where, on average, five people died per day. His job had been to make coffins. I have the feeling that the boss of this job section may have been a decent person, because my father always enjoyed working with wood.

Brenda's father as child and family
Brenda's father as child and family on the right looking over at his sister

Before everything got so bad, before the camps, many people had tried to leave the Dutch East Indies. A car stalled in the road bottlenecked the traffic. These cars were shot at from the air by the Japanese. When telling this story, my dad said, “I never saw so many red cars. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.”

The fact that he couldn’t tolerate children screaming was never explained, but he lived through many violent deaths. Although he was only fourteen, he was put into a camp for men, not boys. He escaped at a point, and was then put into a worse situation, apparently with a terrible camp leader. I don’t know much about this, because he never talked about it. I know eventually he was among those sent to work on the railroad in Burma. He told my brother this. I heard him say that he was knocked unconscious during that time from being hit on the head with a sword.

But most likely his intolerance of children screaming came from the last camp he was in, a camp where the Indonesians were their captors, and each day a group of them were killed. They were in a room and shot at, I guess, until the screaming stopped.

Pop with his older sister Dokke and his mom
Pop with his older sister Dokke and his mom

Luckily — and I include this word, luckily, because I believe my father would have used it too — the room my father was in included a Jesuit priest, so they all received last rites. They had decided to dog-pile, as a strategy for survival. Miraculously, they were freed by a Japanese officer, Major Kido. It was October 20th. The war had been over since September 2nd.

My father had an overly strong interest in food. We were not allowed to waste food, to put it mildly. My dad, who was a doctor, would eat moldy bread. After all, mold is what makes up penicillin. You would never see food in our garbage, a stark contrast to American households of the time — and even now — where there is usually food in the garbage. As children, we had to eat all the food on our plates, even if we didn’t like it. There was no such thing as being allergic to some sort of food, and if one did not like a certain food, that was too bad. I remember gagging on rice, but we had rice for dinner at least once a week.

He never got over missing the food of his home country. My mom learned how to make peanut sauce and monkey hair (abon sapi/apahaar), fried rice, gingered pork, and things like that. They were all exotic foods at the time, things that our neighbors would have never heard of. She went along with his mental situation and long, long before PTSD became a household word, she was familiar with it.

Brenda's dad and mom and two younger sisters

My parents both lived long enough to hear people claim PTSD from things like falling off a ladder, being there for a plumbing malfunction, or having to eat stale food. This is an irony because my dad’s PTSD went unnamed for a long time. We just knew it as the thing that made him unable to live by a busy street, because the ambulance and fire sirens would open the trapdoor inside his head and let the bad memories out. It was also the thing that made all of the kids have to be quiet. But I don’t believe they understood what it was until later.

All of this and more affected the lives of his children. It was hard to feel like you fit in. Our neighbors and friends did not share our attitude towards food or quiet, but perhaps most importantly, they did not understand how to minimize one’s own suffering.

Amsterdam 1955
Amsterdam 1955

For example, if we were hungry, I remember that once one of us, perhaps me, said, “I’m starving.”  My dad would not allow us to say such a thing. He had seen people starve to death on a daily basis, though he didn’t tell us this; he just said that none of us had any idea what starving was like. He was right, but it was hard to relate to someone whose perception of you was that you could never understand him. We also were not allowed to use band-aids and we were expected to get back up if we fell down. If he was happy with us, he would say we were “troopers.” I think he may have been preparing us for what he thought might happen, that being a repeat of his history, another war.

None of this was my father’s fault; he uniquely went through therapy to forgive his captors, and sometimes referred to himself as having been a “guest of the Imperial Japanese army.” He fostered a relationship with a Japanese man, his barber (although he was bald at the time), Chuckie Yamamoto, and wrote a thank-you letter to Major Kido, who freed him and his fellow captives on October 20th. By the end of his life, he no longer referred to Japanese as “Japs,” and he was aware that most of his children thought he had been excessive in his oddness.

Motorcycle with Brenda's brother and two younger sisters

Another thing he did was buy his houses in an offbeat neighborhood. Looking back, I believe he did this because he was aware that although he passed for Caucasian and all his paperwork said he was Caucasian, he was part Asian, and his coloring indicated that. This was not always accepted in America, especially at a time when there were still rules about who could buy a house in which neighborhood.

As children we were not aware that our dad was partly Indonesian. We were told that he was Dutch and that was that. Nowadays it’s very different, and people embrace whatever color they are, but it wasn’t like that then. When we became adults, our parents let us know that our father was part Indonesian. I think some of us — there were five of us kids — were very proud to know that and for others, it made no difference.  

Brenda van der Wilde with her family
Brenda van der Wilde with her family

In reflecting on this, I am happy to have been raised to focus on the fact that I am a human, as opposed to focus on the fact that I may or may not be part of a DNA group. But I’m also glad to know some family history, which, surprisingly, also includes a Japanese ancestor.

My dad is gone now, but even that has its own explanation. Another quirk of his personality was to minimize death. It was to be held in no regard. When his dog — who he had been very fond of — died, he just put the body in the garbage. He thought we should be able to see death, and then disregard it. When he died, he asked for no funeral and no service. He was somehow anxious to die. He had Alzheimer’s, and now there was no way to close that trapdoor in his head.

He was always a mystery to us, or at least that’s how I see him, but he was as good of a dad as he could be, and he accomplished more than a lot. Even so, he could never get away from those memories in his head. This was a great handicap, which goes to show that not all handicaps are physical. All of this aside, he was my dad and I remember him well.

The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you for your question.
    “I’m interested that he says twice to Major Kido that he is non-Indonesian, although you say that he did have Indonesian heritage?
    I can understand not acknowledging it in US for concern over racism which I am personally familiar with but what is your theory for him making a point of denying it to Major Kido ?”
    I don’t know. His mother had decided that they would identify as European. Maybe he was trying to please her? She was passed on.
    You know, my dad was a puzzle. He was clearly proud to be Indonesian, but he didn’t share that with people outside his family.

    Also, and this may be the real answer: Indonesians had tried to kill him to get him out of their country.
    He had a sister who married a fellow Dutch-Indonesian, but the guy was very white. His sister looked Dutch-Indo. They went back to Indonesia to make a life there, but were both kicked out by Sukarno, who said they were “too European.”
    He had another sister who lived there successfully. All the race issues are so odd. In a war where you got to basically choose what race you would identify with race was a big component.
    My father’s grandparents both decided to identify as Indonesian. They lived in Malang. One of them died as recently as 1964. I don’t know if all the Europeans in Malang were killed by the Japanese, but my daughter went to school there and there are buildings there were you can still see the blood.

  2. Thanks for writing about your Dad and how his dreadful trauma in Japanese POW camps affected him and your family. I can relate to so much that you wrote. I feel you’ve written about my mother and family too. The trauma of her four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia lingered and upset her throughout her life. She obviously had PTSD too. Mum also kept the horrors quiet, although sometimes she did tell a few things. I believe she wanted to protect her children from knowing the terrible cruelty the Japanese guards inflicted on the POW’s and the ongoing fear the lived under. Her Indonesian Dutch heritage has been infused into our life in Australia and carries on through next generations.

    • Thank you for your understanding. I have seldom met people who have experienced this in their lives. But we should remember how the trauma of this kind of thing lingers. That way, we can minimize war. I hope…

      • I don’t mean to “minimize war.” I mean to have less war. War should never be minimized. It is a terrible thing.

  3. A great story, thank you for sharing it.
    So many men and women came home with PTSD which was unheard of and undiagnosed.
    I’m interested that he says twice to Major Kido that he is non-Indonesian, although you say that he did have Indonesian heritage?
    I can understand not acknowledging it in US for concern over racism which I am personally familiar with but what is your theory for him making a point of denying it to Major Kido ?
    I read a previous story by an Indo woman who was clearly of strong Indonesian heritage remarking that she and her family were “the only white people on the train” and it fascinates me; I wonder what they see when they look in the mirror ? I am proud of my heritage and I hope you are too, it’s so special.
    Thank you again for sharing your story.

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