By Nicole Maureen Vanderwaall
In the living room of a small American ranch-style house in suburban Phoenix, a little girl sat at her Grandma’s feet, munching on a cookie. She tilted her head back, looking imploringly up at the sweet, elderly woman who told such wonderful stories. “Grandma, tell me a story, please. I want to hear about Indonesia.” “You do, hmm? Okay. I’ll tell you about the first time I felt God’s touch. I didn’t know whose hand it was at the time, but now? Now I know it was God.” The little girl, knowing full well how strong her Grandma’s faith was, settled in and waited patiently. In her singsong soprano voice, lilting with the cadence of Indo speech, the story began.
“It was 1943, a time of great turmoil in the Dutch East Indies. I was 18 years old, my mother had been dead for about 8 years, and my father was away on business. Most of the men were gone from Surabaya (then called Soerabaja), either on business or held in Japanese interment camps, so the girls and women lived together in camps for safety and protection. So you see, I wasn’t completely alone. I had the womenfolk for company, most especially my best friend, Willy.”
The little girl closed her eyes, the old woman’s words transporting them back in time and painting a picture of the war torn world she had lived in.
The air was hot & humid in the small house and Trudy had been busy with housework all morning. She pushed her thick black hair back from her sweaty forehead and decided it was high time she took a break. Stepping outdoors, she tilted her face up to the sky, closing her eyes in bliss as a cool breeze caressed her sweaty skin.
“Trüs! Hallo, Trüs!” Trudy opened her eyes and spied her best friend, Willy, waving to her as she walked up the path. “And where have you been,” Trudy asked with mock anger. “You left me here to clean alone!”
“Ah, Trüs, I’m sorry! It was so pretty outside today, so I went for a walk,” Willy said with a smile.
“Ja it sure is, but I stayed, didn’t I? Hmmph, you’ll find any excuse to avoid housework!”
“It’s only because you’re so much better at it than I!” Willy smiled cheekily.
Their jovial banter was interrupted as the shrill sound of a siren split the air. The two young women looked at each other, their expressions horrified, for it could only mean one thing. The Japanese army had invaded the island.
The women had previously been given clear instruction on what to do in such a situation – evacuate to the designated location, miles away, where the Australian soldiers would board them onto trucks then take them by boat to a safer location. Trudy and Willy ran inside the house to grab their things, their housemates close behind.
“Take your clothes only! There is no time for anything else,” said one of the elder women.
Trudy grabbed four or five of her dresses, and put them on, one on top of the other. Next she tied a few small mementos within her handkerchief and placed it in her pocket.
“Go directly there, do not come back. Do you understand?” The girls nodded. “Good. Now go!”
With adrenaline racing through their veins, Trudy and Willy jumped out their bedroom window and sprinted through the field of waist high grass. They had not gone very far when Willy stopped short.
“What is it,” cried Trudy, looking around frantically to see what had stopped her.
“I have to go back.”
“What? Are you crazy? The Japanese are coming!”
“I have to, Trüs. My mother’s statue, I forgot it!” Willy’s eyes filled with tears. “I can’t leave without it, it’s all I have left from her.”
“I know it’s special to you, Willy, but we don’t have time. We promised we’d head straight to the meet up location. We must keep going.”
“I’m going back for it,“ Willy said stubbornly. “You know how fast I can run, I’ll right back”
“No!” cried Trudy, “you’ll be caught! Please, Willy, come on!”
“Don’t worry, Trüs, I’ll be back in no time. Wait for me here.” With her signature cheeky smile, Willy was off, dashing back towards the village, her long dark hair streaming behind her.
Trudy squatted down onto the sun-warmed dirt, the grass rustling above her head. She tried to ignore the thoughts racing through her mind, about what would happen if Willy were to be captured. They had all heard the stories, the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese against the Dutch nationals. Although Indonesian natives were normally left alone, Trudy and Willy were Indo, the blood flowing through their veins a mixture of Dutch & Indonesian ancestry. They would not be spared.
She waited and waited for what seemed like hours. “Willy, where are you? Hurry, my friend!”
Then, on the wind came a sound that made Trudy’s blood run cold – it was the Japanese army marching her way! Trembling with fear, Trudy crouched down even further, attempting to make herself invisible among the grasses. She knew she had to leave, now. Bowing her head, Trudy shed a few tear for her dear, sweet friend and the awful fate that surely awaited her.
Trudy could now clearly hear the soldiers’ voices, the grass swishing against their tall leather boots, and the jangle of the rifles slung across their bodies. She placed her palms onto the soil, drawing strength from the earth as she felt the vibrations from the advancing army. Terror stricken, Trudy turned and began crawling through the field, away from the sound, hoping it was the right direction. She didn’t dare stand up to look around, and prayed she wouldn’t get lost among the grasses.
All of a sudden, Trudy felt a hand on her shoulder. She froze, eyes shut tight, sure she had been caught. When nothing happened, Trudy took a deep breath and slowly turned her head as she opened one eye to peek behind her. There was nobody there! Confused, Trudy faced forward and continued moving. Again, she felt the hand at her back, pressing gently but insistently, urging her onward. Her racing heart slowed as a feeling of calm and peace settled over her. She knew that hand, whoever it belonged to, would lead her to safety.
Doggedly, she scuttled through the grasses, the hand a comforting presence. The noise of the soldiers faded away, leaving only the sound of the wind rustling through the grasses. Knowing she would not be truly safe until she reached her destination, Trudy continued moving quietly forward. So intent was she on her mission that she didn’t see the wall until her nose was up against it. “Oh no, what now?”
Trudy stared at the wall, slowly rising to her feet. There was no way she could scale it, it was too high. Yet the hand on her shoulder pressed insistently. Looking around, Trudy spied a large rock half buried in the ground nearby. Recalling the training method of Indonesian warriors, called hombo batu (stone jumping), where men would leap over 2 meter high stone walls using a small boulder as a springboard, Trudy knew what to do. She walked a few feet away from the wall, crouched, readying herself to sprint. “I can do this.“
Taking a deep breath, she shot forward, skipping up into the air to land upon the rock with one foot, propelling herself up and forward to the wall. Trudy’s fingers caught the top edge as her body slammed into the wall. The impact was jarring, but she tenaciously held on. Swinging one leg upward, she hooked it over the edge of the wall and pulled herself atop. Smiling, she dropped gracefully to the other side and continued onward, to safety.
As the sweet, lilting voice faded away, the young girl looked up to see her grandmother’s eyes unfocused and misty with unshed tears. She stood up quietly and walked away, leaving her grandma to her memories.
Editor’s Note: Trudy (Godefreda Gertrude van Grafhorst 6-27-1924 to 7-27-2007) spent a lifetime wondering what happened to Willy. If you know the Holstein family please notify The Indo Project at email@example.com.
Great job of telling the story Nicole. I feel like I know you some through your Dad. It would be so nice to find out what happened to Willy and to get some closure to the story.
Very nice job Nicole. I am so proud of you. Love Papa
My grandmother, Godefreda Geertruida “Trudy” van Grafhorst, somehow knew that her friend Willy Holstein had been captured by the Japanese, because she never did hear from her again. Although she tried many times to find Willy, she was never able to.
It is my hope that this story will reach someone, perhaps a family member, who can tell us what happened to her.