Family StoryfeaturedNewsWatch was given to Opa Bebelaar to commemorate his 1911 birth along with condolence letter from Queen Wilhelmina to author's Oma

by David Bebelaar

Finding a Box of Letters

Searching for information about my grandparents led me to a box of letters they had written to each other. The correspondence documented their lives as a young couple and all of the experiences they had to navigate together. Their relocation from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies (DEI) to start a new and great life was forever changed by the start of World War II. The box also included letters my Oma received post-war from Prisoners of War (POWs) who were interned with my Opa in Burma.

Jacob Bebelaar Grave in Thanbyuzayat, Burma
Jacob Bebelaar Grave in Thanbyuzayat, Burma

The letters give great insight into the man my father never knew. The end of the war brought other struggles to my Oma—a widow and young mother. Doing the best for her family was hard during this period, so she sought the best options she could for the both of them. The final recognition of the war efforts—that acknowledged the life and death of my Opa in 2015—helped my family heal wounds that have been passed down for generations. 

Time by David Bebelaar
Time by David Bebelaar

Time for Love, Time for War, Time to Heal

I wrote the book “TIME: Time for Love, Time for War, Time to Heal” to document my grandparents’ story. This book was the way I was able to know who my Opa and Oma were as people—it is my heart on paper.  All I knew during my life was their names and important dates, but nothing about what made them individuals. I started the process of getting all these original letters translated so that I could prepare something to share with my three daughters. I wanted them to know their family history and the character of my grandparents. Members from the August 15 1945 Society in Brampton, Ontario, helped to translate documents and then felt very strongly that this compilation of letters needed to be published. I followed their advice and sought out a self-publishing avenue.

Author Bebelaar's family: Oma Andrea Pieternella Johanna Oltmans, author David's father Walter as a child, and Opa Jacob Bebelaar about 1941
Author Bebelaar's family: Oma Andrea Pieternella Johanna Oltmans, author David's father Walter as a child, and Opa Jacob Bebelaar about 1941

Building Community

The writing and publication of the book has been an amazing way to build community and connect with others. During the process, the woman who edited the writing contacted me to say thank you. Since the letters from my Oma were from post-war Netherlands, they gave her insight into what her in-laws would have experienced.

Within fifteen minutes of posting the publication of the book across Dutch Facebook groups, a gentleman in The Netherlands contacted me to inform me that he was the best friend of my father in the Japanese camps on Sumatra. He was four and my father was two when they had went into the camp, and his parents had socialized with my Opa and Oma before war. I had never heard of him before as my dad did not speak of that time—due to his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Indo Project Interview

How did you come about the box of letters from your grandparents?
My father passed away in 2009, and after years of dealing with his loss, I started going through his belongings. That was how I found the box of letters and artifacts which included the POW communication cards, my Opa’s drivers license from Sumatra, the letter and gift he received from his employer when he left work in 1942. My Oma had hidden and protected these items through the war years.
What challenges did you have transcribing the letters you discovered?
The challenges with the letters was to find people that could help translate them. As the Dutch language has changed, some younger friends could not translate Dutch from the 1930s. I eventually was connected with a group in Holland Christian Home, an elderly home, with many people who had lived through the war as children in the DEI, and they were very willing to help.
What was the most interesting discovery you made through this journey?
Many interesting discoveries were made. In a letter, my Opa describes hitting golf balls on ship en route to Batavia. This was significant as my father, myself and my brother, as well as all of our children, are golfers. My dad never knew this connection. Another discovery previously unknown was that Opa was one of sixty-two KNIL soldiers onboard the Van Imhoff that was sunk off the coast of Sumatra.
If you could go back in time, what would you ask your grandfather?
I would ask information from my Opa about family, his work, and his love of playing the violin. I would also want to get more information about the Jozef Israels sketch that he received from Isaac Israels.
Jacob Bebelaar's Posthumous Award
Jacob Bebelaar's Posthumous Award
What encouragement do you have to other Indo families on how to honor their grandparents’ and parents’ resilience in surviving the war?
Having connected with several people whose  parents and grandparents experienced the war years in the DEI, we have brought comfort to each other as we understand what we all have experienced growing up based on our shared histories. I also try to recognize the efforts of the KNIL soldiers that have not been awarded medals by connecting families with a connection I have who helped me obtain my Opa’s posthumous award.

Letter Excerpts

Batavia, 20 November

My darling Bebetje, Tonight I am going to write early to you. Your last letters were so very cheerful, my wifey. That is, of course, because you see that time is really marching on. Don’t you think that after all it goes fast? When I think about it, it seems a long time ago since you brought me to the train and we were making love to each other in the train to Utrecht. Oh, my angel, I will never forget that!! To be true, initially I had never been burdened by the thought of leaving Holland, but when it came to the point I felt so miserable about it and I did feel how we had absolutely grown together in that time: We truly belong to each other, my Bebetje. I believe we couldn’t be without each other. I feel quite distinctly in the time that I am here now, even though we write each other so often, that I miss you, my dearest. That feeling will never go away. We must make our marriage so that it will be an example here in Indie.

Batavia, 1 December 1936

My precious girl, This will be the last letter I address to Miss Oltmans. The next one I will write to my own little wife. I find it almost like a dream. I get just so, without any ado, a little wife without noticing anything. It is really as if I fell asleep at night, dreamed that I was marrying, then woke up, and when I woke up and boom, it was true. My dearest Bebetje, I know for sure that we will be very happy together and stay that way.

Eindhoven, 11 December 1945

Darling Bé and darling Woutertje, When we heard about a year and a half ago that Jaap had died and heard that he died a year earlier we were totally shocked and upset. We always loved Jaap very much. He was still so young. We couldn’t believe it. And for you, it must be terrible and dreadful. We can imagine it because here in Holland terrible things have also happened. Many died in concentration camps or were executed. Bé, we wish you strength. We always thought of you and Woutertje. And Jaap, we remember as a fine and warm man. We hope that Woutertje has that same sunny and friendly character from his father.

Friday 14 August 2015

Dear Bebelaar family and guests, I would like to start this decoration ceremony with the playing of the National Anthem of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (playing of “Het Wilhelmus”). Tomorrow, 15 August, seventy years ago, the Japanese armed forces capitulated, and with that the second World War officially came to an end. Today, we are here together to award a decoration of honour, posthumously, to Sergeant Jacob Bebelaar and Private Maurits Cornelis Cramer

Author David Bebelaar
Author David Bebelaar

DAVID BEBELAAR is the eldest son of Walter (Wouter) Bebelaar. Walter and his mother were interned in Japanese Concentration camps in Sumatra during WWII. Walter’s father Jacob (Jaap) was a POW of the Japanese and died working on the Burma Railway. David has sought to honor the memory of his father and grandparents by telling their stories, through their letters, and has received a posthumous war medal for his grandfather. He has also assisted other families in acquiring posthumous war medals for their loved ones.

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

Were you inspired by the author’s journey of chronicling his family’s history? Did you too have some personal letters chronicling your parents’ or grandparents’ journey? Please share with The Indo Project with comments below.

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