StoriesWorld War IIIndos Jane and Sonja from It's a Small World story

by Jane Vogel Mantiri

Introduction

I met Sonja in October 2011, almost seven decades after Papa was captured by the Japanese, shackled, and forced to work the Death Railway in Siam (Thailand) as a POW (prisoner of war). Papa would endure almost four years of torture before he was released from hell. He never told me his story. The scars on his body had to speak for him. The trauma memories assailed him in the darkness of the night and terror screams hurled from his body, ricocheting off our thin walls and into my ears. The ghosts of wartime past stayed in the darkness, terrorizing him when he was most vulnerable. By day, Papa was stoic, gentle, precise, diligent, industrious. His body held all the trauma, causing it to succumb before I was ready to say goodbye. When Papa died, I was devastated. But my solace was that the past could no longer hurt him. 

Oh Papa, this story is for you. I see you smiling as I relive the memory of meeting Sonja.

Death Railway (Thailand)

I had just moved to Portland, Rip City if you are a Trailblazers’ fan. I needed a pied-a-terre to pursue my acting career. My husband, Charlie and I purchased a one-bedroom condo that needed new counter tops. I called for an estimate and the company sent out a woman to take measurements and get the process started. The woman walked into my condo and I felt an instant connection with her. She was family. Indos have a strong sense of family. Indo elders are aunts and uncles, even if they are not related by blood or marriage. We are bound together by culture, not just bloodlines.

Jane's Papa, Robert Vogel

I wanted to hug this woman, but that would have been awkward. Instead I blurted out an awkward question. 

Me: Where are you from? 

Woman, possibly offended: Where are you from? 

Yep, I offended her. My question screamed that she was not from this country. I knew that she was not from this country. She was family. 

Me: I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia.

Woman: I am from Jakarta, Indonesia! 

Me: A church sponsored my family and brought us to Milwaukee.

Woman: A church sponsored my family and brought us to Medford. 

Me: My Oom Bert lived in Medford.

Woman: My Oom Bert lived in Medford! 

Me: My Oom Bert was not my blood uncle. 

Woman: My Oom Bert was not my blood uncle. 

Long Pause 

Me: My Oom Bert was my father’s campmate when he was a prisoner of war. 

Woman: My Oom Bert was my father’s campmate when he was a prisoner of war. 

Silence 

Me: My Papa is gone. 

Woman: My Papa is gone. 

Tears 

Me: I am JANE. 

Woman: I am Sonja.

Sonja's papa, L. G. Vermeulen

Sonja Bell told me that her father, L.G. Vermeulen, was an artist. The Japanese captors destroyed all his art but he was able to sneak out one drawing of himself with his two campmates. Sonja knew that one of the campmates was Bert Oudhof, whom she called “Oom” or uncle. But she never knew who the other man was. Now Sonja was hugging that other man’s daughter.

Drawing by L.G. Vermeulen
Drawing by L.G. Vermeulen

Our Papas and our Oom Bert survived years of the most dehumanizing horrific captivity. They went through hell together. Sonja and I met 8,000 miles and 70 years later by sheer coincidence. Or was it? Papa, can you hear me? 

Sonja's papa, L.G. Vermeulen

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16 Comments

  1. What an amazing story! Not a coincidence.
    My dad was from 1921, born in Batavia (Jakarta) but raised in Surabaya, and one of the younger prisoners on the death railway in Burma and Thailand. He didn’t start telling his story until late in life, but by that time I was living in California and couldn’t visit him often in the Netherlands.

  2. Us, last generation Indos, have many heart warming and also sad stories to tell. I hope they will be preserved for our “nasaten” for a lack of an English word.
    I am 90+ and reasonably healthy. Was born in Soerabaia (old spelling) on the main island of Java (now Jawa). Went to Holland (The Netherlands) to further my education on De Machinisten School in Amsterdam Emigrated to The USA in 1960, worked and retired there and am now living in Mexico .
    I would like to connect with anyone who would like to do so since I have lost most of my friends and acquaintances from “the olden days”.

    • Han, read your comment – I am 85 years old so for all intents an purposes we belong to the generational group. As I grow older, images and poignant memories of the land of my birth keep bubbling up to the surface. Left Bandung in 1949 when I was 11 years old, settled Den Haag, finished my primary and secondary education, fulfilled my military obligation with the Royal Dutch Air Force as an Assistant Meteorologist at Vliegbasis Deelen an migrated to the US (California) in 1959. Currently live with my daughter in Wichita, Kansas until I have fully recuperated from from my back surgery. I am also on FB and I do hope to hear back from you. Cheers

  3. What a great story. Thank you for sharing. It always reminds me of my roots from Jakarta to Holland to USA

  4. I love this story! Thank you so much for sharing! My Opa VanderMoore was also on that hellish railroad torture (where his twin brother died). My Opa Wildenboer remained in the camps as a cook. Your pictures stir strong emotions for me. I miss my ouders and their amazing stories and parties! I hope there is a gathering closer to San Jose where I can feel that Indo love again.

  5. Great story, and so happy you found each other and have recorded this for future generations! My father was a POW in Jakarta, and my uncle was also sent to Thailand to work on the train…am now working on piecing together our stories.
    Thank you for sharing yours!

  6. Hi my name is Johan Calbo , nickname Hans or John, They are great historical stories my parents, Ed Calbo and Kiki Calbo also went through WWII in Indonesia. I currently live in Huntington Beach California , Born Djakarta 1950 and immigrated to the California in 1962 from Den Haag, Nederland. I think you wrote a story about Jane , it parallels my life, I would like to find it again, but haven’t been able to find it. Could you please tell me where I can find it. Thank you,

  7. Such a wonderful story. I felt very welcomed by the Indos in Portland, Oregon when I found them. We have family wherever we find our fellowship.

  8. I don’t believe in coincidence; I have had too many myself.
    We are closer to the next world than a life’s vein.

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