HistoryStoriesTraumaIndos Sheldon Krancher with his brother and father

by Sheldon A. Krancher

On September 1, 1939, the world changed. My world changed. I wasn’t born yet, but on that day my father was born. He was born Jan Adolf Krancher to his parents Ludwig Krancher and Henriette Krancher. He was the second of three children born in Malang on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

My paternal grandfather was German. His ancestors left Germany, through the Netherlands, on a Dutch ship, via Cape Town, South Africa and Sri Lanka to the archipelago of the Dutch East Indies in the 1500s. A long way to go for spices, I’d say. I’ve always had a hunch that there were other, deeper human interests that drew such a global audience to the tropical embrace which spanned more than 3000 miles (4800 km). 

I believe it was also more than the warm weather that attracted the early explorers and settlers to the Dutch East Indies. First the Spanish and the Portuguese, with the Dutch not far behind. Having been to Indonesia several times, I’m certain it was the very warm and welcoming Indonesian culture was also a draw. That remains true today. Indonesian culture shares a deep sense of community. The culture is very family oriented, selfless, hard-working, resourceful, innovative, and smart. Oh, and the food is to die for! 

I guess they did go there for the spices.

My father’s middle name was Adolf. When his middle name was mentioned, it invited an array of interesting facial expressions, most often both eyebrows raised. Inevitably, inquiries and conversations about his name ensued. Eventually his name evolved to simply “Jan A. Krancher.”

Why on earth would my grandparents give their only son the middle name Adolf? Especially on the threshold of WWII? A miscalculation perhaps? Or was it intentional? 

Adolf Hitler is one of the most despised men in human history for reasons that are well-known. The atrocities he incited, directed, and perpetrated are to this day unspeakable and frankly for many of us unimaginable. Much more obscure is the fact that before Adolf Hitler became this horrible monster, he was one of the most influential and charismatic leaders modern history has known. He is often given credit for building the infrastructure of Germany and unifying a nation. Two monumental tasks during this time in history. This was the Adolf my father was named after, not the Adolf he would eventually become.

It was the Adolf he became that a few years later, allied with Japan who with reckless abandon, brutalized neighboring Korea, China, and the Philippines. Eventually this also led to the occupation of the Dutch East Indies. To be sure, they didn’t go there for the welcoming culture, the food, or the spices. Rather, they went there for human labor and natural resources to fuel their war efforts and to wreak havoc on nearly all of Southeast Asia as WWII unfolded.

It was during this time, from 1942 to 1945, that the Japanese invaded and occupied the Dutch East Indies. My world changed again. Of course, I wasn’t born yet. My father was three and he and his family were sent to Japanese internment camps. At the same time, my grandfather was sent to a labor camp. The unforgiving conditions, the experiences, the suffering, and the trauma they endured in these camps were the basis of the stories that I grew up hearing, like many of those of my generation. These were the stories that shaped my life, my view of the world and had a profound effect on my relationships, my marriage, and how I raise my children.

One of the things I recall hearing most often growing up repeatedly (in Dutch) was the rebuke: “Jullie hebben geen oorlog meegemaakt!” (You have never experienced the war!). It seemed as if this was said out of obligation, as a reminder, and an admission that ‘this is why I am the way I am’. This never-ending reminder that we had not endured the war was a punishment in itself. “What war?” we quietly asked ourselves. Was the fact that we hadn’t experienced ‘the war’ a good or bad thing, we wondered. As young children it was confusing at its best and traumatizing at its worst.

Indeed we had not experienced the war. But in a way we had. How can that be? We have relived the tragedies and traumas of our parents from the war. It is in our DNA. Literally. What our parents endured and the war itself is as much part of us as it was for our parents. There is no separating that. The experiences we endured growing up were an extension of our parents’ experience during WWII, period. Please, for your sake and the sake of your posterity, don’t dismiss this or try to convince yourself otherwise.

An example of this growing up was when we were forced (emotionally and sometimes physically) to finish the food on our plate…every last kernel of rice at every meal without exception. If we didn’t, or couldn’t because we didn’t feel well or were full, we were either shamed, disciplined, or worse, we would have to miss a meal. Today, many would consider this a form of child abuse. Was it? Or was it simply a consequence of the trauma that my parents experienced in the Japanese internment camps when they would go days, sometimes weeks without proper food? When they did have food it was rationed and consisted of rice and water.

I recently listened to an audiobook titled “The Myth of Normal” written by Gabor Mate, MD, coauthored and narrated by his son Daniel Mate. In the book, they do a fabulous job of painting a colorful and very detailed picture of all the nuances of trauma and stress and their direct correlation and impact on our physical and mental health. They also explained how inter-generational trauma can be the root cause of many illnesses, addictions, and disorders.

Have you ever feared for your life, day after day, for years at a time? Have you been separated from a parent or both parents and had to suffer through the uncertainty of whether you would ever see them again? Have you had to go without food, water, and other basic necessities? Have you missed out on the security of love and affection or community? These situations and conditions are legitimate traumas that my parents and many of your parents endured that changed their lives. It also changed the way they lived their lives. More importantly, through the DNA of their lives, it changed your life–and way you live it, even today. 

The truth is, we don’t have to live the lives of our parents. Between the prison camps and realities of living in post-WWII war-torn Europe, our parents experienced real uncertainty, harsh living conditions, famine, discrimination, and even more trauma and stress. We don’t have to live or relive the suffering our parents endured. Rather, we can choose to embrace and celebrate the lives they ultimately led – with the beautiful backdrop of our Indo culture. We can choose to be humble and grateful for our parents’ past, what they endured, and share it with our children in a loving, positive, caring, and nurturing way.

My father, Jan A. Krancher passed away on October 10, 2021, following a tenacious battle with Alzheimer’s disease. I’m certain his last memories were of his youth–with his father in the jungles of the Dutch East Indies, his ambitious adventure to the Netherlands, and fulfilling his father’s dream for him to go to the land of opportunity to start a family. He did all of those things and so much more

On October 10, 2021 the world changed. My world changed.

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

10 Comments

  1. Very good story Sheldon. I draw many parallels to your life as I grew up with parents that were born on Java in 1926 and 1930. They endured many of the same atrocities you described. DNA is the perfect analogy, because their life’s are ingrained in me and have helped shape my values and how be a better person. Thank you for sharing.

  2. My German ancestry started from Emmerich Germany. My grandfather von Stietz was beheaded in prison camp in Borneo. But my mom had just as much fear for the Indonesian freedom fighters as for the Japanese. Seems no one talks much about them.

  3. This article was very useful, thank you so much! Especially the links to the Mansell site – there I found my father’s military card which I had never seen before.
    My dad was captured on 8 March 1942 and ended up in Ohashi POW camp in Japan.
    One day I will tell his story.
    Looking into the records on the Mansell site, I’m quite overwhelmed now and will take a break to digest it before reading more.
    Thank goodness for people like Sheldon and Priscilla.

  4. Wonderful story. I am from the same age of your dad October 1939. Soerabaia East Java
    We left for Holland in 1954. I finished my technical education in Holland and went Solo to US in October 1960. Got introduced to my future wife and Married in December 1961 she is from the island of Puerto Rico by way of New York we have 3 kids , 11 grandkids and 5 great grandkids soon 6

  5. I can’t say it better than Priscilla
    Having survived the concentration camps with my little brother and mother. While our father was in Burma.
    We were lucky we all survived and also survived the bloody Bersiap period.
    As children we were not aware that married couples grew apart over those 4 or more years. Later I found that out.
    I think daily or nightly about this past. You can not shake it off.

    It’s unfortunate that your father had to end with Alzheimer. A terrible disease.

    • Thank you Willem! There are indeed so many variations of this story but ultimately we all share in each others stories. My Opa on my mothers side was also sent to Burma, separated from his family and honestly more of the traumas I depict in my story comes from this than my fathers side.

      The important theme here is what Dr. Mate describes as “generational trauma.” When I heard the term I immediately knew what it meant because I had lived (and had been living) it. It was quite healing to have an understanding of who I was in this specific regard that was a function of my generational past. It was even more healing to write about it and talk about it, and ultimately encourage others to do likewise to gain freedom of our past.

    • Thank you Priscilla! Thank you for the encouragement to do something I enjoy so much, to write, indeed just like my father. It’s true that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Most of all, I found it so healing on many levels. Both from a “generational trauma” perspective but also from the perspective of celebrating my fathers life in a loving way. What I remember most fondly when me and my family met you last summer was the pain you still have from your upbringing, much of it personal but also generational. I was deeply moved by it and this article is as much for you as it is for me and all of our Indo brothers and sisters who bear the traumas of war and it’s aftermath. Thank you for what you do for the Indo Project. I am forever grateful.

    • Thank you Jane. That means a lot to me and to my father. This article was written as much for you as it was for me but also for all of our Indo posterity. Understanding our past, embracing it and celebrating it with all of its color and nuance is how we really can live our Indo legacy in the best way.

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