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By Sierra Jacob.

What of the children? Once resting swollen in our wombs, the weight we carried between the yawning of our hips. Tasting the salt air like we did, pushed up against the hunched horizon in liberation ships to Holland—to Australia—to the United States. How we thought we could forget the dark slash of Indonesia. The camps with spires of barbed wire, hanging dislocated shoulders behind us. ~Sierra Jacob

My name is Sierra and I am a third generation Indo. This is my Oma’s story.

My name is Hedwich Freeth and I grew up on rubber plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Both my parents were born and raised in the Dutch East Indies; my family was a mix of English, German, Chinese, Dutch, and Indonesian.

My father worked in the rubber factory and finished every day at five. When his work was done, a large bell in the factory would ring across the plantation letting me know my father was coming home. Even though I was a small child of three, my mother could not control me when that bell rang. I would excitedly run through the straight rows of trees calling his name.

During this year, World War ll began. On May 10th, 1940, Germany violated the codes of war and attacked the Netherlands. Because the Netherlands was in control of Indonesia, they began drafting men from the islands. My father, Jan Freeth, was one of the many men drafted to serve in the Dutch army. He was twenty-nine at the time: leaving behind four children and my mother who was eight months pregnant. I never saw my father again.

Two years after my little sister’s birth, the Japanese started invading the islands. Around this time, my mother found a ship leaving Sumatra. The captain intended to help Indo families escape to the island of Java. Hearing the news, we rushed to pack a few belongings:  A picture album, some clothing, my father’s favorite jacket, and a small pot (which later saved my life because it helped me hide my life threatening disease from the Japanese). My mother saved that jacket throughout the war and then passed it onto my older sister, Grace. When Grace died, I received the jacket. To this day, I have it hanging in my closet. I still put my extra money in the front pocket because I know my father is watching over it.

When the ship arrived in Java, the enemy was waiting for us. They took my family to a prison camp. The Japanese treated us with cruelty and nearly starved us. We ate almost anything. To supplement the rice husks the guards fed us, we would look in holes for frogs, catch small snakes, and throw rocks at birds to bring them out of the sky. Once we heard a stray cat hissing and went to see what was happening. To our surprise, there was a huge boa constrictor slithering slowly across the ground. A group of mother’s went after the snake, beating it to death with cooking spoons. After killing the snake, they hung it up, stripped off its skin, and divided it between the hungry families. I remember it being very disgusting but when you’re hungry you will eat anything. While we were trying to survive in the prison camp, I came down with malaria. I grew very skinny and had bloody diarrhea. Luckily we had the small pot from home, which I could use as a toilet. If the Japanese had found that I was deathly ill, they would have taken me away from my mother.

I can clearly remember the day the Red Cross came to liberate us. It was hot and my mother had laid me out in the sun because I was cold with chills. I was so weak that I could no longer sit up. I remember seeing airplanes swooping down very close to our camp. This time there was no screaming, no warning bells, or the following flash and shudder of an above ground raid. The pilots were angling the wings so we could see the American flag. When the line of planes crossed the strip of sky above me, all I could think about was how the steel bodies looked like the pregnant bellies of rusted birds. As their wings banked, we all shouted, “Liberation, liberation, liberation” to celebrate the bright stars and stripes. That day I dreamed of living in America. The defeated Japanese wanted us to remain quiet but some of the prisoners did not listen and began climbing the fences. The rebelling natives on the other side of the fence shot down each joyous Indo: It was the native way of removing memories of the oppressive Dutch power.

When we left the camp, we still saw signs of rebelling Indonesians. Once, on our way to school, we saw people being hung from telephone poles and others getting shot at as they tried to escape through the road ditches. We saw three Indo men hanging from the wires. Their feet, large and bloated, traced circles in the air. Instead of looking at their faces, I watched large black flies crawl out of one mans mouth. We ended up running to school and were asked to lie on the floor because it was so unsafe. At a young age I began to understand the value of listening, it saved my life many times.

After the American Red Cross came into our camp, I knew we were finally saved. When a volunteer picked me up, my dress fell off because I was so thin. They put me on a cart and gave me my first piece of candy. It was brown and when you sucked on it, it changed to red and then orange. I was a prisoner for three and a half years and was rescued when I was seven years old.

We stayed in Java until I was sixteen and then left for the Netherlands. When we arrived in Holland, the people were amazed at how fast we picked up their language. They did not realize that their own people had oppressed and ruled our small chain of islands for many years. Every week, new families arrived at our motel from Indonesia. One day, when it was snowing, we watched another bus stop in front of our motel. A tall man with dark hair emerged, slipped, and fell backwards into the snow. Seeing this, we laughed hysterically, I told my sister that she could have that clumsy ox. Five years later, in the spring of 1960, that man and I were married at Holy Barbara Church. During this time, my sister Henrietta changed her name to Grace and I changed my name to Jane (like Tarzan and Jane). Our mother never called us by our new names.

Wanting to leave the colds days in Holland, we decided to immigrate to the United States of America. A catholic church graciously sponsored my husband Rudy, sister Grace, and I. We took a boat to Chicago and from there a train to Portland, Oregon. I remember being so hungry and not being able to afford any of the expensive train food because we only had $90 to our name. At one of the stops, we got off and ordered Chinese food to take with us on the train. I remember the food being so good but we saved most of it for the long ride. In the morning, we found that the food had all gone sour—all we could afford was 10₵ hot dogs. I have never eaten a hot dog since.

I warmly remember the Indonesian water buffalo. When I was eight years old, we lived in Bandung, a large city in West Java. I was a rowdy child who loved to play with my older brothers and the native boys. One of our favorite things to do was ride the water buffalo. Every two weeks, the locals would herd hundreds of buffalo along the country roads. They would keep them in long straight lines, taking them to pasture on the edges of the city. After school, we would go and ride them. To avoid the big yellow ticks, I would balance on their protruding ribs and stand. Looking back, I would not have traded those stolen moments for anything: I was a free child able to live a child’s life.

21 Comments

  1. An amazingly detailed story, our family lived through so much of the same things, thank you for sharing and helping me remember how things were.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. My parents came over to Den Haag on separate boats when they were 19. They talked about what it was like coming to this cold, unreceptive country. After 8 years they moved to the United States in New Hampshire. Again the transition was difficult…especially for mother. Things improved however and they found peace and a richer life. Papa always loved anything having to do with Indonesia. My mother couldn’t let go of all the pain and shared rarely. They did travel back there one time and were able to get some closure.

  3. Dear Sierra,

    You did all of us a great service by telling your Oma’s story. There are so many parallels between all of us from the Indies, and the more stories we hear the closer gets the special bond between all of us all over the world.

    I am an Oma now, too. I was in a Japanese camp in Surabaya and in Halmahera, near Semarang; I was 17 when I went to Holland, your Oma 16. She married in 1960, I in 1961. Amazing isn’t it?

    Is your Oma still alive? Can I get in touch with her?

    Thank you again!

    Ronny (every Indo I meet calls me Ron right away

    • Hi Ron,

      Wow that is amazing! Thank you so much for reading. My Oma is still alive and living in Florida. She doesn’t use the internet but I’ll give her a call tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

      Best,

      Sierra

    • Ronny:
      My mother, Deli Brink was also in Camp Halmahera, with her mother, Nantje Brink. My mother must have been about your age. Perhaps you knew her? She went back to Holland after the war and married my father in 1950, moving to America shortly thereafter. Unfortunately Deli just passed away last week at the age of 90.

      I would love to hear from you.
      Juliana

  4. I always loves sitting and listening to my Oma’s story. I am also third generation. I loved reading your Oma’s story too…thank you for sharing. It’s up to us to keep their stories alive ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  5. Thank you! So sad that humans can treat other humans in this matter. My mother and 5 siblings survived the concentration camp. Our father survived the Japanese prison camp. I heard so many stories, but my mother never spoke about her capture. My father told us a lot about his time in POW camp in Japan. I am trying to find out more about the families camps. My oldest sister is 78 had a stroke over 10 yrs ago and can’t tell me much. My second oldest sister lives in Holland my 2 brothers passed and the last sister is 72 she was really young to remember. Anyone having info on my family feel free to contact me.
    Thank you and God bless all!

    • Same as me Armand..love to know all about our familie search all over..and want to find out the complte story of the Mooyman familie..God bless!

  6. So enjoyed reading Oma’s story. Many of the details I did not write in my own autobiography, you wrote about, in such detail. It completes my story in my own mind, unknown by you, thank you for it anyway. It never ceases to amaze me to see that golden thread that runs through hundreds of thousands of our lives, and by recording it as many of us have done, we have given it a well deserved place in the books of history. Thank you again for the effort. Lots of love from Cuenca Ecuador

  7. Jane talked to me this morning, telling me about the story their granddaughter wrote on the web. How nice of Sierra to write about her story. We, my husband Willie and me know them since 1960, when we met them when Jane was expecting their first child. Willie experienced the same bad things during that war, and he told stories about that war to our grand children, and one of our grand sons wrote about that when he was 12 years old, had it printed and gave it to his Opa. He was so pleased about that. Our family was never in a concentration camp, we were the so called “Buiten Kampers.” I remember not much about that period.

    It was nice of Sierra to write about her oma’s stories. I know her and we are so proud of her. She graduated Cum Laude from The University and has a scholarship for a Master’s degree. Go Sierra!

  8. Aloha, Sierra! Linda sent me this link.. so heartbreaking,so beautiful, and inspirational. I want to know more! What happened to your grand uncles? Did they stay in The Netherlands? Now I know why you’re family was from Portland. Beautifully told, and written.

  9. I read your story about your Oma. I enjoyed reading it! I am a second generation Indo living in the Netherlands. I saw the movie “de buitenkampers” with my parents. My father passed away last year on January 26th. I still miss him so much. My dad only told us a little bit about the time in the camp. I did started searching on the internet for more information and found your story. For me, there is no more family from my father’s life who can help me tell his stories. Your Opa was a friend of my father. I think they were in the same camp and they lived on the same Tea Plantation before the war (Kajoe Enak in Lumagang, East Java). Your Opa and Oma maried in Brunssum, which is located in the South Netherlands. I have a wedding picture in my photo album. My Mum held me in her arms, I was two years old at that time. My Dad always talked with a lot of passion about your Opa. Do you know the story of your Opa during the Bersiap time? My dad was not able to tell us the whole story about the camp/Beriap time. I think it was too painfull. Is your Opa still in good health? Your Oma Jane?
    Thank you so much for sharing this beautifull story.

    • I am so sorry to hear about your loss, I’ll keep your father in my thoughts. My Opa and Oma are still in good health and walking a mile every morning to prove it. I will let them know you found my article. In April, I will be posting my Opa’s story on the Indo Project website which will detail his experiences before and after the war. I hope all is well, it’s great to hear from you!

      All the best,

      Sierra

  10. I like to get in touch with Inge Boulet. I hope we can exchange genealogical information about the Boulet family. My greatgrandmother was Justine Boulet. Thank you.Joyce Kater-Hoeke.

      • Heel toevallig kwam ik net dit berichtje tegen en ben even gaan snuffelen op je website.
        Wat is jouw (mag wel je en jou zeggen, hoop ik) connectie met de familie Van Konijnenburg? Ik zal je graag wat meer informatie geven over mijn grootvader Dominicus. Hij overleed in het Jappen kamp in 1945 (vlak voor de bevrijding) toen ik 10 was en de familie dit bericht doorkreeg van mijn vader Ferdinand Hoeke, die in hetzelfde kamp zat. Ik heb hem dus zelf niet lang meegemaakt maar kreeg wel een beeld van hem door familieverhalen.
        Het door Susan Smit in haar boek “Vloed” neergezette (en onjuiste) beeld van hem, was voor mij een reden haar hierover direct na lezing te benaderen. In haar schriftelijke antwoord werd als excuus gegeven dat dit haar boek “meer kleur” zou geven. Dus verzonnen, net als het liefdesverhaal van Jacob en Adriana.
        Joyce Kater
        USA

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