“En dan was er zo’n lange weg naar boven” (And then there was a long road uphill), thus Harry Francken started telling me about his childhood home and rubber and coffee plantation, Kali Jompo, for which my great-grandfather had picked out the land, on the steep, volcanic slopes of Eastern Java. My great-grandfather was an expert in finding the right land and preparing the land– he developed some of the earlier rubber plantations in Java but Kali Jompo was going to be different as it would be the first (and last) family-owned plantation. The road we were on, paved at first but then unpaved with lots of potholes, had simple homes along it where mothers were bathing children and cleaning their porches. We drove partly through the rain forest, but there were also clearings with rice paddies and, as the road narrowed and became more rural, my respect for my great-grandfather grew: all the tools and manpower had to be carried up the steep mountain, to literally hack down the rainforest to make room for a house, barns, coffee bushes and rubber trees. It meant back-breaking work for the laborers who, at that time, did not have tractors or other mechanized tools. This was done by hand, hectare by hectare…
Soon we crossed the kali (river) after which (Jompo) the plantation was named, although the current Indonesian administrator told us that the earliest name had the word “bamboo” in it, because they had to cut down so much bamboo to make a clearing for the agricultural land. This was the same bridge where my grandmother had posed in 1929 with her brother-in-law Mannes Francken, both wearing Gatsby gear, as if they were French Rivièra jetset instead of Javanese planters…
Johnny had to get out of the car to talk to the guard, when we were stopped by a guard house and gate. Did this date back to after the war, when my uncle Jack tried to resurrect the plantation in a time that most plantations became the target of so-called rampokkers (plunderers) and during which one of the Dutch overseers was killed? The Islamic prayer house (albeit a modern version) was there, too, built by Jack for the Islamic workers. (“This was the house that Jack built”, remember the Aretha Franklin song?) And then… as we wound our way through a rubber grove with neatly planted rows of rubber trees (the hard work of my greatuncle Peddy?) we came to a clearing and there was the main house, and off to the side, the rubber and coffee barns, almost exactly as I had remembered it from the few pictures I had, and descriptions I had received from Harry and Marijolein Francken (daughter of Mannes, who ran the plantation before Peddy and his family ended up there). Johnny approached the man on the porch and explained the reason for the visit. He was going to get the boss, while we peeked into some of the rooms of the house: one still had the classroom tables in it where my greataunt and wife of Mannes had homeschooled their kids.
When I walked outside again and came to one of the corners of the house, my heart skipped a beat: a cluster of some lonesome white orchids was blooming from the orchids’ patch that my greataunt had planted. I used the same white orchids in a screenplay of my book, where white orchids stand for daughters: in the screenplay I have my greataunt clip them, which scares the living daylights out one of the native nannies (babus) because clipping them means bad luck for the girls, a foreshadowing of things to come…
The administrator turned up and when Johnny spoke in Bahasa, there wasn’t much explaining to do: INEZ HOLLANDER, the man exclaimed and he stuck out his hand (Jon thought this moment magical) but the truth is, my book had made it to the plantation before I had done so, so somehow it seemed perfectly natural that I would turn up at the plantation one day. As we walked to the barns, workers stopped working, curious to see who the hell we might be and some of them started waving and smiling.
The machines, all still working, were from Amsterdam, from the 1930s, exactly as my greatuncle had installed them. The rubber barn seemed to go to waste (weak time for rubber apparently?) but the coffee beans were being processed, shoveled, washed, dried, the whole nine yards. All the coffee, the administrator explained, was sold to Japan. Oi. Peddy, whose passion for this place was obvious when reading his letters to my grandfather, was to be killed by the Japanese– he would turn in his grave if he heard that those beans, his coffee, was now being served in homes in Tokyo and Osaka…many people (and a friend of my father’s) who had survived the horrid Japanese internment camps or the Burma railway line would refuse, later in life, to buy any Japanese products… but now Peddy’s coffee was sold in Japan. We sat down on the porch, drinking Kali Jompo coffee from old cups that seemed to have come out of my family’s china cabinet… On the table was an old ash tray with a Dutch castle on it: ours, too?
I took a sip of the coffee. This was the sweetest, fullest and smoothest coffee I had ever tasted. My mother used to tell me that for years, my grandmother got all her coffee delivered at her house in the Netherlands: big bags of fragrant arabica Kali Jompo beans and that’s all they drank… The beautiful flavor of this dark seductive brew prompted Jon to ask Johnny whether we could buy some coffee. The administrator shook his head, then he looked at me and indicated that we couldn’t buy it. Johnny translated: “We give it to you: our coffee is your coffee.” I thanked him in Indonesian with that lovely gesture the Indonesians make, putting one’s palms together, as if in a prayer, and holding them under your chin. Soon, one of the workers showed up around the corner with a huge bag of coffee (when we weighed it, it turned out to be 5 kilos– Jon and I barely brought 10 kilos to Java each, so this meant we had to buy another bag).
We talked more, me asking questions and Johnny translating. When there was a moment of silence in the conversation, I leaned back and took in the amazing view. In my mind, I was talking to Harry: Harry, I said, we’ve finally made it here. Thank you for sharing your unique story with me and the world. And then… a monsoon erupted, sending huge drops onto the porch and making nature around us smell fertile and sweet at the same time. Jon grabbed the camera to film it.
“Hmmm,” the administrator said, “This is the first rain in five months. We need it badly.”
“It’s fantastic!” Jon said with that typical American enthusiasm that never gets old.
“It is…” I said, “And it’s so much more: it’s Harry speaking…”
I am not as spiritual as the Indonesians but something has been going on with this story and my connection with the characters in the story. In February, I was in the Netherlands on a grant from Euroclio, and on a mission for The Indo Project, to see whether some museum or WWII memorial might be possible in Indonesia: in Germany and the rest of Europe, former camps have become museums and memorials and have become powerful tools for education. The war in Asia is commemorated in few museums/memorials in Asia itself, which means that the recollection of that war (aggravated by the whitewashing of Japan’s conservative wing who continue to deny the use of comfort women (sex slaves) by the Japanese army) is endangered. I met with several and potential partners in the Netherlands, some of whom were quite skeptical; during one of those encounters with the War Graves Foundation in The Hague, the conversation was difficult and the director seemed impatient, even though I did my best to sell the concept. The director’s colleague showed me some pictures of Kembang Kuning and out dropped a picture of Joke and Willy’s grave: “those are my relatives…” Silence. “That, that… is a well-known grave…” the colleague stammered. The director’s reserve melted away and all of a sudden we were really talking. The next day, I was at the National Archive and as the archivist showed me a book and opened it, it opened to a page with a picture of one of the burned-out trucks of the Gubeng Transport: “Ah, I said, “four of my relatives were on those trucks…”
Coincidence? I am not so sure. All during this trip I’ve felt Harry and the girls, as well as Peddy and Fré close by, and I can’t quite explain how that feels but it comes out in subliminal messages, like the restaurant’s name (The Two Harry’s) I was invited to by the Indo Club in Surabaya after I visited the girls’ grave…or…. A long-awaited monsoon that seemed to bless the piece of land we were sitting on, while drinking Kali Jompo coffee.
The administrator brought out my book and turned its pages: I started explaining the pictures of the different relatives, and talked about my great-grandfather who had found this unique plot of land, and the administrator brought out a copy of a map with the neat handwriting of my great-grandfather. When we saw a picture of the girls, Jon said to Johnny: “They were killed in the Revolution, on that street we were this morning, in Surabaya.” “Oh, no…” Johnny said in shock. Johnny then talked about Patricia, Harry’s daughter, who visited the plantation with her husband and Johnny in 2012. “Patricia,” he said, “sat for the longest time on the steps of this porch” (the same steps where my greataunt had posed with her two young daughters and a dog)… “Johnny,” she told me, “Just let me sit here for a while.” And that’s what she did. And I sooooo understand… After all those years, Kali Jompo still speaks to us…
A recurring topic was the story of “where the gold was hidden”. Like many families who were about to be put on transport to the camps, the Franckens decided to hide their valuables, too, but not in the house, as the administrator thought. “They dug ditches around the house and put the valuables in there,” I said. I thought it an unsavory topic and didn’t elaborate that Harry suspected that the moment they were carted off by the Japanese the workers probably opened up those ditches again and took the loot home. Whatever. Although Jon suggested a metal detector.
However, as we were discussing the different famly pictures in the book, it seemed as if the characters seemed to come alive again– as if they had finally arrived home again and were united on these 400 hectares of land, in a house that was virtually unchanged if you discount the general decay and slow deterioration of the place.
In the end, we shook hands and thanked the administrator for his hospitality and the kilos of coffee. Driving down the road, I became very sentimental: what had the family’s thoughts been as they were being trucked out, down this road by the Japanese, never to return again? What were Peddy’s thoughts? Arrested by the Japanese and taken down the same road, never to return again, except in dreams and maybe after death? Did his spirit get reunited with those of the girls, on these grounds where they had worked so hard, but where they had also known so much happiness?
Harry, who did survive it all, did not want to return: it was a futile exercise, such a trip, he implied. What was to be gained from revisiting a place that had triggered so much loss and left a hole so big that it could never be filled? I would like to think that after death, he too, found his way back to this magical place, to experience once more the warm embrace of his two older sisters and dad.
He was there, I am sure of it, in that thundering monsoon.
I love you, Harry, and I miss the frequent contact we had, the moment we started talking about Kali Jompo. You did the right thing by sharing your family’s story. You spoke and will continue to speak every time people will pick up my book…
In a sense, Kali Jompo is the big survivor in this story… and I am glad: it means work for 300 Indonesians and I like to think of this as my family giving back to the Indonesians what we have owed them for a very long time…