And so the one minute of silence descends upon the Netherlands again…To remember the war dead.
Growing up in the Netherlands, this was a big deal for a country that had lost more than three quarters of its Jewish population to the death camps…
In fact, growing up in the Netherlands, that was the only war everyone always talked about…
It was not until I wrote Silenced Voices that I realized that in my family there were two girls too, pretty much the same age as Anne Frank, and their father, who lost their lives in WWII. It was never even mentioned or remembered on May 4th, and it’s only now that I realize how jarring and unjust this amnesia has been.
So this May 4th, I pay tribute to these girls: Willy and Joke Francken…
Having survived the internment camps
And with hunger gnawing at their bellies
They considered themselves lucky
Until they heard their dad had died in a Japanese prison…
This may have sealed their own fate,
For war widows were evacuated out early
To end up in the crossfire of the Indonesian Revolution
where Willy and Joke were butchered by an angry mob.
What were their last thoughts?
What did Joke feel when she reassured her mother that she was OK while dying in her mother’s arms?
What went through your mind, dear Willy, when you had cried out for your mom and then were never heard of again?
Your deaths were hidden– the massacre you were part of was hardly even mentioned in Dutch history books, until I put pen to paper and suffered with you, just writing it down…
I apologize, my dearest Willy and Joke, for not unveiling this story any sooner but as I wrote in my book, it was taboo to even remember.
So every May 4th that rolled around, your deaths were like the stone that had been thrown down the well with no echo coming back.
People may object. The war dead in the Indies are commemorated on August 17th but by holding two separate events (to do justice to historic synchronicity), there’s an implied imbalance because May 4th always has been the bigger day and deal, with a national holiday on May 5th. August 17th is the mere after thought and footnote of WWII in Europe.
I apologize, my dearest Willy and Joke, that you, for a long time, were not even considered part of the war dead. And I apologize to Peddy, your dear dad:
Tortured by the Japanese for more than a year, what were your thoughts, dear Peddy? Was there any news coming through about your wife and the three children you would never see again? My great-aunt didn’t even know where you were buried and the honors that were bestowed on men who had resisted the Nazis in the Netherlands, were never given to you posthumously. In fact, just getting to see your papers, your cause of death, your heroic gesture of giving your Red Cross package to someone else as you felt the end was near, those papers were kept from your wife, and I had to move heaven and earth to see them as they were still part of Secret Archives.
You died a hero, Peddy, for queen and country
Sadly, that country never remembered you either,
Or ever, on May 4th.
There was just the silent suffering of your wife
And only son, whose miraculous survival
would always be compromised by trauma
and having been abandoned, not by you
or your daughters
But by the country that cared, but clearly didn’t care enough
as your death was part of the colonial collateral damage
that Holland, that enlightened little country by the sea,
would rather forget about because all colonialism was suddenly bad.
I know, dear Peddy,
from your letters home that yes, while you may have been part of the colonial elite,
you cared for your workers and worked alongside them
rolling out rubber in the barn…
and picking coffee on the steep slopes of Kali Jompo.
But you are no longer forgotten.
You may well be the dearest great-uncle I’ve ever had
Because wrestling with the demons of your past
and documenting your last days, you are my hero,
for when times are tough, I often think of you and tell myself
to snap out of it, because my days will never be as tough
as the best day you may have had in prison.
Dear Peddy, Joke and Willy,
Your story is as important as Anne Frank’s
And I apologize for the insensitivity of our country, The Netherlands,
for making grand gestures on May 4th,
But never remembering or recognizing your horrifying last hours on
March 15th, 1945 and October 28th, 1945.
Rest in peace.
I would like to add a postscript to this piece. From people in the Netherlands, I heard yesterday that the commemoration is now two minutes of silence and that this year especially, there was lots of attention, media and otherwise, for the victims in the Dutch East Indies, whom, as I said in the piece, are also commemorated on August 17th, in The Hague. On behalf of my family, I applaud the organizers and anyone who was involved in broadening the attention to victims worldwide. That said, I’m saddened that my great-aunt and her son aren’t here anymore to hear, see and feel this belated recognition.