Unexplainable sounds entered our Japanese internment camp
Proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia, August the 17th 1945
In this article I describe how our family was in the neighborhood when on August the 17th of 1945 the Indonesian independence was proclaimed. My father tried to keep the Dutch colonials from bartering away the good opportunities they still had at the moment to enter into a peaceful transition towards a partnership based on equality between the Netherlands and the Indonesian Republic in construction, in stead of dumping the two countries into two bloody colonial wars.
This article is published in Indonesian in the interesting magazine Historia, founded and made by young Indonesians who are busy rewriting the Indonesian history after the dictatorship of general Soeharto, that held the media and all the science in an iron grip:http://historia.id/modern/suara-dari-masa-pancaroba/
A shorter version of this article was published on the interesting site of Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, ‘’Informed Comment’’: https://www.juancole.com/2017/10/colonial-policing-indonesian.html
The proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945 consisted of a few hand-written sentences being read out loud from a piece of paper. This is how a group of independence fighters on the Indonesian archipelago declared their country – which had been colonised by the Dutch for centuries – independent. Subsequently the Dutch authorities went to absurd lengths to try to deny the significance of this event and were even prepared to wage two bloody colonial wars.
The last one ended on 27 December 1949 when sovereignty was handed over to Indonesia. Even after this, the Netherlands persisted in denying the importance of this event for decades. The signs were already visible in the first months following the Proclamation. In those chaotic months our family was close-by and our father made a few hard efforts to order the developments for the best.
End of comfortable colonial life
My brother Hugo Wertheim recently visited our country of birth, Indonesia. It was the first time he had returned since our family left in 1946 – my sister and I had already returned several times before with our children and grandchildren. All three of us were born there; my sister Marijke in 1933, me in 1934 and Hugo in 1936. We led our comfortable colonial children’s lifes until the Japanese army invaded in 1942 and turned everything upside down. We spent the years that followed in what are now called Japanese internment camps – we children with our mother in a women’s camp and our father in a men’s camp. All those years, we had no idea where he was or whether he was still alive.
The nostalgic visits my sister and I brought to Indonesia much later took us past the Tjikini hospital where we were born, our old primary school, the houses where we lived and two of the three Japanese internment camps. We skipped our last camp, ADEK in Jakarta, because we knew it no longer existed - it burnt down in 1989 and was replaced by a housing estate. However, Hugo decided he would take a look and he had a special reason to. He had compared the map of old Batavia to a modern map of Jakarta and saw that close to the site of the camp there is now a “Jalan (=street) Proklamasi” as well as a Proklamasi Park.
After the Dutch East Indies capitulated on 8 March 1942, the Japanese troops occupied this extensive collection of islands and immediately made sure it would not have any trouble from those who up to then had held power: practically all Dutch citizens were locked up in hundreds of camps across the whole archipelago.
We suffered want and hunger and were guarded by Indonesians under Japanese orders who, from their tall towers of bamboo, kept us constantly in the sights of their
guns. Not that there was any point in escaping: our white skin would have given us away immediately among the Indonesians, persons of mixed Indonesian/Dutch origin, Chinese and Japanese. And the local population was unlikely to be willing to take too many risks to help their former rulers.
There is something going on
On 15 August 1945, Japan capitulated to the Allies. The ADEK camp where we were liberated lay in South East Batavia: it was a collection of buildings surrounded by a high double fence. It was built for coolies, workers who had been recruited to work in tobacco plantations on Sumatra. We need make no illusions about with how many they lived here at the time and in what conditions. We remember all too well how we lived there. There were 2500 women and children, around 100 to a dormitory. Each of us was allocated just 50 centimetres of a wooden bunk lining the walls. The last months in ADEK were difficult. On 31 July 1945, we had to stand in the tropical sun for seven hours because Indonesian guards had escaped in clothing from internees. The Japanese beat them before our eyes until they bled to get them to admit who had exchanged their clothing with them for food until they gave in at last. If only we had known then that our liberation was so close.
On 15 August 1945, our mother wrote in her diary:
15 August 1945 […] Couldn’t sleep last night […]. I realise now that hunger can make you mad. […] In the middle of the night, Sarah came and sat on our kollong (= bunk) and said: […] “It’s peace” “Nonsense, stop it, we have heard it all before.”
17 August 1945
Suddenly we got double portions of everything. Unbelievable! There is something going on. At night, there is an awful lot of noise from outside the camp. As if there is a fun fair. And loud voices over and over again through the loudspeakers. What could it be? "Oh, it is just the natives partying", say my fellow internees. No, […] native parties are generally quite quiet to our minds. I want to hear what is being said. Went to the gedèk (= fence) at night and stood listening for a long time, but it was too far away, I couldn’t understand it. But I am certain that something special is going on.
What my mother describes here is intriguing. We have never found evidence from other women in ADEK that they heard these voices. Our mother understood, spoke and wrote excellent Indonesian and that could not be said for everyone in the old East Indies. Most of them could speak a little ‘Pasar Maleis’ (pasar = market) to be able to order around the Indonesian servants and to buy shopping from Indonesian and Chinese traders, but that was just about it. Because of that she was able to help lots of women write postcards with 25 Indonesian words which were allowed to be sent to the men’s camps twice a year.
Soekarno and Hatta
As we now know, the Indonesian people declared independence from the Netherlands two days after the Japanese capitulation, on 17 August 1945. They did that through two of their leaders, Soekarno and Hatta. But just as we hadn’t heard anything about the capitulation of Japan, we heard nothing about the Proclamation.
Our mother’s diary continues:
22 August 1945 All of a sudden there is no morning roll call. We are no longer required to bow. It’s like a dream.
24 August 1945
In the evening, we are called together in the pendoppo (= covered place), the whole camp. […] The emperor Tenno Heika of Nippon is so gracious: to prevent further bloodshed, he has ended the war. Our accommodation in the camps is not always what he would have wanted it to be, but…
[…] We listened quietly until the long speech had ended, we returned quietly to our dormitories.
[…] We hear that we have to remain in the camps for a while longer. Our Dutch commander wanted to raise the Dutch flag, but she was not allowed to. “The people cannot be trusted” we are told. The longer we keep quiet the better. Is that what peace is? And where are our men? Are they still alive?
30 August 1945 Finally messages from the Red Cross. Thank God, Wim, our husband and father, is alive! But Ans’ husband is dead, and so is Mia’s, and Judith’s too. Oh, how terrible.[…] How could we possibly celebrate now? And we have to remain in the camp. Under the protection of the Japanese […] they have suddenly turned from enemy into protector and friend.[…]
31 August 1945 […] We read in an Indonesian-language newspaper, which finally reached us, that Soekarno and Hatta declared an Indonesian Republic on 17 August. Most of my fellow internees just scoffed and laughed at this ‘ridiculous nonsense’:‘Soon our men will put an end to all that’, they say. So that was what the voice on the loudspeakers was on the evening of 17 August. That was what the ‘native party’ was which no one paid attention to!
At ten o’clock in the morning on 17 August 1945, Soekarno and Hatta stood with a group of fellow independence fighters on the veranda of Soekarno’s house. They had planted a bamboo stick in the front garden with a red and white flag – the forbidden symbol of independence – which had hastily been sewn together the previous night. Soekarno read a short declaration from a piece of paper with Hatta at his side. This piece of paper has been kept to this day, just as the photos which were made at the time.
My brother, aware of the proximity of the Proklamasi street to where he located the ADEK camp, continued his research in the Illustrated Atlas of Japanese Internment Camps in the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1945. The camp was located between two roads the Sluisweg and the Van der Houtlaan, now called the Jalan Tambak and Jalan Bonang. He went to take a look at it with his family and across the Jalan Bonang, they found the Proklamasi Park with its many memorials! See map.
Soekarno’s house, which has been demolished since then, was situated somewhere in the middle of what is now the Proklamasi Park and therefore a short distance from the fence of the ADEK camp, where we were interned. So all things considered it seems beyond doubt that the voices from the loudspeakers heard by our mother that evening was to do with this historic event. But what could she have heard exactly?
Soekarno and Hatta were among the few Indonesians who were able to follow an academic degree under colonial rule. Soekarno (1901-1970) was an engineer at the Technical College of Bandung and Mohammed Hatta (1902-1980) studied economics at the Netherlands School of Commerce in Rotterdam. Both had undergone years in prison and exile as a result of their struggle for freedom – the tried and tested method, rulers use to keep those they find troublesome out of the way, exactly how we were kept out of the way.
Soekarno was arrested in December 1929 for state hostile and radical, nationalistic ideas and was forced to appear before the Landraad on 28 August 1930. This in itself was humiliating, because these Landraden, unlike the ordinary courts for the Europeans, were set up to try Indonesians, who were referred to as Inlanders. This court provided much less guarantees for fair trial compared to the court for Europeans. In his cell, he wrote his famous Plea speech ‘Indonesia denounces’, which he then read out at the end of his trial.
This is from his concluding words:
Your honourable judges, now you have the last word! […] We await your verdict, which will undoubtedly take into account what we have explained here in this court. We do not feel we are guilty […] Therefore we expect and hope to be acquitted.
[…] However, if you do eventually find us guilty,[…] if we have to continue our martyrdom behind bars, so be it. […] may Iboe Indonesia (=Mother Indonesia) accept our fate as a sacrifice […]. May she accept it as beautiful scented flowers, and use it as a garland in her splendid knotted hair. Because […]our soul is steadfast, our soul tells us that everything we have done, was our duty.
[...]Neither three hundred years, nor a thousand years can destroy the right of Indonesia and the Indonesian people to this freedom. To regain this right, we are willing jointly to bear any difficulties and any bitterness, which this country has to undergo to achieve this. We are prepared to undergo every moment of suffering that Iboe Indonesia requires from us. […] An acquittal will delight the Indonesian people, and a condemnation will sadden them. […] we have prepared ourselves to hear your verdict.
On 21 December 1930 came the verdict: four years in prison, of which he spent two behind bars. However, already in 1933 he was robbed of his freedom once again, but this time without any form of trial he was banished to the island of Flores and then to West-Sumatra, where he was liberated in 1942 by the Japanese. Mohammed Hatta also wrote a text which became a classic: ‘Free Indonesia’. He was imprisoned from 1934 on in the notorious Boven Digoel penal camp on New Guinea, which had been deliberately built in the middle of impenetrable jungle, teemed with malarial mosquitoes. After that he was banished to the remote Banda islands until 1940.
Developments in the thinking of our parents
After their arrival in the East Indies in 1931, our parents went to a certain extent along with accepting the colonial situation. To a certain extent, because both held a strong sense of justice and were not blind to what they witnessed happening around them. In their memoires they describe, after growing up in politically right wing families, how they began to question both the class society and the privileged position held by men. On the golden anniversary of the day Aletta Jacobs, the first female Dutch medical doctor received her PhD in 1929, she sang and he accompanied her on the piano. But in their circles people were still so convinced of the reasonableness of white domination over coloured peoples that it was still asking too much to question the status quo. Thus, as inexperienced newcomers on the boat to the Netherlands Indies they were an easy prey for the indoctrination of those returning from leave, who knew what they were talking about when they described thieving Indonesian servants and the need to maintain their distance. When they arrived in Tantjong Priok, the harbour of Batavia, they were welcomed by a old uncle who was married to an Indo European woman, and my mother caught herself briefly hoping that her new boat friends had not noticed the group of tinted cousins …
However already at their first place of work on South Sumatra, their open-minded attitude towards the Indonesians and Indo Europeans led to painful clashes against the walls of racism and their doubts grew. My father worked for the Landraad, the court for Indonesians. His growing disturbance about the differences between these courts compared to the courts for Europeans, he discussed with my mother who had also studied Law. Their eyes were opened further when my father became a professor of Law in 1936 at the Batavia Rechtshogeschool (Batavia School of Law). They came into close contact with Indonesian intellectuals who sympathized with the independence movement – labelled Nationalists. Every fortnight a dozen Indonesian students came to our house and my father told my mother: ‘The good students are almost all nationalists!’
When our parents were separated from one another for three and a half years in 1942, they were already well on their way to backing the Indonesian struggle for independence. In the preceding years developments in the colony just went into overdrive. The occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany caused dismay and at the same time a longing for unity with ‘the others’, even among the most narrow-minded colonials. In many Indonesian Nationalists – in as far as they were free, since many were still imprisoned or banished – the shared desire for freedom also aroused a willingness for cooperation.
My mother joined the ‘Hutspotclub’, a women’s club which organized communal meals to tear down the walls of racism. The three ‘races’ were equally represented on the club’s executive board: Indonesians, Chinese and Europeans and during the meals people were supposed to mix as much as possible. At first the European women thought it a matter of course that a Dutch woman should lead the evenings, but in the end they gave in when the ‘Eastern side’ asked if they could take turns.
In 1941 my father was appointed to the Visman Committee, whose seven members – three Dutch, three Indonesian and one Chinese – had been asked to study constitutional reforms in the distant future, after the mother country back in Europe had been liberated. It was little more than an inventory of the ideas floating around the various population groups– there was no question of any reforms leading to independence. Nevertheless they had to fight several battles within Netherlands Indies governmental circles to set up the committee and permission was mainly given out of fear that otherwise the recent willingness to cooperate among Indonesian Nationalists would evaporate.
‘The Indonesian members are manageable,’ he quotes the conclusions of the final report in his memoirs, ‘otherwise they would not have been appointed to the committee. Every one of them is competent, but they are not people who take firm stances on things. They’ve learned that in the colonial bureaucracy.’ The final report lists the wishes within the various population groups about Indonesia’s future constitutional arrangements. All their wishes? No, the idea of ‘the East Indies separated from the Netherlands’ was not mentioned. After the war my father was to write ‘The critic in 1946 thinks back with shame to a signature in 1941.’
The decisive turnaround in my parents’ way of thinking however came, they always have emphasized, with their own experiences with humiliation, racism, injustice and hunger in the Japanese internment camps. They did not want to do the same thing to others. The camps also sharpened their minds. To begin with in the many conversations with like-thinking fellow prisoners who also reflected on the future of the colony. And not to forget by reading many interesting books which the prisoners had brought into the camps and then exchanged mutually.
Among his fellow prisoners my father above all learned a lot from the socialists Bernard van Tijn and Jaap de Haas, who both supported Indonesian independence (Van Tijn had been the secretary of the Visman Committee, and De Haas had done important work for health care in the East Indies as a pediatrician).
My father also spoke to the then still left-wing Jacques de Kadt, who was convinced that Indonesia would become independent when the war was over. My father’s doubts about whether Indonesians were already capable of running their own country were self-confidently dismissed by De Kadt: ‘Oh, maybe they won’t make such a good job of it, but so what? In South America there are plenty of republics where things aren’t going too well – but they’re still independent states.’
When my parents found one another again after all those years, the only thing they needed to do was explain to each other how they came to the conclusion that the Indonesian people had the right to some form of independence. But on 17 August 1945 that seemed still a long way off, because they were incarcerated miles away from each other.
Now we know that ADEK was located next to the spot where independence was declared, it is interesting to find out where exactly my mother stood listening to the voices that penetrated the camp. Our dormitory was located beside the hospital, a big bald room with mattresses on the floor, where she had been admitted a couple of times when she was ill. Next to it was a little field where the sick who were recovering would sit on chairs and you could visit them there. There were no chairs anywhere else; you had to sit on the floor or on the bunk you slept on. The field was adjacent to exactly that part of the fence that happened to have been closest to the spot where Soekarno’s house has to be located, as my brother discovered! Another argument backing the idea that she was standing in this field is that she heard the voices at night. It gets dark at seven o’clock in the tropics and because there was hardly any lighting, she would most probably have kept as close as possible to our dormitory.
No Japanese Creation
The question remains whose voices she heard through the loudspeakers. For this we have to look at how the news of the proclamation spread.
In De Groene Amsterdammer of 16 August 1995 Lambert Giebels wrote: Nowadays it is general knowledge that the indeed somewhat operetta-like proclamation of independence in Indonesia itself had a huge impact. The news was broadcast on the same day by Indonesians, working for the Japanese press agency Domei, on the radio across the whole of the archipelago of the East Indies and people in many places took to the streets to jubilate and celebrate.
So it is possible that people did actually celebrate. My mother recorded ‘loud voices over and over again through the loudspeakers’. Were these voices trying to keep the festive crowds under control? The Japanese had to keep order in those days after the capitulation. Our mother tried to understand what was being said and that indicates that Indonesian was being spoken rather than Japanese, because she couldn’t understand the latter. In the given situation, it does not seem likely that the Indonesians themselves would be permitted to speak. But if it were Japanese, it may still be that it was Indonesian because some did speak the language well. This did not count for the commanders of our camp, they shouted their daily orders in Japanese and had them translated by an interpreter.
Today, a lot is known about the way in which the drafting of the proclamation text and its declaration came about. The situation around the Japanese capitulation on 15 August 1945, which was unexpected for many people, was chaotic. The allies had ordered the Japanese to maintain the status quo until they reached the Indonesian islands. In as far as the Japanese occupying forces preferred Indonesian independence to a return to Dutch rule, they were not allowed to show it. And the extent to which individual Japanese supported the Indonesian freedom fighters had to be kept secret. The Dutch always tried make out that the Japanese had a bigger influence on how things were run at the time than they actually did, in order to maintain the illusion that the Indonesian people did not actually want to get rid of them.
In the meantime it has been established that a Japanese navy officer did play a mediatory role in the days leading up to the Proclamation and he did so in two ways. On one hand between the Indonesian freedom fighters and the crumbling Japanese rule, which was still in a position to threaten the same violence it had used to terrorise all the inhabitants of the country for years. On the other hand, between groups within the nationalist movement which each had their own views about the exact content of the proclamation and when it should be declared. Soekarno, his wife and newly born son and Hatta were even kidnapped for one day and one night by youths who thought their older comrades were not making enough haste.
Mid-September 1945, our father talked about the political situation with his good friend Jaap de Haas:
Among the Dutch, there is a firm conviction that the Indonesian republic is nothing more than a Japanese fabrication to frustrate the Allies, and the Dutch in particular. But we are both convinced that the situation is much more complicated. The Japanese were obliged to maintain the status quo from 15 August, the day of their capitulation, and to maintain order until the arrival of the Allied Forces, and, officially, they did so. The volunteer Indonesian militia, the Peta, was sent home shortly after the capitulation, without weapons. The republic was proclaimed by Soekarno and Hatta, at the insistence of a group of young nationalists, a few days after the capitulation was proclaimed, precisely to avoid the semblance to the Allies of a Japanese plot. However, a number of high-ranking Japanese officers who did sympathize with the Indonesian struggle for independence gave some clandestine support to the proclamation – but this does not mean the republic was a Japanese creation!
While we had to remain in our camp, my father had already run away from his camp near Bandung with a friend on 30 August 1945 and travelled to Batavia by train. Later he would like to tell us grinning that such things were not difficult in such confusing times, they simply walked out the Gate and the Japanese couldn’t do anything about it. Together they set up the Batavian Red Cross in all haste and set to work as hard as they could. Of course, he found out straight away which camp we were in, and got in touch with us through little notes and phone calls to the camp authorities and tried unsuccessfully to enter ADEK camp.
In the hope that he would try again, I stood outside the Gate on 9 September 1945 in the afternoon - but within view of the guards - watching a huge parachute being folded up. It had been used to drop food packages on the field where we had always stood for roll call. And suddenly I saw him coming towards me on a rickety bike, you could hear the pedals creak. He was wearing short trousers, what you would call a T-shirt nowadays and slippers on his bare feet and we recognised each other right away. We had only just started talking when he wanted me to go and fetch my mother and Marijke and Hugo ... and after that we all have been standing there in front of that Gate talking for quite a while.
He was soon allowed in and we were even allowed to take turns in staying a weekend in the house of the Chinese friends where he was welcome to stay in their garage. By that time walking out of the Gate and taking a look around in the free world had already become usual. One time we even went with our mother to find our former driver, Kawi, in the nearby kampong (= city district for Indonesians). We had been to his house of woven bamboo once before when his daughter got married. The beautifully decorated bridal couple sat on a low bamboo bed and Marijke and I were allowed to cool them with fans. But this time, Kawi was not at home and we were given the feeling by the people there we had better leave – for us a first sign that Indonesians avoided contact with the Dutch.
Not long after that, my father found a temporary house for our family on the Javaweg. Our own house had been completely looted, even the electrical wires had been taken. By that time there also had been made contact with our family in the Netherlands who were of course incredibly happy that we had survived the war.
On his first impression of Batavia, my father writes:
The streets of Batavia have changed quite substantially in the three and a half years that I was incarcerated. However, the most striking thing in the first three weeks of September was the anti-colonial graffiti written, usually in English, on walls and trams. They were clearly meant to make it clear to the allies, when they landed, that the restoration of colonial rule was not what the Indonesian people wanted.
So it is clear the Indonesian people had something to celebrate after Proclamation had been declared. But how did the Dutch react back in the Netherlands?
It was a whole month later, on 17 September 1945, when an article appeared in the daily newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad entitled: Chaotic situation on Java in which a correspondent from United Press was quoted:
The political situation is very confused. After the leader of the nationalists Soekarno proclaimed the “Indonesian Republic” on 17 August 1945. Although Soekarno categorically denied that the Japanese authorities on Java had supported his coup d'état when I interviewed him, there are strong signs that something happened behind the scenes, in order to save the skins of the Japanese in the face of the indigenous population after the capitulation on Java, by promising them independence as of 7 September.
Later the article mentions: the so-called nationalists with Soekarno as their leader and “president of the republic” and a certain Matta Hatta as vice-president.
The quotation marks, the whole tone of the piece and the misspelling of the name of Mohammed Hatta, are indicative of the attitude most Dutch people had at the time. My father encountered a comparable attitude from Dutch government officials who quickly began to trickle in from Holland. In the months which followed, he repeatedly tried in his position as secretary of the Red Cross to play a mediating role between them and his contacts among the nationalist intellectuals. Initially these meetings took place in the Red Cross building. However, by November contact between the Dutch and the Indonesians had become a lot more difficult. Young extremists, as well as gangs of thieves who had nothing to do with the struggle for independence, had begun to murder Dutch people, some of them cherished friends of our parents. As a result, it was decided to turn the front room of our house on the Javaweg into a Red Cross office.
For the Dutch, the main question was to what extent prominent nationalists who were in the process of creating their Indonesian Republic had collaborated with the Japanese. Alongside Soekarno who had collaborated quite a bit and Hatta who did this to a certain extent, there was a third nationalist who was known to have avoided any collaboration: Soetan Sjahrir. He had not attended the declaration of the Proclamation, but he did play a role in the background. He also had a university education (he studied Law in Amsterdam and Leiden from 1929-1931), had written important texts on the fight for independence and had been incarcerated and was exiled for many years until 1941. Now his fellow independence fighters appealed to him to become prime minister of the new Republic.
The non-conformist intellectual Sjahrir had broad support among young people. He was a left-wing socialist and anti-fascist who had always refused to work with the Japanese, and so the Dutch authorities saw him as the only acceptable representative of the nationalists. During his studies in the Netherlands he had made friends with socialists such as Jef Last, Sal Tas and Jacques de Kadt, who despised the social-democratic SDAP party’s ‘champagne-drinking hypocrites’. Sjahrir and Tas’s wife Maria fell in love, and she followed him out to the Netherlands Indies in 1932, where they married in the Islamic religion. They walked hand in hand through the city of Medan on Sumatra, both dressed in traditional garb. This was more than the Dutch whites could stand, and five weeks later Maria was shipped back to the Netherlands. The couple would not see each other again until after the Second World War.
Shortly afterwards, because of his nationalistic speeches, Sjahrir was interned without any form of trial in the notorious Boven-Digoel prison camp in New Guinea and then exiled for years to the remote Banda islands, from where he wrote long, literary letters to Maria. As early as 21 February 1936 one of these revealed his prescience:
‘Of one thing I am sure: that this colonial government and, still more, the colonizing Dutch will one day regret never having pursued a wide-ranging, far-sighted policy adapted to the modern, changing structure of the world – that they have never ever, not for one moment, thought about a deliberate cultural policy for the Indonesian population! As for me, I am convinced that this short-sightedness, this famous Dutch degelijkheid [“soundness”] and lack of imagination and boldness will henceforth start to take its toll [ ...] Eventually, of course, they will have to move in that direction; but by then it will be too late. As an exile I can only say: we shall see.’
Sjahrir was also critical of the independence movement itself. He felt that the pure nationalists had a lack of ‘open-mindedness and must rid themselves of suspicion, hatred and their inferiority complex’. Only then could there be equality. He soon saw the rise of fascism as the greatest threat to world peace.
In 1938 he stated in an open letter from his place of exile that ‘once the war in the Pacific comes, the popular movement must help defend the country’. To achieve this, the Dutch authorities would have to transfer some of its power to the popular movement. They would have to treat it as an equal partner.
Indifference from the side of the Dutch authorities
A few days before 25 November 1945, my father had a meeting with a personal envoy of the Dutch Minister of Overseas Territories, in which he advised making contact with Soetan Sjahrir:
‘I explain that with the coming into power by the Sjahrir cabinet a few days ago a unique opportunity has arisen for negotiations, and that the Netherlands should seize this opportunity with both hands,’ he writes in his memoirs. ‘I argue why de facto recognition of the Republic is in my view politically inevitable. I urge that Sjahrir should be offered far-reaching political concessions before his government is confronted next Sunday (25 November) with the republican representative body, in order to strengthen his position against terrorists and extremists. This will not prove easy, for personal contacts between the Dutch and the Indonesians have become almost impossible this November.’
My father is given orders to try and contact Sjahrir so that a number of questions could be put to him:
I manage to pass on the request for a meeting to Sjahrir. On Saturday 24 November, my wife phones me: I have to return home immediately. I understand straight away what was going on. It is the hottest part of the day, the streets are deserted. No sooner do I arrive home, than a car enters the driveway and drives straight through the garden to park next to the house. Sjahrir himself is at the wheel. We go into my study. The statesman, now prime minister, appears to be highly interested in what I have to tell him. Naturally, he is unable to give a definitive answer to the questions before he is able to consult his cabinet. But his reaction is not negative from the outset and he does not dismiss a priori the possibility of negotiations. The conversation, which lasts over an hour, gets round to terror, which I am encountering at close quarters through my work for the Red Cross. Sjahrir is horrified by what I tell him – had no idea of the scale of it all.
My contact with Sjahrir was not without its dangers, especially for him. As recently as 21 November, an attack was made on Moh. Roem, a former student of mine and member of Sjahrir’s staff, probably by extremist elements who oppose negotiations with the Dutch; Roem narrowly escaped death.
We three children still have vivid memories of Sjahrir’s visit. We were playing behind the house when our mother came outside agitated and whispered that we had to be dead quiet. An Indonesian would be visiting us and nobody was allowed to know about it, he was going to park his car in the back garden. It had rained heavily in the past few days and the ground was so wet that we had built a big mud castle. We played with stones which were supposed to be knights running to and fro and shouted loudly to each other. Many colonial houses had an open gallery at the back which marked the edge of the back garden on one side. From this gallery were the doors to rooms, where once provisions used to be stored and the servants used to sleep. On the other side of the house was the driveway, in our case on the right. At the back the garden was closed off by a high wall. We sat on the edge of the gallery perplexed and wondered whether our castle would be spared. We had learnt during all those years of war that the things we found important were secondary to the dangers around us, but all the same. A black car drove up the driveway a great speed, turning sharply to the left into the back garden and … stopped just before our castle. An Indonesian gentleman stepped out who was taken inside quickly. We smiled at each other quietly and waited until he left.
My father continues: The next morning, I climb on my bike and cycle to the palace to [...] report on developments. [...] I have to explain in two words what had been said during a meeting lasting an hour. Somewhat taken aback, I comply with this request, but I no longer have much faith in my mission.
After a few more signs of disinterest from the side of the Dutch authorities, my father is disappointed to find out that his assistance with their political mission is no longer required: And so ended my first and last political mission.
Early in 1946 our family returned to the Netherlands.
Yet contact has been established between Sjahrir and the Dutch authorities. Difficult talks and negotiations follow. On March the 18th, 1946 my father sighs in his leaflet Nederland op den Tweesprong (‘The Netherlands at the crossroads’) ‘And so the government keeps making it almost impossible for Sjahrir to make clear to his opposition that there is still some point in negotiating with the Dutch. Are people in certain circles still wary of the socialist Sjahrir? Do they still not realize that, if he goes, there will be no-one left in Indonesian society for the Dutch to do business with?’
On 15 November 1946 talks eventually led to the Linggadjati agreement, in which the Netherlands undertook to acknowledge the republic’s authority over Java, Madoera and Sumatra; the republic would become part of the United States of Indonesia, which would become part of the Dutch-Indonesian Union, headed by the Dutch monarch. From the outset this compromise was controversial on both sides, and on 20 July 1947 the Netherlands withdrew from the agreement. One day later the first so-called ‘policing operation’ began – and Indonesia’s secession thus finally degenerated into colonial war.
Back in the Netherlands, our parents continued their struggle for recognition of the Indonesian Republic. They kept hoping for a form of cooperation between the two states, which
would be beneficial to both the Indonesians and the Dutch. This put them on a collision course in no uncertain terms with those Dutch authorities who remained blind to the justifiable desire for independence and clung obstinately to their castle in the air of a colonial Indonesia.
We children witnessed how they were forced in desperation to watch how the Netherlands step-by-step bartered away every opportunity to say farewell to its colony in an honourable way and to enter into a peaceful transition towards a partnership based on equality. And eventually watch how the most blinded of those in charge unchained two wretched colonial wars.
Not one of us returned to our country of birth between 1946 and 1998. The only time our parents returned to Indonesia was when they spent a year living in Bogor 1956/57, where my father was a guest professor at the Agricultural University. But as far as we know, they did not visit the spot where the Proclamation was declared and therefore never found out how close ADEK camp was to the house where Soekarno came to live after his exile for many years. At the time, the monument in which Soekarno and Hatta stand before seventeen pillars (symbolizing 17 August) had not yet been built. Nor had Soekarno’s house been replaced by today’s large white building which holds an exhibition on the Proclamation.
The fact that none of us had returned before 1998, was all to do with the bloody coup of 1965, when General Soeharto and his henchmen imposed a cruel dictatorship which wielded power in Indonesia for more than thirty years – among other things by imprisoning thousands of people (many of them intellectuals and writers) who were suspected of holding communist views for many years on the desolate island of Buru. They were incarcerated without any form of trial and without knowing how long their imprisonment would last. Once again those in power resorted to the tried and tested method of shutting those they considered troublesome away. This time it was an Indonesian regime in power and it is cynically to realize that successive Dutch governments between 1965 and 1998 did not have the slightest reservation about working with this dictatorial Indonesian regime and even supplied weapons to it. On top of this, they continued all this time to refuse to recognise the date 17 August 1945 as Independence Day, preferring to hold grimly onto the date sovereignty was handed over on 27 December 1949.
By the time General Soeharto was forced to stand down in 1998 by students, our father was too weak to travel – he died at the end of 1998 at the age of almost 91. Our mother had died in 1988. From 2002, we children returned to Indonesia in varying combinations with our children and grandchildren and will continue to do so. But from now on we will always pay a visit to the Proklamasi Park and think back in wonder at all that took place here.
- Wim Wertheim and Hetty Wertheim-Gijse Weenink, Vier wendingen in ons bestaan, Indië verloren, Indonesië geboren (‘Four turning-points in our lives: the East Indies lost, Indonesia born’), 1991
- Sukarno: Indonesia accuses! Sukarno’s defence oration in the political trial of 1930, 1975
- W. F. Wertheim, Nederland op den Tweesprong: tragedie van den aan traditie gebonden mensch (‘The Netherlands at the crossroads: the tragedy of people bound to tradition’), 1946
- W. F. Wertheim, Indonesië, van vorstenrijk tot neo-kolonie (‘Indonesia: from princedom to neo-colony’), 1978
- Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesische Overpeinzingen (‘Indonesian reflections’), 1966
- Rudolf Mrázek, Sjahrir: Politics and Exile in Indonesia, 1994
- Anne-Ruth Wertheim, De Gans eet het brood van de eenden op, mijn kindertijd in een Jappenkamp op Java (published in English as ‘The Goose snatches the bread from the ducks: my childhood in a Japanese internment camp on the isle of Java’), 1994