WATCH: What is left of the concentration camps of my grandparents in 2012?
Sanne van Oosten
During the Second World War my Dutch grandparents lived in Indonesia. As happened to many other Dutch people there in that time, they were incarcerated at Japanese concentration camps. My grandparents were newlyweds and had just been blessed with their first child, my aunt Corrie, when their family was ripped apart.
They were both sent to separate concentration camps more than 400 kilometers apart. My grandfather Willem van Oosten was near Bandung and my grandmother Anneke van Oosten and the young child Corrie were sent to a concentration camp near Semarang. They didn’t know if they were ever going to see each other again and missed each other very much. They didn’t even know if they were going to get enough food from the Japanese every day. To deal with this pain my grandfather kept up a diary in which he wrote letters to my grandmother, hoping that one day, they would see each other again and she could read what he had to say to her. But in the end, my grandmother never heard the stories that he wrote down in his diary.
My grandmother survived the war and the family was reunited. They even went on to have five more children, one of which is my mother. But my grandfather was so traumatized that he couldn’t bring himself to show her the diary. By the time he had worked up the courage to read it again, more than fifty years had passed. My grandmother had gotten Alzheimers and could no longer understand it. He regretted this very much. So he had his diary translated to English so his children and grandchildren living in Canada could read it as well. This is what he wrote in the introduction:
“I saw horrible things during the war. I saw people picked up by the Japanese military police who disappeared and never came back. I saw people who were horribly beaten by the Japanese, not to mention the people who died a slow death in the camps. They kept back food, medicine, and letters just to torture us. I want my children and grandchildren to know how it was in that time”.
More than 66 years after my grandparents were free, I went to Indonesia. I wanted to find the concentration camps where they had been to see what was left of the places that had defined so much of their lives. With some help from our very kind Indonesian friends we actually found both camps.
First stop: the concentration camp of my grandfather. The concentration camp was in Chimahi, now a suburb of Bandung. The city is the regional military base and signs of the military are still visible on almost every corner. After our friend Benny asked around we found the camp of my grandfather. It turned out that it is still in use as a prison up to this day.
Second stop: The concentration camp of my grandmother. This camp was considerably harder to find. We went to the small town of Banjoe Biroe and our Indonesian friend Herman asked people if they knew where it was. People looked puzzled and started pointing in every which direction. After a while they sent us to a former camp in the next town, Ambawara. This was a beautiful old fort that now lay in ruins, but it wasn’t the concentration camp where my grandmother and aunt had been. Apparently, the people of BanjoeBiroe, had no idea that there once was a concentration camp in their town. A few days later we had figured out where the camp had to be. It wasn’t in use anymore, but we were allowed to enter.
The former concentration camp was empty. After the War it was used as dormitories for students of the police academy, but since the sixties it had just been left unused. Grass up to our middle, volunteer trees, broken glass, a few beds and closets. There was nothing pointing to the gruesome past that had taken place here. No memorial, no remembrance, nothing.
I was disappointed that this was all there was. The location of such a traumatic time in so many lives is just rotting away. People from Java are known for their fear of old abandoned houses. Therefore, I think it is just a matter of time before this former concentration camp will be demolished. This makes me sad, for my family who have a history here and for all the other people who have been in this camp. Through this video I hope people will remember what happened here during World War 2 and how anything like this can never happen again.