My paternal grandmother was a pretty extraordinary woman. She was born in Indonesia in the 1920-ties where she lived on her parents sugar cane plantation until the family returned to Holland after the Wall Street crash of 1929. The boat trip from Indonesia took six weeks, which is something unimaginable in this day and age, where we can fly to the other side of the world in 30 hours and long boat journeys are a thing of the past.
Last week while in Amsterdam visiting family and friends, my dad and I went to see my grandmothers best friend in Naarden-Bussum. We went on Sunday, May 4th which in Holland is Dodenherdenking or Remembrance of the Dead for the people who fought and died during World War II. Although my grandmother passed away 12 years ago, those who knew her still have a vivid memory of her and her friend was full of fascinating tales as well as slightly different versions of stories we already knew. An apt day to visit her friend and talk about her life.
After leaving Indonesia the two friends did not see each other for a while, they were reunited a few years later in Holland through mutual friends and they remained firm friends or more like sisters as her friend put it, until my grandmother died. It was a treat to hear about my grandmother from another perspective, from someone who’d known her intimately and not as a mother or grandmother. The woman who was revealed to me during the next few hours was completely different to the woman I’d known as my ‘granny’.
Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War and then living through it as a teenager must have been horrific. My grandmothers family; her father and brothers worked for the resistance, as did she and she lost close family members during the Nazi occupation. She never spoke about these times, not to my father or anyone else until she was much older, I can imagine the memories were too painful and raw to remember and relive.
We did not go into too much detail about the war, rather her friend drew a picture of a very intelligent, headstrong, independent and loyal woman, who was both admired and loved by those around her. How I remember her is somewhat different; as a rather stern, proud and serious grandmother who taught me how to wash up and pass a knife correctly. She would never leave her room until she was completely presentable and her hair done just so, something her friend echoed in her reminiscence, she recalled her as always being elegantly attired, even as a little girl when she was dressed in white with immaculately clean white shoes and stockings.
Hearing about her life made me wonder a lot about what it was really like. How was it in Indonesia during the Dutch colonization, what was it like to grow up there as the colonizers and what was life really like for her during the war? And I realised, in particular with regards to Indonesia, that I have no knowledge of that period in history. Having family who have experienced or lived through something always makes that time a lot more personal and interesting. I think I’ve found a new project; to find out more about Indonesia during that period and to read more about the Nazi occupation of Holland during the Second World War. Her life fascinates me and it makes me realise how things have changed since my grandmother was young.