by Vittoria Malgioglio
The 15th of August might seem a rainy summer day like many others in the Netherlands. It is the day that marked the end of WWII. Far from the hustle of the city, in a park of The Hague, the victims of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies are commemorated every year.
Not many people know that soon after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, one of the darkest chapters of Dutch history opened. On August 17th, Indonesia declared its independence: it was the beginning of a long and dire conflict against Holland, who did not want to lose its valuable colony.
The Hague’s town hall is an impressive building. Despite its intimidating size, it looks light and airy because of its glasses and white metals. It is here that between August 12th and September 8th you can visit the exhibition Naar Holland – Repatriëring, migratie of vlucht? (To Holland: repatriation, migration or escape?)
Pictures and quotes on blue panels lead through multiple stories, towards the focal point of the exhibition: the sea, a white boat, and a massive black and white picture of people greeting their loved ones from the dock. Between 1950 and 1951, more than 80,000 people left Indonesia for the Netherlands.
In the picture, framed from above, those who leave and those who remain hold the two ends of the same tape: when the ship moves away the wires will tear and the heads will remain in their hands.
It is here where I meet Dr. Margaret Leidelmeijer. She has round eyes, a kind smile and the most Dutch English I have ever heard. She has worked on the exhibition together with the Tong Tong association. The Indo-European culture is very particular, she says, “it is not Dutch, nor Indonesian. Tong Tong works to keep it alive.”
“There have been so many exhibitions like this,” she says, “but all focus on the Dutch, the Indonesians, the Moluccans. They forgot about Indo-Europeans, one of the most numerous groups that came to Holland!“
Indo-Europeans are the descendants of Indonesian indigenous peoples and Dutch colonists, who hold European passports. Since 1945, there have been several migratory phases:
The first to arrive were the “white Dutch”: those who already had connections and families in Holland. Then the Indo-Europeans arrived. They had never seen the Netherlands before, and yet, because of colonization, Holland was as much part of their culture as Indonesia.
The commemoration of August 15 has often been at the centre of controversies because, according to some, it ignores the victims of the colonial conflict that followed the end of WWII. Nevertheless, the ceremony is not only attended by those who lost their loved ones in the Second World War, but also “those who want to remember the stories heard by their parents and all that many families lost in the war.”
While sipping a hot tea, Leidelmeijer explains that “many people were born and raised in the Dutch East Indies, their homeland is very real, not a myth built on memory.“
Between ’45 and ’56 the tension in Indonesia was constantly skyrocketing. The country had known the horrors of war and of the Japanese concentration camps. Now the concentration camps were for the Indonesian and everybody was hungry. Abuse and discrimination against Indo-Europeans was widespread.
During the Second World War, the Japanese had asked the Indo-Europeans to forget their Dutch descent. Now, the Dutch wanted them to leave the Indonesian side behind. And the Indonesians themselves were asking to give up all ties to the Netherlands.
Indo-European people found themselves trapped halfway between two cultures and two enemies, under fire from both sides. “They had been educated and indoctrinated in the colonial school system. When in 1950 they were asked to decide between the two nationalities, many were faced with a very difficult choice.”
“People were required to abandon one or the other part of their identity.”
But Indo-European culture is not just a mix of Dutch and Indonesian culture: “it is a complete and proper culture in itself, with all the variations and diversity of the case”, as Leidelmeijer explains. This is how the Indo-Europeans were asked to give up themselves: “You were not allowed to be yourself. You were not free to have your own identity“.
Many Indo-Europeans wanted to stay in Indonesia, where they were born and grew up. But they knew their children would have no future there: they would remain impoverished and discriminated against. So they undertook the journey towards the Netherlands.
People in Holland had just witnessed the end of World War II and was in the midst of a serious housing crisis. Many emigrated, others wondered:
“why are the immigrants immediately given a roof and extra food, while I’m hungry and have been waiting for a house for years?“
Indeed too many are still wondering the same today. But while some did not like the newcomers, others already saw them as Dutch.
Newly arrived Indo-Europeans were given extra stamps for food and housing in single or double rooms to share with their families. “In the meantime, the government explored all possible ways to keep people in Indonesia,” where they were clearly in danger: once again, an uncomfortable similitude with today.
“Those who arrived in the Netherlands had to be assimilated,” a policy that is still in vogue today. “They had to follow Dutch cookbooks and housekeeping manuals,” tells Leidelmeijer.
Everything, even the private and intimate spaces of a house, had to be managed according to Dutch customs. “If in Indonesia houses were always open to friends and visitors, those who came to Holland had to learn to make an appointment in advance, have tea at 3 and dinner, or borrel, at 6″.
“You had to leave behind everything that you did at home and adapt to the Dutch lifestyle.” You had to eat like the Dutch and follow the rules like the Dutch. “One of the biggest differences is that in the Netherlands there are clear rules to follow, while in the Indo-European culture there are boundaries. You must have the sensitivity to understand how far you can go without being rude.”
In addition to books and manuals, the government also sent social workers to check that families were following the directives. Quite often “people pretended to be Dutch in public but they were themselves in private”.
Freedom and the future
When I ask her about Indo-European culture, Leidelmeijer tells me about the great diversity within it. “For me,” she adds candidly, “it is the way in which my parents raised me: in a big family, full of music and freedom.” She decided to raise her children in the same way, but at the same time, she always also felt Dutch. “I grew up here, my friends and my life are here.” It is no coincidence that, even in English, she speaks with all the most iconic Dutch expressions.
“I don’t want to live in a closed community. I want to live freely, choosing for myself who I am and where I belong,” says Leidelmeijer. The smile on her face suggests that she knows perfectly how such freedom is too often nowhere to be found.
One of the testimonies in the exhibition is the story of a young boy almost shocked by the pressure that his Indo-European parents imposed on him to do well at school. After all, as Leidelmeijer comments, “People were leaving Indonesia because it was the only way to give their children a future.”
The structure of the exhibition also refers to this reality, as the doctor explains while accompanying me through the blue panels. “The whole structure points towards the boat and the sea. Because people had no choice, they had to leave.”