War’s Family | Janneke Jobsis Brown

War’s Family


Join this hope, reunion, and search for meaning for any families effected by war. I would dearly love to know every story. What follows is first a rescued poem, then family history, then more poems.

I visited my home country, the Netherlands, in 2007, to see family and to start the research for my novel. At the Indisch war memorial monument in Den Haag (The Hague), I found this anonymous poem. The words to a grandson were carefully encased in plastic and sharing space with a sea of flowers and wreaths. By coincidence, it was August 15, 2007, the sixty-second anniversary of the liberation of the camps. I want to thank my co-translators: Fred Wilson, a camp survivor, and Boukje de Vries Jobsis, my mother, for their help with this poem.

Indisch war memorial monument

In loving memory of this generation and my father, Kees Jobsis, a survivor of the camps

The Healing Bridge (originally untitled)

Since God sent you into my life
Sinds God jou in mijn leven heef gezonden

I have experienced so many good things
Heb ik zoveel goede dingen ondervonden

that I always again find joy
Dat ik het altijd weer een vreugde vind te mogen weten

God wished to entrust me with you lief dear grandchild,
God heef jou dit kind als een lief kleinkind willen te vertrouwen,

“Show him your love, in order to build a bridge
toon hem jou liefde, om een brug te bouwen

from him to Me
van hem naar God,

because he is also My child.”
want hij is ook Zijn kind

I want you to understand — whoever loves God may always find shelter with Him.
Ik wil dat hij beseft: wie Hem bemint die mag voor altijd bij hem schuilen

God will never leave you alone
Hij laat hem nooit alleen

and when you must cry about all which is incomprehensible,
En moet hij huilen om alles wat er onbegrijpelijk is,

I will tell you again, that every great loss and yearning
vertel hem dan, dat ieder groot gemis

makes it possible for God
het voor God’s liefde mogelijk kan maken

to touch every place in your heart
om ieder plekje van je hart te raken

The World War II legacy to families, it seems, never stops hurting, and never stops giving. Millions gave their lives, millions had their lives torn away, and these sacrifices did buy the freedom much of the world is graced with today. My own legacy, generations after World War II, is to search for meaning, and faith, that is – the ebb and flow of faith.

For me, the World War II legacy has the shadow of family secrets and the light of family pride. The Jobsis and De Vries families I grew up with took care to tell stories of the survival of World War II – especially before and after.

But how it was to survive six seemingly endless years in The Netherlands (Holland) and most especially how it was to survive four endless years in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) was left solidly in shadows. I was left wondering. Is it too painful to share? Are the younger generations protected from the unspeakable cruelty which occurred in the Japanese Concentration Camps in Indonesia? Were memories buried along with those who died? What I have learned is yes, it’s all true and the war was so wrenching that it’s still difficult to explain these times today. Sadly, it helps to explain WWII suffering in the context of the suffering that still happens now: the holocausts, battles and refugee camps of recent times. As you know, after World War II, the world had a rallying cry, “never again.” But there have been and are “agains.”

As my surviving family members are eying becoming octogenarians, I find at last that any question can be answered. There is Grace to be had, joy and sorrow in the past. As it turns out much is unspeakably terrible, but we find a way to speak of it anyway. Much is funny. Civilians trying to scrabble together a life during World War II experienced the ultimate in uncertainty. Nothing was predictable. There were times of faith, and times of seemingly no faith. Yet in family time since, we have held hands and strengthened our bond over the untold stories.

The Three Threads

I have three threads of War’s family to share with you: on my mother’s side– the De Vries family during Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, the “war” of being children of parents who lost their childhood and teen years to war, and what was the most buried – on my father’s side, the Jobsis family in the Dutch East Indies during the years of Japanese occupation.

Pappie (Daddy, pronounced pahpee)

My pappie, Adrianus “Kees” A.C. Jobsis grew up in paradise, on the Indonesian tin-mining island of Billiton. He passed away 3/30/2008. Ironically his father, Gerrit Jozef Jobsis also died in spring time, in the Japanese Concentration camp Baros 4/9/1945. He died a mere four months before Japanese capitulation. Tragically during those last four months, death of all civilian prisoners and POW’s escalated greatly. Four years of starvation and forced labor was too much for many.

Pappie told only two stories of his World War II years: that his nose was broken early on during a fight for a crust of bread, and what it was like to leave Indonesia, months after “liberation.” In the last decade of his life, just when Pappie might have revealed more to us, his memory began to give out. My mother, my aunt and uncle and copies of his letters to New Zealand cousins, eventually told me more.

Pappie’s father, Gerrit, was the head engineer of the Billiton tin mine. Pappie’s oldest brother, also Gerrit, was accidentally cut off from the family in 1939 due to schooling in the Netherlands. With the invasion of the Japanese in 1942, the rest of the family: his mother Anna, younger brother Herman, and younger sister Mechtelien, evacuated to the Indonesian main island of Java, expecting to return to their beautiful home. They never did.

Mammie (Mommy, pronounced mahmee)

My mother, Boukje De Vries Jobsis is one of the octogenarians in my life. She grew up as an only child, with her parents Gerrit and Jantje De Vries, in a small farming town in Friesland, the farming province of The Netherlands. The Dutch-Indonesians experienced a more brutal captivity, since all were were eventually moved to camps. The Dutch in the Netherlands experienced six years of Nazi occupation and terror. All able bodied men had to be hidden from the German occupiers, or they would be sent to labor camps. Jewish people were sent to death camps, along with those who tried to protect or help them. The entire population experienced severe starvation during the Dutch honger winter (hunger winter) of ’44-’45. Fifty thousand people died because of the German decision to cut off supply lines as retribution for a Dutch Railway strike, an attempt to disable the German war machine.

I celebrate my mother, who so often would talk of her war years, and still shares more of her revelations with my sister and I. Mammie recently read The Occupied Garden (by sisters Kristen Den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski. So I too read this thorough memoir of one family’s years of German occupation and later immigration to Canada.

Mammie also shared with me her experience touring Eastern Europe several years ago. Her travel lecture schedule included an afternoon visit with a host family. This family showed a film which depicted the horror of bombings, complete with deafening sound effects. Her own war years flooded back to her.

She was back standing outside with Pake (pronounced packuh, the Frisian province/Frisian word for grandfather). In the dense dark, of a village following blackout rules, stars dotted the velvet sky while bomber planes thundered. Pake declared, “I will no longer be trapped in the cellar for bombing attacks. I would rather live or die under the open sky. Pray daughter, be brave.”

“I could not be brave,” Mammie said to me. I saw her not just as she was that day we talked, but the preteen standing with her father, her mother nearby, when black night sky was not safe. Fortunately, they lived. They all lived. Not so with the Jobsis family

Historic Intro to Jobsis Family in WWII

How did all Europeans, and the Jobsis-Gieben family in the Dutch East Indies, become imprisoned in a series of Japanese concentration camps? How is it that the deaths in concentration camps of 30,000 civilians/soldiers, and millions of native peoples outside the camps in this region (cited in United Nations reports) received so little attention in history? Why was it that the Dutch survivors of Japanese concentration camps lost their voice, while many survivors of the Nazi death camps told their stories?

The answers lie in circumstances of history and the suffering of the Dutch in the Netherlands. After World War II these Dutch were not prepared to hear of the suffering of the “rich colonials.” The Netherlands-Dutch had also lost civilians to concentration camps and labor camps, they had also starved. The “rich colonials,” however, had lost everything, and could never return to the country they considered home – The Dutch East Indies. Thus, the colonials were quickly silenced – due to the desire to move on from the pain of the past, and because few would believe the three and a half years of constant brutality and starvation they had experienced.

This is a story of two loosely connected countries. The Netherlands was the mother country and at times a neglectful mother. The Dutch royal family had not ever visited their large profitable archipelago of oil and ore rich islands. The Dutch East Indies (Indie for the Dutch, now Indonesia) was the centuries-old child, a colony with families born and raised there for generations. These Indonesian-Dutch families visited the Netherlands on leaves every six years or so, and often had family in the Netherlands. For most however, Holland was not home or even a second home.

The Jobsis Family in History

My father grew up in paradise, on the tin mining island of Billiton. His father Gerrit was the head engineer. His oldest brother, Gerrit, was accidentally cut off from the family in 1939 due to schooling in the Netherlands. With the upheaval of war, the rest of the family (his mother Anna, younger brother Herman, and younger sister Mechtelien) evacuated to the island of Java in February 1942, expecting to return. They never did.

December 1941, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. In February 1942, the Japanese invaded Indonesia. They had already brutalized China for years (The Rape of Nan King, Iris Chang) The world was in shock, as the Japanese had invaded and conquered Singapore, the Philippines, Indochina, Burma and more.

At the time of his family’s evacuation from Billiton island to Java, my grandfather Gerrit Jobsis was in the Battle of the Java Sea. A civilian, he escaped with military personnel after sabotaging the tin mine for which he was responsible. Under-armed and antique naval ships and air corps – British, Dutch and American fought valiantly, but were no match for the modern Japanese war machine. Furthermore the Japanese were determined to conquer Indonesia, as the archipelago had the oil without which they would have nothing.

Almost 1,000 civilian and navy personnel died in the Battle of the Java Sea. Others were adrift for days. Miraculously some were saved by the Exeter and some by a fragmented Dutch air force, particularly one pilot defying orders.* Grandpa Jobsis, who had been on board the ship Sloet van de Beele evaded death after days in a life boat, of which he was in charge.

The family briefly reunited after his ordeal, then all men were rounded up, and the children witnessed their pappie Gerrit, still recovering from injuries, suffering in the first of the men’s camps. In later 1942 my father, Kees and his family experience the terrifying progression from loss of home, to being help captive in a restricted neighborhood, to enclosed crowded ghetto to armed captivity in a series of women’s and children’s concentration camps.

For my pappie Kees, his new “life” was with his mother, younger brother and younger sister included Tjideng, one of the most notorious camps. Soon, Kees was torn away as a “man” to men’s camps. Later, his younger brother, Herman, experienced the same. So much loss and terror blunted all emotion. Many died, including the grandfather I never knew. Gerrit Jozef Jobsis survived his ordeal in the sea to die of starvation-edema-pneumonia-heart failure in the final four months of the war

After the war, Indonesia fought for its independence, in the time which became known as the Bersiap (Malaysian for ‘get prepared’) period. Months of chaos and danger followed, with survivors eventually repatriating to the Netherlands.

Reunions, were magnificent and odd, as the shadow of starvation and years of brutality had blunted all emotion. Few families, liberated from separate camps, greeted each other with jubilation. So it was with my father, and his siblings. As oldest he rounded up the family, they found a temporary home, they waited to be evacuated.

None of my father’s family was ever able to “go home” again. I will never know my grandfather Gerrit Jobsis’s full story. I have learned now that my father, Kees, was like many of the silent survivors: kind, loving, vigilant, anxious. And yes, like many survivors so anxious he could annoy his family, hovering to protect, remark, help and over-help.

Like many of the children of survivors, I will never know his full story. I have my own kindness, love, and most definitely vigilance and anxiety. I worry about travel, am sensitive to waiting and time, can predict the best and the worst that can happen, all with much more intensity than my friends whose families never experienced home country invasion and loss.

Yet, there is a full story that I can find in every family who has survived war. Family was what mattered. Every time I diligently researched I found that individuals could endure and yet experience hope as long as family connections still endure. Incomplete stories, I have learned still have our souls and hearts in them. What matters – how people loved each other, reunited, rebuilt their lives is all here. Join these stories and help make them complete. Join this hope, reunion, and search for meaning. I would dearly love to know every story.

* These few rescues are still controversial, and difficult to find reference to.

Poetry to Take us There

I begin and end with poetry. The threads of words that seem to root the deepest, before emerging, can take us to how it was, and how it is now. Here is more that touches on war’s generations, the first is mine, the first (above) and last (below) come to you in the special way of memoirs and miracles.

Bringing War Home, Janneke Jobsis Brown

World War II
After the Great War that was to end all wars

World War II
A dividing line
The divide of hope, never again
The divide of time; world-wide we were all nearly destroyed
The divide of before, when it wasn’t known for sure

all of us future generations would be here
to write, say,
do, not do
what we do now

what we do now

All the same hopes, hearts, and mistakes
Understanding what we have come to understand
Not understanding what we will never understand
A burden a blessing
A worry
A joy
A going on
Let us talk, let us dance, let us join hands, let us be open about

The war of the past, and the war at home.
There are wars too for many of us after-war children
we never told our parents about
what did you never tell us?

I know of secrets, their power, worse than the original pain
Let us not have secrets, it has been too long now
Let us say loudly, “I want to know your story”
“I want to know the story of those already gone.”
Let us whisper softly again and again, “It was not your fault, it was not your fault, it was not yours,”
There is so much to say and so much that will still never be said, so we start.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

The Hand I Would Be, John Stutterheim’s son

I’ve always known of a stirring pain
In the resilient souls from which I came

I’ve seen eyes with dust from a hurtful past
Hide ghosts of tears too defiant not to last

I’ve had hatred towards fairness for not being there
In stories where even my God didn’t care

I’ve only regretted that I could not be
A hand back through time
To change it, you see?

The Diary of Prisoner 17326, John Stutterheim. This is a memoir that tackles it all for us: the actual survival experiences as a boy in Japanese slave labor camps – the before during and after. Also includes an excellent account of the time, in a foreword by historian Mark Purillo. This poem from Stutterheim’s son, illustrates a son’s love, and the impact of war on the next generation (p. xx, Preface).