Shared Stories: Escape from Indonesia after WWII

When she was six years old, Maria Zeeman and her family were put in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia during World War II. Her father had been a Dutch harbor pilot. Maria was nine when the war ended and her family of ten people had miraculously survived, but conditions remained dangerous. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class a the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Maria Zeeman

When World War II ended, my mother and my siblings and I were reunited with my dad. He was in Bandung in a camp.  They let us live in a big house right next to his camp. Many of the men stayed in the camp because there was nowhere for them to go. I was six years old when the war started for us, and now I was nine. My parents had eight children, and we all survived.

It was the Japanese who invaded Indonesia and put the Europeans in prisoner of war camps, but after the war, many of the young Indonesians were also against us. Captain Sone and the Japanese soldiers had, from the beginning been telling the Indonesians to hate the Dutch people and to fight for independence and create an Indonesian republic. There were now some Indonesians who formed groups to attack Europeans.

Nobody had money or anything else.  There were also many children with no one to take care of them.  On the other side of our house were Churkha’s (soldiers from India) who protected us.  It was so dangerous that some of the men who wandered out of the camp got shot by groups of young Indonesians.

My father somehow got all of us on a military plane that flew us to Batavia (Djakarta). That was also very dangerous.  We sat on the floor holding on to a rope that was tied in the front and back. The plane flew so low that we could see the tops of the trees and sometimes we thought we would run into the mountain tops.

We were immediately put up in a house in Djakarta. My father had to report immediately to the harbor because they had no one to bring in the big ships safely.

This was the first time we went to school. Jan had been to first grade before the war, but my two younger sisters and I had not been to school yet. I was placed with my two sisters in the first grade. We were happy to go and to finally learn some things.

My older sister Francis had taught us words, numbers, and other things in the beginning of our time in the camp. It is strange for me to think of that, because I always played bridge with my mom and two older sisters. 

Claar didn’t like to play much, but I always loved it. Especially when I had this painful sore on my leg and often agonizing earaches. It helped me to not think about my pain. 

Bridge is a difficult card game. You have to remember the fifty-two cards and understand the other players. You play with a partner, so you always need at least four players. We also played the game with the four young ones, but then it was a lot of pretend. I always thought latter that bridge and my mom’s soft singing saved our lives. And I realized later on that it’s a difficult game, so I wasn’t dumb ever, just uneducated.

But again it was dangerous for us in Djakarta. We walked hand-in-hand one block to cross the bridge, and then one and a half blocks to our school.  There were very few European people.
We had been friends with the native Indonesians before the war, but now there were some who didn’t want us there. We didn’t understand that the big kids hated us.

One day when we were on the bridge and we saw a plank going down the river with a dead body on it. It was awful. We told our father and he said that he would send us to Holland on the first ship out. We were to stay home until then.

A few days later he was driven to the harbor with a few other officers as usual, but that evening he didn’t come home. Oh, we were so scared. My mother sat with us holding hands and asking God to take care of our dad.

Then at 4:00 AM he came home all dirty and bloody. His small bus was attacked and they stole anything they could get their hands on. My dad said that he slapped the hand that wanted to take his wallet. He recognized the man as one of the guards from the harbor. The assailants took off. 

The car was disabled and the four men walked home. It was a long walk. One of the men had a broken ankle and the others were all hurt, but they made it.

A few days later my mom, Claar, Jan, Letty, Trix, and I were on a ship heading for Holland. My two older sisters stayed in Djakarta for a bit longer. My brother Piet was the first one to get to Holland.

Our ship was for military soldiers. The bunks were stacked five high, and were made from canvas material. Each had a small blanket. It was rough weather almost from the beginning. When we were in the “gulf of Biscayne” there was a terrible storm. We all got sick and they closed all of the doors. We couldn’t go on deck. It was horrible.

We all threw up hanging off our beds. I was up on the fourth bunk. The stink was horrendous. We were rolling and bumping on the beds. The few who got off the bed fell down. It lasted almost two full days. Then the ocean got better, but we still could not go on deck.

At long last we went through the Suez Canal and got off the boat to get some clothes. We were given warm underwear, a dress, shoes, socks, a coat, a toothbrush, comb, washcloth, a small towel, and some pretty pins for our hair. 

They had a pump outside and we could clean ourselves. They gave us soap too. It felt so good when we put on the clothes even though it was very hot. We would need everything later we were told. I remember that the coat I got was purple I thought it was the most beautiful coat I ever saw. We liked everything. 

All together it took close to six weeks at sea before we arrived in Amsterdam, Holland. Reaching Holland began a new chapter in my life.