THE STORY OF MY FATHER
By Sydney Solis
The Tanara Tea Plantation
It was in the late 1500s that the Dutch, following the Portuguese lead, settled on the Spice Islands, a vast archipelago of volcanic islands. They settled in Java, and by 1650 had set up the city of Batavia as the capital. It was the beginning of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, or the VOC.
An ancestor, A Swiss-German captain named Straub, which means curly and thick haired, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and finally reached Java. Legend is that he ended up marrying a princess from the island of Madura, in northeast Java.
The Dutch prospered from the mostly forced labor of the natives, and send back the regions riches: cloves, sugar, tea and quinine and other spices.
Catherine Petronella Gertrude Harringhuizen
Albert's mother, Catherine Petronella Gertrude Harringhuizen, was born on May 29, 1900 in Tegal in Northeast Java. He called her Moes, Dutch for mother. Her father was a professor of engineering at the University of Delft in the Netherlands. She was a teacher, big-boned but petite with short, blonde hair and buttermilk skin pierced by pale blue eyes framed with nose-pinching spectacles called lunettes.
His father, Albert Joseph William Straub was born on Marh 30, 1896 in Semarang. He had a daughter, Miese, from a previous marriage when he met and later married Catherine. He had the trademark thick and prematurely white, wavy hair. Black rimmed glasses hid his bushy black eyebrows.
AB, Len, Elles
The Straubs were struggling financially by the time that their firstborn, Albertina, arrived. She died, however, as an infant. Their oldest child Helene, nicknamed Len. was born next. Albert Edward Louis was born, followed two years later by sister Elles, short for Elizabeth.
His father cranked up the old black Chevy and chugged down the verdant hills of a plantation where he worked as a mechanical engineer. His mother was in labor as they headed toward Djombang, a small town in Central Java. The doctor had to slap him several times to get him breathing with life on May 1, 1933. It was as if it were a reluctant birth, as if he had been advised prenatally what was to come.
Ab, or Abbie, as he became known, moved to a tea plantation near Mt. Merapi, what locals call the mountain of fire. The Great Depression was on, so his family would move around looking for any work they could get. He lived with his family in a wooden company house on the plantation that was cleared from the jungle. Mystical and active, the volcano Mt. Merapi loomed in the distance. Sometimes the volcano rumbled in the middle of the night, shaking the house and forcing everyone to run outside and witnessing the red-hot lava spewing from the cone. Ash rained down and covered everything.
From January 1939 until June 1940 the family moved near Bandung to the Tenara Tea Plantation. The house was near the jungle. A small hanging foot bridge crossed a stream by the jungle's edge. When the children approached too close, the monkeys became excited and chattered and screamed. Other times he heard a native call out "Chalang!" or wild boar! The natives dashed into the jungle for the hunt, returning with the creature tied by its legs to a pole.
The Tanara Tea Plantation
Albert watched the native "pluckers" in peaked hats work in the fields harvesting the tea by hand under the hot, golden Java sun. Often during harvest season, he would sweat with fever from malaria he had. The natives brought their gamelan music: gongs, drums, xylophones and other instruments, to chase away evil spirits and celebrate the harvest. One used a drum, a hollowed out log, that was pounded all night. The sound only irritated him and fed his fever and chills.
Panthers and other jungle cats came at night. If the gate were left unlocked, panthers could be heard underneath the house, which was built on stilts on a concrete pier. He and his sisters played under their klamboe at night. The mosquito netting covered their beds and they captured fireflies, which they smacked between their palms , which glowed blue in the dark.
Moes taught the three children at home first and second grades. For the third grade Ab started a Bible school, otherwise he walked barefoot along the stone paths around the house. He often would jump into a fishpond to swim, but would get spanked for it.
The only other Dutch family who lived on the plantation with them was Mrs. Houtman, and her son Hans. Hans was not nice to Ab, always picking on him. Finally Moes gave Ab permission to sock him on the nose. That took care of things. Although a turkey was always pecking Ab after that.
Kokki was the cook. She prepared rice tables, traditional Indonesian fare, for the family. It included either bami chicken, nasi goring, fried rice with shrimp, or babi ketchup, pork. He loved the chutney sambal badjack, made from cooked chilies, onions and garlic that was fiery hot.
Babu the housekeeper helped rein in the wild child that Ab was. Keeping him out of trouble. Once he found an electric light bulb socket and plugged it in under his bed. He discovered that it could give you a shock if you put your finger in it. He told Elles about it, and she got a shock. Ab got a big spanking from Moes. But Babu also knew where to twist and pull a piece of hair on his head to relieve a headache. Or massage him by pitche, pinching. Or she doled out a teaspoon of Jamu, the local health tonic, for whatever ailed him.
The family lived briefly at a house Moes's family owned in Bandung at 22 Beatrix Blvd from June to December 1940. In December of 1940, Ab's father found work south, toward Yogyakarta, on a suburban sugar plantation called Moedja-Moedjoe. They couldn't afford to keep Kokki, but she stayed with them anyway. Their new abode was an abandoned sultan's summer palace. The natives said it was haunted. Moes said, "I'll take care of the ghosts, how much for the rent?"
The palace was enormous, with 55 rooms, six courtyards and a long, palm-lined road winding up to a huge verandah and small pond. There were 60 coconut trees, and papaya, banana and mango trees lined the back verandah. The kebong, the gardener, would climb up, cut down the coconuts, then cut holes in them for the children to drink.
The family moved in with Moes's older sister, Puck, and her two sons, Joris and Luike and daughter, Lieke. Aunt Puck poured kerosene in the baseboard cracks to kill nesting scorpions, whose bodies floated up to the top. Once, when Ab lay down to bed, Moes stopped him, and slapped a scorpion out from under his back. His aunt also asked him to gather up the millions of slugs around the palace into a pail. They had bucketsful of them and they threw salt on snails, killing them instantly. Ab chased out bats that were in the rooms, but there were also frogs, and cecaks, chirping lizards that climbed the walls and hid behind pictures. The cecaks came out to snap up a fly, then withdrew behind the picture. Dozens of snakes regularly made their rounds, too. Mostly they ignored them, except for when one was poisonous. Once Ab heard the kebong making a commotion outside, where he lifted a hoe and smacked a python right on the head. Snakes also hung down from the sacred Waringen trees, disguised as hanging branches. They were forbidden to climb or damage the tree. The children also were forbidden to play in the sugar cane fields. There pythons lurked, ready to swallow a small boy whole. If he did give into the temptation to suck the sweet canes, a stern spanking from Moes awaited.
Ab loved to climb trees, and doing so he could spot the stupas of the ancient Hindu temple of Borobodur in the distance. He chased King butterflies, played with lead soldiers and roller-skated around the palace.
There would be a krupuk seller, for a guilder to get a dozen of the deep fried prawn crackers skewered on a stick. Or a pisang leaf, a banana leaf, filled with cooked meat or pork and rice.
At night he heard insects and birds make night music as he watched the night sky for the Southern Cross to appear along with another million stars seeping through the blackness. Walls around the palace embedded with glass shards on top kept out any tigers and strangers.
On the hot still afternoons, everyone sat on the verandah, drinking hot tea to sweat and ease the discomfort with hand fans. Rescue comes with the monsoon season April to October when the sky dumps rain, huijan, Ab begged Moes, can we go out to the rain?" She gave the approving nod and the children tore off their shorts and shifts and danced naked under the pounding fist of a waterspout rushing off the roof. There was also a bathroom cistern that was filled with clean water that people filled buckets with to take a shower. Ab would jump into this to cool off, and he'd get a spanking.
The Japanese invaded Java on February 28, 1942. Ab's father and uncle Emil enlisted with the "soldiers of the landstorm. It was the right thing to do, he was told, even though his father was already 45
Before they enlisted, the men destroyed bicycles and cars so that the Japanese couldn't use them for transportation. Soon Ab could see Japanese zeros crossing the sky so low he could see their bellies, as the bomb bay doors opened and began bombing a nearby airfield.
The palace shook, and everyone ran for cover, usually under a mattress in the hallway or in the dug out concrete pit used as a garage. It was in-between the hours of bombings that they ran from cover for food and water, and they kept the palace dark as not to be mistaken for a target.
Because of the air strikes. Puck and Moes decided it wasn't safe any longer and moved the families to Yogyakarta where they shared a hour with two friends and their children . Air raids were frequent, but usually too late. Running for the bomb shelters, Ab found himself lying in the street as he was instructed to, as planes fired bullets into the city. He saw many people get hit.
Aunt Puck heard that prisoners were going to be marched through the streets. Everyone gathered on the street to look. When the men marched by Ab easily spotted his father. His father had taken off his cap to reveal his shock of white hair. His father walked by and then away. It was the last time Ab would ever see his father again.
He had been captured at the battle of Solo River, and then, as a human shield on a ship, taken to Tokyo. He died of starvation and disease in a forced-labor Mitsubishi tin mine Shin-go-wa. Uncle Emil would survive the death march of Bataan.
During the Japanese occupation of Java, Moes reported an experience she had one night in Yogya. She was playing cards with her sister and friends after they children were asleep as they usually do to "rest their weary thoughts" She looked up from her cards and looked at a picture on the wall. Suddenly, "I saw a big dark cloud moving slowly over my sister's head and over mine, and at the same time I felt a great fear. I told my sister and my friend what I had seen and told them I was afraid something very unpleasant would happen soon - perhaps in only a few days."
Three days later, a Javanese policeman entered through the gate in the front yard and walked to the house with a message from the Japanese headquarters. The Japanese are coming and placing all Dutch into concentration camps. They had one day to prepare and were told to pack only essentials.
The next day they loaded up into a chicok, an ox-pulled cart. They took mattresses, suitcases of clothing, towels, and other essentials. The chicok pulled the family all the way up to the mountainous hills of Ambarawa in northern Java.
A monastery became the concentration camp, surrounded by a large bamboo fence. Designed to hold around 800 people, thousands were crammed in. Families were packed dozens to a room. Ab's family found mattresses, and set up their meager belongings in a corner, side by wide with many other people.
Every morning there is roll call in the hot golden sun, and all must bow deeply to a Japanese soldier. The food was rice vegetables and sufficient at first. Moes and Puck helped serve the food from great iron pots. Many of the people got stomach ailments and diarrhea.
There were always bedbugs crawling on them and biting them. The bugs made a terrible stink when squished. So every day the mattresses were taken out in the sun, without much avail. It was hard to keep the camp clean with so many people, so it became dirty. Food became more and more scarce and people became weak and tired. Moes's back began hurting and she could no longer help serve or cook. As food became scarce over time, some people traded their children's food for cigarettes.
Moes taught the children in secret while someone kept watch. Len kept a diary on scraps of paper. To be caught would mean severe punishment. Often there was public punishment if someone was thought to be making mischief. Women's breasts were beaten with clubs and then beaten to death. Men were taken out and had boiling oil poured over them and Ab said they came back insane. Natives were strung up with their hands tied behind their backs and then hung up on the fence for the Japanese to have bayonette practice. They forced bamboo under people's fingernails, or were beaten unconscious.
After a year in the camp, Ab turns 10. And the Japanese decided on a terrible punishment that affected everyone, especially Ab. All young boys over the age of 10 must be separated to another camp. The Jongenscamp. Whether it was because of fear of sexual problems or because of fears of uprisings, it's not certain. But all elderly men and young boys remained in Ambarawa camp 7, and everyone else had to leave. His cousins are taken to Ambarawa camp 9 and his mother and sisters to Ambarawa camp 6. Ab said that when Moes had to leave she fought and cried to keep him, but the Japanese guards beat her with sticks. Aunt Puck pulled her together and said, "He'll be all right. You have to think of your other children." And so they left.
After they left, more and more young boys and elderly men came in as did a group of Roman Catholic nuns. Ab said the nuns would take extra food for themselves There would be thousands of men packed in over time. They slept on wooden slatted barracks and many didn't have mattresses or pillows. And the lice and bugs were such a squirming nuisance, that every hour at night Ab awoke to pick out the pests from his underwear.
At one point there was a change in accommodations for the boys, so Ab said there was a run for the new beds. Most were barracks, but for him, all there was was a baby crib in the corner. A young boy befriended him, and said everything was going to be all right. He'd help him get cleaned up. Diederich D'Ally became Ab's comrade and they stuck together for all the useless work that the Japanese assigned them. Hauling rocks from one pile to another, or to dig graves for the dead.
In the first six months at Ambarawa 7, 800 men died of either dysentery, beri beri, or malnutrition. It was Ab's job with other little boys to drag the dead bodies out of a makeshift clinic that was in the corner of one barrack and put them in a pile. Once a week Ab was allowed outside the gates to dig graves, and dump the emaciated and bloated bodies into them.
The camp's "clinic" had a few "doctors", but there was no medicine. Ab had a toothache that worsened over time, then turned into an abscessed tooth with a full blown tooth nightmare. For days he suffered in terrible pain, rocking himself, or trying to bury his head. There was nothing he or anyone could do. Finally the nerve in his mouth died, but the pains devastation had taken its toll.
Ab's possessions dwindled; all he wore now was a pair of tattered shorts. In his original small suitcase Moes had packed him a red towel monogrammed with his initials. One day the towel was gone.
He decided not to go to work but climbed up high in the building's rafters to see if he could find who had his towel. Shortly some nuns entered, sat down and began patching a hold in a mattress. Ab recognized his towel climbed down and said, "That's my towel."
The nun didn't look up but said, "No, it's not."
"Yes, it is," Ab insisted, and showed her the holes where his initials AELS once were.
"You're going to die soon and will go to hell. You won't be needing it anymore," she said of his protestant soul. The nuns had often held catechism on the campgrounds, but he never attended.
Ab became quieted, made little fists, but soon realized there was nothing he could do. He said that's when he began to get angry.
Food became more and more scarce and anytime food came through a mob was there to get something and any food was immediately gone. If food was brought in through the great, a mob attacked it and the food was gone in minutes. Once Ab was able to grab a potato and he ate it on the spot. One of his jobs was to tend the Japanese guards' pig. He discovered that the compressed straw filled up his stomach. Word got out, and the pig food disappeared. The guards were angry.
Ab scrounged for food, sneaking behind the guard's quarters to eat their trash: the ultra thin remains inside a banana peel, clothing starch, or worms or grass. He would wait by the bamboo fence all day waiting for something to crawl under into the camp. Rats and snakes and the people at them raw. You could pick the snake up by its tail and whip it to break its back.
Since he grew up eating local food, Ab loved to eat the hot peppers the Japanese gave out as food. Many Dutch weren't accustomed to eating the hot foods, so Ab would take the peppers that they didn't eat. Even if they were moldy Ab ate them because they had vitamins. He swears the peppers' heat is what warded off dysentery, for a while.
At one point the Japanese turned off the water for punishment so that only drops came out, driving everyone mad.
Ab couldn't take it anymore, and he said his instinct to survive lead him into the nuns' quarters. He crawled on his hands and knees secretly in the middle of the night to the only place he knew there was water - the toilets. He drank and drank and drank.
Starvation drove him to eat the snails in the river that the locals used as a latrine.
Cramps hit him the next morning and he was taken to the clinic where nobody leaves with amoebic dysentary. He was in terrible pain, shivering and vomiting, and doctors huddled over him unable to do anything. Suddenly, he found himself outside his body, witnessing the entire scene from above. The doctors were filling out a death certificate, and he felt pain free. Then he saw his grandmother, Moes's mother, who had passed away some years ago. Another woman he didn't recognize accompanied her.
"You must go back," his grandmother said.
"No! No! I don't want to go back. Not to here!" he cried.
"But you must," she said, and Ab felt a strong pull back to his body. He fought it every inch, but he suddenly found himself awake. The doctors were in shock and found no more disease in his body. They handed the death certificate to him, and snuck him an egg they found.
He left the hospital, and searched for Diederich. But he never found him again, and never knew what became of him.
Two years went by, and one day, low flying planes dumped hundreds of white pamphlets to the ground. Ab picked one up and it read, "The war is coming to an end. Don't' give up hope." Ab clutched that pamphlet to his heart.
On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 9, the second on Nagasaki. The war was over. The concentration camp gates flew open, and people rushed in and out of the camp. The Red Cross dropped food supplies. Ab ran out to a field and the first thing he found was a bar of white chocolate. (He still loves white chocolate to this day.)
However, on August 17, Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesia independent. Nationalists tried to take over the Dutch government and unleash a reign of terror. Survivors are unsafe outside the camps, and the joy over the war's end is clouded. It's the Berisap period.
Most of the camps' Japanese guards committed hari-kari. Indonesian rebels raided other camps at Ambarawa and slaughtered the Dutch in camp 9. However, in Ab's camp 7, the guard did not commit hari-kari. The guard became the prisoners' protector now, and gunned down any Indonesian rebel trying to enter the camp to kill the Dutch.
There was so much confusion in the camps with many people coming and going, so Ab stayed put. The Red Cross was trying to organize things and told survivors to go to Australia. Ab grabbed the hand of the first old man he saw.
"Are you going to Australia?" he asked him.
"I'm going to Australia then," Ab told him.
They waited until morning, but that night, as Ab walked around the camp in the dark, he bumped into someone.
"Hey, watch where you're going," the voice said.
"Sorry about that," Ab said, and continued on. But the voice cried out.
"Hey, your voice sounds familiar. What's your name?"
"Ab. Abbie Straub."
"Ab! It's your cousins, Luike and Joris!" He couldn't believe it, and they were ecstatic. They had survived the slaughter at Ambarawa 9 and brought to camp 6.
They asked him where his mother was, and where he was going in the morning.
"I have no idea where she or anybody is. So I'm going to Australia."
"No you're not," they said. "You're coming with us to Yogyakarta and try and find your mother."
Ab, wearing nothing but shorts, walked barefoot out of he camp the next morning with his cousins.
Thousands of people swarmed the train station to go to Yogyakarta. People overflowed on a train, riding on top, or like Ab hanging onto a handlebar outside a doorway. He could almost touch the rails with his foot and rode that way all the way to Yogya. When he got there, there was terrible heat, confusion, shouting and sad faces as people searched for their loved ones.
Finally Joris said, "Ab, go walk around the station once, but meet us right back here in 1/2 an hour. OK?" He nodded in agreement and wandered around the station. When he turned around, Ab found himself smack face to face with his mother and sisters. They were all overjoyed to see him and Aunt Puck was reunited with her sons as well. They had been searching every train in hopes of finding their children.
No one can imagine the feelings Moes felt to be reunited with her lost son after two years without him. But she was week and malnourished, and her face paler than usual. She had no energy. In August 1945, the family assembled in a garage at Soembing Straat shared with other families, Moes, however, grew weaker and weaker. It was a Japanese doctor who came to her aid. He fed her teaspoons full of pureed easy to digest food. Since she had been without food for so long in the camp, her body didn't know how to digest food anymore. She recovered.
However, Sukarno and Hatta had declared Indonesia independent and a new war was on. The Berapi period, or war against the Dutch for independence. One night, there was shooting in the streets. Moes thought that this time this was the end of them all. Indonesian rebels were killing every Dutch person in sight. However that night, they passed by them. It turned out that they were killing Japanese soldiers. They hated them just as much.
In January of 1946, the family was placed into another concentration camp. This time an Indonesian one. The Dutch were rounded up again and held at Camp Gandjuranat in Yogya. They stayed there until June of 1946. Ab says he remembers nothing from this period except that there was very little food still. Eventually they were freed from the camp by British Paratroopers and officials told Moes that for her children's sake and because there was a shortage of food to return to the Netherlands. Moes and Puck agreed this was best. While waiting to leave, they lived 10 Bischopplein in Djakarta from June 1946 until Sept 1946, then back to 22 Beatrix Blvd in Bandung until December of 1946 before they left.
While they were waiting to leave the family went swimming at a pool in the city. There Ab caught pneumonia, probably his week condition. A doctor said he wasn't going to make it. Moes was stressed again over the idea of losing her son. It was painful for him to breathe, but Ab recovered.
They sailed out of Batavia on the Indrapoera in December of 1946. Some children who were alone with no surviving family jumped overboard, Ab said.
The ship stopped in Aden, and Ab was sprayed down with DDT to kill the lice. He was also given clothing.
Moes found out about her husband's death and took it hard. A man her husband worked for brought her money. He had told her husband that if he could invent something to help processing work better, he'd pay him for it. But the war interrupted that, even though the invention was a success. The man still found Moes and paid her the money he promised Ab's dad.
The family settled at 14 Stephesonstraat in The Hague for three years, and Moes took in borders to make ends meet. Few Dutch could relate to the East Indies experience, because they were still reeling from the German occupation and the Holocaust. Although Ab lost four years of schooling, the Dutch simply placed him in the grade he was age appropriate for even though he was behind. When he heard he was going to take French, Ab said, "What's French?"
The family moved to 573 Thorbeckelaan in 1949. Ab was unable to complete his studies, so he dropped out and attended a technical college for one year to learn drafting. But once again he couldn't pass French and failed. Finally, he decided to join the Dutch Army.
It was during dinner conversation one night with a quiet, long-time border that Ab made an amazing discovery. The man, Hank VanVeland, had flown planes over Java during the war distributing pamphlets telling people not to give up hope.
Ab jumped up and said, "I got one of those!"
The two became friends, and when he immigrated to the U.S. when there were a lot of flooding in the Netherlands in 1954. He became Ab s sponsor, and in 1956, Ab followed him to St. Louis. Speaking very little English, he spent two years in the U.S. Army.
He later met Ann Tichacek and they married in 1959. They had four children. Albert Straub lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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