The letters sent by the Rempt-Schepers couple from the Dutch East Indies/Indonesia to the Netherlands between 1937 and 1946 were recently donated to the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD). For this blog, the couple’s daughters selected a few of the letters from the period September 1945 to February 1946 and wrote an introduction. The text shows how the letters stimulated their memory of that time.
It is important that letters like these become available to a wider readership, because they provide a glimpse into the life of specific groups in colonial society. Letters and associated selections and reflections like these enable us to learn how the colonial archive works in terms of the narratives that are included and the way in which listeners and readers interpret these narratives and pass them on to others. Moreover, access to the complete collection of letters makes it possible for others to form an idea about this period.
Rose-tinted spectacles are essential
By Jetteke Bolten-Rempt and Marijke van der Laan-Rempt
Every Monday afternoon for five years, Marijke van der Laan-Rempt (1936) deciphered the 200 handwritten letters that Dirk and Emma Rempt-Schepers sent from the Dutch East Indies to their parents in The Hague between 1937 and 1946. She read them out while her sister Jetteke Bolten-Rempt (1942) digitised them, searched for the notes and provided context by writing an introduction and an epilogue. The website containing the 600 Tan-Schepers letters that cousin Lisa published in digital form in consultation with the NIOD was the example and inspiration (see www.brieven-tan-schepers.nl). The NIOD was also interested in ‘our’ letters and 200 of them just about fit in book form: Jetteke Bolten-Rempt et al., Een roze bril is onontbeerlijk: Brieven van Dirk en Emma Rempt-Schepers uit Indië, 1937-1946, Oegstgeest, 2019 (ISBN 978-90-811060-2-3).
Those weekly letters revealed vistas that were unknown to us. We learned about the pre-war daily life of these two Europeans and their children in tropical Batavia, escapes to the coolness of higher altitudes (Situ Gunung) and about the relationship with the servants (Emma learned Malay to understand them better). We also learned about the school of the two older children, about the birth and upbringing of the younger children and about family relationships. The letters informed us about the arts centre where Emma in particular enjoyed exhibitions, concerts and poetry; about Dutch celebrations such as St Nicholas’ Eve, Christmas and Easter, and about the royal family – the birth of Beatrix and the creation of the Princess Beatrix Fund there, for which Dirk was responsible. We never knew that our father Dirk held so many societal positions in addition to his work as director of NILLMIJ. We learned that Emma and Dirk, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times, searched for spiritual meaning and sympathised with her partly Jewish parents as the threat of war in Europe loomed ever larger. It is striking that the letters make no mention of political developments in the Dutch East Indies.
The postal connection was lost in May 1940. When the war reached the Dutch East Indies in 1942, Dirk and his son Dick were interned and Emma and Angie, as well as Marijke and Menno (who were very young at the time) ended up in women’s camps. The third child had yet to be born. The letters from September 1945 to March 1946 are shocking. The war was over, but there was no peace. The end of the global conflict was followed by the sense of powerlessness and the chaos of the Bersiap period, the nadir of which was the murder of Emma’s brother-in-law, Lisa’s father Uncle Hok (Tan Sin Hok).
The war and the period immediately after it were seldom discussed. We knew about Uncle Hok, however. Dirk was depressed and passed away in 1955. Emma died in 2004. For Marijke, the now published letters are a refinement and confirmation of her memories. She was nine years old when she returned to the Netherlands. For Jetteke, who was three years old at the time, the letters and associated research are primarily a revelation of an unknown past and an introduction to a father she hardly knew. Both are becoming increasingly aware that their mother Emma’s rose-tinted spectacles saved them from ruin.
Excerpts of letters from the Dutch East Indies, September 1945 to February 1946
[from Jetteke Bolten-Rempt et al., Een roze bril is onontbeerlijk: Brieven van Dirk en Emma Rempt-Schepers uit Indië, 1937-1946, Oegstgeest, 2019]
1945/09/18 Emma from Camp Adek, Batavia
[…] It is strange to be writing to you again. It is as if the entire war was a bad dream, while we in the Dutch East Indies are still living in camps. […]
1945/09/18 Angie from Camp Adek, Batavia
We have nothing more than a suitcase per person with 20 kg of clothes and … our grand piano. Other than our mattresses, it is the only piece of furniture that we still have. After the war ended, each person received ƒ 7.50 in compensation for everything taken by the Japanese. Don’t laugh! […]
1945/09/19 Dirk from Bandung
[…] We are guarded by the vanquished. Those who systematically starved, humiliated, beat or ... killed us for 3 ½ years! They are now our “protectors”. They are excessively polite, caring and even try to be accommodating. And the only order of Mountbatten that we understand but do not need is that any friendly contact with the Japanese is strictly prohibited and will be severely punished!!
1945/10/07 Thijs van der Laan from Batavia
There is an indescribable confusion here. There are four governments: the temporary British one, the Japanese, who are responsible for peace and order but do nothing, Soekarno, who is not recognised but who, with a few thousand hotheads and sizeable mobs, which include many rampokkers (brigands) from Bekassi, etc., completely terrorises the rest of the population, and the powerless Dutch East Indies government. There are red and white flags everywhere. The trams are painted red with slogans intended for the British, such as: “we don’t ask for freedom, we have a right to freedom” and “Van Mook, what are you doing here”. […]
1945/11/29 Dirk from Batavia
[…] Not a single archive remains intact in all of the Dutch East Indies. I will therefore have to rely on my memory when answering business questions. But I no longer have a memory. It was lost in the monotonous, mind-numbing prison camp life, where those Japanese deprived us of anything that could remind us of earlier times. – […] No, we are not so pro-British here. A few months ago, we were still pro-nationalist Indonesian; we are no longer that either …
1945/12/10 Emma from Bandung
Everything is up in the air: happiness, joy, peace have become distant concepts; life is becoming more unstable, death more normal. – Our family has now been struck by a sudden disaster: Eida’s husband shot dead by – never mind, better if I do not use names for these desperate, criminal people; Eida, now a widow, facing the task of guiding her three alone. And wounded herself. Once she has recovered from this terrible shock and her injury (the shot seems to have passed through her right elbow), she will join us in the camp. […] Eida is in Borromeus.
1946/01/15 Emma from Bandung
Imagine: yesterday I could have boarded the Johan de Wit with the children and An; suddenly called from Batavia as a “special case”! Everything ready within 1 hour. I first walked around vacantly, wished heartily for a piano to clear my mind, ran to Eida and An, who tumbled out of bed in fright (it was the afternoon rest period), then took Eida’s bicycle and rushed to the Evacuation Office: that that was not possible, nothing had been done yet. Then the peace: it was a mistake, it was to happen at half past four in the morning, so more than 12 hours to go. […]
1946/02/12 Emma from Batavia
It makes no sense, but it is now 12 February and we are still in Batavia. Nevertheless, we expect the announcement any moment now: in 24 hours you will be transported to Holland! –
1946/02/20 Emma from Batavia
… Because we are still not in the air – the vagaries of Fate are amazing!
Dirk left us on 12 January, and then the letters to you opened with: Dirk is coming … but Dirk remained in Batavia and ensured that we came along. […] 30/1 did I write everything down exactly? Otherwise I will tell you about this mess soon. Because we really will arrive eventually!
They arrived at Schiphol on 6 March 1946.