He was born in the jungle of Bali. His earliest memory was the sound of the rain pouring down on the tin roof in the middle of the night. He was lying in bed, surrounded by the soft white shades of the mosquito net. It made him feel safe, embraced by a thick, warm blanket of humidity. Every morning he would wake up by a group of monkeys passing by their house. They swung from branch to branch, happily screaming at one another. If he jumped out of bed fast enough and looked out the window he could sometimes see them. Some of them were carrying their young on their back.
They lived in a house built on poles to protect them from wild animals, snakes and poisonous ants. His mother was afraid of the jungle. To her it was a world full of danger. She preferred her son and her two daughters to stay inside, but would hardly notice them. She was carrying a deep sadness, a grief that he didn’t understand until much later, when he was told that she had lost her firstborn to the jungle. Two weeks after she was born the little girl died of an unknown tropical disease. She was buried in a graveyard far away, a simple white cross on top of her tiny grave.
Their house was close to a local village, which was little more than a collection of huts. He couldn’t see the people that lived there, but sometimes he could hear their voices, carried by the wind. They sounded happy. He heard laughter and singing. Sometimes he could smell the smoke from their fires. He longed to go there and play, but his mother forbade him.
‘You can’t go there,’ she said. ‘They are savages.’
‘What are savages?’ he asked.
‘They have no manners,’ she would say. ‘They are dirty and they don’t believe in God.’
He didn’t believe in God either. He didn’t understand what she meant when she used that word, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. He understood that to her it was something important.
Sometimes the children of the village would come to their house. They would always keep their distance. Maybe their parents had told them to stay away as well. Maybe they thought the foreign people were ghosts because they were white. He wondered whether it was dirt that made their skin look so brown, even though he secretly admired their beauty while they stood there. They would just stare at each other, the native children standing outside of the fence, him and his sisters standing on the veranda. They were dying to say something, but if they did their mother would call them in, so they kept quiet. The jungle children were hardly wearing any clothes, most of them were bare chested, even the girls. They didn’t wear any shoes. Often they would point at him and his sisters and giggle, sometimes laugh out loud. It made him feel deeply embarrassed. He was sure it was because of the clothes they were wearing: long sleeves, thick trousers and knee high boots to protect them from the mosquitoes, the scorching sunlight and all the other dangers of the jungle.
He was always afraid a scorpion would slip into his boots. His mother had told them this had once happened to one of his father’s workers. His face had swelled up and within the hour he had choked to death, with blood coming out of his ears and eyes. His mother didn’t spare them the details. Since then he always shook out his boots vigorously before he put them on. How was it possible these kids walked around freely, apparently unbothered by anything? Maybe half of their brothers and sisters were already dead, he thought, but in fact he was envious of the freedom and happiness these children radiated. He regretted deeply that he couldn’t play with them and resented his uncomfortable clothes that were always in the way.
He didn’t see much of his father.
‘Your father is a good man,’ his mother would often say. ‘He helps to develop this savage country. He tells the people about God. He helps them to build roads and schools and he makes them pay taxes.’
Most of the time his father was on expeditions to remote areas of Bali to collect taxes and oversee the building projects of the colonials. They were Dutch, but Holland was as foreign to him as it was to the locals, except for the stories his mother told him about mills, cows and flat, open land as far as the eye could see. He couldn’t imagine it.
Every day his mother gave him and his sisters permission to go outside for a few hours. She was reluctant to do so, but she knew children needed to play, even though she kept it to a minimum.
‘Don’t you dare leave the garden’, she would say, holding his arms so tight it hurt, forcing him to look into her steel blue eyes. He feared those eyes. They were cold and authoritative, demanding his unconditional obedience. He always sighed with relief once he was outside, not once considering to disobey her.
‘I had to be strict,’ she said when she was old.
‘I had to protect my children.’
His sisters, both a few years older than him, didn’t want to play with him, but he didn’t mind. Being outside on his own were the best hours of the day. They were not allowed to go past the bamboo fence, but there was still a paradise to explore in the garden. He loved to lay on his back and look at the moving tree tops, the light shining through, casting shadows and rays of light in every direction. He couldn’t get enough looking at the birds, listening to their song and cackling. When he was outside he felt alive. He drank in the buzz of the jungle and was bursting with joy. Those were his happiest moments. If he was sure his mother wasn’t looking he would take off his shoes and socks and feel the earth with his feet. When it had rained the ground was wet and muddy. That was the best time to do it. He loved feeling the mud under his feet and between his toes, despite the risk of his mother finding out if he didn’t clean them properly.
He collected bugs. Dead bugs, spiders and butterflies. There were so many of them everywhere. He was fascinated by their shape and color, the design of their wings and legs, their shells and their eyes. They were of unimaginable beauty. He secretly kept them in a box under his bed, knowing that his mother would freak out if she found out. Once he found a dead snake. He made sure it was really dead by poking it with a stick. When he was certain he put it under his clothes and smuggled it into the house. It was his biggest treasure. Nobody knew, not even his sisters. At night, when everybody was asleep, he would lay out his treasures on top of his bed and look at them.
When he was five years old everything changed. First his father came home and didn’t leave again. He thought that would make his mother happier, but it didn’t. Something was wrong. His mother cried even more than before and his father was withdrawn, looking very worried. One evening at dinner his parents told them that the world was at war. The Japanese had invaded Indonesia and wanted to take over the country.
‘They don’t like us helping the locals and therefore your father is being sent to a work camp’ his mother said in a grim voice.
‘You won’t see your father for a long time.’
The next day his father left.
‘Are the Japanese savages too, mama?’ he asked.
‘Yes’ she said, ‘but a different type of savage. They don’t believe in God, but they believe in their emperor, Hirohito. They got it all wrong. They’ll do anything he says. If he says ‘Kill these people’ they will do so. They have no conscience. If he says ‘Kill yourself’ they will also do so. You know how they do it? They stab a sword in their belly and bleed to death.’
Until then he had only heard the word ‘emperor’ in fairytales. This emperor sounded like a very dangerous man. At night he imagined him sitting on a golden throne, while his servants were killing themselves in front of him, sticking swords in their bellies. He imagined the emperor roaring with laughter at his stupid servants. He started to have nightmares and feared to go to sleep.
A few weeks later they had to leave too.
‘We have to move, children,’ his mother said. ‘They want us to live all in one place, so they can control us and see what we are doing.’
He knew he had to leave his bug collection behind. He hid it behind a bush outside of the house, so nobody would find it. That way he would still have it when they came back.
They packed a few belongings – they couldn’t carry much – and left. They took a crowded bus that smelled so bad he had to throw up. He mother scolded him for it.
‘How am I going to clean you up?’ she said, looking at him angrily.
After what seemed to be an eternity they arrived in the city. He had never been in a city. The noise and the ugliness of it terrified him. There were many Japanese soldiers, men with strange eyes, wearing green costumes and carrying guns. Somehow he was glad they were not swords. They brought them to a house in a particular quarter of the city to gather all the foreigners and other people they didn’t like. The soldiers were screaming all the time. Sometimes they hit people with their guns. His mother looked so outraged that he was afraid they would hit her too.
They were put in a house with at least 10 other families. There was hardly any space for all of them. His mother made sure they had one bed. That was a luxury. Her eyes had the same effect on other people as they had on him. The four of them slept in it, with their belongings, so they wouldn’t be stolen. There was hardly any water. They couldn’t wash themselves. The smell was unbearable. In the beginning there was food, mainly rice and porridge, but as time passed the food got scarce. For the first time in his life he felt hungry. He was hungry all the time.
‘Don’t you dare to complain,’ his mother said looking at him, so he didn’t.
He grew even quieter than before. They all did.
After some weeks or months, he didn’t know, they were moved to another place. At first he was excited, expecting their ordeal to be over.
‘Are we going home, mama?’ he asked. She didn’t answer.
It got worse. Instead of a house they were put in barracks, along with thousands of others. They were surrounded by barb wire. There were Japanese soldiers with guns everywhere.
‘See their gap eyes?’ his mother said.
‘Those are the eyes of evil.’
Every prisoner got a number. Every time a soldier passed his mother had to stand guard and shout: ‘I’m number so and so from Barrack so and so! All is well!’
She was much taller than the Japanese and while she was shouting out her rehearsed text she did so with such force she purposely spat on their head, pretending she didn’t notice.
‘Please allow me this little indulgence,’ she would say much later.
There were too many women and children in one place. It was hard to keep up any dignity. Clothes became rags, bodies became so skinny they looked like skeletons. Many people got sick and died. It smelled and looked like hell. He was revolted by the women, even by his own mother. He couldn’t bear the smell, the sadness, the decay of their bodies and spirit. His mother had never cuddled him much and he would always long for it, but now he dreaded it. He was happy that she didn’t. Sleeping next to her was a nightmare. They now slept on the floor, but there were so many people that they were crammed together. He tried everything to avoid body contact. Her body felt like a corpse and that of his sisters too.
Some of the Japanese soldiers seemed to like children. In the daytime his mother and sisters had to work, but he was too young, so he had to stay in the barrack. One day one of the soldiers motioned him to come closer. He smiled. He looked kind. He didn’t dare to do so though, because his mother had told him never to talk to a Jap or make eye contact. But she had also told him to always obey them, because if you didn’t they could shoot you there and then. He had seen them do so.
At that moment he was torn by indecision and fear. When the soldier called out to him again in his strange language and waved a bar of chocolate at him he found himself getting up and slowly walking towards him. He didn’t want to die and he did want that chocolate. Once he stood in front of the soldier he was too scared to look at him. He was looking down at the black boots of the soldier, wondering whether he was going to die or whether he was going to get that bar of chocolate. Then the soldier tapped his head gently, said something that sounded like ‘Good boy’, put the chocolate bar in his hand, tapped his head again and walked away. He couldn’t believe it. A feeling of joy, of sheer triumph welled up in him when he walked back to the barrack, hiding the chocolate bar under his rags. He went in, sat on the bed and held the chocolate. He was too shaken to eat it, however much he wanted to.
When his mother got back he still sat there. When she sat down on the bed he showed her the chocolate bar. She stiffened and her face became darker than ever.
‘Where did you get that?’ she demanded.
‘It was a gift,’ he stammered. ‘A soldier gave it to me.’
‘A Jap?’ she spat.
She snatched the chocolate bar from him, broke it in two and dropped it into the latrine bucket next to the bed. Then she kneeled in front of him, forcing him to stare into her eyes. He was even more afraid than when he stood in front of the soldier.
‘Do you know what Japanese soldiers like to do to children?’ she said.
‘They like to hurt them. They torture them. They rape them. They lure the most stupid children with chocolate and after that they like to play with them. Do you know what their favorite game is? Yes, hurting children. What did that monster do to you?’
‘Nothing,’ he whispered.
With harsh movements she inspected his body to see if he had any marks. He whimpered. It hurt. Then she took his upper arms and squeezed so hard he could feel her nails pressing into his skin. Despite his fear he wondered where she got the strength from. Her eyes shone with a light that was colder than ever before.
‘Never disobey me again,’ she said slowly.
He nodded, fighting to hold the tears back, because he wasn’t allowed to cry.
‘And remember one more thing, son’ she said in a voice so grave that he was sure something terrible would follow.
‘We will never forgive the Japs.’
After that he got sick. He got diarrhea. Even the smallest sip of water made him vomit. His mother forced him to take a sip of water every hour when she was there. She commanded him to open his mouth and gave him a few spoons of rice when they had some, while sometimes they had nothing for days. She seemed to be disgusted by his weakness. He didn’t blame her. On top of a sick stomach he got an eye infection. He couldn’t open his eyes. The light hurt. Thick crusts covered his eye lids. Despite the fact that water was the scarcest thing in the camp, his mother tried to clean his eyes with a wet cloth, but it was useless. The infection got worse. At night he was moaning in his sleep because his eyes hurt so much. In his nightmares he saw the Japs coming at him and sticking their swords in his eyes, while Hirohito was roaring with laughter from his throne. The pain, the suffering and the nightmares made him want to die, but his mother wouldn’t let him. She simply commanded him to stay alive.
They stayed in the camp for three years. By then he was eight, but he had hardly grown. He had gone blind in one eye, the other eye was still covered in crusts. He suffered excruciating pains every day and night. Then one day the Japanese left and English soldiers came to the camp. The women that could still walk ran towards them, screaming hysterically when they understood the war was over and the soldiers were bringing food.
‘They must have been scared to death, those poor soldiers,’ his mother said later, ‘having those screaming skeletons running towards them.’
There were only a few hundred prisoners left in the camp. The rest had died. Miraculously his mother, his sisters and himself had survived. They were put on trucks. After what turned out to be a horrendous trip through the battlefield of the civil war that had broken out, they arrived at the harbor. Nobody believed they would make it, but they did.
A few months later he found himself in Holland. It was flat indeed. Since the boat journey his health had improved quite a bit. His father had returned as well, one of the few prisoners of war who survived working on the Burma railroads. Nobody knew what to say when he came home. They felt like strangers. But they had food, new clothes and a house. His father had been offered a diplomat job in the government and the children went to a good school.
‘Be grateful,’ his mother said. ‘God has saved us. We have to fit in again.’
He tried, but his eyes worsened. He couldn’t read or write. He couldn’t concentrate. Eventually he was sent to the hospital. They kept him there for six months. He had his own room and a comfortable bed. He had never felt more alone in his life. He was alone with his memories, his agony, his fear and his pain. His parents visited him sporadically. His sisters never came. The doctors said he needed to rest. He had five eye operations after which he had to wear a bandage for weeks. At night he would wake up screaming, tormented by nightmares of soldiers, swords, hunger, stench and steel blue eyes.
During that time he lost the will to love. He simply gave up. He accepted that he had been abandoned by his family and by God. He had nobody else. The love and joy he had felt in the jungle had been long forgotten. It had faded into something so remote that it didn’t feel real anymore. Time had become a void in which his mind went delirious with terrifying fantasies. His nightmares continued to torture him, with one difference: he became the punisher. Something grew in him, a sinister idea of turning things around. He imagined how it would be if he was Hirohito, if he was a Jap, with the power to decide what would happen. What would he do? He imagined how it would be to kill someone, to hurt someone, to scare a little child. His fantasies became darker and darker, exploring the endless possibilities of hurting others, as he discovered that it gave him a sense of power. Having felt powerless all his life, having lost everything he cared about, he felt he didn’t owe anything to anyone. He indulged in the suffering he inflicted in his fantasies, escaping the suffering he had endured. At the time it seemed the only way for him not to lose his will to live as well.
When he was dismissed from the hospital he was another person. He had lost his innocence, but nobody noticed. He had lost almost all sight in one eye, but in his other eye he had regained 80% vision. He went back to school. He did well. He fitted in. He grew tall and strong. He graduated in college. He grew into a handsome young man, or so people said. He didn’t say much and didn’t have any friends.
‘He takes after his father,’ people would say, as if that was a compliment. His father came back from the war so traumatized that he spent most of his time alone in his garden, growing roses and keeping bees. Apparently that was the only place where he could find some peace.
As a young man he was surprised how easy it was to hide his darkness. Sarcasm towards the stupidity of his fellow men grew in him. How easily people forgot. How eager they were denying the truth and pretending to believe in some fluffy fairytale where everything was fine. His sarcasm made him proud. He didn’t feel pain anymore. He was above that. As he let go of his need to love and be loved he was more free than ever. He looked down on people who did anything in order to be loved. He was a man who didn’t compromise. He developed a sinister, condescending chuckle that came up whenever he felt uneasy, which was most of the time.
‘It’s time you got married,’ his mother said. She now acted like an aristocratic lady, smoking filter cigarettes put in an elegant black holder, always looking impeccable. The only member of the family who could count on her unconditional affection was her dog, a Collie, who looked as regal as her.
‘You fit in well,’ she said. She was very reluctant giving compliments, so he immediately paid attention. ‘Now God wants you to create a family. Your father and I want grandchildren.’
The woman he married was the opposite of him. She grew up in a big family with 8 spouses, the house always full of family, laughter and the smell of food. She had soft, sparkly green eyes that shone with kindness. Her mother was a round, warm being, loving all her children with an ease that felt alien to him. His wife also felt alien to him. To love was easy for her. She adored him with a childlike naivety that was just part of her nature. She smothered him with her affection, not even noticing at first he didn’t like to be touched, so happy she was with her new life as a wife, installing herself in their new home with joy and gratitude. This was her dream come true. She would often tell him she loved him. If he objected and muttered ‘Love is overrated’ she laughed and said ‘You might be wrong, honey.’
She was the first woman he made love to. He could never get used to it, let alone enjoy it. It reminded him of when he had to lie next to the emaciated bodies of his mother and sisters in the camp and even though his body performed, deep down he was revolted. He couldn’t shake the feeling of just wanting to get away from her. The memories of his suffering were stored in his body and he had to fight to keep them down. The abundant affection his wife had for him felt threatening to him. Yet somehow he felt invited, even tempted, to love her back. She was beautiful and lovely. In fact she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Part of him wanted to give in and open the door to his heart that had been closed for so long. But he was fighting it. He couldn’t stand her openness, her loving nature. It made him feel vulnerable and that was the last thing he wanted. Instead of opening up he would push her away. The more she loved him, the more he fought her. She was an amazing cook. When she made him a delicious meal he would say ‘Don’t you know by now that I don’t like cauliflower,’ knowing how disappointed she would be.When she dressed up for him, looking gorgeous, he would say ‘That dress doesn’t suit your body shape,’ crushing her hope for a compliment.
Within 5 years they had three daughters. Three little girls that loved him unconditionally. Their innocence, playfulness and trust in him worsened the situation. How could he not love them back? He found himself trying, driven by something deep inside of him that he had denied for so long, but that was still there. It was the will to love. Tormented by an inner struggle that only he was aware of he tried to love them. He even tried to love his wife. He tried to show affection to his daughters, to smile, to play with them, to hug his wife. He tried to actually feel something, but he couldn’t. They were too innocent, too vulnerable. He was afraid his inner demons would take over and hurt them, as part of him just wanted to destroy this display of something he had stopped to believe in long ago. Instead of being proud of his darkness he slowly started to realize that it had taken him over. His demons kept coming back, they haunted him, even when he tried to make them go away. They had grown much stronger than him. He realized his choice to never love again was no longer a choice, but a curse.
To see his wife and children tiptoeing around the house because they were scared of him broke his heart. His wife had grown weary and insecure and he knew that was because of him. His outbursts of anger and violence had broken the family. He withdrew into his darkness, tormented with shame and despair, realizing it was the only place that still welcomed him. He kept trying to provide for his family from a strange sense of obligation, or maybe because he didn’t know what else to do, but he found he couldn’t work for a boss. Every authority reminded him of the humiliation him and his mother had gone through earlier in life. When his boss would reprimand him for being late he would have flashbacks of swords and soldiers. He would hear sinister laughter in his head. He would react with such a sudden outburst of outrage and hostility that it left his bosses speechless. The same happened with every person that challenged him. Time and time again he lost his job. Usually he would leave before he got fired, trying to maintain some kind of dignity.
During that time his eyes started to hurt again. He went to the doctor, urged by his wife. The doctor said it looked bad. He had cataract and corneal vertigo. The hunger in his childhood had permanently damaged his eyes. He was going blind. Despite a bad marriage his wife said ‘I will always love you, honey’, but he couldn’t take it anymore. He chuckled at her and filed for divorce. He thought his family would be better off without him. Possibly he was right. He was never going to recover. He knew that.
‘Go to church,’ his mother said. ‘God will forgive you for what you’ve done.’
So he went to church. He lived in a cheap apartment and got by on social fare, something his mother looked at as a disgrace.
‘The fact that you have gone blind is not an excuse not to take care of yourself and your family,’ she would say. She had grown even colder than before. But it didn’t touch him any longer. He was happy he couldn’t see her eyes anymore. When she eventually died he felt relief. A few years later his father passed away. It hardly made any difference to him.
His eyes kept tormenting him. Often at night he would crawl on the floor not knowing how to escape the pain. The only solace he found was in music. He would listen to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, somehow feeling understood and less alone by their music. He had four speakers hanging from the ceiling in his tiny living room, in exactly the right spot for optimal acoustics. Since he had gone blind his hearing had become impeccable.
He still went to church, out of habit. One day he went to a different church than he was used to. He had heard a famous prayer healer from America would hold a service. Halfway through the service the priest called people to come forward to be healed by Jesus Christ. As though in a dream he found himself getting up and slowly walking towards the altar, fumbling with his stick. He kneeled down. The priest put a hand on his head and started praying, calling in the healing power of Jesus Christ. Almost straight away he fell backwards. He spoke in tongues. Though he remained blind, the pain in his eyes had gone for good. For the first time in his life he could genuinely say he believed in God. From that day on he became a devout Christian. Finally he had found a love that suited him: something without a body.
This man was my father. I was named after my grandmother, Johanna. My whole life I’ve been looking for an answer to why my father was such a scary man, carrying such darkness. I don’t know how it feels to be loved by a father, as my father was incapable of loving me. The suffering he inflicted on me, my sisters and my mother made it hard to love him. I’m not like my mother, I don’t love everybody unconditionally. I have part of my grandmother in me. I find it hard to forgive.
This story is the answer to my question. My father’s capacity to love was brutally taken away in the concentration camps and seemed to be lost forever when he was in the hospital. I have filled out many gaps in this story, because my father would never talk about his past. He would never talk, period. But my grandmother wrote a book about her life. It was printed in a limited edition, just for the family. I still have it. A few of her quotes and some anecdotes in this story come straight from her book, for example the spitting. And even though I was also afraid of her when I was a child, I admire her courage. She and her children made it through the war, thanks to her perseverance.
Who is to blame for how my father turned out? My grandmother? No. She did what she did, because she felt it was the only way to save her children. She did it out of love. The Japanese? Hirohito? My grandmother never doubted that, but how can we ever know how they came to their actions? What is the source of suffering? I still don’t know, but what I do know is that forgiveness is the only way to love. My grandmother held on to her hatred her whole life, not realizing that this was the reason for her suffering, not what she had been through. Do I love my father? I’m not sure, but I do know I love the little boy he once was. And I do forgive him.
There is no evil. There is just the absence of love.