End the Silence, Dorothy Read and Ilse Evelijn Veere Smit


I am telling the story I needed to tell my father. True, it happened decades ago, but it is still present in my mind. It still seizes me with paralyzing fear. Ask my husband—I wish you could, may his soul rest in peace—about the times he had to coax me forward to the present after I was transported, by a sight or a sound, back to a concentration camp in Central Java. Or back to a tiny bamboo cell in a guerilla outpost in East Java. We didn’t have a word for it then. Now they call it post-traumatic stress disorder and people go into therapy for it.

I was ten years old when I assumed the responsibility, alongside my gentle mother, of taking care of the little ones. My sister, Marijke, was only six, my brother, René, was four, and little Edith, a babe in arms when we entered the hellhole called Camp Halmaheira. Where was my father? We didn’t know. The Japanese cleaved our family as neatly and as suddenly as a farmer separates a chicken’s head from its body. I stepped into his shoes and did everything I could to keep his children alive, during and after Halmaheira. But my father never knew.

All my life I have been told I must put the past behind me, but the memories are still vivid. If I could have told my story, I might have put the awful images to rest. But that didn’t happen. So I will tell it now.

The story must start before World War II, before the Japanese took over the Dutch East Indies, before the itching and the hunger, before the terror, before my island homeland became known as Indonesia.

Chapter 1. Before the War

Our home was called the Dutch East Indies when I was born in 1933. We also called it the Emerald Girdle: more than 13,000 islands, a jewel of an archipelago draped over 3,000 miles of the equator. Nowhere on earth were the grasses greener, the bougainvillea more crimson—or cobalt—or violet. Nowhere else did the magnificent waringins—those banyan trees of my childhood—spread farther, nor the flamboya trees blossom redder.

The natives of the Dutch East Indies were called Javanese, Sumatrans, Balinese, Madurans, and so on, named for the islands where they lived. The Dutch were Hollanders, wherever they lived. My family was Indies—mixed-blood, part Dutch and part islander—which, in my view of our colonial society, made us as Dutch as the blondest most blue-eyed Hollander.

Rebellion against Dutch rule festered beneath the surface of the Emerald Girdle, but not in my world. I had never heard of “Indonesia” or “Indonesians.” Life was good for a little mixed-blood girl, an Indies meisje growing up in the Dutch East Indies before World War II.

My father, Hendrik Evelijn Veere, was an educator with a university degree from Amsterdam. When he finished his schooling, the Netherlands government commissioned him to return to his birth land to establish Dutch schools. He was an important man, and I was proud of his standing in the community.

My parents always had horses, and they rode after the mid-dag dutje, the nap we all took to escape the worst heat of the tropical day. The ride was the best part of my father’s day, and he tried very hard to include me in it. But my horse phobia always took over. My father did not believe in phobias—a sign of weakness, he said, and he did not permit his children to be weak.

By 1938, when we lived in Medan on the island of Sumatra, I had learned some tricks for getting my own way. Every afternoon my father called me to the stable. Every afternoon  he and my mother were on their horses by the time I answered the call. Every afternoon I stood my ground, in the shade of the fragrant plumeria trees that lined the stable path, and refused to get on the horse. Even then my father and I clashed wills.

“No, Papi, I do not want to get on the horse with you.” I cross my arms and scowl my meanest scowl.

“I will not tolerate this, Ilse,” says Papi. “You must get up on this saddle at once.” His teeth are clenched tight, turning his mouth into a straight line without lips. He nods to the stable boy, our katjung.

As the katjung puts his hands under my armpits to lift me to my father, I raise my arms and sink to the ground. It is an old trick. The katjung takes in a long breath, blows it out, and bends to pick me up. I scoot backward, like a crab. The tiny gravel stones dig into my hands, but I am ready to scoot farther if I need to. I look back and forth between Papi and Mami. She looks very tall, as her back is so straight and her black hair is piled high on her head to keep her neck cool in the afternoon heat. Her head is turned just enough to see me. Her jaw is also clenched, but it is the type of clench that keeps a smile from breaking loose.

Now Papi says the dreaded words. “Ilse, if you do not ride with your mother and me today, I will send you to spend the entire afternoon with the kokki.”

“Oh, no, Papi!” I make tears come.

“Katjung, see to it,” my father orders and he rides off with my mother.

As soon as they disappear around the bend in the lane, I jump up, smile at the katjung, and run off to the kitchen to join the kokki—our cook—who is my favorite person in the world, next to my mother. “My babu kokki” I call her, using the “babu” part which shows respect and means “female.”

I pass the enormous steel sink which stands outside, against the back wall of the kitchen. This is where the food is sorted and washed. I stop to check for snails clinging to the sides of the sink and see only a few, not very big. No snail treats for the servants tonight. I would not dare to tell Papi that I have sampled them, but they are really quite good, the way Babu Kokki prepares them with spices. She calls them escargot.

I skip down the hall to my favorite place in the world.

The kitchen walls are white stucco, and the floors are big terra cotta tiles that match the fat little terra cotta cook stoves, the anglos, lined up against one wall on a long concrete bench. Bunches of red and green chili peppers are drying on black iron arms that swing out over the row of anglos.

The chopping and the slicing are done at low wooden tables. The best table, the one that smells of sweet and savory flavors, holds the ulekans, round flat grinding stones the size of dinner plates, and gourd-shaped mashing stones. Babu Kokki spends hours at the ulekans, grinding the spices—cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander—too many to name. I am often set to smashing the coriander or the nutmeg, but never the hot red peppers that would bring on a choking fit if I should taste their seeds or smell them on my fingers. I stop to feel the handle of the smooth stone that was chosen from the river bed to fit my hand exactly.  “Anak Ilse,” Babu Kokki says, using the polite title “child” in addressing me. She speaks Dutch, but it is difficult for her. “Will you please bring me the santen from the ice chest?”

“What is it for, Babu Kokki?” I ask in Dutch. I see fresh grated coconut piled on the table we use for mixing delicious things. I am hopeful.

“Little Miss Curious,” she laughs. Then she slips into Pasar Maleis, the peasant tongue that we are not supposed to speak in our home because Papi does not allow it. “Does it matter what it is for, or is it enough that your babu kokki asks you to bring it?”

I know I have been scolded. I deliver the bowl of coconut milk and stand beside her, head down, inspecting my bare toes for a moment to show I am sorry. Then I lift my head to watch her every move. She puts sugar into the great wooden mixing bowl and reaches for the eggs, cracking them one by one into the sugar. When they are mixed, she adds fresh churned butter and beats it all into a soft cream with her wooden spoon. She dumps in the coconut milk and then the sweet rice flour.

Then she says, “Before we can put in the shredded coconut, you will have to mix this batter until it is perfectly smooth.” Her eyes open very wide, making them round like her face. “If you want buah klappa quadrat, that is .”

I clap my hands for joy—sweet coconut pudding squares, my favorite dessert! I run for my dinkliek, the small stool I sit on to do work at the table. Babu Kokki takes the moment to smooth her kondah, the bun of wound-up grey hair that she fastens, with dozens of crinkled wire hairpins, to the back of her head just above her neck. I have tried to wind my hair up just so, but my kondah never stays put.

I stir with all my might as Babu Kokki puts charcoal into the belly of each of the anglos and fires up the little stoves. I can feel the soreness in my left arm, so I switch the wooden spoon to my right hand, my clumsy hand. At last, Babu Kokki comes to check the batter.

“Ah, you are a stirring genius, Anak Ilse. It is perfect. Now let’s put in the coconut. Stir gently,” she warns. “Make sure the coconut gets to every part of the batter.”

I am so careful to spread the coconut evenly, and the buah klappa quadrat is finally ready to be poured into an oblong dish, covered, and put on top of one of the anglos. Babu Kokki piles a few hot coals on top of the cover of the dish, and the pudding is left on its own to bake.

Then Babu Kokki starts the cooking of the side dishes that will be served with the rice for dinner. I stay out of her way as she scoots from one anglo to another on her own three-legged dinkliek, tossing the meats and vegetables and sauces into the pans that wait for them over the hot coals. It is a dinkliek dance, from one to another of the six stoves. I begin to smell the coconut pudding, and I am very happy indeed.

© 2010

End the Silence, Reed/Smit