April 27, 2009


My grandma wasn’t the prototype grandma. She didn’t knit, she didn’t sing me songs, and she didn’t enjoy chitchat about trivial things. Instead, she wrote me letters and sent me newspaper clippings of everything she thought might be interesting to me, accompanied by her comments in the sideline. When I visited her, she talked to me about politics and worldly affairs. She was a feminist, a great advocate of soft drugs legalization and a firm believer of equal rights.

How different she was in her youth…

Born in Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony back then (the Dutch West Indies), my grandma enjoyed a carefree childhood. She wanted to become a movie star. She got married at a young age, had fun with her many friends and she enjoyed parties and the beautiful weather.

Then World War II came to the Pacific and my grandma’s husband fought the Japanese until his ship was torpedoed and sank. For days, he drifted on a bamboo raft in the ocean, before he was picked up and admitted to a military hospital, which was later turned into a prison.

Women were ordered to report, but my grandma, who was pregnant, and her mother refused and stayed in their home. Then, one night, a friend came to their house in the middle of the night and advised them to leave their house. After that night, women who had stayed in their homes were raped and murdered and their homes were pillaged.

This friend had saved their lives.

My grandma gave birth to her first child in a Japanese concentration camp. Her husband never got to see his baby girl: after his recovery he was taken away on a Japanese war ship which was bombarded by the English, who didn’t know there were also many prisoners on board. He was one of the few to survive, but died several months later during forced labour on railroads, 29 years old.

My grandma, her young child and her mother survived several camps. My grandma never really talked about it. It must have been horrible. My grandma had lost her first husband, her in-laws and many friends. But she felt she had been lucky. She was Jewish and had she lived in Holland in that time, she and her family would have been deported to German concentration camps, which were even worse than the Japanese camps.

After the war she came to Holland, together with her 3-year old daughter, her mother and the man who had saved her life during the war, my grandfather. They got married and they all stayed with my granddads parents, who were just recovering from the German occupation. They had had Jewish people hiding with them during the war (who later emigrated to the States and started a chocolate factory there) and lost a son who had been forced to work in Germany. Food and fuel were still rationed and Holland had to be rebuilt. In mid-April 1947, my grandma gave birth to a stillborn child. Exactly one year and one day later, my dad was born. The doctor offered to change the recorded date of birth to one day earlier: it would mean that the child was officially born in winter, which would entitle the family to extra food and fuel rations. My grandma refused, it would have meant my dad would have the same date of birth as the stillborn.

Things got better. After five years of living with her in-laws, they got their own house. They had another child and the family of five was doing well.

But my grandma had changed completely. She had learned that life was not about looks and trivialities. Instead she joined environmental groups, gave lectures on recycling, wrote for newspapers and magazines and wrote letters for Amnesty International.

My grandfather died when he was only 67. My grandma said she felt like she had been cut in two. She never really recovered.

She hated the bad Dutch weather. She missed her homeland. She suffered from polyneuropathy, probably caused by the lack of certain nutrients during her time in the Japanese camp, which affected her mobility. But she still enjoyed going outside, grateful for every ray of sun. She enjoyed talking to people and was very opinionated.

When I visited her on Good Friday, we had another amazing conversation. We spoke about my internship, global health and my plans for the future. More importantly, she told me that she loved me.

Only 8 days later she died. She was 89 years old.

I will miss her terribly.


  1. Your grandmother sounds like an absolutely amazing woman. I'm so glad you posted this on your blog so we could come to know her a little bit. What a role model for you - she sounds so strong and wise.

    You sound so much like your grandma. You certainly have many of her impressive qualities. I'm sure your grandma is very proud of you.
    I'm sorry you lost her, Bee.

  2. Thanks so much SQ. It means a lot. xo

  3. What a lovely story, such an inspiring woman!!! You must be very sad, I hope you are healing.

  4. i'm so sorry to hear this. i can't imagine how you must be feeling.

    may i try to cheer you up??

    do you remember the apollo earrings giveaway from leah sakellarides on joanna's blog a few weeks ago?! well leah is giving away another beautiful piece this week on my blog, macaroni club! she is so talented, and so sweet to do this! i'd like to invite you to come visit macaroni club, and if you like this piece of leah's, sign up to win it!
    xo... sarah

  5. this made me cry. but what beautiful writing, and what a sad story - but amazing nonetheless. you must be very proud. my sincere condolences x