In 1943, when my grandmother, Margarita, was 34, she was living in Bandung, Indonesia with her husband, 12-year-old daughter, and newborn son. At the time, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, but the Indonesian government agreed to let the Japanese army use their islands as a base if they would get rid of the colonizers. So the Japanese started putting all the Dutch women into internment camps and all the Dutch men into work camps.
Margarita’s husband, Wilhelmus, was also taken into one of the men’s camps where they were put to work building infrastructure for the Japanese. Do you know the movie, “The Bridge On The River Kwai“? According to family history, Wilhelmus was one of the prisoners who was forced to build that.
One night, Japanese soldiers showed up to take my grandmother into the women’s camp. In a panic, she grabbed a set of coffee spoons, two left shoes, and a bassinet holding her 3-week-old son.
There were 108,000 Dutch women and children put into internment camps on Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Timor. My grandmother was one of them; fortunately, her son was not.
She was taken to a way station camp, a clearinghouse, where she would be sorted and sent to a different camp in the area.
Internees were held in more than 350 camps across the Far East. In the internment camps conditions were severe. Food and clothing were generally in short supply and facilities were basic. Conditions varied according to the location of the camps. Those on mainland China fared relatively well, but conditions in the Netherlands East Indies were among the worst and casualties from disease and malnutrition were high.
She had been there for two days when she stopped producing the milk her son needed, which meant he had nothing to eat. She said, “He never cried. He just opened his mouth to try to nurse, but there was nothing for him.”
So Margarita went to the camp commander and said, “You need to send my son away. There’s nothing for him to eat.”
“Where do you want me to send him?” the commander asked.
“I don’t care,” said Margarita. “He’ll die if he stays here. Please send him away and save his life. At least if he’s not here, he can survive.” She decided she would rather give up her son so he could live than to keep him with her until he died.
That night, more soldiers showed up at the house where her daughter was staying and said, “Come with us.” No explanation, no details. Just, “come with us.”
Her daughter, who was also named Margarita, had a German father, so she had not been taken into the camp with her mother. Instead, she was living with a German woman. And since Japan and Germany were allies, the Japanese soldiers left German citizens alone.
The soldiers escorted young Margarita to the camp, where she was taken to a fence where my grandmother met her. They didn’t speak, neither of them said a word. She just handed her son — my father — over the fence to her daughter and then turned and walked away, still never saying a word. She spent the night shattered and sobbing, refusing to forgive herself for what she had done, frantic about what would become of her son.
Two years later, when the camps were liberated, she was reunited with her two children and her husband, and they left Indonesia and returned to the Netherlands. She later moved to the United States, and my father was 9 years old when he moved to the U.S.
My grandmother told me that story, and several others, as I was growing up.
Stories about how thieves blew sleeping powder under the door of their house and then stole all of their furniture in the night. Stories about how Indonesian militia massacred a convoy of Dutch women and children on their way to a Dutch harbor. She and her family were supposed to be in that convoy, but went a day later.
She told me stories about growing up in Chile, her life in The Netherlands, her life in Indonesia, and her time in the United States as a young mother.
She’s gone now, passed away at 101, so I can’t ask her questions or learn more of her stories. It’s something I wish I could have spent more time doing, learning stories I could pass on to my kids and grandkids. They never met her, and now they’ll never know her stories.
I can tell them the stories that I know. I could even write them down, but they would be vague generalities and broad sweeps culled from memories of half-heard tales, not rich details.
We have forgotten our great-grandparents. Our great-grandchildren will forget us.
What are your stories? What are the cool, dramatic, exciting, or emotional things that happened to you in your past? What are the life lessons you want to pass on to your kids and grandkids? Would you like your great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to know who you are?
We have forgotten the fourth generation before us. Many of us — nearly all of us — have never met our great-grandparents. I’ll bet you don’t even know their names.
And our great-grandchildren will never know us. They won’t know our names, what we did, what lessons we taught our own kids. Any stories they hear about us will be mostly forgotten, half-heard, and lacking the rich detail of the original storyteller.
This is why writing your memoir is critical to preserving your life story and leaving a legacy for the people who come after you.
A memoir is more than just your autobiography. More than “This is my life and what happened to me.”
A memoir is your story of “these are the lessons I learned in my life.”
You can pass your memoir on to your family and friends so they know what you stood for and what you accomplished in your life. They’ll know your history, both good and bad, and they’ll remember you for generations to come.
I’m now working on a book about how to write your own memoir, so if you’re interested in hearing more about it, leave a comment or email me, and I’ll let you know when it’s finished.