The Traveling Letter

How mail from the 1940s found its way (back) home.

At times I’ve wondered why I’ve kept all of my correspondence my entire life.

I have saved letters that I received way back in the 1940’s. Every time I move, I take the shoebox with letters along. But now I know why. There are two benefits that made it worth saving these letters.

One I’ve been aware of for years. I can read about my entire life in these letters. They bring back countless memories, not only of things that happened that I otherwise would never have thought of again, but memories of people that I loved a long time ago and reunite with through their letters. Reading these letters is an emotional experience that sometimes causes tears to flow.

But I just discovered the other benefit.

The war after the war

Recently, when I pulled out the shoebox, a few airmail letters caught my attention. They were written by Dutch soldiers who, after World War II, served in the Dutch East Indies. And I suddenly thought: “What can I do with these?”

The Dutch East Indies represented a group of islands named Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes and Timor, as we had learned in school. Now they’re known as Indonesia. They were colonies of the Netherlands, valued for their rich trading ports and delicious spices. “Indie,” as we called it, was an important part of my childhood. While we lived under German occupation in the Netherlands, news came that a Japanese invasion had caused unrest in Indie. What followed was a revolt led by a young man named Sukarno, whose aim was to give Indonesia back to its own people. But the Dutch were not prepared to let go of their colonial power quietly.

And so, after the elation of the end of WWII, the Netherlands had another war on its hands – not at home but far away in “their” Indie. And the Dutch young men had no choice. Enlisting was mandatory and refusal heavily punished with imprisonment. To escape this plight, many young men immigrated to other countries. Still, 150,000 troops were sent to Indonesia.

These young Dutch soldiers had a difficult time. They were exposed to many dangers, not only from the war but to all kinds of diseases. A request came to the girls at home to write to these boys in order to keep up their morale.

Military mail

I happened to receive three addresses – all of boys from our home town. The letters I found recently were responses from these young soldiers, still very legible with “militair port vrij” in the right-hand corner. Memories came flooding back and my thoughts were for a while with these young men, who – after they had lived happily for a short while in liberated Holland – were forced to go and fight in that tropical country. Many were killed, including two boys from my hometown. They were buried far away from their loved ones.

Reading these very old letters stirred a desire in me to let it not be for nought that I had kept them this long. I felt that there must be a reason I still had them.

And, then and there, I decided to reach out on social media!

Maybe there were still people around who would value them. Perhaps the letter writers would still be alive themselves. And if they weren’t, their children might like to receive a letter from a father who had served in a far-away country, 70-some years ago

So I posted one of them online.

Across the ocean

Instantly I got a reaction! A daughter of the letter-writer wrote. Their father had passed away just a few years ago, but they would love to receive this letter. Their Dad had never told her and her brother much about his time in Indonesia.

The latter was not uncommon. The soldiers who survived did not receive much attention from the government. The Dutch East Indies became a Republic, given back to its own people. The Dutch boys who returned home were not celebrated as war heroes; they lived quietly with the trauma of losing friends and witnessing horrors. They did not like to talk about it.

I received a thank-you letter from this man’s family, saying how happy they were with this late token of their father. In the letter they were able to find out a little bit about his experiences during that war.

And so this letter, that had travelled from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Holland, then to Canada – where it went from place to place, spending 70 years in a shoebox – has travelled back to Holland and found a home in the town where its writer once lived.

I am sure that it is now kept as a treasure in a much more appreciated place than an old shoebox. And I wonder if I perhaps may find homes for the other letters too . . .


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