Three elderly Dutch ladies are perched neatly on a sofa in a perfectly neat Dutch living room. Carved wooden clocks tick on the wall and coffee cups and plates of cinnamon cookies sit on side tables. They pass from hand to hand, old photographs and newspaper cuttings yellowed with age.
With only the slightest encouragement, they slowly break into a refrain of Waltzing Matilda. They enthusiastically start off with the chorus but falter a few lines in, their high lilting voices first dusting over forgotten words, then humming the tune, before finally collapsing into giggles. But they didn’t do too badly, considering they learnt the song 60 years ago.
Winnie de Vries, Adri Geerligs and Ans Slik Jongste first met when they boarded a ship that was taking them from the East Indies to Perth, Western Australia in 1945. They were amongst the hundreds of Dutch children who, along with their parents, had spent much of the war in Japanese prison camps scattered over the Indonesian archipelago. As the war was drawing to a close, Adri remembers the Allied planes flying overhead and her mother shouting at her emotionally, “Don’t forget this Adri, never, never.”
A new war
However, they still had to wait before they were fully liberated. After the war, Indonesia immediately declared independence from Dutch rule. The Netherlands mobilised a massive military force to restore order in what they still considered to be their colony. And the Dutch internees witnessed the supreme irony of seeing their former tormentors – the Japanese prison guards – turn into their protectors from the Indonesian rebel forces.
fter the POW camps were finally dismantled, most of the children and their surviving parents found themselves being shipped to Australia for a period of recuperation before undertaking the long journey home. The Dutch families were housed in hotels in Perth, but the children had had no schooling for years. They were ill, malnourished and feral.
“I remember we just were going on the lifts all the time” says Winnie de Vries “up down, up, down” and its no wonder that the Dutch community decided that the children would have to go to school. The location chosen was a farm school just out of the city in the small town of Pinjarra.
A home environment
The Fairbridge Farm School, situated on 30 hectares of farm and bush land, had previously been a home for orphans and British evacuees. Its idealistic founder Kingsley Fairbridge had built a school that would accept children who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be cared for by their own families. Situated on a working farm, the school contained several self-sufficient cottages that could house 12-15 students as well as a House Mother and House Father. The idea was that the children should have as much of a home environment as possible.
Ernst Kollmann still has the bearing and the knuckle-crushing handshake of the Cavalry officer he was for years. He was about 10 years old when he arrived in Australia. “It was paradise. You could get food again, good things, we were free, not forced to bow to the Japanese or worry about being beaten.
And the Australian people were marvellous, they invited us, they helped us.” His parents became the Dutch directors of the school at Fairbridge, so he and his brother were amongst the lucky few of the children who got to go to school and still be near their parents.
Back to school
Ans wasn’t so lucky. She had lost her older brother in the camps and had only just met her father again after years of separation. But she desperately wanted to go to school again. “I think my parents were very brave – we were just reunited and they let their child go. And it was so good to be there – children, food, love, fellowship.”
Winnie wasn’t at all happy about being sent away, however. Her father hadn’t been reunited with the family yet and she wanted to stay with her mother in Perth till he arrived. But once she got to the school she soon began to enjoy the normalcy of childhood again.
The routine at Fairbridge was regimented and structured around the fact that these kids had special needs. First and foremost the children had to regain their health and start to learn how to live in a civilized society.
Mark Anderson is the current CEO of the Fairbridge estate. “We don’t run the farm here anymore” he says “but in the time of the Dutch children, the farm was fully operational. During the war [and in the period after], people were eating bread and dripping, but here there was a dairy, a vegetable garden, a butcher, so the children were eating fresh bread, eggs, milk, and meat.
Ernst Kollman remembers how his parents and the other teachers had to restrain the children from overdoing it on the tins of condensed milk. During three years of prison camp life, the children had survived on a spoon of starch dissolved in water in the morning and a spoon of rice for the evening meal. At Fairbridge they learnt to eat proper meals while sitting at a table, backs gently straightened by teachers’ rulers, and any talk or giggling silenced by the frowns of the House Mothers.
The children had lessons in the morning, then after lunch an enforced nap, and then an afternoon of play and sports. But it was swimming in the dam that everyone loved the most. Ans, Winnie and Adri learnt to swim there, and eventually even got accustomed to the leeches that had to be burned away from their legs every time they emerged from the water.
There were weekly dances and Winnie giggles as she recounts how the boys had to come to the girls’ dormitories to book dances with certain girls, writing them down on their hands. Ans, however, turns her nose up at the mention of the dancing. “I was always got teased at the dancing lessons. I was a big and sturdy girl and they teased me always, so I hated the dancing lessons.”
They show me an album where some careful hand has pressed a flower – a red and green West Australian kangaroo paw – now 60 years old and looking as if a child had only just plucked it from the bush to bring home to show mum.
Ernst Kollmann has a mint collection of perfectly preserved photos of those days and a memory to match. As he turns the pages of beautifully labelled albums, he names each blond child and tells how their lives turned out. That one lost a leg; that girl went to America; this boy became one of the most famous ballet dancers of Holland. He remembers everything from those 11 months at Fairbridge. He remembers the flowers he saw there, the names of his teachers, the size and colour of the marbles he and the other boys played with, and even the very scents of Western Australia – each and every memory a tribute to his gratitude to the school and the people who set his life back on the rails again.
For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl