Critical Family History Book Review: Silenced Voices

Hollander, Silenced Voices

Hollander, Silenced Voices

Inez Hollander grew up learning that her family’s past on the island of Java in Indonesia was “taboo even to remember.” Intrigued by self-censorship of not just her family but also Dutch society at large, she set out to uncover silenced stories which were part of a silenced history. Her book Silenced Voices chronicles her painstaking search for her family history in Indonesia, first as colonizers, then as victims of severe violence during World War II, followed by the Indonesian revolution for independence. Silenced Voices presents a multilayered story – Hollander’s story of her persistent search for information, the story of her family in Indonesia, and the wider story of violence that accompanies colonization and its overthrow.

As Hollander explains in the book’s introduction, locating information was very difficult because so much had been lost, and Indonesian sources completely cut off. She also came to realize that surviving Dutch people who had fled Indonesia during the revolution suffered such post-traumatic stress that many memories were simply buried. She began by interviewing relatives in her mother’s generation, face-to-face where possible, and by email and even snail mail when face-to-face was not possible. Through these personal dialogs, over time she was able to retrieve old letters, photographs, and other records. She used what written histories she could, but found that most Dutch and English-language histories barely mention the Indonesian revolution. So, she turned to the work of novelists and journalists who were contemporaries of her ancestors, finding many rich accounts that elaborated on the details she was able to find about her own ancestors. Hollander also used what she could access in the Dutch archives, but explained that this experience was “frustrating.” In spite of limited information sources, however, she was able to piece together an enormous amount of information.

Through tracing her ancestors’ stories, contextualized within other writings from or about the same times and context, Hollander presents a textured picture of colonial rule and its subsequent demise. Readers learn, for example, about the harsh imposition of force used to establish and maintain Dutch control over Indonesia, echoed in this observation by a writer in the early 1900s: “Either we colonize or we don’t. If we do, it is better to show the natives sternly that we are always going to be boss.” Readers encounter the taken-for-grantedness of racial stereotypes that persisted through Hollander’s grandparents’ generation. Readers learn about divisions among Dutch who had become “Indianized” and those who viewed Indianization as degeneration; and about the role Dutch wives played in suppressing the status of Indonesian women. Hollander also paints pictures of everyday life of Dutch people in Indonesia, particularly of children who later as adults warmly recalled their Indonesian childhoods.

Her story turns on her quest to find out exactly what happened to her grandfather’s brother and two of his children, all of whom perished in Indonesia under circumstances no one seemed entirely clear about. During World War II, when Indonesia was colonized by the Japanese, Dutch colonists found themselves in the position of being colonized. The story of their deaths is intertwined with the story of Japanese brutality during the War, and chaos following the war when there was no clear authority but a revolution for independence was gathering steam. Hollander lays bare what Dutch survivors who made it back to the Netherlands had experienced, including starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and killing of family members. She argues that ultimately, Dutch people need to know about and come to terms with this part of national history. She writes: “Violence is violence and murder is murder, whether committed by a Dutch plantation overseer, a Javanese plantation worker, a Japanese soldier, an Indonesian rebel fighter, or a Dutch soldier.” She hopes that uncovering this painful part of Dutch history will enable people to speak and face truth, and move on.

I found Silenced Voices to be a very powerful book and example of critical family history, although the book does have some limitations. As Hollander acknowledges, it does not represent Indonesian perspectives because these were unavailable to her. I also found the many questions she asks throughout the book as she runs up against limits to what she could find to be overly exhaustive rather than suggestive. Nonetheless, this is a very well-researched, significant, and readable book that, once read, cannot be forgotten.

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