On 24 January 2019, a network meeting of the Witnesses & Contemporaries project was held in cooperation with Historisch Centrum Overijssel / IJsselacademie. The event was organised to present a website that contains interviews with fifteen veterans from Overijssel, who fought in the decolonization war. The interviews were conducted by historian Ewout van der Horst. Stephanie Welvaart reports on the afternoon.

‘And then we were up top on deck looking at a quay that was slowly detaching itself. I remember it very clearly. You’re on the ship, so it feels like it’s the quay that’s going away; the quay that’s detaching from the ship. The water in between started to swirl and move. The quay that was so familiar to me [...]. I couldn’t leave the railing. I just stood there watching until we were out of the port and had left the piers behind us [...]. And slowly everything became smaller, vaguer and greyer, and finally disappeared in the mist or haze. And I knew that I would never see it again. I stood there fighting back the tears. The parting from the country that holds all of your memories [...]. Everything is back there, and you know that you’ll never see it again. It’s like you’re the trunk of a tree that’s been cut down: the roots have been left behind.’

(A woman from the Dutch East Indies recalling her departure from the port of Tanjung Priok, Indonesia)*

This was part of one of the recordings of witness accounts that could be heard that afternoon. Moving as the words are in print, they are even more poignant when heard. Stories like these give us an idea of daily life and the impact of major events on the lives of individuals. The importance of these petites histoires comes to the fore in various research and social projects. A number of these projects were in the spotlight during this network meeting.

The immediate reason for the meeting was the launch of the website Overijsselaars in de Oost. Verhalen van Indiëgangers, an oral history project by historian Ewout van der Horst of IJsselacademie about individuals from Overijssel in the East. The Witnesses & Contemporaries project inspired him to find out more about his grandfather’s experiences as a war volunteer in the archipelago and to contribute to the project. He spoke with fifteen veterans from Overijssel who candidly told him about their experiences in Indonesia in 1945-1950. Their stories can be read on the website.

Fridus Steijlen and Eveline Buchheim spoke to those present about the Witnesses & Contemporaries project and about the way that it is an addition to a longer tradition of oral history projects. They also spoke about the current state of affairs regarding the interviews recorded, witness seminars and the personal documents received.

During the meeting, we were inspired by local projects that are strongly linked to society and in which oral history plays a key role. Jayne Slot of Meerstemmige geschiedenissen (many-voiced histories) spoke about her project, which was carried out in Amsterdam’s ‘Indies Neighbourhood’ and other areas. In this project, the colonial past of the Netherlands served as the starting point for the collection of stories of local residents. The neighbourhood and its street names constituted the specific point of departure. The engagement that local residents feel with respect to their environment was a good foundation from which to learn about the stories of others, including memories and stories from Indonesia.

Mietji Hully spoke about the process of creating theatre productions and the collecting of stories for the theatre performance Hoe zat het ook al weer?, a production concerning the decolonisation of the Dutch East Indies, and Aan de andere kant, a three-part theatre production about Moluccans in the Netherlands. Moluccan ‘witnesses’ take part in the performance. This works well on several levels. Mietji spoke about the ‘almost therapeutic experience’ for the participants. The performances also trigger discussion. They provide a platform for discussing difficult questions for which, precisely at this time, greater scope is opening up among members of the second and third generations.

Saskia Moerbeek informed those present about Nationaal Knooppunt Oral History, an initiative that can assist in the practical implementation of oral history projects and in the storage of interview material, for example, and, because initiatives sometimes require good cooperation partners such as archives, libraries and other local institutions, an initiative that can also support initiators by putting them in touch with network contacts.

In addition to generating good discussion, the event, which was attended by both witnesses and professionals, provided inspiring examples of oral history projects and the power of cooperation. We therefore invite anyone who is interested in, or who is active or wishes to become active in the fields of oral history and first-person documents, local history and education in the period 1945-1950 in Indonesia, to contact us.

* Audio clip from: Indië verteld. Herinneringen 1930-1950, Marieke Brand, Henk Schulte Nordholt and Fridus Steijlen (eds.), Walburg Pers/KITLV uitgeverij, 2005; Chapter 11: ‘Vertrekken of blijven?’, clip 2.