Saturday, March 20, 2010


Chapter 12 brought a lot of my frustration to the surface. It's one of the longest chapters at over 40 pages. There are parts of it I didn't understand very well, which is something I hate to admit after this long.

The name of the chapter means literally, "Little powder box." An image search yields pictures of compacts. It comes from the reunification of Catrinus Mak and his daughter, Tineke. He says, "Jij bent poederdoosje, de nieuwe jongste dochter van Job na alle ellende." I can't quite figure out what he meant by that. "You've been... using makeup, in a little box (Referring to the small spaces of camp life), ground down, You look nice, the new youngest daughter of Job after all the misery." Maybe the first part is an idiom, where the three words mean something apart from what they mean literally. If you're a Dutch speaker, please clarify this in the comments.

As I mentioned before, I'm always looking for another job. There are three that I'm up for now, and I'll tell about two of them. One is being a trilingual salesman for machinery company. The other is translating car repair manuals into Spanish. Any of them would be fine, but potential employers have a way of getting hot, then evaporating. Also, many outsource their recruiting functions to other companies, and the links aren't always connected. More frustration came from New Mexico. I had been scheduled to interpret a trial next week, but a plea agreement was reached. I really wanted the trial, but was dreading it a bit, because my part was to interpret for a key witness. Such assignments can be difficult.

Anyway, this past week was frustrating. It bothers me that I don't understand the title of this chapter. It is also bothersome that this post is like posts I don't like on other blogs, in that it is too long.

This chapter is the last one that describes the war years. The thirties and the war take up almost half of the book.

Geert Mak looks at turning points in the war. For the Axis, it was one victory after another. In June of 1942, there was Midway. Then, in November of 1942, Rommel was stopped at El Alamein. Guadalcanal was in the same year. From there, Mak goes back to the weekend of Dec. 6 and 7, 1941. Hitler's armies were stopped in Russia, and it started to become apparent that this was it for the Germans.

What Mak pointed out next cleared up something I have sort of wondered about for a long time. In his presentation on the Holocaust, Barry Spanjaard said something he still couldn't believe after 40 years: The Nazi train system placed a higher priority on Jews going to concentration camps than on soldiers going to the front. Mak points out that the Final Solution meeting, held just after the reversal in the Soviet Union, meant that Hitler was exchanging one dream for another. He knew the war was over for the Germans, but he would live out the dream of extermination instead.

Mak draws a contrast between the German leadership in both World Wars. In the first, the generals saw what had changed and started looking for peace. In the second, Hitler condemned Germany to a fight to the very end.

After a long analysis of the German situation, Mak moves on to his family. His father was in Burma, building the death railway. As a minister, that meant one funeral after another. He kept a notebook that survives. It has columns for the name, cause of death, date, burial site, etc. When the war ended, the situation was chaotic, more so for the Dutch. While the other prisoners left right away, the last Dutch prisoners didn't leave until October, 1946.

Catrinus Mak made his way back to his family, but everything was different. After the war, the independence movement shifted into high gear. The Japanese troops were placed under new management, and protected the former prisoners. They also released medicine to the prisoners, which they had been hoarding during the war. One of the Mak children snuck back to their old house and found it trashed, with a bunch of Japanese pin-ups on the walls.

The children had grown up a lot and changed. They went from being sheltered rich kids to self-reliant people who had been through war. While rebellion among the Mak siblings isn't mentioned, Catrinus wrote that he was bothered by adolescents in the camp standing around and smoking. Also, many of them hadn't been to school during the war, and they were free in many ways. The Mak family remained close, in spite of the fact that they were apart for so many years.

From reading this, I would surmise that a major dilemma for the Dutch was authority without power. Their military had been steamrolled at home and in the colony. Naive postwar rulers at home thought that old possessions could be retaken easily. Whether those in charge looked silly at the time was subjective, but their impotence and incompetence had been brutally proven as fact. The Dutch were not protected by Dutch troops. After the Japanese left, that fell to British units, particularly Ghurkas.

Some of Geert Mak's bias comes through as he describes his father's trip to, "The dim, Reformed Netherlands." While stuck in Burma, Catrinus Mak had become something of a third culture kid. At the first Reformed Synod in Batavia, he met with his friend and colleague, Jo Verkuyl, who explained Indonesian nationalism. Catrinus went on to write a series of articles for a church related paper in the Netherlands. Once he arrived there, he thought people really didn't get it, though he liked visiting the family.

The chapter ends with two trips. Almost 50 years later his siblings went back to Medan, and looked around at the old church and their camp. They felt triumphant for having survived it. The camp was still there, with even the wall intact. It was lived in by Indonesian families.

Geert Mak went to Thailand, where he was dismayed to find that the atmosphere was much too festive. "Board the original Death Railway Train, for a one hour journey to Nam Tok. Don't hesitate! Join our Death Railway Tour!"

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