Volume 16 Number 1
Forgiveness Out of Suffering
01 February 2003
The last words of Wim Lindeijer's mother led him to seek reconciliation with the Japanese. He tells his story to Michael Henderson.
Nel Lindeijer lay dying in a Japanese internment camp on the island of Java in the last days of World War II. Three years of privations - shortage of food and medicines - had exhausted her. Together with the young Dutch mother were her four children. Her husband, EW, whom she had not seen for three years, was a prisoner-of-war in Japan.
The family had been living in the Dutch East Indies when in 1941 - 42 the Japanese invaded the islands and Nel and some thousands of other Dutch men and women, along with their children, were herded into internment camps. Her husband, a chemistry teacher at the Christian High School in Bandung, was a medical orderly when he was captured.
Her eldest son, Wim, then nine, was at her bedside and wanted to comfort her in her last hours. 'When I am grown up,' he assured her, 'I will fight the Japanese.' In her frailty his mother rose up and almost angrily said that he should rather prepare for a time to come when he would love his enemies. 'War thrives on hatred,' she said, 'love is the basis of peace.' In her last hours she had dictated a farewell letter to her husband and she now entrusted it to him to deliver one day. Wim hung it on a string around his neck.
Nearly 50 years elapsed before the full import of his mother's words, and the spirit of the letter which she had written, propelled Wim on a road of bridgebuilding between Dutch and Japanese.
It was some months before EW Lindeijer was able to return from Japan to Java, to meet up with his children again and to discover that his wife had died. In the meantime they had been living through turbulent times, with liberation from the Japanese and hostage-taking by Indonesian nationalists, all the while being looked after by Adrie van der Baan, a young Dutch woman in the camp known to the family.
When his father returned Wim was able to present the letter. In it Nel urged her husband to marry again, and suggested Adrie or her sister. In January 1946 Adrie and EW Lindeijer were married and returned to Holland. To Adrie, then 29, it had not been an easy decision but she felt Nel's letter was a 'wonderful confirmation of God's will. It was the love of God preparing this for us.'
In the years since World War II Wim Lindeijer has led a busy life working as a civil engineer all over the world. In 1993, however, a traumatic event brought his early life into focus. He was on a UNICEF project in Afghanistan when 13 people were killed and he had a breakdown. His recuperation gave him the chance to reread his father's wartime diaries which were in the form of letters to his wife and children? 1,200 pages written in secret while he was a prisoner in Japan. He reread his mother's last letter. He had taken them in superficially when he was much younger. Now he read them with new insight. He was amazed at the total absence of blame and bitterness. 'There was no bad word about Japan, there seemed to be no hard feelings about the Japanese.' Of his mother's last hours he asks, 'How was it possible to say farewell to four children after such a nightmare, with such a state of peace and a belief that things would come right?'
His reading brought into focus the fact that all his life he had felt guilty for the death of his mother, believing that he could have prevented her death if he had been a better son. He had been confused by that burden and had projected it, he says, on to the Japanese. He had sworn that he would never go to Japan or meet Japanese and had boycotted Japanese products. 'Deep inside me I had misconceptions about Japan and the Japanese.'
Now he told his stepmother Adrie that he wanted to go to Japan and work for reconciliation. She was supportive. In 1996 they visited Ohashi and Kama'ishi where his father had been. This visit served to convince Lindeijer that the Japanese were human beings like him. Through their meetings, profound conversations, hospitality and readiness to give assistance, everything which had previously made him insecure just fell away. 'Fear, hate and jealousy were blown away,' he told a meeting in Delft, his home town.
Adrie says her feelings have quite changed. No longer are the Japanese people who you try to avoid, no longer are they those in the camps who yelled at you, who had harsh voices and from whom you wanted to hide. 'That has totally gone since going to Japan.'
In Kyushu there is a unique joint Japanese-Dutch monument to Dutch prisoners who died in Japan. Each year there is a commemoration at the site. In October 1997 Lindeijer spoke there. He described this new awareness in his life and asked for forgiveness for the hatred he had felt towards the Japanese. Lindeijer had difficulty explaining to a Japanese journalist why he should ask for forgiveness when it was they, the journalist said, who did the wrong to him. 'I tried to explain that I liberated myself,' he says.
The following year he wrote an article in a magazine for ex-internees in which he described how he had asked for forgiveness. Some internees objected. 'How the hell can you do that?' demanded one irate reader. One of the most vocal critics went the following year to Japan and understood what Lindeijer was trying to do. They now work together. Lindeijer sympathizes with those who demand reparations but says that reparations will never be enough for a heart that has not been freed of hatred. To him the release from hatred has been so special that he cannot stop attesting to it.
Now 66, he has been on seven long trips to Japan. He has given lectures in different parts of the Netherlands. He has linked up also with those in Britain working for reconciliation with the organization Agape. Two years ago, with the help of Takamitsu Muraoka, a Japanese professor in the Netherlands, his father's diary and mother's letter were published in Japan under the title, Kisses to Nel and the children: from a POW camp in Japan. It was published for the 400th anniversary of links between the Netherlands and Japan.
Wim Lindeijer sums up the three key marking events in his new life as the peaceful, blameless sentiments of his mother's last letter, without which he would never have gone to Japan; his father's diary which was realistic but free of bitterness; and the wholehearted response by Japanese who showed interest, openness and even remorse about the war. He regards it as extremely important to be open to the other person whether or not you like them or their ideas. 'Respect and appreciation are key elements in reconciliation,' he says. 'Today it is with pride that I can call Japanese my brothers.'
At the launching of the book, Professor Muraoka, who had translated it into Japanese and edited it, spoke of its effect on his own life. He said that the letters contained not a single word of accusation or denunciation of the Japanese. Every time he read them he found it hard to control his emotions. 'The authors had won an inner battle which must have raged in their hearts, a battle against natural human instincts and reactions of hate, spite, wrath, and vengeance. In the end they were able to submit to the will of God, in which mercy and justice meet.' He expressed his shame at the indescribable hardships and injustices wilfully inflicted by Japanese. 'I am particularly moved by the fact that some of you with whom I am personally acquainted extended your hand of forgiveness before we Japanese asked for it.'
Muraoka says that he has now committed himself to devoting one month a year to paying Japan's spiritual debt to Asia. In 2003 he will start by giving a month of free lectures in Korea.
Wim Lindeijer sees the responses to his family experiences as an affirmation of his mother's last words to him, 'War thrives on hatred, love is the basis of peace.'
Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: Breaking the chain of hate.' Web site: www.michaelhenderson.org.uk