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Anna, 1925: The incredible story of a photograph

Anna, 1925: The incredible story of a photograph

A long-cherished photograph unlocks a wartime mystery that binds two families in a way they never imagined

I was reading the newspaper in Gatineau, Que., on January 23, 2001, when I spotted an article entitled “41 Things to Do This Winter.” I looked at No. 12: “Find your mother’s hometown in an atlas, and then find your grandmother’s” was the suggestion.

By way of illustration, it included a small map of a foreign country with strange, barely pronounceable names. In the middle was a city called Leeuwarden.

Anna, 1925 - A man in the morning in the sun reads the newspaper, next to a cup of coffeeCredit: Elena Medoks

A tingle went down my spine. That’s where my mother was born in January 1933, way up in the northern part of Holland. And her mother, too. My other grandmother was born just under 60 kilometres away, in Gröningen—too far afield to fit within this map’s borders.

Though the coincidence was striking, it was nothing compared to the way in which the lives of my two grandmothers had intertwined—even after one of them passed away. Long before my maternal grandma, Oma Jantje, even became a mother, her best friend, Anna Drexhage, presented her with a recent photograph.

It was of Anna, then 27, perched on the veranda of her home and smiling enigmatically at the person taking the photo, whose shadow can be seen in the foreground. On the back was written “Anna, 1925.”

“Why are you giving me this photograph?” Oma Jantje, who was 19, asked.

“Because I am going far away,” Anna replied. “You may never see me again.”

A few weeks later, Anna packed her belongings into a trunk, took a train to Amsterdam and then boarded a steamer for Batavia (the area we now call Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies. This was long before the country declared independence and became known as Indonesia. She assured Oma Jantje she would write often and would return if things didn’t work out, but my grandmother never heard from her again.

Oma Jantje pasted Anna’s photograph into an album. In 1952, she placed that album in a box that she took along on her own train ride to Amsterdam, where she and her family boarded a steamer for Canada.

A few weeks later, another train took them across Canada to Edmonton, a city in the rolling hills of Alberta. There my grandmother unpacked the album and placed it on a bookshelf—where it remained until 1983 when my father took it down and began flipping through its pages.

That’s when my grandmother learned what had become of Anna.

Anna, 1925 - a photograph of Anna Drexhage pasted in an open album

What happened was this: Anna had taken the steamship to Batavia to marry a man she had never met—an expatriate Dutch widower named Johannes Geisterfer who had seen her photograph (the same one she’d given Oma Jantje) on the mantelpiece of a friend, who was married to Anna’s sister.

Taken by her beauty, he wrote her a letter asking her on a transcontinental date. The terms were simple: he would pay for her passage to Batavia if she would at least consider marrying him. If, in the end, she chose not to, he would pay for her passage home.

When Anna stepped off the boat in Semarang, she was met by a tall, robust man in his early 30s with a blond moustache and round spectacles that framed eyes so sad and intense and blue that she knew at once she would marry him. While Anna was a practical woman, she had an unusually large heart. After a time, she agreed to be his wife.

A wealthy widower, Johannes was part of the Dutch elite who had ruled the Indonesian archipelago for nearly 300 years. He oversaw several thriving businesses in the town of Malang, on the island of Java, and lived on a large estate with servants, gardeners and cooks. He was a successful and well-respected man, yet neither of these things was what appealed to Anna.

"If Anna missed Holland, she never let on. Instead, she directed her energy into starting a family with Johannes"

She was drawn to the air of sorrow that hovered around Johannes. He may have possessed all the trappings of success, but he harboured a tragic secret. Abandoned at birth, Johannes had grown up in a large orphanage in Amsterdam.

If Anna missed Holland, she never let on. Instead, she directed her energy into starting a family with Johannes. They had six children—one girl and five boys. Each had fair hair and blue eyes, just like their parents.

In 1942, Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies and overthrew the Dutch colonial government. Residents who appeared to be of purely northern European descent were rounded up and interned in concentration camps.

In the weeks following the invasion, Johannes disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Soon after that, Anna, then 44, and the children, who ranged in age from six to 16, were rounded up. Within days, they went from their comfortable life in Malang to being imprisoned in an overcrowded detention centre in the region.

Anna, 1925 - a photograph of Oma Jantje at age 19 in Holland, before she got married and had children
Oma Jantje at age 19 in Holland, before she got married and had children

Over time, families got separated—men to one camp, women to another. Anna was shipped to a sprawling camp on the coast near Semarang. Her daughter and two youngest sons went with her. The other three boys were sent to a men’s camp five kilometres away, as was the rule for any males over 12.

Sometimes, when they were all out working in the fields, which adjoined both facilities, they would wave at one another through the haze of the hot sun. Often Anna assumed that it was simply a mirage, a dream, that these were not her sons, and she would awaken back in her bed in Holland. She never did.

In August 1945, just days before Allied troops liberated the camps, Anna Drexhage died of starvation in that facility near Semarang. Her ration of rice and water, she had reasoned, should be used to nourish her young children’s bodies rather than her own.

All her children survived—although one just barely. The third youngest, Aren, was a thin, scraggly boy who’d been sickly since he was a child. Asthma attacks had nearly felled him so often that everyone assumed he would be among the first to die in the camps.

But he lived. When Anna’s children were deported after the war, he was a scarecrow. They landed in a refugee camp in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and were shipped off to Holland.

"In August 1945, just days before Allied troops liberated the camps, Anna Drexhage died of starvation in that facility near Semarang"

German occupation of the Netherlands had resulted in severe food shortages, and people were dying in the streets; the Dutch were dealing with their own personal hell, and few were prepared to listen to the travails of a few orphans from Indonesia.

“At least it was warm where you were,” they said. “In Amsterdam, people were freezing in the streets.” Anna’s children quickly learned not to discuss their trauma. They focused on figuring out how to survive in this foreign land, where they were cared for by members of Anna’s family.

Anna, 1925 - vintage camera and album with old photos on wooden tableCredit: LiliGraphie

At 19, four years after he arrived in Holland, Aren began to make his living as a freelance photographer. Peering through the viewfinder of his camera felt like a safe way to look at the world, as though the lenses filtered out pain.

In 1952, fed up with Holland, Aren took the train to Amsterdam and hopped a steamship bound for Halifax. He would have gone back to Indonesia, but he knew the familiar sights and sounds would unleash painful emotions.

From Halifax, he travelled by rail to Edmonton, where, lonely and isolated, he sought refuge among a ragged enclave of poor Dutch immigrants. He began attending their Sunday morning church services, sitting in the back row.

It was there that one of the church matriarchs, a small, thin woman with long, lustrous hair tied up in a bun, first laid eyes on him. She did not know who he was, only that he was a photographer. With six children—three of them girls—approaching marrying age, she would probably be requiring his services.

“Why don’t you invite him over for coffee?” she prodded her eldest daughter, 22-year-old Affina. But Affina was not interested in this reclusive young man, whose hollow eyes and diffident nature kept most people at a distance.

Her younger sister Amelia, though, was intrigued by Aren and extended an invitation. With her charming smile and rapier wit, the 20-year-old was the perfect antidote to his unremitting loneliness, and he soon became a regular fixture at the family’s Sunday morning coffee klatches. At first, Amelia thought Aren was interested in her older sister, but she was wrong.

"With her charming smile and rapier wit, the 20-year-old was the perfect antidote to his unremitting loneliness"

They began dating, and in three years’ time, they married. A year later, they had a child, the first of eight. I was the third.

Of all the times my father drank coffee in the dark salon of Amelia’s parental home, he never noticed the photo album sitting on the bookshelf above the tea cabinet. Never, that is, until 1983, when he pulled it down and began leafing through the pages. That’s when he came across the faded photograph of the young woman on the veranda.

“Hey,” he said. “That’s my mother!”

“No, it isn’t,” my grandmother, Amelia’s mother, laughed. “That’s my friend Anna, who went to Indonesia in 1925. I never heard from her again. Look,” she said, pulling the photograph off the page and turning it over. Sure enough, there in still-legible handwriting were the words “Anna, 1925.”

“That’s my mother,” he repeated. “Anna Drexhage.”

Oma Jantje stared at him, unable to comprehend this incredible twist of fate. Then tears welled in her eyes. She’d always wondered what had become of her dear friend. Her sorrow at hearing the awful truth from Aren was tempered by a sense of wonder: Anna’s orphan was now Oma Jantje’s son-in-law.

That relationship, she believed, was not just coincidence but forged by the mysterious winds of destiny. Through this next generation, she could honour the strength of the connection between two young women, forged decades earlier in Holland.

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