KOMBI: Dialogue in The Netherlands

In 1988 and 1989 two weekendmeetings were organized where children of war of different backgrounds met each other for the first time in the history of the Netherlands. It was an experiment to explore whether it was possible to meet as children of victims and children of collaborators or Nazis. One small self-help group of seven participants was set up and had nine afternoon meetings and a weekend meeting as the last session.

The experiences of the participants in both the weekend meetings and in the small group showed that these kinds of encounters were very important for the discussion partners. It was a logical consequence to continue the work and to found an organi-zation of volunteers, ‘KOMBI’, in English: Children of War for Mutual Societal Help and Integration.

Historical review
Since children of five different backgrounds participated in these encounters, it is advisable to review the Dutch situation before, during and after World War II.

In 1931 the Dutch National Socialist Party (NSB) was founded. The Netherlands suffered a lot from the world-wide economic depression and the Party promised work to the jobless. From 1937 on, two different factions fought for predominance in the NSB: the Nationalists against the followers of the Greater Germany idea with its extreme anti-semitic program. The latter won the hegemony. When the Germans entered the Netherlands in May 1940, many new members were registered.

Before the war, most of the children of NSB members experienced discrimination; they were teased by schoolfriends or yelled at. During the war the social climate deteriorated because the Dutch population blamed the NSB for the occupation and their feelings of hatred found an outlet in harassing the children. After the war, some 100 000 members were arrested. The government-in-exile in London had made no plans for taking care of the children of imprisoned parents. There were makeshift children's camps and sometimes uncles or aunts or the neighbours took care of the children. The best way to survive was to keep silent, and later, when the parents returned from detention and the family was reunited, to move to another village or city, where people probably did not know them.

Where a 5% of the population collaborated with the German occupiers, another 5% became active in the resistance movement. The first big action was a general strike in February 1941.The resistance movement gained strength only from 1943 on, by which time most of the Jews were imprisoned in the Dutch camp, Westerbork, or had already been sent to the German concentrationcamps. Only 16% of the Dutch Jews survived, the rate of the losses in the Netherlands being the highest in Europe. So, after the war, when the truth about the Shoah was revealed, many Dutch felt ashamed because they did nothing to resist the enemy. The Jews in the Netherlands kept silent, did not come to the fore, fearing discrimination and anti-semitic remarks.

After Liberationday the resistance fighters were convinced that they would get impor-tant places in government and society, but in fact the whole pre-war political structure was reactivated. Most resistance fighters felt disappointed. Although they were praised in the commemoration ceremonies each year in May, the heroes of the war had become ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses.

In 1942 the Dutch colony of Indonesia was taken by the Japanese army. The Dutch were imprisoned in internment camps where the regime was harsh and hunger and diseases took their toll. Some people stayed for more than 3 years in such a camp, before they could be liberated in August,1945. Sukarno, a nationalist Indonesian leader declared independence, nationalist youngsters ran through the streets and killed many Dutch families. Most of the Dutch found shelter in .. the Japanese camps, protected by their former enemy. Gradually people went back to the Nether-lands but they felt uprooted. They were silenced when they tried to tell their stories of the war.

To all appearances the repatriated people integrated very well into Dutch society, but they adopted a lifestyle of keeping silent, not coming to the fore and being 'grateful'. There was no room for their real feelings of homesickness and disappointment.

Self-help groups

In 1980 some women who, as children, spent the war years in Japanese internment-camps started a self-help group (kongsi) where they could tell their stories.

In 1981 the Dutch reverend Alje Klamer, known from radio-programs, and the psychologist Mario Montessori started a self-help organization for children of collaborators, members of NSB or SS, ‘Herkenning’ (Recognition). Children born from a relationship between a Dutch mother and a (sometimes unknown) German father could also become members of this organization.

At the end of the 1980s some children of resistance fighters started to organize small groups. It was difficult to talk about these meetings with their parents, because children of the resistance fighters, the heroes, were not supposed to suffer from psychic problems!

In the 1980s the Jewish Organization for Social Work started meetings for children who had been in hiding, who survived the camps or who were born after the war.

First 'mixed' meetings
The first meeting of children of different backgrounds was initiated by some kongsi leaders. They wanted to explore the possibility of co-operation between the different self-help groups through the exchange of experiences.

In April 1988, 25 women of 5 different backgrounds met each other, I was among them. Step by step, we cautiously made acquaintance. Gradually it became clear that we all had many things in common. Recognition of one’s story in that of another, regardless the background, was one of the exciting experiences of the first day.

We never knew that most of us wrestled with feelings of loneliness, that we all had to take far too much responsibility at a very young age and that we were confronted with the mechanism of parentification. Because of the war situation we did not grow up in an atmosphere of safety, shelter and warmth. Our parents and other adults were convinced that the children did not suffer because they were too young and therefore could not know.

We talked about the family secret in most of our families, a secret nobody speaks about, but one that is always present as a hidden stressing factor. In other families where people often talk about the war, the discussions are focused on the expe-riences of the parents, but mostly they tell only the funny stories. The 'real' story is silenced.

We learned from each other about the problems with relationships. As young children we witnessed the vulnerability of our parents and other adults who could not protect us. We learned to distrust any adult or authority. One needs trust to engage in a relationship.

Many children witnessed atrocities and lost any feeling of hope, having seen what people are capable of and afraid of becoming a victim themselves. Many lost their innocence at a very young age.

We spoke about positive experiences as well. Many of us managed to cope with the past more or less successfully. At least we did not give up. We acquired feelings of compassion for the suffering of others, we became fighters for human rights and justice and critical towards authorities. We believe that life is important and that one should make something good out of it.

The more we became aware of the similarities in our stories, the more we became excited and we wanted to become allies. The experiences of our parents during and after the war had separated us from each other: ‘Maybe we could become friends in our generation’.

A new weekend was planned centered around the theme of confrontation. It is difficult or maybe impossible to be real allies when so many prejudices and so much distrust, anger and pain inherited from the past still influence our lives. It was decided upon that our words should not attack other participants: our difficulties were against groups, not against the individuals present. This was the goal, but in practice it was different. Emotions were aroused and the facilitators were no longer able to mediate the confrontation since they were also part of the game. History was repeated.

We were the pioneers, making the mistakes of all beginners. I am convinced that we should have taken more time to become closer to each other, to find trust and strength in the similarities and should have delayed the discussions about our prejudices. The facilitators were not yet able to keep sufficient distance and quickly fell back into their 'role' as a victim. We still had a long way to go together and we had to learn to be more patient with ourselves and others. Nevertheless, these meetings formed the starting point of what became the organization Kombi. (in 1990)

Small encounter group
We started a small meeting group with members of different backgrounds, six women and one man. We started with telling our own stories. That enabled us to feel empathy with each other because we recognized so many similar experiences.

We discussed also the role of the partners of children of war, how patient they have to be and how difficult it is to let the relationship be (or become) one between two equally responsible partners.

We became aware of the difference between p.e. those who lost one of the parents in the war and those who had to grow up with traumatized and frustrated parents. And again, we were aware of the similar problems for all backgrounds.

Of course, there are also differences which have to do with our varied backgrounds. Some of them were more difficult to cope with. For instance, children of resistance fathers can be proud of their parents, whereas children of German parents or collaborators feel ashamed and often even guilty. We discussed in detail the differences between feelings of guilt and actual guilt.

We learned how deep-rooted the distrust towards collaborators' children still is. Some members of our group felt ashamed about this feeling, but facing it and trying to get rid of it is an important step. One cannot expect to be at the end of the process when it has just started.

In the last session each member expressed in drawing or painting what had been the most important experience and we added some words or drawings on the sheets of the others. We made one big sheet of all the drawings and after discussing our work, we saw that we could not separate the sheets, unless we destroyed the whole! We felt that this expressed exactly what had happened in our group: our stories had become so interwoven that we did not go home as the 'loners' we were at the start.

Our conversations had sometimes been very difficult and distrust had not yet disappeared totally, but we felt satisfied. We faced the difficulties and did not give in. We 'proved' in our group that it IS possible to meet the children of the 'enemy' or children ot 'the other side' as human beings in their own right and to feel close to each other.

In 2010 we had to make the decision of stopping the KOMBI-activities. People who were able and ready to continue had fallen ill or had died. The veterans wanted to focus on other items than the past, the younger members still had their jobs and families and lacked time and energy for a leading role in the organization. KOMBI stopped, but the impact of its activities still is important in the lives of its members.

Gonda Scheffel-Baars