My Uncle Harry


My mother was born in Amsterdam in 1911. For 14 years she was an only child, then my uncles Harry and Antonius came along. Uncle Harry was very smart. The first one in the family to go to high school, his teachers there told my grandparents that he should go to the university since he had so much promise. Before he could begin his chemistry studies, however, World War II broke out and the universities were closed. Instead, he got a job as an office clerk. 

At one point during the war, since there were hardly any able-bodied men in Germany that were not deployed, the Germans began sending men to Germany to work as slave laborers. Harry’s office manager received notice that he was to be sent to Germany (to the industrial Ruhr Valley, if memory serves me correctly). Because he was a married man, with young children, Uncle Harry volunteered to take his place. No communication was possible, and no one knew where exactly Harry was sent or what his fate was. Years passed. 

A few weeks after the war my mother was visiting her parents, my grandparents. Their apartment, in a working class neighborhood in Amsterdam, faced a modest square. That afternoon, when my mother looked out of the window she saw a bedraggled  hobo approaching. It was my Uncle Harry. He had walked back from Germany. His freedom did not last long, however. War with Indonesia, a Dutch colony, broke out and Uncle Harry was drafted and sent to a boot camp in Groningen, a province in the north. 

Since there was too much chance of desertion none of the draftees were allowed out. And visiting was either not allowed or not possible as trains were hardly running, and no one had a car. But someone told my grandmother that she could see him if she went to Centraal Station at a certain time, because the train with soldiers would pass through on their way to Rotterdam, where they would board the ship to Indonesia (then still called Indie, Dutch Indies to outsiders). My mother and my brother, 5 or 6 years old at the time, accompanied my grandmother to the station and waited on the platform for the train. But the train didn’t stop. What’s more, all the soldiers looked alike in their uniforms. At the last minute, though, my grandmother spotted him and ran after the train until she collapsed at the end of the platform. 

My uncle was gone for many years, working in an army field hospital. I remember my mother often talking about him, wondering how he was, and exchanging letters. In 1949 the Dutch government capitulated and Indonesia attained independence after centuries of colonial rule. Soldiers started returning soon after. When you saw the Dutch flag hanging outside of someone’s window you knew a soldier was coming home. They were brought to the door by green army trucks. 

One day it was my uncle’s turn. The family gathered at my grandparent’s apartment and shouts of ‘there he comes’ were heard as the green army trucks approached. I still remember him coming up the stairs, four years after he left, in his army uniform. He brought some presents. I received a small silver ring with a silver flower on it that I cherished until one day I stepped on it and flattened it..

Shortly after his return Uncle Harry married the girl he had met at a street dance to celebrate the liberation from Germany. Tonny (who happened to have the same name as his younger brother) had faithfully waited for him all those years. Because he had to make a living, Uncle Harry never wound up attending university. He did, however, go to night school and became a bookkeeping teacher at a high school. 

He also made great Indonesian food. 

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Jeanine Lopes Dias grew up in post-World War II Amsterdam. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California. She can be reached at