Alex and Jeannette Zweede: A Journey of Love, Hope and Survival

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2016 15:22

Jeannette and Alex Zweede

Alex and Jeannette Zweede met in high school in 1946 when he was 17 and she was 16, but they were far from typical teenagers.

Their school was in postwar Holland, and the road that led them there began in the Dutch East Indies, where each was born, raised and then imprisoned for most of World War II in separate Japanese prisoner-of-war camps on Sumatra and Java. After the war, the young survivors sailed to Europe and landed in bombed-out Rotterdam.

“Oh, I remember the very first day I saw him,” laughs Jeannette. “Alex had lost his glasses in the camps, so he sat on the front bench in the classroom. I sat behind him, and he had all this bushy hair … I couldn’t see around him.”

The two were among six teen students who had been repatriated to Holland after surviving as POWs in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) during World War II. Having missed out on three years of schooling during the war, the group – three boys and three girls – scrambled to catch up on their studies.

Jeannette was attracted to Alex early on. “It was very innocent at first,” she recalls. “Alex and I would hold hands, and he would ride me home on his bike. I knew we were kindred souls.”

His recollection? “She was pretty, had a sweet disposition, a lovely figure and the occasional kiss was a feast.”

Seventy years later both soften when they speak of the other, and they talk of a life marked by challenge but rich with fulfillment.

Alex and Jeannette were born in Indonesia to Dutch parents, she on the island of Sumatra and he on Java. Her father was a civil servant who taught Indonesians the intricacies of local government. His father was a manager on an English-owned coffee estate. Both were the eldest of three children.

Jeannette (front right) with her parents and younger sister in Holland, 1933

Alex was schooled by his mother until age 8 or 9, then driven each day to a Dutch school about 45 minutes away. He speaks today of an idyllic childhood, flying kites, riding the family horses, taking weekend trips to the mountains with his father.

Jeannette lived in the town of Bukittinggi on the west coast of Sumatra and went to a Dutch school from the beginning.

“Growing up in Indonesia was delightful,” she says. “I learned to swim before I could walk. We were always outside. We had a beautiful home, tropical flowers and an incredible variety of fresh fruit. It was a very comfortable life.”

That changed in 1941 when the Japanese, in desperate need of oil and other resources, invaded Indonesia a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

By then Jeannette’s family was living by two large oil refineries near Palembang. She recalls standing in her backyard and seeing bombs falling on those refineries. Then pillaging soldiers invaded their home.

“They were small in stature and had bayonets on their guns,” she recalls. “They came in, took my parents’ watches and then pedaled away on our bikes. That made me so mad!” But far worse was to come.

“We were told to assemble in Palembang and bring three days’ clothing with us. Men and boys over 10 were made to stand on one side, women and small children on the other,” she recounts. “The men and boys were led away, and we were taken to a part of the town that had been encircled by barbed wire.”

For the next three years, until she was 15, Jeannette and her fellow captives were moved through a series of prison camps on Sumatra. Because any Caucasian was considered the enemy, not only Dutch but several Australian and British women were imprisoned with Jeannette, her mother and two sisters.

Australian nurses tried to teach the children, scratching arithmetic problems in the sand with a stick. To boost morale, British missionary Margaret Dryburgh, another internee, wrote down classical music from memory and organized choral concerts. Like many members of that choir, Dryburgh did not survive internment. Her story and Jeannette’s experience are chronicled in Song of Survival, a book by camp survivor Helen Colijn.

At roll call the internees were made to bow to their captors. At each succeeding camp, food became scarcer, disease more prevalent and morale harder to maintain. The women tried to grow vegetables, but their captors often claimed the paltry harvest. Little news of the war filtered in, leaving Jeannette and the others uncertain about the fate of the men who had been led away.

In March 1945, Jeannette’s mother, suffering from beriberi and by then little more than skin and bones, died at age 40. At 15 Jeannette became the de facto head of the family, responsible for her sisters, 4 and 13.

“People were dropping dead around us,” she says. “Each day we would stand in line with a cup to get a very small portion of food. But you couldn’t give up or you died. I had to keep going for myself and for my sisters.”

In late August, the women were told the war was over. “We stayed in camp waiting to be liberated,” Jeannette explains. “But the Japanese were still there. We were still in the jungle, and my father was in the same jungle somewhere else.”

Finally Australian soldiers entered the camp and brought news of the atomic bombs. Food trickled in, and then on Sept. 16, airdrops brought many things the internees had long gone without. “We had not had any rich food, then the butter came down,” Jeannette says, rolling her eyes. “I think we ate all that they dropped and got very sick.”

Nearly 1,500 miles to the southeast, on the island of Java, Alex and his family were interned by the Japanese from 1943 to 1945.

Although just 14 when first imprisoned, Alex was kept in camps for men. After the war, he learned from another survivor that his father had died of torture and starvation in a prison run by Kempeitai, Japan’s notoriously cruel secret police.

When liberation finally came, Alex was interned at a camp near Bandung; all he owned was a shirt and a pair of shorts. But he and other Caucasians faced a new and immediate danger.

“The Japanese had done a phenomenal job during occupation to set up Indonesians against former colonizers,” he explains. “When liberation came, many young Indonesians tried to kill as many Dutch as they could.”

Newly freed detainees desperately sought information about their loved ones, and Alex was able to locate his mother. She was seriously ill and had nearly lost the will to live.

After a brief reunion with her, Alex boarded a train and began the journey back to Bandung.

“In many of the stations we passed, there were young Indonesians intent on killing as many of us as they could,” he says. “I was in the upper luggage racks, stuffed between suitcases so if they came on board, they wouldn’t see me.”

His was the last train that made it to Bandung without any Caucasians killed. Many on the next train were murdered.

Dutch citizens with family in Holland were repatriated, and in early 1946 Alex and Jeannette made a month-long voyage on different ships to a country they knew only from childhood visits. His mother was too weak to survive the voyage, so she and Alex’s younger sister and brother were flown back to Holland.

As luck would have it, both Alex and Jeannette had relatives in Wageningen, and the two met for the first time in that high school classroom where Jeannette couldn’t see around the myopic Alex’s bushy hair.

The “gang of six” plus one, with Jeannette and Alex at left

Because they had not had any formal schooling for three years, Alex, Jeannette and the other four camp survivors were placed in a class with students who were younger and certainly less worldly.

The native Dutch had suffered through the Nazi occupation, some surviving the winter of 1944-’45 by eating little more than flower bulbs and sawdust, but the younger students seemed immature to those who had been interned. With the help of caring teachers, the six former internees were able to catch up and graduate.

After the war, Alex’s mother and Jeannette’s father remarried, each to a camp survivor from Indonesia. Alex entered an electrical engineering program and Jeannette trained as an administrative secretary. In 1950, Alex’s stepfather accepted a job with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and moved the family to the U.S., where Alex continued his studies at the University of Maryland.

For three years Jeannette and Alex were consumed by study and had no meaningful contact other than the occasional letter. Then in 1953, when Alex’s stepfather took the family on a summer trip back to Holland, the two met again at Jeannette’s apartment.

“Here I was with more schooling ahead of me, and she was already beginning a career,” recalls Alex. “I knew I loved her, but I was so afraid she would meet some handsome guy who would sweep her off her feet.

“After dinner we went for a walk and talked about what would come next for us. We came to a bridge over a pond, and as we stood there, we both noticed a nightingale singing nearby.”

“Yes,” Jeannette agrees, “I knew I loved him, but maybe it took that moment and that nightingale for us to recognize it and admit it to ourselves.”

But once again work, study and distance kept them apart. Jeannette began working for the Dutch Foreign Service, first at an embassy in Warsaw and then in Prague. Alex graduated in 1956 with a degree in engineering and took a job in Cleveland. Jeannette secured a posting with the Dutch embassy in Chicago.

The distance was shrinking.

The next year, Alex invited Jeannette to a family gathering in Lake George, New York. Engineer and romantic that he was, he carefully greased the oarlocks on a rowboat so no one would hear when, under the cover of darkness, he rowed Jeannette to Pudding Island and proposed.

“Of course I said yes,” Jeannette says. “It’s not like I didn’t know what he was about to do. I mean, the row boat at night, out to a romantic little island …”

Jeannette and Alex, 1957

Four months later the couple returned to Lake George for their honeymoon.

Daughters Anna and Yvonne were born during the 13 years the Zweedes lived in Cleveland. From Ohio the family moved to New Jersey, where Alex designed systems to control motors that drove winding machines.

After living in New Jersey for several years, Alex was recruited by an Arcata, California company to help build solid-state drives for machines used in the lumber industry. It was on a 1980 trip to deliver a bid to the Louisiana-Pacific mill in Sonora (now Sierra Pacific Industries) that Alex first saw the Mother Lode. After living in “the wet and mold” of Humboldt County, he marveled at the dry climate and beautiful scenery.

He always remembered that visit to Sonora, and when the couple retired in 1993, they bought the house in Soulsbyville where they live still.

Seventy years have passed since Alex rode Jeannette home on his bike, stole the occasional kiss and the two of them together began to move beyond the trauma that war had thrust upon them.

Those years presented their own challenges, but the two remained steadfast in their commitment to meet each challenge together.

“Not staying together was never an option,” Jeannette says. “Of course we had challenges. Sometimes money, sometimes health. But even in the darkest times, I always thought, ‘Whatever would I do without this man?’ ”

Alex says a key to their love and appreciation for each other is balance. “She is sometimes the positive and I am the negative,” he says. “We have balance.”

Any advice for others?

“Always take time for each other,” he says, “a little bit each day. Set the table and eat together. Never with a plate on your lap, and never with the TV on.”

At 87 and 86, Alex and Jeannette remain active. Although he had heart bypass surgery in 2014, he continues to work on both the house and the yard, and meticulously restores old cars – specifically, Saab Sonetts, Swedish sports cars built between 1955 and 1974.

Jeannette is active in the Sierra Foothill Women’s Club, and both of them try to help daughter Yvonne, who has multiple sclerosis and, with her husband, runs a goat farm in Montana. They have two grandchildren they wish they could see more often, but one works in Saudi Arabia and the other lives on an Indian Ocean island near Madagascar.

The Zweede house is adorned with pictures and carvings from Indonesia. All have been collected since the war – Jeannette and Alex left the Japanese POW camps with only the clothes they wore. Personal childhood photos they own today are those that had been mailed to relatives in Holland before war broke out and then returned to them years later.

Looking through photos with a visitor, Alex picks up a picture of Jeannette on their wedding day, and again his face softens.

There is love after 50. And after 60 and 70 and 80 as well. Sometimes it is the very same sweet love there was at 20.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2016 15:22
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