Han Samethini Collection
His name was Han Samethini. To me he was always Opa Henry, opa being the Dutch word for "grandpa" and Henry the Americanized form of the French Henri (the proper first name he almost never used). He was my maternal grandfather. Mom wrote to him regularly and he wrote back in letters that looked curiously like hers, with a fluid, cursive script that was small and closely spaced.
Sometimes he sent audio cassettes instead of letters, and I remember Mom calling me over one day to hear words addressed particularly to the grandson. From the cassette player came a deep voice speaking with a heavy Dutch accent:
Hello, Robin! This is your Opa Henry. You can call me Opa, you can call me Grandpa. Just so long as you don't call me Baldy or something.
As a boy I almost envied my friends for having grandfathers they could see on weekends or holidays. My sister Mylene and I grew up enjoying frequent visits to Oma (Grandma) Anna, Henry's ex-wife, who lived within easy driving distance of our home in California. But Opa was a remote, mysterious, and faintly exotic figure. We knew that he lived in South Africa, a fact which for me always conjured images of lions and giraffes. We heard also that he had been a musician and even a circus clown. This compensated somewhat for his absence because he was at least a very interesting absentee grandfather.
Most astonishing was the claim that he had helped to build the Bridge on the River Kwai, the famous World War II Japanese railroad bridge constructed in Thailand by Allied prisoners of war. And not only did he serve as a forced laborer, he also entertained his fellow captives with the accordion. Mom emphasized the latter point with some pride as our family sat down to watch a television broadcast of the David Lean movie. I couldn't have been more than eight years old at the time and I found much of the dialogue boring or elusive. But when the story progressed to the celebration of the newly completed bridge, and the ragged prison camp orchestra played while POWs danced on the bamboo-and-thatch stage, I felt a sense of wonder: He was there. Opa Henry was actually there.
Years later, in 1981, I said much the same thing as I gazed out over the shoreline and placid blue-green waters of the Makassar Strait: He was here. Here, 39 years before, in the town of Balikpapan on the island of Borneo. I envisioned the sea black with landing barges disgorging wave after wave of shrieking, fanatical Japanese infantry. Here I imagined my grandfather must have stood, part of a forlorn and outnumbered Dutch garrison with little hope of escape and none of victory. What were his thoughts as the enemy closed in? How did he survive to be taken prisoner?
In his letters to me Opa Henry always brushed off such questions. But when he came to America in 1985 (his first and only visit), he recounted a few of his Burma Railway experiences. He had been to the bridge at Tamarkan, the "Kwai" bridge, but declared it was nearly finished when he saw it. He'd worked elsewhere on the Railway, under conditions and treatment that no film of the 1950s would have dared, or been permitted, to show. His recollections of beatings, hunger, and the insane, pointless cruelty of the Japanese guards were like terrible things swimming up from murky depths. He said to me, in words I will never forget, "You have no idea what you will do to survive, what you will eat, until you are in such a place as that."
Yet, odd as this seems, he volunteered even less information concerning his prewar jazz career in the Dutch East Indies. Nor was he forthcoming about his postwar years on the stage and in the circus in Europe and South Africa. I'd expected him to be a raconteur, overflowing with stories that would confirm the Opa Henry of family lore: the brilliant improvisational musician, the wacky comedian, the irrepressible showman whose spirit could not be crushed even by starvation and slave labor. It puzzled me that such a public man, accustomed to playing in front of crowds, had so little to say about his performances, his art, and his profession.
Not that he was dour. Quite the opposite! Samethini delighted in laughter, especially the laughter of others, dispensing jokes and humorous observations as if from an inexhaustible reservoir. But he was a humble, almost self-effacing man when talk turned to his accomplishments, or his misfortunes. It was admirable and frustrating at the same time that he kept the most fascinating elements of his personal history carefully hidden.
When my grandfather died in 1992 in faraway South Africa, it seemed that his story would never be told. I inherited his POW scrapbook, which contained intriguing photographs and documents, but alas, no explanatory notes to help me make sense of them. In 2001 I toyed with the idea of creating a simple web page based on the scrapbook, but gave it up because my interpretation would have been little more than conjecture mixed with expressions of family pride.
Han Samethini Collection
All this changed in late 2006, when Mom handed me the bulk of her father's papers and photographs. The new material included a meticulously arranged album of photos and press clippings chronicling Han Samethini's musical career from the mid 1930s to the beginning of 1947. Leafing through the album, I said in wonder and exultation to the young man smiling with his accordion from the black-and-white images, "Here you are. Opa, I've found you!"
The rest has proceeded with unforeseen speed and success, thanks chiefly to the Internet. Without having to purchase an airline ticket or even leave my house, I've contacted sources all over the globe: distant kin, friends of the family who remember the events of the war, and scholars and researchers both professional and amateur. Beyond all initial expectations, I've corresponded with survivors of the Burma Railway. These men are revered in our family, along with all Allied veterans of the Second World War. Due to their generous assistance with this project we have added reason to be grateful to them.
If I were asked to give a single reason for telling the story of Han Samethini, it would not be the desire to give him some measure of posthumous fame, nor would it be the expression of my longing to understand a relative who was almost a stranger to me (though both motivations play a part). The story should be told, I think, so that the work of my grandfather - the bringing of laughter and delight, especially to those who were troubled or despondent - might in some small way continue. It is a remarkable tale. I hope you will enjoy it.
December 4, 2008
Update (July 20, 2011): Readers of this blog have generously sent me information, photos, and documents on Han Samethini and his colleagues. These include a stunning find: a scan of a 1944 show poster from Chungkai POW camp, Thailand, which was discovered in a junk shop in Australia. Correspondence can be viewed in the Reader Comments section. My thanks to everyone who has helped to expand and improve this modest biography.
Update (July 9, 2016): Those wishing to learn more about POW entertainments on the Burma Railway will find a wealth of fascinating information in Sears A. Eldredge's magisterial work on the subject, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers. The book can be read online in its entirety via the hyperlink below:
Captive Audiences/Captive Performers