The Fairbridge Farm School
31st May 2012
Updated 31st May 2012
Sixty years after their liberation from Japanese POW camps in Indonesia, four elderly Dutch people remember how they regained their childhood when they were sent to the Fairbridge Farm School in southwestern Australia.
Three elderly Dutch ladies perch neatly on a sofa in a perfectly neat Dutch living room. Carved wooden clocks tick on the wall; coffee cups and plates of cinnamon cookies sit on side tables. From hand to hand, they pass old photographs and newspaper cuttings yellowed with age.
With only slight encouragement, they slowly break into a refrain of Waltzing Matilda. They enthusiastically start with the chorus but falter a few lines in, humming the tune before finally collapsing into giggles. They didn't do too badly, considering they learnt the song sixty years ago.
Winnie de Vries, Adri Geerligs and Ans Slik Jongste first met when they boarded a ship that was taking them from the East Indies to Perth, Western Australia in 1945. They were amongst the hundreds of Dutch children who, along with their parents, had spent much of the war in Japanese prison camps scattered over the Indonesian archipelago. As the war was drawing to a close, Adri remembers the Allied planes flying overhead and her mother shouting at her emotionally, "Don't forget this Adri, never, never."
A new war
After the POW camps were finally dismantled, most of the children and their surviving parents found themselves being shipped to Australia for a period of recuperation before undertaking the long journey home. The Dutch families were housed in hotels in Perth, but the children had had no schooling for years. They were ill, malnourished and feral.
"I remember we just were going on the lifts all the time" says Winnie de Vries "up, down, up, down." The Dutch community decided that the children would have to go to school. The location chosen was a farm school just out of the city in the small town of Pinjarra.
A home environment
Ernst Kollmann still has the bearing and the knuckle-crushing handshake of the Cavalry officer he was for years. He was about 10 years old when he arrived in Australia. "It was paradise. You could get food again, good things; we were free, not forced to bow to the Japanese or worry about being beaten." His parents became the Dutch directors of the school at Fairbridge, so he and his brother were amongst the lucky few of the children who got to go to school and still be near their parents.
Back to school
Winnie wasn’t at all happy about being sent away, however. Her father hadn't been reunited with the family yet and she wanted to stay with her mother in Perth till he arrived. But once she got to the school she soon began to enjoy the normalcy of childhood again.
The children had lessons in the morning, then after lunch an enforced nap, and then an afternoon of play and sports. But it was swimming in the dam that everyone loved the most. Ans, Winnie and Adri learnt to swim there, and eventually even got accustomed to the leeches that had to be burned away from their legs every time they emerged from the water.
The Fairbridge Farm School was produced by Dheera Sujan. It was originally broadcast in February 2006 as part of the RNW series Dutch Horizons.