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Harmoniehof // The War Travelled Trunk

This is the story of a trunk.

During the Great Depression, a Dutch family living in Amsterdam found themselves forced out of work, and like so many, faced some tough decisions. Along with their three-year-old daughter, the young husband (37) and wife (31), made the move to the volcano-dotted island of Java, lying between Sumatra and Bali.


At this time the colony of islands was known as the Dutch East Indies, under Dutch control, in the geographical location of Indonesia. Between March 1942 and August 1945, in World War II, Japan occupied Indonesia.


The Dutch East Indies in the 1940's


The husband died as a prisoner of war in 1944.

The mother, then 39, and daughter, 13, had become practically homeless. They were able to bond with a family who had given them shelter. In a stroke of luck, they were located by friends in Amsterdam via the Red Cross in May 1946, offering their home to them if they could get back. The friends who had been giving them shelter at this time gave them a few steamer trunks. The teenage daughter got out some red paint, crossed out the existing family name, replaced it with their own, and added the address of the friends back in Amsterdam.

In July 1946, they were evacuated from East Java, to be sent back to the Netherlands under RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees).

The daughter, barely a teenager at the time, recalls those next few days:

“With many other people we were moved by train in windowless cattle cars. After a ride of approximately 12 hours we spent the night on the floor of a school room. We were flown from Yogjakarta to Semarang in a military DC-3, quite exciting. Passengers, like troops, sat along the sides of the plane. For three nights we were housed in an empty hospital room in the hilly part of Semarang. I heard planes flying over and the sound of machine guns. There were fights around the city,  between the Indonesians and the British Indian army, aided by the Dutch. There had not been a liberation for us.”

Military DC-3 Aircraft

After six weeks, the mother and daughter boarded MS Oranje, a passenger liner converted to a hospital troop ship. Jeeps under Gurkha guard had moved them from the city of Jakarta to the port to depart.

 MS Oranje Hospital Ship

When I received the trunk, I researched and thought a lot about those tumultuous times. I imagined it as a living thing; built for pedestrian travel, destined for the hard life of war. The things it must have seen, the places it had been through. Carried, dragged, dented and dropped, it wanted to survive, not much unlike its human bearers who entrusted it with their few and most precious belongings. All the paint, nails, scratches & patina are 100% original.

The decision came to deconstruct it, in both a physical and historical sense. Adding and re-working with many textures in the colour red has its obvious aesthetic ties to the trunk, but it also serves to the whirlwind of emotions its journey was enrobed in: Madness, despair, and the passion to keep alive, that both it and its carriers faced as they too became bruised, torn, scarred. It’s a story one can only hope ends in survival, and in permanence.

Harmoniehof. 50″x64″. Steel, Wood, Acrylic & Resin. SOLD


After their ship finally arrived in Amsterdam, the mother and young daughter lived there for 2 years until emigrating to Canada in 1948, still using the trunk to travel with. Today, the daughter some 84 years old, has five children of her own. She still keeps in touch with one of the children of the family who gave them this trunk, who was 4 at the time, some 70 years ago today.


Special thanks to the family for their aid & co-operation in this project. In tribute, $500 of the proceeds will be donated to the Canadian Red Cross in the daughters name.


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