Wilhelmus van Haaren was 10 at the beginning of World War II when the Japanese took control of the Netherlands East Indies and the city of Bandung, “The Paris of the East,” on the island …
Wilhelmus van Haaren was 10 at the beginning of World War II when the Japanese took control of the Netherlands East Indies and the city of Bandung, “The Paris of the East,” on the island of Java where his family lived.
I knew Bill lived in what is now Indonesia and I had heard some of the stories of the atrocities performed by the Japanese and how the family was split up and sent to concentration camps, so when his wife called to report he had published a book about his life, I expected a dark and depressing story.
I arranged to visit them at the Governor Francis Farms home they have lived in for 56 years last Friday, but before I could get there found a manila envelope with a lighthouse sketched on it. Inside was a copy of “Drawn by Heart.”
The crude but effective ink outline of a beacon was a clue to what I would find in the book and throughout their comfy home. Bill’s sketches – some barely more than outlines and sticklike figures and others more detailed, like the portrait of his father – along with written notes and photographs, tell of a life when he and many others were caught in a tsunami of world events. For no sooner than the war ended did factions of Indonesians declare independence from their colonial
overlords. In many ways, those who had stood beside them during the occupation
were crueler than the Japanese. So as to protect the Dutch descendents who had made the islands their home, the Japanese, once their enemies, were hired to protect them.
Bill’s drawing of a pair of legs sticking upwards from the ground is especially jarring when the accompanying text explains the victim had been beheaded with the head placed beside the legs as a message to former colonial masters. Bill’s encounter with Japanese soldiers and how they demanded he prostate himself and pray – leaving him to believe this was the end – then pistol-whipped him is especially chilling. But these are dark spots in a story that alternates from Bill’s accounts and drawings to a narrative of events told by his daughter Anne Marie and granddaughters Livvy and Addy Marcus, who went through boxes of drawings and notes and kept Bill on track to pull the book together.
Like a mosaic, Bill views the events as fitting together into a larger picture where human kindness and righteousness prevail.
As he writes in the first six pages, “Good things happen and bad things happen, but if you have too many bad things, you have to forget and start some new good things.”
Some of the good is serendipity, like the time after arriving in the Netherlands his mother sent him and his brother to enroll in school. Not knowing where they were, they went into a large building where they were approached by a man they believed to be a priest who turned out to be the Rector Magnificus of the Bisschoppelijk College. He inquired what they wanted. Bill said they wanted to sign up to go to school. The man asked why they thought they were qualified to attend. Bill said they had always been told that van Haarens were smart. The man questioned if they were related to a priest in the Order of the Holy Cross. When Bill said they were, they were enrolled without further question. That event put Bill on a path leading him to medical school, meeting Jane and his decision to pursue a medical career in this country.
I came to know Bill as the family doctor. His office was a house on the Warwick side of the Pawtuxet River just after it flows under the bridge in the center of the village. His office was small, made to feel all the smaller by low ceilings, scant lighting and dark paneling. Bill provided the light. He smiles a lot and as a patient you had the feeling things were going to be all right. He was great with our kids.
Years have passed since those days. We’ve crossed paths occasionally, most recently for the 95th birthday drive-by celebration for Peggy Dolan last year. We said hello from a distance.
“Drawn by Heart,” memories of war and hope, is a quick read. Read is perhaps the wrong word, because much of it consists of Bill’s drawings. I was privileged to be sitting beside Bill Friday afternoon in the van Haaren living room drinking ice tea looking through the book as he told stories, some from the book and more from his career when family practitioners made house calls and grabbed their bag to respond to emergencies.
One such emergency was when he was alerted there had been a shooting in Cranston just over the Pawtuxet bridge in Cranston. A gathering of men who frequented the Bank Café, known as mob boss Raymond Patricia’s lieutenants, spotted him and asked where he was going. He announced he was a doctor and was rushing to help whoever had been shot. He was advised to go no further.
Later a friend asked if he ever attended to the victim and if the man said anything before he died. When Bill related he never reached the man, the friend said that was a good thing because the victim of the shooting was Louie the Fox and had Bill been suspected of knowing anything he might have been targeted next.
We all laughed. It’s what makes it so much fun talking with Bill and Jane.