Student Symposium Vancouver, Canada

International Human Rights Day Student Symposium,  December 5  2014

Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA).

Vancouver Technical Secondary School, Vancouver, Canada


Presented by Selma van Halder


My name is Sakura Takahashi, I’m from Japan. When the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, my grandmother was your age. She was on her way to school. She was at a train station with her girlfriends when in the distance the biggest bomb in history destroyed an entire city. Planes that drop bombs never come alone, so in this case too, another plane flew over the train station and started shooting at my grandmother and her friends. They tried to run. My grandmother fell down and covered her head. Around her some of her friends were shot and killed. Thankfully only a few days later, Japan surrendered and the war was over. Thankfully, she survived, otherwise, I would never have been born.

My name is Selma van Halder, I’m from Holland. When the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, my grandmother was your age. She was very ill. She was kept prisoner in a concentration camp in the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia. She had been put in this camp because of where she was born. She was Dutch. There was nothing she could do about that, so she and her little sister and her mom were put in a camp. Their brother was taken away to work under awful circumstances. He would never see his sisters again. For several years they suffered in the camp. They had very little to eat. So my grandmother got sick, and so did her mom. Really, very sick. The bomb dropping on Hiroshima was life saving for her. Within days, the Japanese surrendered and the suffering in the camps ended. Without the bomb on Hiroshima, my grandmother would have died. She wouldn’t have traveled back to Holland, and raised my mother. I would never have been born.

I was 15 when I asked Sakura about her grandmother’s story. It was the first time I fully realized that the word ‘enemy’ is a very strange one. Both our grandmothers were only children when these things happened. They had nothing to do with politics, or the military, but still they were involved in this war. They both experienced horrific things that would change their lives forever. Were they each other’s enemy? Just because of where they were born? If they had met under different circumstances, might they not have found out that they had a lot in common? That maybe they liked the same kind of music, or enjoyed the same foods? Could they have been friends? Like me and Sakura? Having this conversation sparked my interest in history. It inspired me to learn more about war, about politics, about human rights.

It got me involved with The Foundation of Japanese Honorary Debts; an organization that looks after the interests of the Dutch citizens who were victims of the Japanese military during the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies. In March 1942 the Japanese military commenced their occupation of what is now Indonesia.

Japan wanted to get rid of Western influences there and immediately enforced discriminatory measures against the Dutch. Dutch citizens were subjected to organized terror by the military, including enforced slavery, torture, intimidation, harsh disciplines, systematic starvation and denial of medicine. Many died. Of the surviving victims many suffered from incurable disorders. They and their families cannot forget and continue to live with traumas and other health problems.

War is a terrible thing. We all know this. But why exactly? What starts a war? And what ends it?

Can you imagine what would happen if no one talked about the bad things that happened before you were born? If people decided that talking about it or writing about it was too painful, or shameful. You know, maybe it would just be easier to be quiet, because then we can all just forget about it and pretend it never happened. Right? Wouldn’t that be easier?

But then if we didn’t talk about it, I would never have had this conversation with Sakura. Neither of us would have realized that both our families had been through things that I thought only happened in movies. Neither of us would have started thinking about the other as human, instead of an abstract ‘enemy’.

Furthermore: pretending that something didn’t happen doesn’t make it go away. There will still be people who remember it and who will feel extremely insulted and left out by you pretending it didn’t happen. We all know the value of saying I’m sorry, after you’ve done something wrong.

A perfect example of this happening on a large scale is something that happened last week. The largest newspaper in Japan, the Yomiuri Shimbun retracted their articles on Comfort Women. They basically apologized for using the word ‘sex slave’ in referring to the approximately two hundred thousand women that were used as play things for Japanese soldiers during the second world war, because, according to them, it has never been proven they were forced into it.

Here you can see history denying forces at work. It doesn’t matter that there are hundreds of women, coming forward in their old age to finally speak out about the horrific experiences they went though, from ages as low as twelve, being forced to receive dozens of soldiers a day. Never mind that these women got pregnant, that they raised children that looked suspiciously Japanese after the war. That they never received reparation, or actual recognition. They will all be dead in ten years.

It’s too painful to admit, so it didn’t happen.

I’m not trying to bash the current Japanese government specifically. I’m giving you an example of the wrong way to deal with black pages in your countries history. We all have these black pages. For instance: Holland has slavery, North America has the eradication of native peoples.

These are all things that we need to look at in all their horrific detail to fully understand them, before we can distance ourselves from them in an appropriate manner, and move on. Looking away because it is too painful is not an option.

The most important reason for looking at history, however painful it may be, is that you can learn from it. If you don’t know what happened, you can’t learn from it. You won’t understand why exactly war is a terrible thing. And you won’t know how to stop it from happening again.

So what can we do to prevent something terrible like that from happening again? That question is not easily answered. But I think the first step to take is days like these. It’s your responsibility, as a young person, to educate yourself on what went on in the world before you were born. I’m not saying you should know everything, because you can’t. But you could start within your own family. Where did your grandparents or great grandparents come from? Do you know what their childhoods were like? What was happening in the countries they’re from when they were your age? Maybe they will want to talk to you about it, or you could ask your parents. Maybe ask one of your friends about their family history and see if you can find similarities, or interesting differences. Spend an afternoon on news websites and Wikipedia, looking up things that raised questions in your head during history class or social studies at school, or when you were watching tv.

Thankfully most of us have not experienced anything like my grandmother did. But you never know, right? People may forget what war is like and decide it’s a good idea to do again. It’s your job to remember. It’s hard, because you’ve never been through it, and let’s hope you never will. But you can educate yourself, you can stand up for people that have gone through it or are going through it right now. Because lets also not forget that war is not something from the past. Right now many kids of your age are going through what my grandma went through. What about them? Will they have to stand up and talk about what happened to them 70 years from now? Will you believe them, or will you deny it? Or will you already know?

I’d like to encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open today. Most of what you will hear will be pretty depressing. But try to remember that knowing is always better than being in the dark. And know that you can do something. You can share what you hear today with others. You can reach out to someone in your community that, for whatever reason, you may have perceived as being your ‘enemy’. You can continue your studies of human rights, of international politics or history, all extremely important things in making sure these atrocities never happen again. I hope you’ll be inspired today, because you can make the world a little bit better.

Thank you for your attention.