Rachmad Koesoemobroto: fighting for freedom, a life imprisoned

Stories of Indonesian anti-German resistance fighters in the Netherlands, such as the story of Rachmad Koesoemobroto (1914-1997), have to date not attracted much publicity in the Netherlands. Koesoembroto studied in Leiden in the 1930s and became a member of the Perhimpoenan Indonesia (PI). During World War Two he joined the Dutch resistance, together with his wife, and was involved in hiding Jewish children. After the war, he returned to his country of origin to pursue the ideals of freedom he had developed while staying in the Netherlands as well as to continue the battle for an independent Indonesia. He was imprisoned by the Dutch, and later again under Suharto, only to be released in 1981. His story shows the transnationality and continuity in ideas and ideals about freedom. The children of these forgotten Indonesian war heroes are still fighting for the recognition of their fathers in the Netherlands. In this section Anne-Lot Hoek introduces Rachmad Koesoemobroto, about whom she had previously published as a journalist, aiming for more recognition in the Dutch debate over the anti-colonial and anti-German resistance of Indonesians in The Netherlands.


Artist Herman Morssink painted the series ‘Echte Helden’ (Real Heroes) commissoned by the 4&5 May Commité Zuid-Oost in Amsterdam to honour resistance fighters during the German occupation in the Netherlands. Rachmad Koesoemobroto was one of them. He was one of the many Indonesian anti-German resistance fighters, like Rudi Jansz, the father of Ernst Jansz. Source: Website 4&5 May Comité Zuid-Oost.

Murjani Kusumobroto (Surabaya, 1954) recognizes a lot of Sjahrir’s ideas in those of her father, Indonesian nationalist Rachmad Koesoemobroto (1911-1985). As was the case with Sjahrir, his political ideas caused him to spend much of his life in prison. As the son of a Javanese leader, her father studied law in Leiden in the 1930s and, like Sjahrir, he became a member of the Perhimpoenan Indonesia (PI). Whilst living in the Netherlands, he married a Dutch woman. When World War Two broke out in 1940, Koesoemobroto – and with him many other Indonesian PI members like Slamet Faiman and Abdul Madjad Djojoadiningrat – paused his battle for Indonesian independence and joined the Dutch resistance, together with his wife. They were involved in hiding Jewish children. “My father was an antifascist, just like Sjahrir. For him, it did not matter if that fascism was Dutch, German, Japanese or Indonesian,” his daughter says about his decision to join the resistance, during a conversation I had with her in the framework of an interview for an article in De Groene Amsterdammer in 2017.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “In naam van Merkeda,” [In the name of Merkeda] De Groene Amsterdammer, August 2, 2017. From interview with Murjani Kusumobroto and Iwan Faiman, Amsterdam, June 7, 2017.[/efn_note] Stories of Indonesians who were active in the Dutch anti-German resistance are fairly untold in the Netherlands. Many Indonesians died for the freedom of the Netherlands, including Irawan Soejono[efn_note]See two blog posts on the website of the Indonesian writer Joss Wibisono [in Indonesian]. One on the life history of Irawan Soejono, and one on the remembrance of Irawan Soejono in Leiden, with a photo of Ernst Jansz who spoke at the meeting.[/efn_note], whose remains were later brought back to Indonesia by Koesoemobroto and his wife.

Rudi Jansz (Batavia, 1915 – Amsterdam, 1965), the father of singer and songwriter Ernst Jansz, was also a member of the anti-German resistance. Jansz was a courier of documents, brought Jewish children to safety, and was imprisoned by the Germans. Although he was fighting for freedom in the Netherlands, the ideal for a free Indonesia was always present. In his book De Overkant Ernst Jansz quotes a letter that his father wrote from the prison to his wife in 1944: “I try as much as possible to be worthy of Christ’s name, your love and my country Indonesia.”[efn_note]Ernst Jansz, De Overkant [The other side] (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij In de Knipscheer, 1985) 59.[/efn_note] Another important Indonesian PI member in the Dutch resistance was the Javanese Raden Mas Setyadjit Sugondo, who received the pseudonym ‘Sweers.’ Henk van Randwijk, an important figure in the Dutch resistance and editor of the illegal magazine Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands) was highly impressed by Setyadjit’s personality and political insights. Van Randwijk’s increased interest for the Indonesian independence struggle was influenced by PI members, amongst whom Setyadjit.[efn_note]Gerard Mulder and Paul Koedijk, H.M. van Randwijk: een biografie [H.M. van Randwijk: a biography] (Amsterdam: Raamgracht, 1988) 338.[/efn_note] After the war, Vrij Nederland published articles in favour of Indonesian independence. Famous is Van Randwijks critical words on the frontpage of the magazine at the start of the so-called ‘First Police Action’ against Indonesia in the summer of 1947: “Because I am a Dutchman.” He wrote: “because I am a Dutchman, I say, no! Against violence, which is currently committed by us in Indonesia. By unleashing a colonial war in Indonesia, the Netherlands is committing political folly.”[efn_note]Henk van Randwijk, “Omdat ik Nederlander ben,” [Because I am a Dutchman] Vrij Nederland, July 26, 1947. Later because of its significance, also published by the NRC Handelsblad and De Groene Amsterdammer.[/efn_note]

Some of the children of the Indonesian resistance fighters have been fighting for years to get the deeds of their fathers recognized. One of these dissenting voices is Iwan Faiman, the son of Slamet Faiman. Faiman, Sr. smuggled Jewish children over the Dutch border and arranged false documents. “The heroic deeds of the members of PI have never been recognized,” Faiman, Jr. says. “Even worse – the Netherlands took a hostile position after World War Two because the goal of independence that the PI-fighters pursued was seen as a threat to the Dutch nation.” But their lives were equally marked by war. Faiman says his father’s war past affected the entire family. His father contracted polio during the war and because of his resistance activities he could not get proper medication. “Nevertheless, my father had to struggle for 25 years to get his resistance subvention.” Faiman wants recognition for this forgotten group of freedom fighters. He feels that his voice and that of other relatives remain unheard. “It is about time that we are heard – not only by the government, but by the Netherlands as a whole.”[efn_note]Interview Kusumobroto and Faiman.[/efn_note] Journalist Herman Keppy  is one of the few in the Netherlands who has paid attention to this group of Indonesian and Dutch-Indo resistance fighters.[efn_note]See also his website.[/efn_note]


The photo from the Herman Keppy archive shows Rachmad Koesoemobroto on the left with two Jewish sisters Jewish sisters Emi and Miri Freibrunn who were in hiding in the foreground, and his then fiance Nel van den Bergh on the right. When the house was betrayed, Nel van den Bergh was taken prisoner and murdered. The Jewish children survived the war and live in Israel. Rachmad Koesoemobroto later married Nel van de Peppel, was also active in the resistance movement, and who knew Koesoemobroto from his time in Wageningen, where he was head of the PI district. In 1946 they boarded the ship Weltevreden to go to Indonesia, where their seven children were born (personal communication Murjani Kusumobroto).

Fight for independence

After the war, in 1946, Koesoemobroto returned to his country of origin to pursue the ideals of freedom he had developed while staying in the Netherlands as well as to continue the battle for an independent Indonesia. In 1945, Indonesia had declared its independence. The Dutch newspaper Het Parool wrote about the farewell at the harbour of three members of the PI, Eveline Poetiray, Soeripno and Koesoemobroto who returned to Indonesia with the boat ‘Weltevreden.’ Although the Indonesians were happy to return home, it turned out that many friendships had been made, which made the farewell “heavy” according to the newspaper.[efn_note]”Indonesiers keeren naar hun vaderland terug”[Indonesians return to their home country], Het Parool, December 9, 1946.[/efn_note] Ironically enough, the Dutch imprisoned him in Indonesia, as he was a former member of the resistance. When he was interrogated, he denied that he was the famous revolutionary Rachmad Koesoemobroto. “Just as this questioner started to doubt if he had the right person in front of him, a Dutch soldier walked by. He knew Koesoemobroto from their time in the Dutch resistance together and shouted ‘Hey Rachmad, what brings you here?’’ Despite describing the event with much humor afterwards, it was a tough thing,” says Murjani. “He was imprisoned for one and a half years and my mother had to survive on her own. There was no money and she lost an eight-month-old baby. Both of Koesoemobroto’s brothers were shot during the battle for independence, one by the Brits and the other one by the Dutch.”[efn_note]Interview Kusumobroto and Faiman.[/efn_note] The British, as one of the allies, had to protect law and order in the Dutch Indies after the capitulation of Japan, and quite often also got into conflict with the Indonesian resistance, for example at the battle of Surabaya, near the end of 1946.

Koesoemobroto was imprisoned in post-colonial Indonesia. Initially, Sukarno had sent him to the Netherlands to work at the Indonesian embassy in Wassenaar in 1964.  When he visited Indonesia shortly after that, there had been a change of power. Sukarno and his government had been deposed, and since Koesoemobroto had been part of that regime, he had to go into hiding for three years. The regime of the Indonesian army and General Suharto murdered tens of thousands of alleged ‘communists’ in 1965 and 1966. Koesoemobroto was betrayed and arrested in 1967. He was released only in 1981. During his imprisonment he was put in front of a firing squad four times, as a form of fake execution, says Murjani. But he never let go of his ideals. “My father could have gotten out of prison earlier via an amnesty ruling that applied to him because he had been part of the resistance, but he wanted to get out of prison only if all his fellow prisoners would be released. That was his political belief; he did not want to be privileged. He also never applied for a Dutch Verzetskruis (badge of honor for resistance activities).”

When he was in prison, Koesoemobroto received the news that one of his children had passed away, the fourteen-year-old sister of Murjani who died in a car accident. “The guards laughed about it. That must have been terribly humiliating for my father.” Despite that, Koesoemobroto always tried to change the beliefs of the younger guards. “One time, the prison had organized an educational trip to a statue of one of the heroes of the independence struggle, who coincidentally was one of Koesoemobroto’s brothers. “Koesoemobroto?” said one of the guards. “Is he related to you?” “Yes”, my father said, “that is my brother. We all fought for the freedom of Indonesia and look how you are treating me right now.’’’[efn_note]Ibid.[/efn_note]


The statue of Lt. Soejitno Koesoemobroto, brother to Rachmad Koesoemobroto, in the middle of the square in Bojonegoro, East Java, Indonesia. He was remembered as an independence fighter while Koesomoebroto, who fought from for the same ideals, was arrested because of his ties to the Netherlands. Source: Wikipedia

Fight for recognition

Like Sjahrir, Koesoemobroto had to pay for his ideals: he could not see his children grow up. Murjani says: “we did not even know if my father was dead or alive.” After the fatal accident involving Murjani’s sister, the mayor of their hometown Bennekom tracked down Koesoemobroto with help of the Red Cross and Amnesty International. At that moment, he was on the prison island Buru, that had ironically had fulfilled the same function during the Dutch occupation. In his letters to Murjani, he wrote: “The belief that what I stand for is the right thing, keeps me going.” Strikingly enough, she saw the first images of him on the Dutch TV-show Hier en Nu, presented by Catherine Keyl in 1978. Keyl interviewed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Soebandrio, in the same prison that Murjani’s father was locked up in. The camera team that was with Keyl heard someone shouting from behind a wall, ran towards it and filmed what they saw. “From behind that wall, my father shouted ‘I used to live near the Magere Brug in Amsterdam! Say hi to my daughter!”[efn_note]Ibid and see: Ton Hydra, “Gevangenen en vrije mensen,” [Prisoners and free people] Nieuwe Leidse Courant, April 20, 1978.[/efn_note] Not long after that, he arrived in the Netherlands, severely weakened. He was able to return later to his country of origin as a free man.

Koesoemobroto’s story shows how there was a continuity in ideas and ideals about freedom and a protest voice against the supressing of it that arose in the Dutch Indies, found its way into Dutch society, was lived by in the German-occupied Netherlands, Dutch-occupied Indonesia, and in an independent Indonesia itself. Koesoemobroto fought for a freedom that was inclusive, an ideal that got him imprisoned for life by several regimes. His story and that of others also shows how interrelated Dutch and Indonesian history are, how ideals about freedom were exchanged and how, especially in the memory of the Second World War, little recognition is given to Indonesian resistance.

The story of Koesoemobroto and the stories of many others did not attract much publicity in the Netherlands. These kinds of stories were complicated and did not fit in with the dominant narrative. Murjani has been telling her father’s story for some time now, mostly at primary schools, via the story-telling initiative ‘’Oorlog in mijn buurt’’[War in my neighborhood][efn_note]See the website of the organization In mijn buurt [in Dutch].[/efn_note] in Amsterdam. The 4&5 May Remembrance in Amsterdam, ‘Huizen van verzet’ also often pays attention to this forgotten group.[efn_note]The website [in Dutch] also presents the meeting in 2017 at the Tropenmuseum at which Anne-Lot spoke with Joty Ter Kulve about Sutan Sjahrir and Ernst Jansz spoke about his father. The Tropenmuseum functioned as the headquarters of the Indonesian resistance against the Germans during the Second World War.[/efn_note] When telling her father’s story, Murjani reflects on the traces of colonialism and resistance against it in her own family connecting Dutch and Indonesian history. Murjani and Faiman believe that the way in which history is being taught in Dutch schools does not present a sufficiently broad perspective, since the mainstream curriculum offers little recognition to their fathers. Murjani and Faiman, who were heavily influenced by their fathers’ experiences to fight for human rights, hope that their fathers get recognition in the Netherlands for their role during the war and that their stories contribute to a better understanding of Dutch history in schools today.