John Jansman grew up as one of eight children on a dairy farm in Holland. He recalls it as a happy childhood until it was interrupted by World War II. ‘When I was a kid, I was helping milking the cows at five in morning and again in evening. Usually we had an hour’s snooze at midday to recharge a bit. ‘I finished school at 13 years of age, because of the war — they closed all the schools.
The horror of war
There was no power anymore. No fuel for the heaters, no equipment. ‘I didn't have to go to war because I was too young luckily, but two of my brothers were part of the Resistance. At home we had them hidden away. Underneath a haystack was a wooden box where they slept.’ Occasionally German soldiers came to the farm to look for John’s brothers. Once a Nazi officer questioned John whilst holding a revolver to his head. ‘Life was so different then. You lived in horror every day really.’
Making a life
After the war, John saw an advertisement for social workers to go to Catholic missions in different parts of the world. ‘I volunteered for that and did a couple of years training and they sent me to a place in the middle of Sabah in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu.’ John’s task was to grow food for the impoverished locals. ‘It was in the middle of the jungle. The closest civilisation was 19 miles walking. There was no road, nothing. ‘They showed us where we could start a farm but there were very steep hills with nothing there but weeds. I didn't know the climate; I didn't know the kind of soil they had…A lot of bad things happened because we could hardly grow anything.’ It took lots of trial and error and some ingenuity using bamboo for irrigation before they achieved some success. John left after five years to begin his life in Australia. His replacement didn’t last. ‘He said it was ridiculous to send people from cold countries there and he couldn’t cope, and he walked off.’
Reviewed 25 July 2023