Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Live Together, Die Together

This photo, taken sometime in 1942,  is the last photograph we have before Tikus (aged 29), Henny (aged 8) and Lottie (aged 6) were interned.  It was taken to send to Hans who was already in prison camp. 
There are no more photos after that time until 1946.  It is as if those years didn’t exist – for a long time banished from memory as well as from record.  This was how many survivors of the Japanese camps managed to cope after the war.  They blocked it out and “just got on with it”.  My family rarely spoke of the camp years, which has meant that many of their memories are now related to me to a certain extent still through the eyes, and with the understanding, of children.  Uninfluenced by anything written later by other camp internees, their stories in many cases lack a context and rationalization that only the adults might have been aware of.    Thus, any reconstruction of events is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, each piece, each memory is well defined in its image yet many pieces are missing, making it impossible to see the overall picture from these pieces alone.  However, this also means that their stories and explanations capture, in a raw and immediate way, those confusing and seemingly irrational years, providing a true insight into how it would have been for a child growing up as a prisoner of the Japanese.     
Different events made different impressions and so the accounts at times differ or are unique to one sister or to the other.   Henny once saw a Dutch woman leaving her home, carrying a lamp in one hand, a lampshade in the other and a ceramic potty on her head “ like a Javanese lady”.  She had walked off, leaving behind her the suitcase that she had meticulously packed, presumably with her most treasured possessions as well as clothes and other items that would become essential for survival inside the camp.  Something about that sight struck her beyond a child’s innocent conclusion: “silly lady”, and the memory has remained with Aunty Hendy for all of this time.  The adult Hendy is able to make sense of it:  Such would have been the confusion and pressure of a moment in which a person knows that they are to lose not only their freedom, but almost everything that they own, that they have worked for and built, when they are told that they can only take with them, into the complete unknown, what they are able to carry.  
About the capture and questioning of their mother by the Japanese however, their accounts are   identical.   They were stopped by Japanese soldiers whilst riding bicycles in town, returning from a fitting at a dressmaker.  The soldiers insisted that Tikus go to the Japanese office for questioning and so she sent the girls home to be with Moesje.  This was not the first time she had been stopped and questioned.  However, they all sensed that this time it was different. By that time, it was risky to be out and about around town.   The Japanese policies and criteria for internment had shifted and anyone European looking, particularly if they had blonde hair and light coloured eyes, was to be rounded up, regardless of their nationality.   Perhaps naïve to this risk, Tikus may have felt a false sense of security, leaning as she had been doing on her Austrian lineage and destroying all documents that would link her to the Dutch military, keeping the ones that referred to their living in Belitung (Billiton) before the war, where Hans had worked as a civilian in the tin industry.  Having come to Bandung after the outset of the war and staying exclusively with friends, her name was not in the Bandung Address Book and so she had escaped early capture.   Now, the questions were more probing: “if you are Austrian, where is your swastika?”.  Of course, she could not produce one.  “Who is your husband?”   “Where is your husband?”.   It was inevitable that they found out that she was the wife of a KNIL (Dutch East Indies Army) officer, someone who should have been interned months previously along with the other prominent Dutch figures.   She was escorted home immediately and was given ten minutes to pack whatever she could carry.
Both Mum and Aunty Hendy remember, in more or less exactly the same words, the final decision that Tikus, at just 29 years of age, made when faced with the choice of  leaving her two young daughters with Moesje who almost certainly would be safe and would not be interned, and bringing them with her into the camp.   She would have had no idea how long they would be apart should she decide to leave them and she would have had no idea what would become of them once they were “achter”,  behind  - behind the gedek, the bamboo and barbed wire fences.   The decision that she made and told to Moesje, however, as they whispered hurried promises and plans, was the only one that was ever really open to her:
“We will face everything together”        
“Live together, die together”.
We know that they were interned in three separate camps over the following three years.  During this time, both girls recollect only one train journey, and that was the journey that took them to kamp Makassar, near Batavia (Jakarta).   They recollect that the first two camps were located in residential areas, the homes mostly bungalows with garages on the side, whilst the last camp (Makassar) was a barracks.  However, they do not know the name of the first camp in Bandung nor the location or name of the second camp.   There are two possibilities that I can deduce from this information:
1)   Karees (Bandung) -  Kota Paris (Bogor) – Kamp Makassar (Batavia)
2)   Karees (Bandung) -  Tjihapit ( Bandung) – Kamp Makassar (Batavia)  
I have done some research online and have found old maps for both of the Bandung women and children’s camps as well as some testimonials and diaries written by people who were interned there.  I realise that I have been visiting the Tjihapit camp area (a large area which included more streets than is now considered to be within Cihapit today) without knowing it:  the Chinook bar is a block down the road from the former Japanese office (now The British Institute);  the British Institute is next to the semi circular Taman Premuka Park, previously the Oranjeplein which was the site of one of the camp kitchens;  Jalan Riau, home to factory outlets and stalls advertising “Oleh Oleh Bandung!” (an appropriately jolly term for souvenir snacks) marks the Western boundary of the Tjihapit camp (and the Eastern boundary of another camp, Bloemenkamp, for families of those forced to work for a time for the Japanese); the gedek wall surrounding the entire camp is marked by a dotted line (see maps below).   I have also been in the vicinity of Karees, having crossed the train tracks at Jalan Laswi on my way to Buah Batu. 
I realised at that point that if I start down this road, there is no turning back.  I would be asking my mother and my aunt to talk to me about things that they have blocked out for the better part of seven decades.  I am surprised to recall how they both described Bandung to me as ” beautiful” eleven months ago.  It seems as though the horrors for them were in the camps and stayed in the camps, the gedeks providing a boundary between two worlds, not just physical but also mental.
Both sisters are now starting to read some literature on the subject, books that I, and others, have recommended to them.   As I write this, I am sitting in my mum’s house, on a brief visit to the UK.  I am thinking about this morning when she was flicking through the photos in the centre of Boudewyn Van Oort’s book, Tjideng Reunion.   She turned the page and upon seeing a photo of a Japanese soldier staring directly into the camera, her immediate reaction was to cover the photo with her hand and turn her head away, her expression revealing a mixture of disgust and fear of imminent danger.  I could literally see the shivers going up and down her spine.  
Me who has never known war, who never knew my Oma (Grandmother), who is a little bit Dutch but not a lot, do I really have the right to barge into someone else’s forgotten past and open up these old wounds?
The answer came when my mother said to me “This is your story as much as ours.  And you must write it in the way that you feel is right “.  I realise that this is what it means to be a mother and I am forced to ask myself whether or not I would have that capability within me.    How difficult it must have been for Tikus, several years younger than I am now, to know what to do for the best. 
Had she known then that camp would be the last place they would live together under one roof, she could at least have taken heart in her decision to keep the family together.      

From Tjideng Reunion by Boudewyn Van Oort

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