When I was six years old war broke out in the Pacific. It would force me to become an adult in record time. It all started on Sunday the 8th of December 1941, a day I recall with remarkable detail.
At the time we lived in Malang, a hill town nested between the slopes of mounts Kelud, Kawi and Smeru, all active volcanoes. We had attended Mass that morning, as a family, in the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Carmel. The church lay only ten minutes’ walk from our house in the Tampomas Street. I had three brothers at the time: Carel one year older than me, Niek who was three and Aloys just a few months old.
While my mother was getting lunch ready my father listened to the radio. The news was so alarming that he called all of us together. “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!”, he kept saying. “They have attacked the American fleet!” Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, broadcast a message that we too were now at war with Japan . . .
I did not understand the political implications of course but I could see something terrible had happened. My mother cried. My father put on his military costume, and readied his khaki rucksack and rifle. All army personnel were called up with immediate effect, including reservists as he was. That same afternoon my father departed for his barracks after saying a fond farewell. Meanwhile the radio kept blaring out bulletins that became more distressing by the hour. The name ‘Pearl Harbor’ which was bandied about hundreds of times during that day engraved itself on my consciousness as a dreadful disaster.
Events now moved fast. Within weeks the Japanese closed in on Indonesia whose rich resources were one of their prime objectives. Cities were bombed. Malang too was subjected to air attacks by fighter planes which strafed the streets and busy markets. I remember us huddled in a muddy make-shift air raid shelter in our back garden hearing the whining of the planes overhead and the explosions all around us. The fighters and bombers flew in from aircraft carriers stationed south of Java as I now know from reading about it.
The first town to fall, on January 23, was Balikpapan with all its oil refineries. ‘Balikpapan’ is another disaster name etched on my youthful memory, engraved with a horror all the more appalling because I did not grasp its significance. I knew it was the writing on the wall for us. On February 27 the Japanese sank the Dutch navy in the Java Sea. Next day they invaded Java itself with overwhelming force. The Dutch East Indies government surrendered on the 9th of March and soon Japanese troops swarmed all over Malang. All Dutch soldiers including my father were immediately confined to prisoner of war camps. We saw him a final time before he disappeared from our radar.
Dutch women and children too had to register as enemies. We were moved into a fenced off part of Malang which became our first camp known as the Bergenbuurt. We now lived in the Merbabupark Street with two other families crowded into one house. Ever more stringent limits were put on our freedoms. There were daily threats. Rations were tightened. However, compared to the other camps we would inhabit later, this was still heaven on earth. But before we come to that, I need to say a word about my inner life.
It was during this time that I was becoming conscious of ‘being myself’. This may sound odd and I find it hard to describe. For instance, I still see myself, young though I was, standing all alone in the dark hallway of our house in the Merbabupark Street. I had just been involved in an exciting game of cops and robbers with a gang of youngsters like myself. I stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall, still panting and gasping for air. Suddenly, like a flash, a thought overwhelmed me: “I am me. I am alive.” Somehow I grasped its significance and I eagerly confirmed it. Yes, I was me. And I jolly well would take control of my own life – which was easier said than done.
Being ‘broken in’
My mother could be the kindest soul on earth. She also subscribed to discipline. She saw to it that as soon as we could crawl and toddle, we were potty-trained. No nonsense at table either. We were taught to eat the nasitim, rice porridge for infants, that was put before us. We were made to finish it till the last spoonful. We learned how to put on our own shorts and shirts. The first time each one of us tied and knotted his shoelaces by himself was rewarded with a hug and a handful of sweets. If we played with toys mother expected us afterwards to clear up the mess by ourselves. But control leads to clashes.
Her worst conflict with me, my mother told me later, had happened two years earlier. Every morning when she woke me she would lift me out of my cot, sit down on a chair with me on her lap and make me say a prayer. I had to fold my hands, close my eyes and repeat a short prayerful rhyme after her. One day I refused to say my prayer. She kissed me, explained that Jesus was watching us and how I should say ‘good morning’ to him.
I said “No!”.
My mother was taken aback and decided that she should use her parental authority. She ordered me to pray.
I said “No!”.
My mother put me back and called upon my father for support. He too failed to make me comply.
Then my mother told me that I would not get anything to eat or drink until I agreed to say my prayer.
I said “No!”.
She came back once or twice every hour to repeat her demand. No prayer, no food!
Tearfully but stubbornly I kept saying “No!”.
It was only late in the afternoon, after eight long hours, that I gave in, my mother narrated. She was amazed I could defy her for so long. None of her other four sons had ever challenged her like that. From the way she talked I surmised that she considered the whole episode a minor victory in her effort to tame a wild stallion.
I myself do not remember the incident, I was too young at the time, but I have often wondered whether the heavy-handed way in which my mother forced me to ‘surrender’ did not leave a scar on my sense of autonomy. It probably shaped how I related to my mother: utter devotion hid an undercurrent of resentful rebellion. On reflection this ambiguous bond with my mother foreshadowed a similar relationship I would have to Mother Church . . .
During the early months of the war my mother and I clashed again in an incident I would never forget. It happened during an afternoon siesta as was customary in Indonesia. Carel and I shared a bed in our downstairs bedroom. Rays of the tropical sun penetrated through the drawn curtains and cast everything in a glow of shimmering light. Carel and I could not sleep and suddenly, I do not know why, we jumped out of bed, threw off our pyjamas and started to dance around stark naked. We laughed and sang and hopped around on our bare feet.
I still recall the utter exhilaration I felt, the total abandon, the excitement of being body, the thrill of complete freedom. In fact, we were getting ready to waltz as naked as we were out of the room and onto the street. However, my mother had heard the commotion. She entered the room and was horrified seeing the state we were in.
Later I would find out from her how in her family home in Apeldoorn, nakedness had been completely tabu. Every nude body was a lewd body. This called for special measures in a household of nine children, five boys and four girls, crammed into three bedrooms. Every night all lights were switched off whenever anyone was undressing. Pijamas were put on in the dark. And whenever my grandfather with some of the older children went on a cycling tour along the Apeldoorn canal, he would cycle ahead. On seeing bare-breasted men swimming in the canal, he would shout the warning: “All of you, look away!” Nakedness should not be seen. It was bad enough having to carry a naked body under your clothes! The specter of Carel and I dancing naked filled my mother with forebodings of future sexual debauchery.
She called us to order, her face clouded over with anxiety and distress. She made us dress. She lectured us.
“Naughty, naughty boys!”, she said. “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” And pointing to a picture of Jesus on the wall: “See, Jesus is crying. He feels embarrassed looking at you!” And she explained how being naked was dirty, smutty, sinful . . .
Her reaction stunned me.
I knew I had committed an unspeakable crime.
Three months later, as a pupil of the nursery school run by Ursuline Sisters, I was chosen to be one of the sheep in the Christmas play. I steadfastly refused to undress, ignoring the pleas of the nun in charge. I insisted on putting on the sheep’s skin over all my clothes in spite of the hot weather. I would not reveal the awful shame of my naked body again! The repression of my sexuality had successfully been set in motion. It would reign supreme for many decades to come.
Carel and I were admitted to first Holy Communion amidst growing rumours that everyone was to be transferred to another camp. We received preparatory instructions. On the day before the great event I made my first confession – which no doubt featured my antics in the nude. The celebration itself made a deep impression on me. We were all dressed in white, the girls among us wearing flowers in their hair. The church had been beautifully decorated. And in the midst of it all: the magic moment itself, meeting ‘God’ in an intimate encounter of prayer. Unforgettable.
On the 25th of May 1943 the Japanese rounded us up. Every person was only allowed to bring along a small bag with belongings. A shock to my mother who had hoped that she could rescue some of the provisions of food she had thoughtfully piled up. There were five of us: my mother and four young sons. Carel and I were considered old enough to carry a bag.
The Japs transported us in military trucks to Malang Station. There they loaded us onto trains and sent us on our way. The windows of the carriages had been boarded up so we did not know where we were going. Ten long hours in searingly hot murky compartments with little to drink or eat.
Late that night we were disgorged at Surakarta in Central Java.
Confusion at the station. My mother managed to keep us together as we were marched to our camp. She carried baby Aloys on her left arm, holding the main bag of our belongings in her right hand. Three year old Niek stumbled along, holding her by her skirt. Carel and I followed, each clutching a precious bag. Everything in the dark. Guards shouting at us and pushing us along with their rifle buts. Stumbling over obstacles, falling and crawling up again. I recall that night so well. In the middle of all the confusion I grimly held on to the bag my mother had entrusted to me.
We entered the camp. People were assigned to barracks first come first served. We too were crowded into a ramshackle narrow shack made of bamboo with ten other families. A long low wooden bunk along one wall served as our common bed. Space was meticulously measured out on it: 50 centimeters [= 1 ½ feet] of width per person. Finally we could lie down on our own small home in the world. All five of us shared the same flimsy mattress and mosquito curtain which my mother had managed to bring along.
Mankubumen camp, also known as Bhumi camp, housed 4000 prisoners. Conditions defy description. Rats, bed bugs and termites infested the barracks. No clean water. Dirty latrines. The Japs considered us cheap labour. My mother worked on construction and paving roads. Children too had to work. I remember Carel and I toiling in a barren field with rows of boys of our age, preparing it for cultivation by removing stones and flattening clods of earth by hand. But the worst by far was the lack of food.
The food was prepared in a central kitchen. We received only one meal a day in our tin bowl: a portion of rice with curry, just one small ladle-full for each person. Mornings and evenings we were given one table spoon full of tapioca flour in our bowl. Hot water was poured onto the flour producing a watery jelly of no substance. Day and night we were hungry, dreaming of food. I often went on a foraging trip to the kitchen. I used to crawl on all fours over the stinking rubbish heap at its back, looking for leaves of cabbage or peels of onion discarded during the preparation of the curry.
On one occasion a new group of prisoners arrived and I noticed how one family that evening threw out half-eaten sandwiches they had brought with them on a garbage dump. Ignorant in experienced fools they were! I stealthily collected the scraps and brought them back in triumph. Later, when it was dark, the five of us huddled under our mosquito net and enjoyed the unexpected bonanza.
Our Japanese and Korean guards treated us with brutality. No surprise perhaps since a handful of them had to keep thousands of women and children in check. It was a formula that led many prisoners of war to hate the Japanese for life, each and everyone of them. I escaped that fate through a number of spiritual experiences one of which I would like to share.
By way of concession, a priest from a nearby men’s camp was allowed to say Mass for Catholics twice a year. I had received my first holy communion only recently as you will remember and the eucharist meant a lot to me, as it still does today.
Imagine the large crowd of us, sitting on the dusty ground or standing barefoot in dense semi-circles under tall Tjemara trees next to one of the camp’s reeking rubbish dumps. Facing us stood the rough wooden table that served as the altar. The priest recited his prayers in Latin. Next to the altar, seated on a comfortable chair, sat Colonel Sakai, our camp commander, his samurai sword plainly visible as it dangled by a long chain from his belt.
A bell was rung. Consecration.
We all knelt down.
I looked at our Japanese oppressor. To my utter surprise he rose from the chair and he too knelt down, his glittering sword lying flat in the dust next to him.
You will appreciate my surprise better if you know that this same man, just a few weeks earlier, had displayed all the traits of unmitigated Japanese fury. The whole camp had been summoned to stand in the noonday sun to listen to one of his harangues. The Dutch interpreter, who was standing next to him, made a mistake. Colonel Sakai slapped her across her face and she, acting on impulse I am sure, struck back. This, of course, constituted an unforgivable offence: the male emblem of imperial authority being publicly humiliated by a female of a disgraced and defeated nation.
The scene that followed defies description. He undid his belt and beat her time and again. She sank to the ground, unconscious. He ordered a bucket of water to be poured over her. When she straggled to her feet, he belted her again until she collapsed, this time for good. She succumbed to her injuries soon after. While the beating was going on, we shouted, cried, wept – soldiers right and left pointing their guns at us. I remember how I trembled all over with fear and anger. It imprinted a hatred of bullying that has never left me.
This was the same man who knelt down with us and bowed his head at the consecration!
The event moved me deeply on a human and spiritual level in a way I find hard to put into words. The paradox of a ‘pious brute’ perplexed me. I suddenly grasped, somehow, that the commander too was human, frail, groping for God as much as we were. It created a bond with him. Under his mask of cruelty lay a reverence for the divine I shared with him. While remaining a dangerous oppressor, he had humbled himself before the mystery of the universe and so acknowledged himself a seeker in need of God.
I have learnt much more about the Japanese since then, through personal Japanese friends and through reading. What I perceived intuitively as a child, I can now rationalise to some extent. Our guards were formed by their masculine culture, their bushido military indoctrination and unquestioning loyalty to the emperor. The brutes who terrorised us probably loved their wives and children tenderly. They were the victims of a tyranny of mind control, which institutions, whether social, political or religious, all too easily slide into.
Violence needs to be checked with a strong hand, as our daily experience proves. Untruth needs to be exposed. We may not tolerate bullying of any kind. But true peace and reconciliation between people can only come about by understanding individuals as they are: mixtures of evil and good. What we need is empathy, not black-and-white condemnations. The popes who burnt heretics, incredibly, believed it was God’s will. Suicide bombers, though appallingly misguided and dangerous, commit themselves to a generous act of self-sacrifice.
We are walking paradoxes, all of us human beings who populate this globe. We are courageous cowards, blind teachers of partial truths, fired by misconceptions no less than by high ideals. I have often wondered if this is how Jesus Christ saw people? He ate and drank with tax collectors even though they took bribes. He admired the cunning of the unjust steward. He praised a prostitute for ‘having shown much love’. He invited the repentant thief to join him in paradise.
All this has had practical consequences for me. Peace, whether in society or in the Church, starts with a love of people, even a love of our adversaries, candidly commending what is good in them. I have always seen this as one implication of that seemingly unachievable challenge: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” (Luke 7,27)
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, Into gaping jaws