Tuesday, January 20, 2009

5. The Unspeakable Days

Tomorrow has become today. The first of the days of evil, the days of standing face to face with yellow-brown bullet-heads, slanted stone-cold eyes, the cotton peaked caps with sunflaps and small red star, the bowlegs, the ridiculous long swords in leather scabbards, and a mentality utterly beyond human appeal. Standing face to face with Japan Unmasked, without its former civilised veneer of the diplomat, the businessman from Mitsui, the Olympic games. The days of prison, barbed wire, punches in the face, kicks on the shin and groin. Torture to extract information, death for an unsuccessful escape attempt. The stark humiliation of defenceless captives, exhibited in truckloads driven through town for the teaching of the gaping natives. Behold the degradation of the white men, bullied slaves of Nippon, the Light of Asia. See white men bow down to pay homage to anything walking about in the khaki of the invincible Imperial Japanese Army from the land of the rising sun, the descendants of the gods.

Image Source: Geheugen van Nederland

The days of sullen, stabbing hunger burning inside like an open wound. The clinging stench from the latrines, the wretchedness of our situation. The boiling sun, searing us into numbing tiredness. The flies - the pestering, festering flies - and at night the bite of the indestructible lice.

As an added sting, all this is happening in the town of happy, carefree yesterday, on the street corner of the Hellendoorn, or before the Simpang Club, the Town Hall Gardens, the Shanghai Restaurant, in our own Surabaya of the golden times. Is it not just around that block where once the blissful past reigned? When we felt so confident, so secure, when in blind complacency a rock-strong trust was placed in Dutch efficiency, the myth of the British Empire and the might of the Hollywood-promoted American navy and air force. In time many of us will cease to believe in anything or anybody except, as a last resort, in prayer. It is said that this would be the idea, the meaning of the world, the entire universe - that from time to time creation should go down on its knees, in humbleness and submission. [1]

On us have descended the unspeakable days of our lives. And high above all this, the sky looking down - blue blazing or dark cloudy sky, always unruffled, cold and indifferent.

The weeks flow into each other in grey, dull monotony. All non-Asians are herded into concentration camps without any means of communication with family left behind. The honouring of Sunday is not permitted. There remains only hard, unrelenting work, hunger and pain.

One thing there is that they cannot take away from us: our unflinching faith in the ultimate victory by our Allied Forces, in a year, maybe in a few years time. So grit your teeth, soldier. Brace yourself and take it, take it all, and to hell with them. Remember, we've got to be there when the war is over. Our families are putting their trust in that, living for that day. In the meantime, try to get on that particular work detail which will bring us near them, near the place we once called home. Perhaps luck may happen to us, perhaps the guard will be in a benevolent mood and let us have a few words with our wife, sweetheart or mother. And they will tell us not to worry, tell us all sorts of stories to prove they are cared for.

Our gallant women, living in the world outside the gate, who would rather die than let us in on their silent battle for survival, their hardship and suffering, bearing on their frail shoulders the lot, without the support of husband, brother or father. But on that work detail they will be wearing their best, saved for an occasion like this. And they will be wearing their brightest nothing-is-wrong smile too. They will have saved and scraped for a small parcel for us, some clothing, tobacco, food. At the risk of being discovered and mauled by the guard they will smuggle a letter or just a note over the wall, telling us not to worry, that Johnnie has grown another tooth and that all is well. Yes, and in the beginning we are stupid enough to believe the fairy tale from our gallant women and girls.

Our truck halts by a small cafe. A table before the window leaps at me in sudden recognition - our own little table, she used to call it, and it still bears the same checkered tablecloth too. And there was the chair she always took, preferring to sit in a corner. The truck moves on with grinding changing of gears. For a moment I had leapt back in time, with a pang of longing knifing through my heart.

Rumour exchange (click image to enlarge)
"Tokyo bombed flat", "The Americans have landed in Bali!"

Image Source: Web site "Cartoons van K.S. van der Sterren"

Rumours of Japanese defeats at the hands of the Americans abound. Some of us seem to thrive on these stories, going from the wildly improbable to the utterly impossible. They walk about with that certain glint in their eyes which marks the true rumour maker. So when one of them, a newspaper clipping in his hand, grabs my arm smilingly, I want to shake him off. But he hangs on and makes me read a small notice - Lisa has become the mother of a daughter! My eyes, glued to those few words, read them over and over again with a feeling of pride and gladness, and of sadness and longing.

A very unpopular but necessary job is emptying the latrines, which is done strictly on a roster. A sailor, formerly of the cruiser De Ruyter, had performed the task a few days before but has been ordered to do so again. He refuses it flatly. Whether he is justified in his refusal is beside the point. The incredible, unbelievable thing is that his case is brought before the enemy! Our Dutch second-in-command, in civilian life of mediocre background, had been made a captain of our fort. This rank had given him authority and power to order people about, in which he delighted, a trauma so typical of characters suffering from the father of all traumas, an inferiority complex. It had turned him into a self-made Captain Bligh, and before capitulation he was always difficult to deal with. But now he has committed the worst sin in the eyes of all his fellow prisoners: he has reported to the enemy! And the Jap decides to set an example. We have to fall in, facing the parade ground, to which the sailor is led by armed Japs. Once more he is ordered to do the job and again he refuses for all to hear. Then a Jap steps forward and judo strikes our man sprawling to the ground, whereupon others move in with rifle butt and boot. For most of us this is the first time we witness a manifestation of their mentality, which is not a pretty thing to see. But what makes it more revolting is that it was inflicted through the attitude of one of our own officers! The victim is soon unconscious and is carried away, more dead than alive. During the whole ghastly performance at least a platoon of Japs were in the trees around the square, their machine pistols at the ready. The creep in captain's uniform is unanimously declared an outlaw, to be dealt with as soon as the war is over.

After this incident the enemy's mood is worse than ever. Perhaps they are disappointed because we did not come rushing into them, overrunning them with our vastly superior numbers. Perhaps they took that chance. These people have been carefully spoon-fed with a deep hatred of anyone against them. To them war is a matter of killing rather than of survival for themselves. These fanatics have been brought up to believe with absolute certainty that the immortal soul of every Japanese soldier is lifted straight into the Shinto-heaven for warriors, should death befall them in honourable war. A wholly military-minded indoctrination took care of that important preparation before they were sent to Southeast Asia, or to any part of the world where they had to fight for Nippon. Moreover, should we have started anything, most likely our women and children outside the camp would have had to foot the bill according to the way of the Japanese, and likewise of the Nazi Germans and the Soviets.

Officers of the Kempeitai
Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

Here are people who torture and kill men and women of a vanquished nation. Here are creatures, calling themselves soldiers, who bayoneted British servicemen who had fled from Singapore, been stranded on the east coast of Sumatra and had surrendered to the Japanese. And these warriors of Nippon then had female nurses from the same ship line up on the beach facing the sea, and mowed them down with machine guns. Here are people who force our women to squat with their knees on the sharpened edge of bamboo slats for hours on end, until the bamboo slowly penetrates the skin and flesh right to the bone. Only because the women had tried to catch a glimpse of their beloved husbands through a crack in the fence. People able, and willing, to inflict the heinous, unprintable cutting and piercing in the "questioning rooms" of their secret police, the Kempeitai.

As true as it is that alcohol may bring out the real mentality of an individual, war exposes that of the warring race. To be capable of committing these atrocities, on human beings already defeated and therefore defenseless, calls for a state of mind which to specify as cruel is to miss the heart of the matter. The mercilessness is not isolated to a few perpetrators, but officially ordered. The degree in receptivity to humane principles characterizes one kind of people, en masse, from another, irrespective of colour of skin, culture or technical knowledge. You may be defeated and yet bear a certain amount of respect for the enemy. For the Jap we can only feel such an intense revulsion that it is beyond hatred. If and when we can kill them, we would do so as if dealing with a snake - something unwanted, alien, not deserving remorse or afterthought.

A few weeks later we witness another performance staged by our captors, but this one is somewhat hilarious. A Dutch officer is held responsible for something or other, and this time the Nip has a new idea. Before the assembled prisoners the officer in question is handed a knife and ordered to commit harakiri, face-saving self murder. For the occasion a roofless bamboo-mat cubicle is erected, to which our man is led with an expression of utter consternation on his face. Vehemently protesting, he is finally pushed inside with force and the door discreetly closed behind him. One full minute of silence passes, after which the Jap master of ceremonies opens the door. What he sees is certainly not an honourable death, for we hear loud scolding and face slapping!

Then the Jap emerges again to wait, after which he sends another Jap up on a step ladder to peep from above. But this Jap, looking down into the cubicle, shakes his head in a hopeless gesture. The officer-prisoner, the same perplexed expression frozen on his face, is led out. After the customary number of clouts, but otherwise unharmed, he is sent back in disgrace to his fellow barbarians. Fortunately the Jap, in one of his unpredictable moods, does not decide to take the matter into his own hands by killing the officer inside the cubicle, and so let it appear as if the prisoner did commit suicide. Who could prove the contrary?

On a manganese ore work detail an old wine barrel is discovered, containing a Burgundy of respectable vintage. While our guard is fitfully dozing in a corner of the wharf, we first fill our canteens and then the party is on. Hours later we return to camp, high as a tick, bracing ourselves against the inevitable bashing and kicking. But here again, for some inexplicable reason, the guard morons decide to take our obvious rosy state of affairs as a great joke and laugh their silly heads off. The following day an overwhelming number of volunteers eagerly present themselves on the parade ground for the manganese job. We venture to believe that perhaps the Japs have decided to adopt a more forgiving attitude. It is not so. One of ours has escaped, and went to the last place he should ever have gone to - his home. Promptly captured, he is led, after a gruelling waiting time, to a small strip of beach well known to patrons of the once so popular nightclub "Seaview". A firing squad is waiting. Refusing the blindfold, our man spits the squad leader in the eyes and hails the Queen until the bullets rip into him.

The grass, lush and green in the corner of the parade ground, is like a carpet against my back. The tops of the trees move in the wind of a cloudless afternoon. Obscured from view by the bamboo wall, I can hear people outside on the street talking and calling to each other. Indonesians and Chinese, free to go and come as they please. The clip-clop of wooden sandals, the call of the street vendor, the ring of the bicycle bell. All so oddly quiet and peaceful. With blind eyes gazing at the blue vault above, I set out on a trip. By some magic transformation it has become possible to be among those free men outside, and to walk in a certain direction. First down the street to the kiosk on the corner, then to the left side, up over the bridge. Down the lane of sycamores along the river and then through the shortcut by the vacant lot....Come off it, this won't do! Funny, though, that I should get up this morning with a strange feeling that, whatever will happen, Lisa and the baby will be safe and that we'll be together again after the war. I can't explain this conviction. The minister said that was God working in me. Why me?

Here they come, surging like a flood through the wide open gates of our camp, their cries a mingling of laughter and weeping. Our noble-hearted masters, on the anniversary of their gallant attack on Pearl Harbour, allow them a three hour visit to meet brother, father or husband on "home ground."[2] However, kissing will not be permitted. None of that barbaric habit, too offensive to the refined, ethical Japanese code of bushido. As soon as the women are inside the order is completely neglected. Nothing can stop it. Even our guards turn their backs to it. For me there will be no kissing at all. Lisa has not come, nor anyone of my family! It is very disheartening to stand in my best uniform shirt and trousers, only to gaze at the open entrance with a cold, sinking feeling inside. Then one of the visitors who knows Lisa, notices my bewilderment and tells me that he had seen her going in a different direction. Perhaps she has gone to the wrong camp, thinking that I had been among those who were moved to a different location a few days ago. Maybe she'll turn up later.

Nearby, a young mother in a low-cut, sleeveless frock is bent over her baby in a wire basket, looking up to her husband, her pretty face tilted slantwise. He is softly talking to her, holding her gaze. Brushing her chestnut-brown hair aside with her arm, she holds it up to screen off the glare of the sun. A radiant picture of parted, moist lips, eyes brimming with happiness. Her armpit reveals a patch of dark pinpoints of shaven hair. Around the base of her pert little nose are tiny freckles, larger ones on the upper part of her breasts pressing together in a long, deep cleft visible in the front opening of her dress. A bosom full of allurement and mother's milk. The complete absorption into each other, the bond between a man and his woman, composed of spiritual and physical attraction. The realization of that unchangeable truth, exhibited by that young couple there, seems to take away some of the hopelessness of our situation, strange as it may seem. They are kissing, with great hunger, hands clasping hips and waist, bodies strained to press against each other. One of her sun-tanned legs, drawn up at an angle, shows a feminine rounded knee and heavy thigh, the skin pale white at the pink-laced lining of her panty. All of it I observe unemotionally, clinically, for though I am free of worry, the disappointment at Lisa's absence is too deep to leave room for excitement. Their mouths rub and knead. She withdraws her swollen lips shining with saliva. She gives a little start when he whispers to her, and both look at the toilets. Shaking her head, she gestures questioningly at the basket. Again he whispers to her, casting a fleeting glance in my direction. Good grief! Is their need, even at a time like this, so great that they do not care to be seen entering the toilet together? What are we, animals?

"All right, you two, I'll mind the baby."

She walks out in front, he follows her casually without the slightest trace of embarrassment. Under her cotton frock the buttocks move promisingly. At the open gate a few sparrows are pecking in the dust. The baby is cooing.

Two days later, a note from Lisa. After having been misdirected to another camp miles away, she finally arrived at ours, but found the gates closed. "Everyone at home is quite well," she writes. "So don't worry, darling. The baby is growing like anything. You should see her. I'm so happy with our baby Mary-Em. Do you like the name? She reminds me of you every day." The note also contains a warning to be very careful in dealing with the enemy. A week ago, a Dutch civilian, for some reason or other still free, had been summoned by a Japanese officer to his quarters. The Dutchman recognised the Jap at once. Both had been together for years at the same high school in Surabaya, years before the war. The Nip suggested a toast to Japan's victory. The Dutchman refused, telling him in no uncertain terms what he thought of the Japanese and Japan in general. Without a moment's hesitation the Nip drew his sword and beheaded his old school friend on the spot.

After another two months of hoping and waiting we are assembled on the parade ground, not for a surprise roll-call this time, but for good news. Through the benevolence of his divinity, the good Emperor of Japan has granted another three hours visit in celebration of his birthday. Tomorrow I will see Lisa.

Frank's mother, Emma, with her two granddaughters:
Mary-Em (seated) and Margie (standing). Margie is Frank's niece.
Photo taken in 1943.
Photo Courtesy of Margie Samethini-Bellamy

The two grandmothers, Lisa and Mary-Em are seated on the lawn. I feel very much like a father with the baby holding my finger. We talk and laugh like on a picnic without hundred of people around. Lisa is as beautiful as ever but with an added tone of matureness. Though barely twenty years of age, she is not quite the young girl anymore - the girl of the wading pool, of hand-holding and movie watching, of that unforgettable time of growing intimacy. Motherhood has not affected her figure; she is as slender as before. Time has stood still with her since that first kiss, except for that air of ripeness, not seen but sensed.

There is so much to tell, and yet so little, for none of us wants to mention what is so much on our minds. The conversation is kept strictly to ordinary, everyday things. We avoid saying, "I love you" or "I long for you." We do not even say, "I'm so lonely." I hear little things about the baby and how good the doctor was who had brought a toy for Mary-Em. And naturally we say, again and again, that it will be over soon and everything will be back to normal.

The three hours have swept by, almost unnoticed. We rise to our feet, striving to keep our voices level. Now I've got to say something to cheer them up, but a lump has risen in my throat. Words will not come, only a mumbled "So long." So long, for God only knows how many months, years it will be. They understand, and say little themselves. One has to be strong, one has to be cool. Hysterics will not help.

First I kiss the two mothers, then the sleeping baby, and then Lisa's quivering lips are on mine, her sweet breath on my cheek, as so many times before. Not a single word is spoken. What is there to say?

She is going now, walking backwards away from me. Backwards, so she can look at me as long as possible until the dense crowd of departing people will swallow her up. There goes her dear, lovely face, moving away. She has reached the gate now, one hand pulling the pram, the other hand flown to her mouth. Tears glitter in her eyes. What I see in them I cannot describe - the turmoil, the sadness, the fear and the boundless love this beautiful girl is offering to me.

Suddenly, harshly, it has become a fact. They are gone. The visit is something of the past. But her eyes are still there on the small patch of grass that was our world for three hours. There is the spot where she sat, here the imprint of the pram wheels in the soil.

Picking up the basket, I go to my sleeping place in the dormitory. I turn down the mosquito net. Hidden by the green webbing, I softly cry on the food and the tobacco, some photographs and underwear their loving hands have put in the basket for me.

I'm crying for the first and the last time in this rotten war, on the birthday of that rotten Emperor of Japan. [3]

Japanese soldiers in Surabaya parade in celebration of the Emperor's birthday
Source: Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Leiden


[1] A contemporary Red Cross document, dated 6 June, 1942 (appended to a Swedish Consulate report on conditions under the Japanese occupation), lists seven POW camps in Surabaya: Jaarmarkt, Darmo, Tandjong Perak, Coen Boulevard (Christian Brother-school), H.B.S. (Middle School), Auxilliary prison Bubutan and Koblen. The document also mentions the temporary POW camp at Menari, Frank's first place of internment. Lisa recalls that one of Frank's camps was a former high school, which would indicate either Coen Boelvard or H.B.S.

[2] There is some confusion of dates here. Frank's notes ("S'pore: Nov/Apr, '43") show that he was in Singapore on 7 December, 1942.

[3] Lisa records that she tried without success to visit Frank on the Emperor's birthday (29 April), a date verified by the Swedish Consulate report as the first opportunity granted by the Japanese for POWs to meet with relatives. The successful visit of Lisa, Mary-Em and the two grandmothers took place in June or July, 1942.

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