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Maria Zeeman was part of a large Dutch family living in Indonesia at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942. The following story reflects her memories as a six-year-old child when her life was turned upside down and she was a prisoner in a concentration camp. Her family was separated, but happily reunited in 1945 after the war. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
I felt so big and was anxious about going into the first grade. We lived far from school and no one went to kindergarten at that time. My brother John, who is thirteen months older than me, already did go to school on the bus. He was so proud, telling BIG stories about it.
We were so happy then. My parents had eight children. I have three older sisters and two younger ones, and two brothers. My father was a Dutch harbor pilot and we lived in Indonesia, close to the ocean in a big white house.
Connected to our house were many small rooms in a row. There was a room for the kitchen, washing and ironing, bathroom, toilet room, a room for bikes and toys, and a room for the “cleaning-up” equipment. All of the floors were marble and cool. We had five servants who were with us for many years, and each had their own room.
I shared a room with Letty, my younger sister. We liked to be together. The temperature is very high in Indonesia, especially at midday. We often played at home on the cool marble floors, wearing light summer clothes and in bare feet. We played with cards or dice, Monopoly, jacks, or other games, and we were very competitive! We played with our siblings mostly, since there were no other children close by.
Letty, Trix, Jan and I were the four youngest in the family. My older siblings usually did other things, but they often played with us too. Sometimes we also went to the waterfront and played there, but always stayed together.
At night, dinner was always at 6 p.m. My parents sat at each end of the table, and we children sat four on each side of the table. The food was cooked and served by the baboe (servant). My mom told her what to cook. Our baboe was a wonderful part of our family.
While we were eating, we all got a turn to tell what was on our mind, talk about school or things that happened. When we were finished, the baboe set a small table for Ma and Pa and served them so they could talk together privately. Then we all did what we wanted until bedtime. That was a fun and happy time.
But even at six years old I felt that something had gone wrong. Everybody was so serious and talked softly. They didn’t want to upset us four smaller kids. Sure enough, my father came home one day, nervous and upset, and told us all to get ready to go to the city to try to escape.
We drove a Ford and today I wonder how we all fit in that car, our family of 10, our baboe and the pregnant cat!
We never would guess that this was the end of our family’s happy, peaceful, and free life together.
Road to Djakarta
We were packed in the car and scared. It was eerily quiet on the road. There were no other cars or any living soul around. My father drove and everybody was very still. Then our cat started to meow very loudly. My father had to stop on the side of the road.
Our poor cat was having her babies! We had to leave her on the road and we all cried, including my rough and strong dad. He said we had to go and to pray that somebody would find her and take care of her. I remember that we could hardly breathe. We sat on top of each other.
When we entered the city, Batavia, which is now known as Djakarta, the Japanese soldiers captured us. We were taken to a big house where we were held captive.
At first, our baboe could stay. We were very close to her, especially my two younger sisters and my brother Jan. One day, a Japanese officer came and yelled at my father and put him on a bus with several other men. We had no idea what they were doing or where they took him. It was very scary.
Nobody knew where our father was. The soldiers came in the house and sometimes ate with us at the table. That was very strange. They didn’t eat with a fork and spoon, but they seemed to like our food. They burped and slurped, which was also very strange for us. This situation went on for a few months.
My mother and three older sisters were constantly together. Nobody did anything in particular. We just sat and roamed around the house. We four “little ones” did nothing; nobody seemed to care or know what to do or what to expect.
Then Jan, my seven-year-old brother, and I snuck out to the “campong.” That is where the Indonesians lived in small villages, but were also under the authority of the Japanese. We spoke the native language and the villagers were very protective of us. We heard screaming and loud crying. A bunch of younger men were called together. We were hiding and very scared. Then we saw one of the soldiers grab a man, and with his big sword, cut off the man’s hand. It was horrible.
The people who were hiding us kept us very quiet and took us home as soon as they could. That same night a few soldiers were running through our rooms. All eight of us were in my mother’s bed shivering. That morning my mother insisted that they take us to the camp.
Our life changed again. We had to leave our baboe behind. We never could have guessed how awful the camp was going to be.
After we left that big house in Djakarta, we moved to Tjideng Camp. We were put in a small house, but we could still cook and we had a bathroom for the first eight months. Once a week we were allowed to go out of the camp and buy food or other things with money, or clothes or jewelry. Our problem was that we had no money.
My oldest sister Fransje was pretty smart and asked my mom what she missed the most during the first world war. My mother said, “Soap.”
Fransje had already worked for a little while before the war and knew other people. One of them was Ma San Jaw, a Chinese man who was free outside. Fransje asked him to get her soap, and she started to sell the soap inside the camp. We all helped, and soon we could pay Ma San Jaw some money. He got us more soap to sell, and so we were able to get some food.
Then all of a sudden the soldiers closed the gates and put a double fence around the camp. A soldier would walk around it so nobody could get out. Fransje could never thank Ma San Jaw for helping us, so she threw a thank you note over the gates. Fransje and four other women were caught trying to communicate with outsiders.
Fransje and the other women later came back, and we saw what they had done to Fransje. She was blue all over. Apparently they knew how to hit so that it hurt a lot, but there was no blood. Her legs, arms, and back were black and blue and painful for a very long time. Fransje told us nothing about what happened except for this very tall blond lady who they put in a doghouse. Nobody knows whatever happened to her.
One morning we all had to come forward and give the soldiers all that we had in valuables. They were very rough in taking off the rings and other jewelry. Some of the women hid their valuables, but the soldiers seemed to know where to look. It was awful and very degrading.
Then they rounded up all of the dogs that anyone kept as pets. The animals were all thrown into a big truck, and we cried silently as we watched them slaughter our animals. They made us keep our eyes open.
We were now not allowed to cook or have running water. Every day we went to the big building and received a handful of food. In the morning we got a slice of bread which was like leather; but we could chew on it for a long time.
Early every morning, and again in the afternoon, we had to stand in rows of ten people deep to bow to the captain. There was about a foot between each row. Soldiers would walk down each row, and if someone wasn’t standing straight, that person got beat.
We were made to listen to the captain who stood high on a pedestal. Then we would bow down, and stand straight up again. In the beginning it wasn’t so bad, but when Captain Sone took over, it was often very bad. When he gave the order to bow, he would make us stay bent over for a long time. If anyone fell, they killed that person.
All eight of us children were with my mother until my brother Piet reached the age of twelve. Then they took him away. We never saw him again until after the war. Other families were put into our house with us. We had bed and two big wooden cases for our family to lay or sit on.
My mother, Fransje, Nel and Claar slept on the bed. Jan, Letty, Trix, and I slept on those cases. Fransje stayed home with my mother and the four younger members of our family.
Nel was seventeen years old and her job was to work with the “shouw ploeg” carrying heavy things and cleaning the small ditches that ran in front of the houses. Everybody had to use these ditches as a latrine and a place to throw up. It always smelled so bad, and it was a hard job to keep clean. They used the young girls for that.
Claar was with the eleven-year-olds and had to clean the big black drums where they cooked the food. She would climb into the drums to scrub the bottom. As long as she had shoes, she would bring scraps of food to us in her shoes. Later, when there were no shoes, she put the food under her toes.
We four little ones did nothing. We had no school, no church, no medical help. Slowly we ran out of clothes and shoes, but we always had soap.
Sometimes I think that being part of a large family helped to keep us safe. My mother and I got real sick with tropical sores during the last months, but my sisters always made sure that we showed up to bow down to Captain Sone.
The End of the War
One day we heard the soldiers leave and we knew the war was over. I was nine years old by then and my mother and I were very sick. We had been living in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia for three and a half years. I had not seen my father and older brother Piet for all that time.
My family went back to our spot in the camp and waited. Somehow, Fransje got ahold of a banana and I will never forget how she fed it to our mom with a tiny spoon. We were all hungry, but Fransje gave the whole banana to our mother to save her life. And it did.
Later, we saw packages being thrown from the American planes. The parcels falling from the sky were filled with food, cans, candies, lipstick and cigarettes. These last two things I had never even seen before. We tried to eat the lipstick.
“We will eat again,” said my mother, “and someday you will go to school.” I was amazed and awestruck. I still didn’t know what a school was, or what a doctor or hospital was either. Then we saw a doctor who gave my mother and me some medicine. Her sore was not as big as mine and it got better soon. Mine did not.
Ma Son Jaw finally found us and took my mother, Jan, Letty and Trix on a train to Bandoeng. He knew that my father and brother were there. Fransje, Nel and Claar had to stay with me until I got better. This took two more months. Then our Chinese friend took us to Bandoeng to join the rest of the family.
I had not seen my father or brother, Piet, in four years. I did not even recognize them. They were emaciated and broken-looking. My father had awful scars on every inch of his body, even the soles of his feet. He had a huge swollen nose and a long, scraggly grey beard. I did not know him.
After the war, the younger Indonesians were violent with us and we had to leave. We got on the first boat able to leave Indonesia for Holland in 1946. My father had to remain for a while in Indonesia to help with the ships.
Many years and two countries later, I finally immigrated to the United States of America, where I will stay for the rest of my life. As a newly-freed nine-year-old watching the American planes give food to my starving family after a terrible war, it was my wish to become an American. And now I am!
Published: Jan. 23, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 41