Along with her parents and seven siblings, Maria Zeemen spent three years of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia during World War II. Not only did her entire family survive, her younger sister Letty overcame the effects of polio contracted during that time. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles from 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 recently went to visit my sisters, Letty and Nel, in the Netherlands. My youngest sister Trixi, who lives in Montreal, also came with me. I have a sister,Clara, who lives in Vancouver, and my oldest sister, Frances, lives in Toronto. At the ripe old age of 94 she is unable to travel.
It took me 10 hours without stops to land at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. It wasn’t an easy flight, but I forgot all about my discomfort as soon as I law Letty. She has always been an inspiration to me. She is only two years younger than I am, so I always felt close to her.
My family is Dutch, and we lived in Indonesia before World War II because my father was a ship’s captain. My parents had eight children. During World War II, when we were all put in a Japanese concentration camp, Letty had polio. During our three years in the camp, there wasn’t anything we could do for it. She was only seven years old when we were freed, and not long after that she got a special shoe with a brace.
Her disability was more noticeable with the brace. She didn’t only walk with a limp, but also with a loud clunking sound as her clunky shoe hit the ground with every step. Children teased her often, and she could only play sports or games with other kids if we (her siblings) played with her.
My sister Letty had a hard time, but one day she got sick of it and threw the shoe and brace into the ocean! She refused to ever wear another one again, no matter what my parents did. Her leg was much thinner and 1 ½” shorter than the other one. She always walked on her tippy toes with that foot. She was quite determined to overcome her disability.
Every single day, Letty did many strenuous exercises that she found while investigating her illness in library books. The opinion of her doctors was that she would end up in a wheelchair. They said that there was nothing they could do to make her better. That leg was always going to be much weaker than the other.
My father wanted Letty to work in an office, but that’s not what she wanted. She wanted to be a nurse, helping people. The nursing school in Amsterdam didn’t want to take her because of her disability, so she went to the other end of the country and applied again, faking her disability. It worked.
She did her training and did it well. Everyday she continued her exercises on her leg. She began to play tennis and became really good at it. She skied and participated in all of the sports events that she could.
My amazing sister Letty became a better swimmer, bicycle rider, tennis player, and walker than me. The only thing I could beat her in was table tennis or badmitten. She lever let polio get the best of her. Letty was very focused and determined and overcame many hurdles.
Letty married and raised three children. She has seven grandchildren, and today Letty can still stand on her head and do the splits like a woman much younger. She’s quite an inspiration and I’m so proud of her. I was happy to spend time with her and the others in the Netherlands.