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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Women in prison camps persevered

Letter writer shares her mother’s recollections of prison camp in Java during Second World War
Brian McFadden, vice-president of the Vancouver Island Military Museum, shows elements of a new exhibit there that examines some of the horrors and hardships for women and children in prison camps during First and Second World Wars. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

To the editor,

Re: Women, children suffered and died in prison camps, Nov. 4.

Dad was a POW in Singapore, Mamma and my brother Hans were in prison camp in Java. Wow, what my loved ones went through. They almost died a few times; they kept the peace and never gave up.

The lineups for some hot water and a tiny few tea leaves or a piece of bread or three kernels of rice were endless and when a woman showed fear or cried they were beaten. One Japanese commander made the women beat each other, Mamma didn’t want to hit the lady in front of her so that soldier had a stick with a metal hook and hit her leg so hard, Mamma said it felt like fire. The next day a colonel saw her leg all black and she pointed at the soldier with his back turned, the colonel got men to take him in his office, Mamma said the women heard ‘bang, thwack, aiee’ and the colonel came out and sort of laughed, the women bowed, he bowed and said, ‘OK, OK,’ with a wink at Mamma.

This same demoted soldier wore a canary yellow shirt at full moon and shot at birds. Then at sundown mamma and others sang a Dutch song about the sun going down and the Japanese soldiers tried to sing along.

Mamma told me she had to do forced labour carrying heavy sacks of rice on her back and at another time, she told me, she and the other women had to stand in line and one woman said, ‘quick, stand behind me, they want to select comfort women’ and that woman was selected. That same woman secretly gave Mamma food.

Those were some of the things she went through. She counselled everybody, said don’t give up. Mamma thought of home, of Hans and Pappa, it kept her alive.

On the way back to Holland there was an outbreak of spinal meningitis and many people of all ages died. Mamma was three months pregnant with me. God kept us safe.

Els Herdink, Nanaimo

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