Over the course of the past two years, From the Archives has presented excerpts from S. Elisa Ackermans’ work, Our Sisters in Indonesia in the years 1940-1945: In Particular the Internment in Camps from 1942-1945. This month we turn to S. Elisa’s own impressions having researched and written the account of the hardships and anguish experienced by our Dutch and Javanese sisters during the war years.
What strikes one when reading the accounts of life in the camps is first of all the tone in which they have been written. Perhaps because they were written after their authors’ return, the tone is moderate, at times resigned, with a hint of humour. There are no expressions of dismay or repulsion.
Something else, however, is strongly and repeatedly expressed: feelings of fear and uncertainty. The sisters feared what might happen any time a Nip passed; this was largely due to the unpredictability of the Japanese’s’ behaviour, which would veer between normal and out of any proportion. The uncertainty about the outcome of the internment was a consistent worry as well: how long will it be until we are liberated, where will we be tomorrow and with whom, how are our fellow sisters elsewhere and how are family and friends at home in the Netherlands?
Being surrounded by death and sick people on a daily basis had a depressive effect in particular when this befell fellow sisters. . . . The complete absence of privacy and the continual noise and din that posed such a contrast to what the sisters were used to caused inner unrest, which made them less capable of dealing with the situation.
What was worst for the sisters was missing the rhythm of communal prayer, the daily celebration of the Eucharist and receiving H. Communion. The situation differed between caps, but there was at least one camp in which the sisters did not have this opportunity at all during their entire internment.
(Although the sisters were largely spared corporal punishment) they were forced to undergo collective punishments, such as food deprivation, disconnecting the light and extra (field labor). Yet on average the commanders of the camps treated our sisters, as well as other religious, with respect. Perhaps the sisters challenged them less than other women, perhaps it was slightly easier for the sisters to obey the orders of others. Their vow of obedience and many years of practice may have been of benefit to them in this situation.
Only after the sisters had finally arrived home did everybody realize the full extent of what had happened during the years of internment: 35 sisters had lost their lives the caps as a result of exhaustion, lack of physical resistance, hunger oedema, beri-beri, dysentery and other infectious diseases. The sisters heard of the circumstances of their deaths from the surviving sisters and later read it all in the obituaries that were written about the deceased after their fellow sisters had returned. These obituaries are moving witnesses of unnecessary suffering.
Those who died in the camps were younger sisters as well as aged sisters and sisters who had been ill before their internment. The protracted hardships . . . hastened their deaths. One of these victims was Mother Hortense, who had health problems even before her internment. In camp 8 in Ambarawa her health deteriorated rapidly, with the result that she had to giver her life back to her Creator at the relatively early age of 71. Her death was a severe blow to the sisters because she was very much loved and because many sisters had not been able to say goodbye to her who had been the “mother” of the entire mission.
It was not permitted that those sisters who died in camp Ambarawa be placed in the niches of the sisters’ cemetery there. Like all internees they were buried in the section for the poor. In 1950, however, all those who had died in the camp were reburied in the newly reorganized convent cemetery in Ambarawa. The names of the 34 sisters were engraved on a plaque placed to the right side of the burial chapel. Visitors to the cemetery today can still see this moving memorial to the Dutch sisters who lost their lives in the camps.