September 2013

With the signing of the peace treaty in August 1945, the war in the Pacific was officially over. Not only did troops think about returning home, the actual transition to civilian life began as soldiers, sailors, and airmen (and some women) began to be “mustered out.” For those who lived in the areas directly impacted by the long years of fighting, the end of the war did not mean an immediate return to “normalcy.” For our sisters in the East Indies who had suffered all the uncertainties, indignities, and terrors of life in the camps, there would be much left to endure.

As S. Elisa Ackermans describes in her work, Our Sisters in Indonesia in the years 1940-1945 . . .
As soon as the camp gates had been opened, arrangements were made to get everybody “home.” Sr. Xaverio, who had taken the place of the deceased Mother Hortense, took some firm decisions. East-Indian people could go to their families outside the camp at once. The Belandas [Dutch] were not allowed to leave, or only at their own risk—this was actually determined by the Red Cross, which carried the final responsibility. The sisters could go straight to the Maria School in Ambarawa, where Mother Gerardis and the East-Indian sisters resided: it was just half an hour’s walk. Every day little groups went there until orders were given that no Belanda could leave the camp any longer, not even at their own risk.

It was too dangerous for the Dutch to be seen “out and about.” However, the Red Cross did transfer the sick to hospitals, one of which was St. Elisabeth in Tjandi [Semarang]. Many of the sisters were, of course, very ill and so were brought there which was a good thing. Meantime, the other Dutch sisters were still in Camp 7, Ambarawa. The tides of nationalism were sweeping Java and many groups known as “pemudas” were taking to the streets and venting their fury against the Dutch colonisers. They searched anyone walking in the streets. They planted bombs in larger buildings and also set fire bombs. “At every entry to the city people had to be searched, for even old women would have hidden munitions in their clothes and children had munition in their lunch boxes.” The resistance developed into a full-fledged war and it took the British troops several months to restore some semblance of peace and order. It was not until December 1945 that all the sisters were released from Ambarawa and returned to Tjandi.

In addition to the physical dangers and deprivations, there was also the uncertainty regarding the future. They had survived so far, but what was to come? Would the Dutch sisters be allowed to stay in the East Indies or would they be forced to return to the Netherlands? Once again they were called to wait, for there was no quick or sure solution to the post war problems.

In the next column, we will hear from S. Elisa as she summarizes her impressions after reading first-hand the camp accounts written by the survivors.

July 2013

As the war continued to drag on in the South Pacific we learn from S. Elisa Ackermans’ work that our sisters were gradually moved from camp to camp and became concentrated in the camps of Ambarawa. 

 S. Marie-Joseph Donsen had been the director of the hospital in Tjandi where she seems to have gained a reputation as one who was willing to take great risks.  Although the Japanese did not accept protests, when she was asked to sign a request to be allowed to resign from the hospital she categorically refused, saying, “I do not sign lies.”  Despite their “annoyance” at this, the Japanese realized her worth and allowed her to remain until a capable alternative could be found.  S. Marie-Joseph thus became the last sister to be interned and when she arrived in Ambarawa she found a pitiable situation.  S. Didima, who had been severely traumatized, would not be left alone for even a minute—how to care for her?  The need for nursing care was great and she found herself in constant demand.  She cared especially for the old, sick men and was also a confidant for the young girls.  Because the Japanese came to the camp to choose their “comfort girls,” S. Marie-Joseph spoke to the camp commander and urged that he not allow this—all in vain. 

One evening 10 girls were collected in her presence:  despite all her efforts she was unable to prevent it.  The girls were taken away by force.  They were little more than children and did not even realize what was hanging over their heads.  Before going, they prayed in their childish innocence to Our Lady that they might keep their chastity.  Later, Sr. Marie-Joseph learned that five of them were pregnant and one had committed suicide.

Harassment was the order of the day, lack of sleep, little and poor food rations, no medicine—conditions continued to worsen as the weeks dragged on.  One day S. Marie-Joseph requested quinine that had come in so that she could treat the many suffering with malaria.  The guard “took two bottles, poured the contents on the floor and crushed the bottles under his big boots. ‘Help yourself,’ he said.” 

 By mid August 1945 even those who had somehow managed to survive all the hardships and remain relatively able were now felled by fevers and infections.  Everyone knew that they could not last much longer and yet they believed that the end could not be far off.  Then, suddenly they were joined at Ambarawa by the sisters from the Muntilan camp and, a few days later, by those from Solo, Mendut and Magelang.  Although this meant that conditions were even more crowded, there was great rejoicing at the reunion.  Rumors that Japan had capitulated reached the camp by August 22 and the next day the camp leaders announced that the peace treaty had been signed on August 15.  The war was over!

 S. Theophile wrote:

It is impossible to describe the joy and gratitude this news was greeted with.  The Dutch flag was hoisted, the national anthem was sung . . .  The rice rations were doubled that day.  The commander turned like a leaf on a tree, all oriental courtesy and affability.  The camp gates were opened wide, we were free to move around Ambarawa and passar (go to the market.)

But, as you will read in the next column, “normalcy” was still a long way off.

April 2013

We continue to follow the story of our sisters in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation--

Muntilan is located on the road from Semarang on the north coast of Java and Yogjakarta in the south, near the volcano Mt. Merapi.  It was the site of the camp where 42 sisters from the communities of Mendut, Muntilan, and Magelang were interned beginning on July 15, 1943.   There were 50 sisters from other congregations there as well.

            S. Elisa writes that life at Muntilan was fairly quiet at the beginning.  There was sufficient food and the sisters could even go into town for needed provisions.  “The Japanese also allowed Christmas festivities to be celebrated.”  However, by March 1944 the situation changed.

The harshness of camp life now really made itself known:  backbreaking labour on the land for at least 3 hours in a row and in the burning sun; dragging . . . heavy bags of rice from the camp to the church where it was distributed; pumping water was part of the sisters’ daily chores as well.  Normally a pump would be used for this purpose, but it had given up the ghost.  The Nip responsible for water provision simply said:  “I don’t need a new pump, I have more than enough living pumps here.”  Pumping up water by hand for 4,000 people every day was no mean feat. . . . Beatings were the order of the day in this camp.  The internees heard people screaming when the Japanese were beating them.

By mid-May, the sisters were assigned to a smaller room which also had to accommodate additional sisters who had been transferred from Camp Solo.  Among the new arrivals was S. Eliana Steegh who was critically ill and soon died.  She was buried in the cemetery next to S. Bernadette who had died shortly before.

August 1945 brought yet another move as the sisters packed what little remained (three chairs for 40 sisters) and were transported to Ambarawa/Camp 7 where they were reunited with Mother Xaverio Savelberg and her sisters from Semarang.

Camps 6, 7, and 8 at Ambarawa had seen many of the sisters transferred in and out during the internment period.  As in the other camps, the initial manageable situation soon deteriorated.

Diseases spread and a lack of room became acutely felt as the camps were flooded with people.  In the end it was so crowded that in the area where the sisters had to sleep each sister had just 60 cm to lie on.  They slept on a mat rather than a mattress, lying like sardines in a tin; the gallery where they slept was screened off, but, as Sr. Theophile said, “during tropical downpours the roof displayed the properties of a sieve.  But we would pick up our mat and lie somewhere in the centre aisle, although by doing so one did run the risk of being trod on by someone waling around in the night.”

In our next segment from S. Elisa’s book we will take a look at some of the descriptions of the Ambarawa camps and the experiences of the sisters who found themselves there.

February 2013

Throughout 2012, From the Archives has shared portions of S. Elisa Ackerman’s history, Our Sisters in Indonesia in the Years 1940-1945: In Particular the Internment Camps from 1942-1945. Because of S. Elisa’s research we have learned something of the "causes, the nature and the extent of the internment." We have read some of the particulars of individual camps and individual sisters.

This month we return, as it were, to the camp at Bangkong. Sisters from St. Elisabeth Hospital in Semarang had been divided into groups and sent to several camps. On August 3, 1943, the final group found themselves delivered to their own convent in Bangkong in another area of Semarang.

They hardly recognized their own house: they found it almost in ruins, with crying infants and shouting and screaming boys and girls everywhere. It was not exactly a happy arrival. They were each given a cell and together a communal room overlooking the street at the front. . . . The windows had even been boarded up, but if the Nip was away, they managed to peep through some cracks. On 1 September they saw the sisters of Gedangan with their goods and chattels passing by, traveling in open trucks . . . on their way to the camps . . ..

At the beginning it seemed not too bad. The sisters could even "follow Holy Mass from a distance, take Communion, and ‘celebrate’ a profession or name day feast." However, conditions soon worsened and they watched as the "contents of their convent were demolished under their own eyes." Even the chapel pews were sawn into camp beds and trestles. Punishment was frequent, ranging from beatings to being kept in total darkness from 6pm. ‘til the next morning. Soon their space was reduced and all the sisters were squeezed into the space that had been allotted for a common area.

[They lived] in that one room with 20 sisters from then on. . . . They made makeshift beds by placing the tour legs of each bed on top of their cabin trunks to build bunk beds. Soon there were ten beds in the air and underneath them, between the cabin trunks, they had created another ten sleeping spaces. . . . There was no room left to sit together, so each sister would sit in her own narrow corridor, on or next to the bed. . . . When the food was served, they would call out: "Dinner for Corridor A," followed by corridor B and then everybody would disappear into [her] own narrow corridor. They got used to everything, including this discomfort, but when somebody fell ill, she would have to lie amidst this circus, which was far from pleasant.

Bangkong was the camp where many 10 years old boys were transferred to. Boys were brutally separated from their mothers as soon as they reached the age of ten. The sisters took them under their wings and care for them like a second mother. Many contacts originating during that period far outlasted the war.

So life continued until September 10, 1944, when it was determined that most of the sisters would be transferred to camp Halmaheira, one of the worst and where, as we learned in an earlier article, nine sisters died between September 1944 and August 1945.