Dutch-Canadian Survivors of Japanese Prison Camps

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by John van Nooten

The day that I had to go without shoes is one that I always remember as causing a significant break in my life. My mother with her three sons had gone into Tjihapit camp in Bandung because living outside the camp was getting impossible. The economy in the Indies had been ruined, and so there were many women and children who had no more income or shelter. That meant that they could no longer buy food and other essentials and in many cases had to depend on charity, which was not always available. Also, harassment from Japanese and native hooligans made it not safe to stay by yourself. Some women solved the problem by moving in with their friends and neighbours and increasing their safety somewhat in this way. The Japanese decided this was a good idea and created so-called "protected neighbourhoods." These were in the beginning surrounded by barbed wire, which was later on covered with a bamboo matting called gedek.

At the outset we were allowed to go in and out of the camp at will; we did not live too crowded as the number of people that were moved into a single family house was not overwhelming. In our first place we started out with four families in a small house. A semblance of normality was kept up by everyone. We had plenty of clothes to keep us decent and we could buy more outside if we needed to. We also could buy food outside if we got tired of the food supplied by the main kitchen, which was free but not very inspiring. But then the Japanese confined us to the camp: we were no longer allowed out, except with special permission. The little market in the camp was closed also, and we were isolated. The only way to get out safely was in a coffin.

Up to that time, I had not yet felt that a complete break had occurred in my life. The Japanese had come and the war was lost, we had no longer a position of privilege, but it was generally believed that the enemy would be defeated within a short time and that things would get back to normal. And one of the things of normality meant that you had clothes and shoes. Especially shoes, because one of the distinctions between "haves" and "have-nots" was that the "haves" wore shoes or slippers or some footwear all the time, the "have-nots" only occasionally.

So when I no longer had shoes that I could wear, I realized that something had changed fundamentally. A sort of new age had arrived. Of course, we boys used to take our shoes off and run about barefoot whenever we felt we were outside adult control. My feet at that time were tough enough that the actual change did not cause much discomfort. But the fact was that my mother, and all the other mothers, could no longer provide for our needs and wants. This must have been hard on them, but for me it meant a break with our previous life — a break which I felt was a more or less permanent one.

The old life would never come back again. It should have been more obvious to many people that the world would never look the same again, but in the camp we lived on hope and the expectation of old times coming back. It is what kept a person alive. To be pessimistic and downhearted was somehow traitorous, because we wanted to live to victory, and dispirited and pessimistic people were a danger to all of us. Even though eventually all of us walked around barefoot and in rags, and we knew in our hearts that everything had been turned upside down, very few would doubt that we would come out on top in the end. And that included yours truly, with or without shoes.

About the Author

John van Nooten was born in Pontianak, but lived in Batavia (Djakarta) when the war started. During the war, his father was in camp Tjimahi, while John, his mother and two brothers were interned together. John spent time in the camps Tjihapit and Tjideng. He returned to the Netherlands in 1946. His mother and two young sons emigrated to Canada in 1953, arriving in Toronto; Marius came later. John and Moira were married in 1961 and they have four daughters, two sons and, so far, nine grandchildren. They lived in Toronto, Prince George, Bradford, Newmarket, Richmond Hill and, since 1972, on their farm in Glen Robertson.

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