In Search of Food
by Peter van Musschenbroek
When the war with Japan broke out in 1942, my parents, my younger brother Bertho and I lived in Kota Rajah, a town situated at the northwest point of Sumatra, the second biggest island of the former Dutch East Indies.
The first signs of anything abnormal I noticed were the camouflaged cars and buildings, the air raid shelters (we had one of the first in town) and, of course, the air raid drills. Also, we had to have a piece of folded rubber hanging on a piece of string around our necks; we were to hold this between our teeth during air raids. I had no idea why.
All the fit and able professional men had to join the Guards of the city; others were asked to join the Army. The need for recruits was so bad that the officer in charge of recruiting employed a bit of a dirty trick to get some men enlisted. The device for measuring the length of the recruits had somehow got a weight attached to it. This was dropped "accidentally" on the heads of those who just could not make the height requirement; then they were told to come back later. With the bump on their heads they, of course, passed the test!
When the Japanese were getting closer and closer, the women and children were asked to leave for Medan. So, early one morning, we were put on a train. Also with us was Brahim, our gardener, whom my father had instructed not to leave us till we reached Medan. This man was so loyal to us that I am sure that he would have defended us whatever the consequences. The train trip took two days and we had to stop numerous times. Sometimes because planes were sighted and then everybody had to go out and find some shelter, other times we had to wait at a station for an oncoming train, because the line between Kota Rajah and Medan operated on a single track with sidetracks at the stations. At every stop Brahim came by to check whether everything was okay. As a rule everything was, except for burns to faces, arms and legs caused by sparks from the wood-operated locomotive flying in through the open windows.
In Medan we stayed in a boardinghouse that was getting full with evacuees. Brahim came by every day to check, although he could have gone home; his devotion to us was really heartwarming! My father's brother, uncle Max, who lived in Medan, also passed by as often as he could. The night before he had to leave with the armed forces, he took my mother into the Chinese quarters of Medan and they bought all kinds of canned food. All these cans were put in a large trunk, or "the coffin" as we came to call it.
Every morning, we were woken up by soldiers doing exercises. They were stationed in a high school about half a block away. Then the order came for all of us to assemble one morning on a square not far behind the boardinghouse. Many kids were crying, their mothers making things worse by screaming at them to stay quiet. Other women lost their children in the crowd and, of course, they were in near hysterics until they found them.
Next, we were hoarded into a train with all our belongings. Again, Brahim was around to help us as much as he could. The train stopped at a small place outside Medan. It was quite a long walk to the camp where we were supposed to go. How Brahim got there, I guess we will never know; he just smiled when my mother asked him.
Anyway, for some distance he managed to get a sado (a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage) in which we placed the coffin and some of the other heavy luggage. Then one of the Japs ordered everything out of the sado. We managed the rest of the way by carrying our belongings for short trips, going back for whatever we had left behind. Brahim was still helping. Some people laughed at the amount of luggage we had. Most of them thought it to be a matter of weeks or maybe months before we would be liberated, so they had taken hardly anything with them. How sorry they were to be!
We were still trying to find a place to stay, when we were told that we were in the wrong place. Fortunately, by that time the Japs had some trucks available to take the heavy luggage back. Brahim was still waiting outside and tried to help us. The Japs chased him away; when he tried again, my mother told him to go. We had heard enough natives being punished in front of the high school when we were staying in the boardinghouse. Most of them were caught trying to plunder from the houses that people had left. Their screaming and hollering while they were being tortured was terrible. My mother had no intention of letting this happen to Brahim. She told him several times to go; finally, he said good-bye and left with tears in his eyes.
The train brought us farther away from Medan to some army barracks. From then until the end of the war we were kept in camps behind barbed wire.
This first camp, Pulau Brayan, was a women's camp and it was divided into four blocks: A, B and C were together, while D was about a quarter mile from block C.
As soon as everything got settled a bit, a few things were organized: school for the younger children, groups of women to work in the kitchen, others to take care of older and sick people. Some women organized French or German conversation groups; anything to keep busy.
Every morning it was my duty to get our coffee from the kitchen. One morning, a pal of mine offered to give me a ride home on a little two-wheeled cart that he had. As soon as he started off, most of the boiling hot coffee spilled over my legs and rear end. For some time, I was forced to sleep on hands and knees.
Soon after that, an epidemic of sore eyes started. Whoever was affected could not see for several days; pus accumulated under the eyelids. Without any medicines to treat the sore eyes, all we could do was to wash them out often. One night, my mother was washing mine out by the light of an oil lamp when a Jap soldier happened to pass by. As the camp had been ordered to have a complete blackout, we were accused of trying to send signals out to American planes. We were bad people and we would have to move to a part of block A, where all the bad people were sent.
Sometimes the camp was visited by Japanese soldiers for whom we had to bow deeply. Some of these would come over and ask: "Got Mido? Got Parker?" They must have been crazy about these watches and pens. It didn't take the women long to take off their jewellery and hide it.
With the camp population growing, mostly with people from far out plantations and other posts, we had to move again: the new addition was block E. Before moving in, however, our new homes had to be cleaned, as they had been used as shelter for cattle. Not long after we had moved, some new buildings were set up, the siding of which consisted of woven bamboo matting and the roofs were made with palm tree leaves. One can imagine what a tropical rain storm would do with these buildings, and we had several of them. Our mattresses were not on the floor like those of most other people, but with the use of two old doors and bricks they were about two feet off the floor. After the first rain storm in block E we understood what had been behind my mother's idea.
For each of the new buildings the Japs had a public bathhouse built. They were never used as a bathhouse, but as they were made out of wood, we started to take the insides apart to supplement our meagre wood ration for the kitchen. It wasn't long before the Jap camp commander noticed this on one of his inspection tours. To find out who were the culprits, sixty women were rounded up and taken away. My mother was among them. A teacher came over to take care of us for as long as this group of women was gone.
About a week after my mother was taken away, I found myself the youngest in a group of about 15 boys that was taken into Medan, where we stayed with the Salvation Army. We were interrogated several times in groups of four. The Japs wanted to know who had demolished the bathhouses; apparently the women hadn't been very helpful. None of us helped either, not even on the last day when the interrogator became quite unfriendly. I was — I guess because I was the smallest one — kept behind and the Jap tried to force a confession out of me by threatening me with a little horse whip. This experience left me a bit shaken, but I felt good about keeping my mouth shut. Later on, the Jap tried to get my mother to confess by telling her that I had talked. She told him that she didn't believe him.
My mother was taken away another time in our block E period, because she was suspected of smuggling. To get extra food, she would slip through the fence, then cross a small river, and trade with the local people. She did indeed do a lot of smuggling, mostly for other people.
In camp Pulau Brayan I kept chickens. In the morning I would feel the chickens, to determine which ones were likely to lay an egg. Those chickens would then be watched all day to make sure the eggs did not disappear. Sometimes there would be as many as six or seven eggs. These were eaten raw, and my mother ground the shells for us to be eaten as well, as they were a good source of calcium. The eggs were also shared with people who were sick, providing a very important part of their diet.
Everyone in the camps had to do his share of the work, even the children. My task was to help out in the kitchen. Children were allowed to scrape the pots after the food had been handed out, but had to clean up and do dishes in return. However, the little extra food from those scrapings was very much appreciated as we were often hungry. What really helped us get through this period was the fact that my mother was, somehow, very good at getting food for us.
From block E we were shipped to another camp, Gloegoer, where things got very bad as smuggling was impossible. The camp was surrounded by a high stone wall with glass on top. We became desperate for food; the stalks of corn plants were eaten, so were the insides of the banana tree trunk. Women and children started to faint.
The quality of food was also getting worse. Since it was impossible to check the food for so many people for impurities, it was boiled the way it came in. I cracked a tooth on a small stone. We were refused to go out of the camp to see a regular dentist. We had a dentist in the camp, but she was quite sick with dysentery; besides, she did not have any instruments anymore. Someone in the camp had a small pair of pliers, however, and after a few unsuccessful attempts, the dentist had the broken tooth out.
In Gloegoer, I became ten years old in December 1944 and just then it was decided that boys ten years and older had to leave for one of the men's camps. My mother tried to keep me with her, but the Japs were immune to her pleas. So two weeks later we left, 24 boys with all their belongings, some clothes, mattresses and mosquito netting. Nobody knew our destination. The trip took two days.
At the end of the first day we made an overnight stop at Tebingtinggi. The Jap in charge, whom we had called Mr. Baton as he had a little stick with him at all times, asked us what we wanted to eat. We looked at him and then at each other, surprised. We were not used to being asked what we wanted to eat. Besides, during the trip we had been singing a little folk song with words differing from the original. It went like this:
The Americans are coming
Mr. Baton, who proved to be very short-tempered, used his baton on a few. It did quiet us down in so far that we only hummed the melody. He did not hit us anymore, but we could see that he was still furious. When he asked what we would like to eat, we mentioned a fancy rice dish, not really expecting to get it. Mr. Baton walked over to one of the street vendors outside and ordered him to get what he wanted. After we had all been served, nobody dared to eat, however. We were afraid that it might be poisoned but as soon as we saw Mr. Baton and his assistant eat the same food, we forgot our worries and enjoyed a meal like we never enjoyed one before. In about half an hour our trouble started, however. Our stomachs were not conditioned to digest such rich food and we all got sick to some extent. Most of the boys threw up. I tried desperately not to, thinking of the good nutrition that I would be missing, and which I needed.
The next afternoon we arrived at Rantau Prapat. We had to load all our belongings on a truck but we had to walk. The road to the plantations was very slippery after some rain and as it had gotten dark in the meantime, some of us got hurt falling. We crossed the river Bila with a small ferry and shortly after we arrived in camp Si Rengorengo.
We were brought to the kitchen for our evening meal. While we were standing in line, somebody passed by and called out: "Is Peter van Musschenbroek there?" I said "Yes." The man walked up to me and said: "I am your father." I took a better look, but I cannot say that I recognized him with his beard. He took me back out of the lineup and got my ration served right away. We went to our quarters and I gulped my meal down as I knew my father had to be full of questions concerning my mother. I gave him a letter from my mother, who had had a hunch that I might end up in my father's camp.
Life was a lot cosier in the men's camp; there were few chores to do for the younger kids. Eventually, I volunteered to work in the garden inside the camp. The main reason was that it gave me a chance to catch some mice, snakes and grasshoppers. All these provided much needed protein. In this camp, as in all other camps, food was scarce. I remember that I was very good at catching rats, which I had already done in the women's camp. Even though I was still a very young boy, I would catch one, kill it and skin it. Once fried, a rat not only tasted good, but it provided meat, something which was largely missing from our daily meals
I remember one night when I was sick that my father went with me to the toilet; everything was pitch dark. On the way back I stepped on something. My natural reaction was not to lift my foot off, but to push harder as it meant food if I killed whatever it was. It turned out to be a young rat. My father never wanted anything of the animals I killed and ate, till one day I gave him some pieces of a big mouse I had caught. I told him it was chicken given to me by a friend. After I told him what it really was, he ate all my catches with me from then on.
The river Bila flowed past the camp and we were allowed to go swimming during the day. Some of the better swimmers managed to sneak away, despite supervision, and they collected mostly fruit. Also, after a good rain storm, we went after fruit on trees that had been pulled out by the roots somewhere upstream. This was, of course, not without risk but I do not remember anyone getting caught.
One day, I was asked to work in the garden the Japs had made for themselves outside the camp. They had a greater variety of plants there and since nobody but the Japs got something out of this garden, I saw no harm in stealing some fruit or vegetables once in a while. Most of the time, I ate everything right away, because it is hard to hide anything when you wear nothing but a pair of shorts.
Soon after the war ended, my father and I went by train to camp Aek Paminke, where we were very happily reunited with my mother and brother.
When the time came to be repatriated to the Netherlands, we were at first not allowed to go on a boat because my brother had not had the measles. It seems the authorities were afraid of epidemics on board, and this was one way of avoiding them. So, mother let him spend some time with a family where someone had the measles, and then we were allowed to go. Eventually, we left on the Sommelsdijk.
Along the way, we stopped at the port of Adabya in Egypt. Everyone was allowed to leave the ship and we were transported to Ataka, where we were received with music, drinks and snacks. It actually was quite a festive atmosphere, a real change for all of us. The camp survivors, who had lost everything during the war, were provided with clothing more suitable for the climate that was waiting at their destination. There was a play area for the young children, supervised by Italian POWs. The others went over to be registered and stood in line to get a coat, suit or dress, underwear, handkerchiefs, socks, etc. In other words, the basic necessities.
After this brief interlude, our journey continued and we arrived in Holland in May 1946. However, my father did not like Holland and had a great deal of trouble adjusting. Because of this, he and my mother went back to Djakarta, Indonesia, for two more years, while my brother and I stayed in Holland to go to school.
In 1956, I left the Netherlands and emigrated to Canada.
Story copyright © Peter van Musschenbroek, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.