Some of the Hidden Memories of Willy Kuh Val
as told to Marjolyn Val Rutherford
Before they met and married in 1946, both my parents were interned in various concentration camps during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. When we were young, our parents would rarely talk to us about their camp experiences. Somehow, as kids, the four of us knew that they had experienced a very difficult period in their lives as young adults, during "the War." Papa was more open about some of his experiences as a young prisoner of war in the Japanese slave labour camps in Burma. Occasionally, he would share with us a short exposé, usually related to the food shortages — especially when we would fuss about not wanting to eat something! Later, he did tell us about some of what he went through working on the infamous railroad.
Mama was much more reluctant to talk to us about it, preferring to keep the bad memories well buried. She had been a young graduate nurse in the children's ward of the camp hospital, and seemed to find it very difficult to talk about this when we were young. When she did share some of her experiences, we were adults ourselves, and it was only because we had found some objects she had saved from her "camp" days. There were two different sets of items, both carefully wrapped and kept well hidden. So well hidden, that they only surfaced thirty years later, during the process of packing up for a move.
One of the items consisted of a folder of drawings made by her co-workers at the hospital in camp Lampersari, near Semarang, Java. These drawings, hand bound into an album with tattered ribbons, clearly depict some scenes of camp life: the type of shack they lived in, where they did their dishes and washed their clothes (by hand), various interior scenes, as well as a room in the children's hospital ward. What is striking in these pictures is how much, in spite of the primitive surroundings, they tried to keep up appearances — everything looks very orderly, even the occasional flower-filled vase and little tablecloth, or doily, on top of whatever they used for tables! Very cosy and gezelligin spite of the deprivations they must have suffered.
Among these drawings we found one that Mama admitted she had made. It is a heart-rending drawing of two little girls wearing only shorts, standing side by side on two raised wooden sleeping pallets, facing forward. Each little girl is about the same height, has long braids, and appears to be about four or five years old. The one on the left is well rounded, with a big smile and full cheeks. The one on the right is emaciated, ribs showing, looking very sad with a big tear coming out of her eye. The left braid of one girl is tied to the right braid of the other, so the braids actually join the two of them. The thin girl is holding on to the joined braids as if for balance, and she is also using her other hand to support herself on the bedroll beside which she is standing. Her weakness and discomfort are clearly visible. Underneath the thin girl's "bed" there is a chamber pot, complete with lid and "X 16" marked on it. The picture is dated October 27th 1944 (my mother's 25th birthday).
When asked what this drawing meant, she told us the following story. As a nurse on the children's ward she would see many children who became sick and emaciated from parasitic worms infesting their bowels. No matter how hard the mothers would work to find food for their children, the worms would literally steal it, and the children just wasted away! In the picture she drew their braids as being attached to each other because they are representing the same little girl when she entered the camp girl — the one on the left — and after having been exposed to one of the many camp diseases — the one on the right. Now, it was one of her jobs, as nurse, to examine the pot after each use and count the number of worms expelled. In this way they were able to measure the effectiveness of the treatment. Thus, the chamber pot in the picture shows that on this day there were 26 worms in the pot.
The second set of items we found was a package of three small pieces of exquisite embroidery, unframed and, of course, never before seen by us. She admitted that she had worked on them during her internment. We knew that she had often made various types of embroideries, but these three were a surprise! She told us that she had not been able to take any of her embroidery supplies with her when she went into the camps, but missed doing this activity very much. Her work in the hospital did not leave her much time for these luxuries, but somehow she was able to scrounge up what was needed to complete these projects: the needle, embroidery floss, wool, and material for the canvases.
The largest piece, done in satin stitch on a piece of cotton, depicts a quaint English cottage with a typical English garden — in full colour! The second piece, much smaller (about 20 cm x 30 cm) is a map of the Netherlands done in wool needlepoint, with the provinces done in different colours. The last one is smaller, done in very fine black and white petit point. It shows a typical Dutch scene of two sailboats sailing in a bay, circled by a shoreline dotted with neotropical trees. It looks a bit like a cameo. She told us that the materials for these projects were all found from discarded scraps. The petit point was done in a piece of the lining taken out of the cuff from a man's shirt. Needless to say, we made sure that these pieces were framed and proudly displayed in their living room, and now that our parents are no longer with us, in our own living rooms.
These pictures, the drawings as well as the embroideries, will always represent to our family the determination, the resourcefulness, creativity and imagination that she and other camp survivors must have had in order to get through their demeaning and dehumanizing experience. The following translation of the handwritten inscription, signed by ten co-workers, on the cover of the camp drawings says it all:
Fellow fighter, we hope that this album, later when you are far away, will sometimes remind you of the time that we, fighting, spent here. In the certain conviction that the words:
One does not need to hope
have come to life for you too.
— Camp Lampersari, 3 November, 1945
Story copyright © Marjolyn Val Rutherford, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.