Dutch-Canadian Survivors of Japanese Prison Camps

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Too Late: My Opa Anton Didn't Live to See Liberation Day

by Maarten Hankes-Drielsma

As a man already well into his seventies, my grandfather Anton de Vos — resident of Surabaya — was one of the last Europeans living on Java to be invited into Emperor Hirohito's enforced "hospitality." The Empire was strategic in such matters: the elderly, less of a threat, would be left to live free until the job of interning the younger, "more dangerous" generations of Europeans had been completed.

But it was a strange, ominous kind of freedom that my Opa "enjoyed" on Java while the younger blandas were being systematically rounded up and shipped away... leaving him and his elderly companions in eerie isolation, abandonment, solitude and uncertainty.

And, once the Emperor's call did come, for many of these seniors it would be: last in, first out... in a box. Their Japanese "hosts" built enough cruel hardships into the Jappenkamp experience to send many of the elderly into rapid decline. The subsequent deaths would not be a concern to the Empire. Indeed, each such death meant one less mouth to feed. Opa Anton was one of the infirm, it seems. By liberation day for the survivors — August 15th, 1945 — he had already been dead seven months.

There is little that I know for sure about my Opa's death. Actually, I have no specifics beyond the January 1945 date. I know that he spent time in camp Tangerang, an internment camp set up near what today is known as Djakarta. He and his friend Nikolaas (my Oom Niek) de Joncheere — also elderly — were both interned there at one point. I know that because Niek survived the experience and wrote a letter about it... a letter that has since been passed to me. But Niek also writes that Anton disappeared from Tangerang, and that they never saw each other again.

If death didn't come to Anton in Tangerang, it probably caught up with him in a nearby camp. After the liberation, Anton's wife — my Amma — received a note from a good friend whose wife had visited with Anton in Tangerang. The note ended with a piece of news the friend had received through the survivors' grapevine... the news that Anton had died.

So what am I in the year 2005 to make of my Opa's unheralded and unrecorded death in an internment camp sixty years ago... one year before I was born? It's a question I started asking myself some ten years ago.

Initially, a parade of nightmarish images haunted me: of beheading by Samurai sword; of death of heat prostration while confined to an oven-hot bamboo cage in the tropical sun; of roadside execution when forced labour became too much. Since then I've read about the Jappenkamp experience (including Anton's own letters), talked to camp survivors ( kumpulan members) and talked at length to the person who was closest of all to Opa during this period... my late aunt, Tante Tony. These enquiries have given me an idea what may have happened to my Opa... as good an idea as I'm likely to get.

Initially, internment may not even have been so bad for Opa. It started for him in de Wijk, a formerly residential part of Surabaya, his home city. The original residents of de Wijk had been interned, leaving blocks and blocks of houses, now surrounded by barbed wire, free for use as an initial internment camp for women, children and seniors. With the Japanese assembling more and more people there, the population of each house would keep rising: Monday 16; Tuesday, 28; Thursday, 50; Friday, 80; Saturday, 105...

But, in my idea, Opa was still Opa when he left de Wijk.

The beginning of the end came in the form of mass transport to Djakarta. The Japanese used various methods for such transport, all of them inhumane. Railway cars boarded up (to prevent exit). Confined spaces in cargo barges. Whichever it was that transported Opa in particular, it would have been packed too full of people... standing room only. It probably took at least a day, more likely two to make the long trip. He probably shared that trip with women, children and other seniors. Long stretches of the trip would have been made in the hot, tropical sun. There was probably neither food nor water. There may have been no toilet facilities... or maybe a single bucket (and no way to empty it). Better not to spend too much time imagining Opa on his arrival in Djakarta.

Opa was an exceptionally tall man, frail by then, but always proud of his immaculate white jas toetoep dress. I doubt that there would have been much left of that pride at the end of that gruelling trip. His flagging spirit would have been broken along the way.

In a 1946 letter to Tante Tony, Oom Niek writes about the Tangerang experience that he shared with Opa:

[...] we were both sent to Tangerang along with, besides women and children, some 40 other men more than 60 years of age... mostly old colonial types. Conditions there were not the best and your father's health failed rapidly, resulting in his early transfer to the hospital in Batavia (Djakarta). When he came back from there he was admitted to the camp medical ward because, although he wanted to be independent, he needed help.
[In the end,] he yearned constantly for death.

Tante Tony — now deceased — believed, and I believe, that Opa passed away peacefully, surrounded by supportive Dutch women who tended to him with care, even if they had no way of meeting his medical needs.

But Opa's death was undoubtedly hastened by the criminal way in which he and others were transported around by the Japanese... under conditions that we would not inflict even on cattle en route to slaughter. They may not have killed him, but I have no doubt that — with their inhumane transport practices — they killed the old man's spirit.

I never met my Opa, but I know that it would have pleased him that so many of the children with whom he shared his internment experience lived to see liberation day... even the 60th anniversary of that day.

About the Author

Anton de Vos

Maarten Hankes-Drielsma

Maarten Hankes-Drielsma is the son of Anton de Vos' oldest daughter, Louise.

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