Thursday, 3 May 2012

Song of Survival

The three Dutch sisters, Helen, Antoinette and Alette photo courtesy

Dutch native Helen Colijn sat in the audience of a choral concert on December 27, 1943, listening to the strains of Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven sung by a 30-member choir.  She did not buy a ticket to this concert, however, for it was an outdoor affair held in the jungle under a thatch-roofed pavilion.  The audience of hundreds was not elegantly dressed in gowns, but rather in rags; their cheeks were not pink, but rather were yellow due to jaundice and malaria.  Their ushers did not hold programs in their hands but rather bayonettes.  Helen was not in Holland but in the jungles of Sumatra, captured by the Japanese in 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Helen Colijn was a 21-year-old woman born in Holland in the early 1920's.  She and her two younger sisters, Antoinette and Alette, were raised by upper-middle-class parents Anton and Zus.    Their father believed in being physically fit and took his girls on long swims and hikes including a climb up the side of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak.  Anton served in the Dutch Navy and was posted in the Dutch East Indies at an oil refinery in the early 1940's. 

Indonesia was invaded by the Japanese in 1942 and 100,000 civilians were captured, including Helen's mother who was taken to a Borneo interment camp.  Helen's father, siblings and herself fled on a freighter which endured heavy bombing by the Japanese and sunk.  Helen and her father endured six days at sea on a crowded lifeboat, under the beating sun, taking turns lying in the bottom of the boat for two hour stretches to sleep.  Finally they reached land and wandered in the jungle looking for civilisation.  After a couple of days, they saw two white girls approaching them in the distance:  they were Antoinette and Alette who had survived on another lifeboat.  It was on the island of Java that the foursome was overrun by the Japanese and placed in separate internment camps, one for men and one for women.

The three sisters were transported to the neighbouring island of Sumatra and interned with about 2000 other inmates from Holland, Australia and England.  Prison conditions were harsh with little food and beatings by guards.  Diseases like malaria, dysentery and beriberi were rampant.  One Chinese man passed by the camp one day and threw some bread over to the emaciated women and children; as punshment, he was tied up and starved for three days until he died.  The internees were forced to line up and bow to Emperor Hirohito everyday; if someone did not bow correctly, the whole line had to stand in the beating sun for long stretches. 

Hope sprung eternal in the Sumatran jungle, however, as the prisoners found ways of relieving the tension:  the women would climb on the wall of the compound when the men would march by from the neighbouring camp.  This march gave Helen, Antoinette and Alette the chance to see their father.  The girls even snuck out of the compound one Christmas to meet with Anton.  Their years of swimming and hiking had built stamina in the girls which they drew on daily in the camp. 

The women held lectures and language classes to relieve the boredom.  The biggest source of hope for the women, however, came in the form of music.  Two British women, Margaret Dryburgh, a Presbyterian missionary, and Norah Chambers, a former student at London's Royal Academy of Music, formed a choral choir.  The two women used pencil stubs and old copybooks to transcribe musical scores from memory.   After hearing a few notes, the Japanese guards were ready to pounce.  But then they too started to mellow and let the practice continue.  The choir staged a big concert at which hundreds of women and children were in attendance.  The guards also attended the musical soiree, reclining in rattan chairs, listening to the strains of Bach, Mozart and Schubert.  When the last note was sung, and the applause died down, the guards presented the choir members with five cans of Spam in appreciation for the evening. 

The songs helped raise the spirits of the camp inmates and would linger in their heads for weeks.  Antoinette and Helen battled malaria, but were able to overcome the disease.  Sadly, a third of the inmates in the women's camp did succumb to malnutrition or illness.  Internees also perished in the men's camp, including Anton, who held on until March of 1944.  His daughters, however, remembered his last words and took them to heart:  "Whatever happens to you don't feel bitter because bittneress will destroy you." 

The Allies liberated Java in August of 1945 and the three sisters were reunited with their mother.  The foursome immigrated to California, where they had lived for a brief time in the 1920's when Anton was posted there.  In 1989, Helen wrote her story in Dutch called De Kracht Van Een Lied:  Overleven In Een Vrouenkamp.  In 1995, the book was translated into English titled Song of Survival:  Women Interned.  In 1997, a screenplay was written called "Paradise Road"; one of the main characters was played by Glenn Close. 


Photo of women in Sumatran Concentration Camp bowing to Emperor Hirohito courtesy

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