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U3A Writing: Roommates

Thea Sloane recalls the time she spent in a Japanese internment camp during the second world war.

I have been listening to all kinds of war memories, about a number of wars. People remembering their lost comrades, fathers, brothers, cousins. Mates of one kind and another.

My memories go back to the roommates I had in Tjideng camp, one of the Japanese internment camps in Batavia where I spent some time towards the end of the second world war.
It was not the first camp for me. I had already spent several years in one situated in another city on the island of Java, in Indonesia. Indonesia was still officially a Dutch colony then, but was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Forces, who had won the war in that part of the world. They had established prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps all through Indonesia, but particularly on Java.

For some obscure reason, groups of prisoners were periodically uprooted and moved from one camp to another, always with the promise of better conditions next time, more food, better food.

After a harrowing journey by open truck and goods train, then truck again, a group of us, about five hundred in all, had arrived at this dismal destination which was to be our home until the end of the war. The camp consisted of a series of suburban streets enclosed by a bamboo and barbed wire fence. The dwellings had been the homes of middle class Dutch families and would normally have housed four to eight persons, with perhaps several servants living in the servant quarters at the back of the house.

It was a large camp, which already held well over ten thousand, all women and children, before we arrived to add to the overcrowding. About five houses had had to be emptied to receive us newcomers, and we were met with a measure of resentment by those already there. Soon we were allocated our ration of personal space in the vacated houses. Between eighty and a hundred to each house. Every room except perhaps the toilet, would have occupants. An area of a single mattress per person, two mattresses to family groups of three were allotted to us. But that was really all the room we needed; somewhere to sleep and somewhere to sit.

We had arrived with only our mattresses, our pillows and a small bundle of personal belongings each. My mother, my sister and I shared two mattresses which we slept on at night and which were rolled up during the day to function as seats. The three of us plus eleven others were allocated the front room, which in normal times had been the lounge room or sitting room. And it is these eleven others I remember on this Anzac Day. Our ex-room-mates.

First, on the small covered patio leading to our room there was Lies, with her two small children, about four and five years old. Lies had been a plump and stocky person, you could still see that, but her children, a boy and a girl, had been and still were plagued by frequent tummy problems. Both looked delicate. All the same, Lies managed to remain a cheerful and optimistic little person, who was good company.

Then, first ones to the left after entering the room, were Emmy and her mother. We had not known them before and they might have come from a different camp. Emmy was about fourteen years of age, fearfully thin and looked like a case of advanced anorexia. She was beginning to lose her eyesight and spent her days trying to grapple with bits of knitting, holding her work a few inches from her face. Her mother, a woman in her middle thirties, had a careworn and suffering look. She and her daughter spoke to each other very quietly, almost in whispers. I don't think I ever saw Emmy's mother smile. I don't think I ever knew her name either.

Next, sitting on her mattress most of the time was Mia, who had come with her only child, her little son Barry. Mia had only one leg that functioned. On the few occasions I saw her upright, I realised that her other leg was just a withered appendage which hung down uselessly alongside her healthy one. Rumour had it that a botched abortion had caused this tragedy, but the matter was never openly discussed.

I remember Mia's face so well. A really lovely face, but with such an expression of sadness. Her little four-year old boy in some way had already become her carer and I can still hear his mother's rather plaintive cry whenever she needed him to fetch or carry something for her. "Barreeeee!" she'd call and he always came as quickly as his little legs would carry him. They were a gentle and affectionate pair. Next to their piece of floor was a doorway leading to another room. No door there, just the frame. All the doors had been chopped up for firewood a long time ago, so we were told.

Then, in the corner, was our cosy little domain, a space sufficient for two single mattresses. We were lucky to have that comer as it had a useful area of bare wall on which we could hang our customer-made-by me - camping cupboard made of sturdy cloth, with pockets which held our belongings off the floor and out of the way. Our mattresses must have been comfortable, as I, for one, don't remember having any trouble sleeping. Mine was the position on the end, as I had to get up the earliest to go to work in the rice kitchen every day, leaving at the crack of dawn.

Bordering my sleeping area was a narrow strip of bare floor, a pathway leading to the front entrance, and alongside that, also in a corner, was the area occupied by Mrs Shiphouse and her daughter Ali, a young woman much the same age as my sister, in her early twenties.

They were both pleasant women, very positive and with a good sense of humour. We had known Mrs. Shiphouse's son, a very handsome and athletic young man, held prisoner somewhere else no doubt, a good friend of our eldest brother. My sister and I had both been quite enamoured with him when we had been members of the same swimming club before the outbreak of war. That made his mother rather special in our eyes. We liked Mrs Shiphouse a lot!

Lastly, Mrs VanderWold, with her teenage daughter Marieke. Mrs VanderWold was the wife of a high school teacher, a rather reserved and dignified person whose presence and that of her lanky daughter, I remember only vaguely. But I see them all before me and wonder what became of them.

We and our roommates survived the camps. All of us except Emmy. The end of the war came too late for Emmy. All the good food in the world could not save her. A few days after the Japanese surrender she was moved to the small makeshift hospital across the road from 'our house'. One day the mother joined us after spending some time with her ever-weakening daughter. She told us that Emmy had handed her the two silver rings she had been wearing, as she did not think she would be using them much longer. She died the following day. Camp rations had just not been sufficient for her rapidly growing body. I wonder how long it was before her mother learned to smile again.


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