For my grandson, story of your grandfather.
By Oded Cohen
My dear Alon,
Your questionnaire was received by me today. I was already expecting it and I hasten to reply. I feel as if I am taking my eldest grandson into a journey backward in time, some 70 years ago. At that time the world was already on fire and German-Italian-Japanese evil was determined to conquer the world and create a new global order in which there would be no room for Jews, black people, gypsies, communists, or in other words for others.
I will address all your questions, but since I was at that time only a small child, I will reply in a narrative way and tell you the story of your Grandfather. I will make digressions in the story to provide you with wider background, when and wherever appropriate. I have written in English and you may use it and show it to anybody you may wish. My story belongs to you!
I was born in 1940 in the Dutch East Indies, a beautiful archipelago of many thousands of islands, stretching from Malaysia in south-east direction toward Australia. Java, although not the largest island is certainly the principal island and its capital was called at that time Batavia and now, since 1949 – the year the Dutch East Indies became independent– it is called Jakarta and the country Indonesia, as you know.
I was born in the eastern part of Java in the town called Malang.
The Dutch East Indies became a Dutch colony in the 17th century. Dutch merchants were very active in the lucrative spice trade and the East Indies proved to be an excellent source for spices. Later on the East Indies became an important source for metals, oil, coffee, sugar and tea.
You should note that also Spain, Portugal and England were active in the East Indies from the 15th century and onwards.
My Father Moshe was born in 1902 in Oldenzaal, a small township in the eastern part of The Netherlands, very close to the German border. The people were predominantly Roman-Catholic and our family was the only Jewish family at that time in Oldenzaal. Jews had to be careful and behave in order not to raise the wrath of the population.
Oldenzaal is a very old township and one can still see a large cannon ball stuck high up in the wall of the main church, from the time that the town was under Spanish siege in the 16th century.
Father studied Law in the famous, old University of Leiden. Father was offered a position as judge in the Dutch East Indies, after he finished Law Studies. The years after WWI (1914-1919) were characterized by severe economic depressions and high unemployment rates all over Europe and the USA. Father was more than happy that he was offered a good job.
My Mother Rachel was born in 1912 in Jerusalem. Her parents (my Grandfather Moshe and my Grandmother Ester) came as very small children, somewhere around the year 1870, to Israel. At that time it was called Palestine and part of the Ottoman Empire. My Grandfather came from Lithuania and my Grandmother from Russia. My Grandmother’s family came by sailing boat from Odessa and reached the port of Jaffa after many months of hardship.
My Mother studied chemistry at the Hebrew University, which was founded in 1924 and erected on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. When you are standing on Mount Scopus you have a wonderful view, which you will never forget. Looking westwards you will see the city of Jerusalem bathing in the golden rays of sunset. In the South you will find Bethlehem and looking to the East you will follow the mountains of the Judean Desert sloping down into the Syrian-African Rift Valley and the Dead Sea.
My Father was an enthusiastic Zionist. He was thrilled by the efforts to revive ancient Hebrew, the language of the Bible, and its adaptation to the needs of modern times. You may remember that Eliezer Ben Jehuda was the great initiator of the modernization of the ancient Hebrew language. He forbade his children to talk any language but Hebrew.
Hebrew was my Father’s great interest and obsession. After his early retirement, he started studying Semitic languages (main language Hebrew; Arabic and Aramaic as secondary languages) and obtained his PhD in the early fifties at the University of Amsterdam.
As judge, he was entitled to long vacations every three years. In 1935 he decided to visit Palestine and met by chance his future wife on a bus ride in Tel Aviv. They fell in love and after long correspondence they decided to marry. The wedding took place on the roof of the family house in Jerusalem on August 10, 1938.
At that time the bells of war were already ringing with force in Europe and Jews were trying to escape from Germany. Part of them to other countries in Europe mainland; others escaped to England and to the USA; many sought refuge in Palestine and others in South America. The windows of opportunity were closing rapidly and WWII broke out one year later in September 1939.
Meanwhile, the married couple had left for honeymoon by boat to beautiful Venice in Italy and from there by train to Holland to meet the Dutch family of Father. It was a large family and most of them would perish in the German concentration camps. The new weds sailed to Java and began their married life there. Father continued his work as judge and Mother was busy learning Dutch and the local dialects, which was essential for basic communication. Mother loved the country and its beauty.
The war was already raging in Europe when I was born on February 23, 1940.
It was certainly very worrisome, but apparently the geographic distance and fragmented news, which came in delayed, created the illusion that all this was very far away and would not affect day to day life in Java.
It was also thought doubtful that the Japanese would join the war and in any case wishful thinking was that in the event that Japan would start hostile activities, these would not affect the Dutch East Indies. It was thought highly unlikely that the Japanese would be able to conquer Singapore and it was thought unlikely that Japan would dare attacking the Dutch East Indies without having Singapore under control.
Alon, you should really have a thorough look at the map of South East Asia. This will greatly help you to understand war strategies.
By the end of 1941 Japan joined the war and attacked the US fleet, which was on anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Till that traumatic event, the USA refrained from joining the war and taking active sides.
Meanwhile, Japan launched its attack on Malaysia and in February, 1942 Singapore surrendered. There was nothing which could now prevent Japan attacking Dutch East Indies! The weak and poorly equipped Dutch East Indies army was not a challenge for the well equipped and well trained Japanese army.
My father was mobilized like many other Dutchmen. The war was over in a few weeks and in May, 1942 the Dutch East Indies were under Japanese control.
There are of course many reasons, which may explain the Japanese aggression:
- Predominant influence of the Japanese army on political issues
- Non-democratic nature of the Japanese government
- The high standing of the Japanese Emperor who was considered omnipotent as being a God and whose wish was law. The Japanese Emperor was very much under the influence of the army and manipulated by it.
- Japanese strong dislike for the Western Colonial Powers
- The Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, which boosted Japanese military confidence and showed that the Europeans may be beaten by Asiatic people.
- Japanese over-confidence in the power and strength of the German Reich to defeat the Western Powers.
- Understanding that Germany would have no ambitions to expand into Asia and that Asia would be reserved for Japan
- Japanese strategy for securing supply sources of food and raw materials for its large population
Dutch East Indies were rich in oil, rubber and minerals – resources for which Japan was in dire need. Controlling the Dutch East Indies would give Japan control over these important resources. Control over the Dutch East Indies would make the next conquests –Australia and New Zealand- much easier. The geographic map of the region tells you the story.
In May, 1942 my Father became a Japanese war prisoner. Father was temporarily interned in a camp in Malang, where I was born.
We were of course immediately separated from Father.
The Japanese concentrated all European women and children in a closed neighborhood. We lived in a school called Boering School. I do not remember the conditions, but I clearly remember Japanese planes diving very low over the school with frightening noise. I also remember that a Japanese officer came to inspect the Boering School. He apparently liked me as he took me in his arms and walked with me around. At least they liked children….
Whenever possible we went to see Father. We were not allowed to enter the camp, but we could see each other through the fence. Once, so I remember, Mother managed to lift me up and Father on the other side caught me and brought me down. Father took me to his room. It was dark and the blinds were closed. I brought Father some presents, including a picture of Mother and me, put in a red embroidered envelope. Father carried the picture with him during all the years of great endurance. It is still in my possession. Father had carved beautiful words in Hebrew on some small aluminum soap boxes. We have carried these boxes with us during the war time and these boxes are still in my possession.
I have translated the Hebrew writing on one of the boxes:
From my diary:
I wish you, my beloved wife and son,
A good night rest!
The angel of love, messenger of my heart,
Will guard you and hold above your heads
The shield of my care and will cover you
With the wings of my longings
I have also a metal pin to be worn on the lapel of a coat. It belonged to my Father. It is rectangular of shape and represents the Israeli flag with the David Star in the middle and written on it in Japanese is the word Jew. I do not know whether this pin corresponds to the compulsory Yellow David Star, which the Jews had to wear in Europe. I have tried to verify this, but till now I have not been able to find a clue.
The last time I saw my Father was August 1942 and the next occasion was 3.5 years later when I was already 6 years old. Father was for me a virtual person, whom I only knew from the stories of my Mother. In reality, he was a sick and exhausted man, who had barely managed to survive the extreme hardships of the Burmese jungle and slave labor conditions. At the end of the war he became very ill and was carried on a stretcher by his fellow prisoners over a distance of 150 km through the dense jungles of Burma till they reached a hospital.
Thanks to God that he made it and thanks to his fellow prisoners, who accomplished this heroic task under impossible conditions!
I would like to tell you 2 stories about my Father.
The first story:
Father became very deaf and physically sick in the jungles, where he was engaged in building roads for the Japanese army. One day one of the Japanese commanders called my Father, who did not react because he could not hear anything. The Japanese commander became very angry and was about to start beating my Father. His fellow prisoners dared to interfere and explained that he was deaf. The Japanese commander understood, felt sorry and immediately embraced my surprised Father, kissed him and brought him to the tent and asked him to lie down in the shadow and take a rest for the day.
The second story:
Even under the harsh conditions of the jungle my Father never neglected his love for the Hebrew language. Whenever there was a short break in the hard work he invited his fellow prisoners to listen to a lecture on the miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language.
Imagine the scene of half naked, sick and under-fed war prisoners in the middle of the jungle listening to a lecture on the Hebrew language. Their only interest was to survive the day.
Father called himself proudly Knight of the Hebrew Language. And so he really was!
You should be extremely proud of your Great Grandfather!!!
We were left in the Boering School without money. Mother though managed and she had a few good friends, who were so kind to lend us money.
We knew already that the Japanese would put us in concentration camps and in the beginning of 1943 this became reality.
In anticipation of the harsh camp conditions, Mother stocked up as much durable food products as possible, like sugar, flour, chocolate and cacao. It helped us to survive.
I remember that all Europeans and non-Indonesians gathered at night in the railway station of Malang with all the belongings, which they could carry. Early in the morning of March 26, 1943 the train arrived in Solo, not so far away from Malang, after a journey of 24 hours. We made the long walk to the concentration camp, where we would live in hope and despair for more than 2 years. Our camp was called Boemie Kamp. This concentration camp housed almost 3,900 prisoners. I was prisoner nr. 20493 and we lived in barrack 25, which was shared by 152 people. Each person had a place to sleep, which had a width of 65-70 cm. So we slept shoulder to shoulder!
Alon, you have seen probably a few times the embroidered book made by my Mother. The book is an historic document and showing in a beautiful way day to day life and routine in the camp. The idea to embroider a book came up when the Japanese demanded that all writing material, including paper, pens and pencils, as well as books, music records, money and jewelry had to be handed over to the Japanese with immediate effect.
I remember rather vividly women on their knees digging holes in the ground to hide their valuables.
When the Japanese commander came across books printed in unfamiliar letters, he demanded that the person, to whom these books had belonged, would appear before him. Mother explained to the Japanese commander that the books in question were written in the Hebrew language and that she came from Jerusalem, Palestine. The Japanese commander confessed that he had never heard neither about Jews and Hebrew language nor about Jerusalem and Palestine.
When Mother told him that Palestine was located in Asia and not in Europe or America, the eyes of the Japanese commander brightened. Asia was acceptable and “politically correct”!
The Japanese commander listened now to the records, which my Mother had taken with her from home and which were acceptable “politically”, as they came from an Asiatic country. The Japanese commander took a great liking to the Hebrew songs and he used to listen to the records every afternoon through the loudspeaker system of the camp. All prisoners could hear it. For Mother it was a “strange” experience, which reminded her of home and family, while being a prisoner of war so far away.
Alon, you are of course entitled to use the embroidered book for illustrations in your work. I have sent the book by mail to your Father, a few years ago. If needed, I will send it again.
We were prisoners of the Japanese and left to their mercy.
In some concentration camps treatment was better and in other camps conditions and treatment were worse.
Lack of food was, after lack of freedom, probably the hardest to bear.
I was lucky that Mother had brought with her food, which lasted a long time.
Once in a while, we got food supplies from the Red Cross. At the end of the embroidered book you will see an extensive listing of all the food which we obtained on May 12, 1945 (some 3 months before the end of the war and the unconditional surrender of the Japanese) from the Red Cross.
That same day, in the afternoon, the Japanese announced that all camp prisoners will have to be evacuated and have to leave the camp premises. This was bad news as we did not know what fate was waiting for us. The Japanese preferred to give us the bad news after we had enjoyed the Red Cross supply.
As a matter of interest, I have translated for you the products which we received from the Red Cross that day (2 of the products were not clear to me):
Sweet condensed milk
Plum & Rice Pudding
We had no connection with the outer world.
There were many frightening rumors. One of the rumors was that the Japanese planned to put all the prisoners on a boat and let the boat sink in mid-sea. It has probably never been the intention of the Japanese to do so, but under the conditions in which we lived any rumor was a threat.
We had no communication with our Japanese wards, other than the camp routine demanded. Most probably the Japanese did not know very much about what was happening in the various war theaters and how the war was developing.
There was no exchange of letters and we did not know whether Father was alive.
Once or twice a year Red Cross representatives would visit our camp.
I remember the Red Cross representatives seated at a table somewhere outside in the open air and a long line of women prisoners queuing up. The Red Cross representatives held long lists and checked for each woman the whereabouts of their beloved fathers, husbands and sons. It was like meeting fate! Boys as of the age of 11 were separated from their mothers and were imprisoned in concentration camps for men only.
All women had to work very hard in the camp. You will see it well illustrated in the embroidered book.
Amongst others, women were engaged in cultivating vegetables, in cleaning and maintenance of the (probably overloaded) sewage system and in wood cutting for firing of the kitchen furnaces.
I still have a good friend, same age, who was in the first concentration camp. His name is Barend Wijtman and we had dinner last week in Amsterdam. We never lost contact and our parents were good friends. His Mother Jane and my Mother shared the food, which both of them had brought to the camps. I remember the wonderful fish liver tins. Mother would feed me, where no one could see it. Jealousy would be high and hunger is an excellent agent for bad behavior.
There was hardly any interaction with the Indonesian people on the other side of the fence. There were some efforts by prisoners to exchange some of their belongings against food. Women, who were caught red handed, were severely punished.
I remember when a woman was beaten by the Japanese with a belt in front of all the prisoners, who were compelled to attend. The woman had 3 children who were running between the other children urging them not to look how their mother was punished.
My Mother told me about one of the prisoners, called Dr. Engels (as far as I remember). Dr. Engels was a brave woman. One day she got into an argument with the Japanese commander, which developed into a real fight where one slapped the other in front of all women. I do not remember the exact reason for that fight, but I have no doubt that Dr. Engels was fighting for all of us. At the end of the fight, in which both were wounded, Dr. Engels was thrown in a dungeon.
On the occasion of Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s 44th birthday (April 29, 1945) all camp prisoners requested the release of Dr. Engels. This request was granted and Dr. Engels was released. She was an extremely brave woman and Mother always remembered her.
On June 1, 1945 came the first concentration camp to an end.
We were transported to our second camp in Banjoebiroe.
On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and three days later the second one hit Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered unconditionally and WWII was over. We spent almost 2 years and 5 months in the Japanese concentration camps. If I include the period in which we were living in a closed neighborhood, we were more than 3 years Japanese war prisoners!
The camp was immediately opened and we were free to leave! There was nowhere to go, so we stayed meanwhile in the camp.
The day before the surrender we already felt that things were changing, as airplanes dropped crates with food supplies in the vicinity of the camp and we dared to run out of the camp and fetch the food. The Japanese guards did not prevent us from leaving the camp. They knew most probably that their roles were about to change from prison wards to prisoners. Meanwhile they were assigned the task to protect us against the Indonesians, who took advantage of the void left by the Japanese surrender and demanded immediately independence from the Dutch colonial regime. The armed hostilities started right after the end of WWII and in 1949 the Indonesians gained their independence. So we were free from the Japanese yoke, but still in great danger.
Meanwhile around our camp a market developed for agricultural products. The Indonesians offered fruit and vegetables and the ex prisoners bartered with what they had.
One morning I went for a stroll together with another boy in the market.
After some time I found myself alone and lost. I remember myself becoming hysteric and running back and forth and crying for my Mother. Suddenly I felt an iron grip on my arm and an Indonesian man started pulling me by force into the adjacent rice paddies. The path became very slippery and both of us fell. I managed to get up first and broke myself loose from the grip. I started running back to the market and the Indonesian after me. Notwithstanding the odds, I made it first. Fear gave me wings!
I saw a woman standing at one of the stalls buying fruit. I ran to her, lifted her skirt and wrapped my arms as strong as I could around one of her legs. The skirt covered me like a tent and I heard the woman shouting on the Indonesian, who finally backed off. The woman brought me back to our camp. I have no doubt that she saved me of much trouble if not worse.
I did not tell anything to my Mother about this experience, since I did not want her to be worried and sad. Only after some years I told my Mother the story. She looked at me and said: “Oded, this must have been a dream”. I did not deny it, but I knew of course better.
As said, the war was not yet over for us. The Allies sent to the Dutch East Indies British and Indian troops to evacuate all war prisoners and bring us to a safe haven.
We were evacuated by train to Surabaya, a large harbor city in Eastern Java.
Japanese soldiers, who were now prisoners, escorted the train in order to protect us. We traveled with all windows shut down. When we finally arrived in Surabaya and the train doors were opened, we saw on the platform a multitude of excited and hysterically shouting Indonesians wielding sticks and other weapons.
We were brought safely by British and Indian soldiers to one of the better neighborhoods in Surabaya, where Europeans used to live before the war. We settled with some additional families in a small villa and waited for further evacuation to Singapore. Staying in Java was considered dangerous and unsafe. There was a great lack of food and the local population suffered tremendously. I remember that poor people, who were searching food in garbage bins, just fell into the bins, had no strength left to pull themselves out of the bins and died just like that.
I climbed into a Japanese Cherry tree, fell down and broke my left arm. Mother took me to a military hospital for treatment.
Meanwhile there was a lot of tension between the British army and the Indonesians, who were fighting for independence. While the British army had nothing against the Indonesians, it was their task to protect us. Do not forget that India, whose soldiers fought against the Japanese, obtained independence also in 1949.
One day I was alone in the garden of the villa, where we stayed. The garden was surrounded by a high stony fence. I looked up and I saw an Indonesian, crawling on the fence like a cat, holding a big knife between his teeth.
I ran to my Mother, but when we returned to the garden, the knife man was gone.
Mother decided to report this incident to the army. At the end of the street, where we lived, was an army post and there my Mother went.
After she told the story and asked the soldiers to be alert, she left the army post and started walking back. That same moment hell broke loose. The armistice between the fighting parties (British army and revolting Indonesians) came to a sudden end. Our street happened to divide between the fighting parties and heavy gunfire from both sides endangered all who lived in this street. Mother was caught in the middle and she crawled all the way back from the army post to where we lived. She made it unhurt.
We did not dare to move in the house, which was also a potential target. We sat low on the floor with our backs against the wall. This continued for 3 days and 3 nights. Thereafter shooting ended and an additional armistice for a few days was signed between the parties in order to allow the civilian population to buy food. This we heard over the radio. Mother decided that there was no other alternative than to reach as soon as possible the British army camp, which was set up in one of the other neighborhoods of Surabaya. Further staying where we were and waiting for the army to come and fetch us was too risky under the circumstances.
In our house stayed an Indonesian woman, who had also endured the hardships of the Japanese concentration camps (she was actually half Indonesian and half European). She knew well her way in Surabaya. Mother asked her to lead the way to the British camp and we would follow her from a distance in order not to raise suspicion from the part of Indonesian soldiers, who were patrolling the streets.
If we would be held up by an Indonesian patrol, we would tell them that we were going to the market (“passar” in the local language) to buy food. We could not risk taking with us any luggage. Mother decided to leave everything, except the embroidered book which she concealed under her clothes.
Very early in the morning we started our journey to the safe haven of the British army. We followed the Indonesian woman from far. We were indeed held up by an Indonesian patrol. After Mother explained to them (Mother knew sufficiently well the local language) the purpose of our walk, they let us go. Perhaps they had also pity with us because of my broken arm. The walk to the British army camp took us perhaps 2 to 3 hours. When we reached the army camp it seemed to me that this was another concentration camp and I told Mother that I had no intention whatsoever to enter this camp. I had enough of concentration camps. Mother persuaded me.
We were told that a large English battleship was anchored outside the Surabaya harbor and that it would take refugees to Singapore. The next morning before dawn, all refugees were put on army trucks, which would bring us to the harbor. This was part of the armistice agreement and on each truck was a heavily armed Indonesian soldier. When we reached the harbor we embarked on a large barge, which would take us to the English battleship. I remember that the barge had a big anti-aircraft gun which could move 360 degrees around its own center. As it was lacking an engine for moving the gun, all children were pushing the gun. Outside the harbor we met the battleship and were cordially welcomed by the crew. Climbing on board on a swinging rope ladder with my arm in a sling was a major effort and one of the officers was so kind to give us his cabin.
The barge returned to Surabaya harbor and hit a sea mine. The barge sank and the entire crew perished in the Java Sea which was infested with sharks.
We reached Singapore after an uneventful journey.
Top priority now was to find Father. We found him and he found us. Father was in Thailand and there were no civilian transport means. It took us several months before we had the opportunity to fly as passengers with a bomber of the RAF (Royal Air Force). We made it and were again united as family. The physical and emotional scars have accompanied my parents till their last day. Mother, who had not heard from her family all these years, was relieved to hear that all were well.
I have the letter which Father sent to his Mother (my Grandma Bertha), immediately after the Japanese surrender. Poor Father! He feared the worst and begged that the letter would reach her while alive. I do not know how Father managed to digest the knowledge of the holocaust and the fact that so many of his family were brutally murdered by the Nazis. At that point of time he was alone and did not even know what our fate had been and whether he would ever see us again. He must have lived these days in a never ending nightmare and was haunted by it till his last day.
It was of course an immense relief for him to hear that we had made it and that we would see each other soon and become family again.
When Mother told me in Singapore that Father was alive, I was very proud and I told all my friends that my Father was not dead. Knowing all the ordeals he went through this was certainly an accomplishment.
Mother embroidered also a beautiful poem for my Father. This was done in the interim period before we entered the first concentration camp. The poem is embroidered with much skill and love in Hebrew on dark blue velvet. The poem is called the Molecule of Life. You should read it when the time comes.
On the margins of this poem Mother embroidered the numbers of our bank accounts, insurance and the like. These data served as our identification and enabled Mother already in Singapore to draw money. Remember that after the war no one had papers proving his identity. The Dutch Government had continued paying salaries to its employees during war time. The embroidered poem accompanied us during the war and was closely guarded by Mother together with the embroidered book. After the war the embroidered poem guarded us in return and helped us start quickly all over again. Mother of course did not forget her friend, who had lent her money back in 1942, and she was happy to redeem the loan, which had helped us to survive the dark days.
Alon, in my narrative you can find replies to most of your questions.
Regarding your question about the difference between the Japanese and the German camps:
We were war prisoners and we lived in harsh conditions. There was, generally spoken, no discrimination between Jews and other prisoners. The Japanese were no systematic murderers. The German were.
I personally bear no grudge against the Japanese. I believe that most Japanese soldiers were victims of their own system and suffered and died for the glory of the Emperor, who was to their belief the incarnation of God.
Any comparison with Germans seems to me an insult against this ancient and cultured people.