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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Critiques & Reviews
Prison Camp Memoirs
by Xaviera Hollander
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When I was old enough to be able to toddle around the camp, I met Ankie and we became inseparable friends. She was a role model for me, a wise, old woman at six and, as her grandmother was the sister of my Grandma Esther, we were vaguely related. In stark contrast to my mom, Ankie's mother was a much sterner character. She loved both Ankie and her younger brother, but was ready to give them the occasional slap when they got out of order. Perhaps this strictness was the reason that Ankie developed a relationship with animals far closer and more profound than the normal love of a child for a pet. When she imitated their calls, she could communicate with them.
      Unlike our parents who were restricted to their own prison blocks, we kids were left free to roam all round the camp. It was uncanny, but from dusk to dawn Ankie would hang around with the wild dogs and monkeys who had made the camp their home. Like the humans, the animals were starving. Ankie would collect nuts and banana skins to feed them. They in turn grew to trust her and treat her as one of their own. During the day, she would take me by the hand and lead me to a lair where a tribe of monkeys were grooming each other. I was fascinated and, being with Ankie, they took no notice of me. No surprise then that I learned early about sex as Ankie took me to watch the wild courtships and couplings of the monkeys and the dogs. The animals tolerated her presence even when they were scavenging and fighting over scraps of food. Even now, in the middle of the city, Ankie keeps a couple of ferrets in her apartment: their stink pervades the whole block and they bite viciously anyone foolhardy enough to approach them. But to her, they are as gentle as tame rabbits.
      And Ankie not only kept me safe from attacks by starving animals, she was my talisman, protecting me from the brutalities of the guards. The Japanese inflicted every conceivable indignity and suffering on their Dutch captives, an explosion of the pent up resentment of all the Asians against the white European colonists. Yet a number of these savage soldiers loved to fondle this blue eyed, golden haired child, as if she were their own little angel. Some of them must have been fathers, lonely for the presence of their own far away daughters, others had pedophiliac longings, but probably for most, she was simply a pet like a pretty kitten. They would sit her on their laps, stroke her hair and generally make a fuss over her. Maybe they thought she enjoyed this uncharacteristic tenderness: actually, it made her flesh cringe.
      To this day, Ankie cannot overcome her repulsion for all people and things oriental, she cannot bring herself to even eat Japanese food. Nevertheless, she did not just tolerate their petting, but welcomed it since the soldiers would often give her scraps of food which she would secretly pass on to her starving mother. So her mother got her to wheedle a deal with the most amenable of her tormentors--two ripe tomatoes a week for the right to caress. Hence, much to their amusement, Ankie's name for a Japanese soldier was Johnny Tomato. But Sonei, the camp commander, was of sterner stuff, not a man to caress little girls. His brutality was legendary and word went round that he was a true lunatic for it seemed that at full moon his excesses became more frenzied and his sadism sank to unimaginable depths of depravity. Yet, the fragile child confronted this monster, apparently without a trace of fear and vanquished him.
      Ankie's baby brother was sick. Lack of adequate food and the appalling sanitary conditions weakened the resistance of adults and it was far more serious for young children. The women had secretly put together primitive stoves on which they would prepare ghastly concoctions of their pitiful rations of rice, banana skins and, in the case of Ankie's mother, snails which they caught during the night. Dysentery was rife and the shriveled little boy sat on his baby chamber pot, sobbing and screaming, as his very guts seemed to be dissolving into an incessant stream of evil smelling liquid. This happened during one of Sonei's worst bouts of insane bestiality. He hated dogs and had them kicked and beaten until they became as berserk as himself. Rather than send the sick child to a doctor, Sonei decided to have him torn to pieces by the maddened dogs. Soldiers grabbed him and lashed him to his pot. Then he was taken out into the middle of the parade ground where everybody could witness the spectacle. Prisoners watched horrified while Sonei's cronies laughed and joked at the sport as a dozen or more slavering hounds were let loose. Suddenly they all fell silent, amazed and awe-struck, as little Ankie calmly walked into the ring of dogs, crooning wordlessly a message to her animal friends. The child-sacrifice was ignored although they were ravenous. They gathered around Ankie, growling softly, some licking her hands before trotting back to their lairs. The soldiers slunk away. Even Sonei must have been ashamed, for he left the children alone and, unbelievably, never inflicted any further punishment on them. The little boy survived and became a celebrated brain surgeon in Holland.
      I could not understand the strange way women were forced to bow almost double in front of Japanese soldiers, to crouch down bending their knees like frogs. Years later, my mother explained that Japanese men were short and stocky so most of the European women were taller than them and it was an unacceptable affront to their dignity that a Japanese man would have to look up to a mere woman. And to stand lower than a white woman was doubly insulting. So this posture was a way of abasing the women and emphasizing the superiority of our masters
      While I was roaming through the camp with my cousin Ankie, who was a mere 6 year old, my mom struggled to find food for both of us. Many of the Japanese soldiers relished the opportunity to acquire loot, stealing food or medicine from official supplies to give to the women in exchange for fancy jewelry or gold watches. They were fascinated by the glitter of gold and it was quite common to see private soldiers flaunting four watches on their forearms. But the main source of the necessities of life lay beyond the wall of bamboo the prisoners themselves had been forced to build and through which they could never pass.
      However, there were Javanese and Chinese traders who were able to come and go. They were as willing as the Japanese to exploit the misery of mothers desperate for food for their infants, but they generally refused to smuggle anything in, it was too dangerous and the penalties too horrendous. What they would do, having first extracted whatever money or valuables they could, was to throw bags of food over the bamboo fence at a certain spot at an agreed time.
      Of course, dreadful punishment was meted out to anyone caught in this illicit trade.
      My mother herself was soon to suffer her own ordeal. She had surreptitiously burrowed a hole in the ground in which she hid diamonds that she had smuggled into the camps at the beginning of the war. They would be her last resource to save us in a crisis.
      Others had gone down with dysentery, like Ankie's little brother, and not all survived. Then it was my turn and my mother was petrified with fear as I rapidly lost weight and tossed in my cot in the grip of fever. She could not get any useful medicine. The best she could hope for was to smuggle in some food to build up my strength. She sought out a Javanese merchant she felt she could trust and he agreed that, for the trifling consideration of a diamond ring wrapped in paper thrown over the wall at midnight, he would throw back a bag of brown sugar.
      Germaine crept out at the appointed hour. Searchlights thrust probing fingers which pierced the pitch black of the night. Germaine waited for the beam to move away and then groped her way to the spot in the bamboo. The camp was sealed in utter silence. Germaine whistled softly. Immediately there was an answering whistle from over the wall. She threw the ring and waited. Then there was a loud thud. The bag had fallen about a meter away from where she was standing and burst open. She could hear the whoosh of the life-giving sugar spilling onto the ground, but so could others.
      The camp was suddenly bathed in blinding white light as the searchlights swept back along the fence and spotlights came alive, trained on her as she scuffled furiously to push back into the torn bag as much of the sugar as she could rescue. She heard the pounding of running feet, then the guard shouting to her to stand still or he would fire.
      In the prison hut, there was commotion. Ankie's mother peered out of the door, then swiftly closed it. Both her children clung to her in panic. The only sound was the whimpering of the sick child.
      "I want my mommy," baby Xaviera moaned.
      "Shush, lie still," whispered Ankie's mother. "Momma'll be back soon. Now, go to sleep."
      They waited. Minutes passed. Then the silence was shattered by the screams of a woman somewhere outside.
      "Mommy, Mommy," wailed the child.
      The screams grew louder, more insistent; the women in the hut shuddered.
      They waited. The screams gave way to incessant sobbing. They waited.
      Sonei had been aroused by the hubbub and my mother was dragged before him by two Japanese soldiers and one of the Indonesian guards. They did not wait for any order from the camp commander, but started to beat up the helpless woman. Not content with the agony they inflicted with their fists, punches and karate chops, they lashed her with their belts and batons. Sonei himself smashed his iron-hard fists into her with the fury of a madman. She fell senseless at their feet and they kicked her mercilessly, their heavy boots crunching into her ribs and stomach. When her body ceased to move, they trampled on her; one final kick gashed open her face and each of them spat thick, stinking sputum to mingle with the blood. They left her for dead, sprawled against the bamboo wall.
      Early in the morning, a patrol collected corpses and tossed them into a windowless hut with a galvanized roof to await final disposal. They picked up the inert body beside the bamboo, threw it into a cart and cast it into this House of the Dead. Some hours passed before the flicker of life in Germaine's battered body revived sufficiently for her to open her eyes and slowly become aware of her surroundings, a pile of bodies, some already putrefying. She was dizzy from the overpowering, sickly stench of death.
      Worse, the searing heat of the sun on the metal roof was turning the shed into an oven. She realized that unless she rallied her strength to crawl into the air, she would suffocate.
      Yet she was not physically capable of getting back to her barrack and her sick daughter, nor was she permitted to quit the Death House.
      Each day, more bodies were thrown in. The guards, finding that she was still barely alive, gave her a little water and some slices of stale bread, but she could not bring herself to eat. She lingered between life and death, growing weaker from starvation and less able to move as her legs swelled from the beriberi, which ravaged the camp. Anxiety over the fate of her daughter cleared Germaine's mind. She knew that she was so ill that, unless she could get some medical care quickly, she would die and so might Xaviera. When the guards approached with yet another corpse and a hunk of bread for her, she pleaded that she might be taken to a medical post. They refused. Her voice was no more than a hoarse whisper, so why should they bother with a dying woman, already consigned to a charnel house.
      The next day, she was still alive and still begging to be taken to the medical post. This went on for several days and rather than have to put up with her entreaties, they finally agreed to get rid of her. She had become tiresome, a nuisance, so let someone else have the responsibility of this living corpse. For two whole weeks, Germaine was in the sick bay. She received minimal treatment and a little wholesome food; only then was she strong enough to return to her hut to find whether her child was still alive.
      I had heard my mother screaming as blow after blow had pounded her writhing body. I could not understand what was happening except to know that it was something too dreadful to imagine. Then, as minutes turned to hours and hours to days, I was seized by the terror of being alone, motherless with nobody to look after me or to provide me with food, but above all to love and care for me. Ankie had given me a crust of bread and some water and almost miraculously my fever had abated, but the women were too occupied with their own struggle to survive and protect their own children to succor just one more pitiful orphan.
      One image survives with me: a lonely, frightened child, sitting on a tiny suitcase, containing everything I owned, sobbing in terror as a squad of soldiers marched past, each sporting three or four watches, stolen from the women, shouting strange words at the top of their voices. Kirei, kirei, bow down, bow down! A group of women were bowing and frog squatting, while on the other side of a barbed wire fence, frightened, aggressive men strode by, their rifles ready. I burst into an uncontrollable torrent of tears. Why wasn't my mother there to comfort me? Nobody bothered to come to dry my tears. An orphan has to learn to look after herself. But Ankie went on gathering scraps of food thrown out for the dogs into her apron, shooing off the hungry animals and feeding me the morsels. That was what kept me alive along with her constant assurances that my momma would be back soon. So when Germaine at last did walk through the door, I was the only one not astounded by this return from the dead. She kissed me and clutched me tight as if to make sure that I would not be snatched away and that she would never be parted from me. She never stopped kissing her baby, pouring out her love for the child she had made for Mick. To me, it seemed an eternity since she had left and I was frightened by the intensity of my mother's emotion. The ordeal had taken its toll.
      To this day, I remember her strained, haggard look. She had aged years in those few weeks. And Germaine never recovered from the anxiety over her daughter she had suffered during their separation. To her dying day, she would agonize over whatever I might be doing, whether I was eating wisely, whether I was driving too fast, whether I was spending too lavishly, what sort of friends I had, things which would drive me crazy until I recalled what Germaine had gone through for my sake, all for a bag of sugar.

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