Living under Japanese occupation for four years
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Marja Vanderbeek’s father was looking for adventure when he moved the family from their home in the Netherlands to Indonesia. He got more adventure than he bargained for. The Vanderbeeks awoke one morning in 1942 to find that the Japanese had invaded the islands.
Vanderbeek: When the Japanese came it only took them two days to gain control over all of Indonesia. All of the men were rounded up and sent to Burma to work on the railroad. The women and children were put in certain places where there were houses. There was my mother and the five of us kids and my grandmother. My grandmother was in the camp but she didn’t live with us.
We were put in a room with eight other people. The room was about 10 foot by 12 foot, and we lived there for four years. My mother had to go out of the camp and work in the fields to grow food for the Japanese. We didn’t see much of that food. It was mostly for the soldiers.
My mother had to really drill us because every morning we had to stand at attention for the camp commander. My mother and I and my brothers and sisters all had to recite something to honor the commander. If we made a mistake my mother was beaten. And then we had to count in Japanese. I can still count in Japanese pretty well, but I have forgotten the thing we had to say when we bowed down to the commander every morning.
Mom wasn’t allowed to teach us anything other than our drills. She would have been severely punished if the soldiers found her teaching us. We just had to stay dumb.
I really have a lot of respect for my mother. She had five kids, from 9 months to 9 years to look after. We had no room. All of us slept in one bed like sardines and my mother slept on a mat at the foot of the bed.
We always had lice. I remember one time Mom put a cloth with gasoline on it on my head to get rid of the lice. The gasoline killed the lice but I had blisters all over my head from the gasoline. We had bedbugs that were crawling all over the walls and the only thing we had to get rid of them was gasoline.
When we were first put in the camp I was 3 years old, and when we came out I was 7.
Gallacher: What did you eat?
Vanderbeek: Most of the time they fed us a corn porridge. They also had something that looked like rice starch. Once in a while, we got rice if we were lucky.
Occasionally, we had soup with a little bit of cabbage in it. There was no meat at all. I got used to not having food. When I came out of the camp I hardly ate. My mother was very worried about me.
I never remember being really hungry, but my mother and my little brother had beriberi. My mother had it really bad. It took her quite a while to get healthy again when we went back to Holland after the war. There wasn’t a lot of food in Holland for the next two years, because they were still recovering from the German occupation.
Gallacher: What kept you going?
Vanderbeek: I was just a little kid, and I didn’t take things that seriously. As a kid you just take what comes, as long as you have a parent like my mother who is taking care of you. She had a very tough time but she always tried to make it as pleasant as possible for us kids. She was never thinking of herself. We were the most important thing for her.
I remember for one of my birthdays in the camp she made a little rabbit out of cloth that she had saved. I will always remember that rabbit. That was the best present I have ever gotten in my whole life.
Gallacher: You were separated from your father for four years?
Vanderbeek: Yes. We didn’t even know if my father was alive, and he didn’t know if we were alive. The Red Cross came in at the end of the occupation and had all the women in the camp write postcards telling their husbands where they were. The Red Cross then took a picture of us and pasted it on the front of the postcard.
Meanwhile my father was beginning his search. The Red Cross flew him back from Burma to Java to look for us. On his way, during a layover in Bangkok, Thailand, he was walking through the airport and he passed these huge tubs of mail and there on top of one of those tubs was our postcard. On the back, my mother had written where we were and that we were all OK. It was then that he learned that we were all still alive and safe.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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