Read TIP’s Indo Profile about war camp survivor and musician Hannie Blaauw.
Hannie Blaauw is my very special friend. I met him about twenty years ago when I moved to Arizona. Born and raised on Java, he is eleven years older than I, so he was a teenager during the years of Japanese oppression. He survived the camps and vividly remembers the cruelties he witnessed. He was always hungry. He had camp sores and tropical diseases like all of us, but he survived thanks to his sense of humor and his guardian angel who protected him many times in harrowing situations. ~ by Indo Ronny de Jong
Camp Life in Dutch East Indies
Born in Tegal, Central Java, Hannie had five brothers. His father died before the war. When the Japanese occupied the island, the family was separated. His mother was sent to a women’s camp. His brother Adriaan, who had an education as a nurse in the army, was put to work in a camp hospital in Bandung to treat Japanese soldiers. He was part of a medical team of military doctors and nurses. They were not transported overseas, the Japanese kept them on Java to treat wounded or sick soldiers. His brother Eddy was shipped to Thailand to work on the Burma railroad and his brother Albert was sent to Japan to work in the coal mines. Hannie, his oldest brother, and younger brother were incarcerated in Camp Tjimahi together. His oldest brother would die in Camp Tjimahi.
Food was scarce. Breakfast consisted of a ball of starch with brown sugar. Lunch consisted of bread made with the yeast from human urine, and dinner was a soupy mixture of 100 grams of rice mixed with water and chopped white radish. Hannie was so malnourished that he could hardly walk. Deaths were common at the camp: an average of six people would die every day from countless diseases, dysentery, and malnutrition.
The day before Christmas in 1944, one of his friends came up to him. “Hannie,” he said excitedly, “Look what I have here, a cat!” Hannie followed him and behind the little house he saw that, indeed, his friend had caught a cat. They knew immediately where the cat came from. On the other side of the gedek, was the house of the Japanese camp commander and his concubine. The concubine’s cat must have sneaked out of the house, crawled through the slokan, and ducked underneath the gedèk—where Hannie’s friend had grabbed it.
Without thinking twice, Hannie wrung its neck and skinned it with the help of a piece of barbed wire. Hannie and his brother came up with a brilliant idea. Because of Christmas, all prisoners had received a double portion of rice. Everybody pitched in and the news spread like wildfire through the camp: the Blaauw brothers have made nasi goreng! What a very special Christmas dinner it was. It was the highlight of Hannie’s camp life.
For days thereafter, they could hear the camp commander’s concubine call her cat—to no avail. Had they found out what happened to it, they would have killed the boys. The war would last another seven months. The cat never came back
One of Hannie’s fellow prisoners had a small radio. One day, he whispered to Hannie, “Hannie, come, listen! The Americans dropped a bomb on Hiroshima in Japan! Perhaps they will surrender.”
But the Japanese did not give up that easily. For help they turned to Russia, with which they had a Non-aggression Pact for five years. However, the Pact had ended on August 6, 1945, and Russia refused help. The Allies dropped a second bomb, this time on Nagasaki, on August 9. Still the Japanese did not surrender. Why not? Researchers found out that Japan tested an atomic bomb of their own, which they had just finished, on one of their small islands in the north. It failed. Only then Emperor Hirohito announced: “Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives“, referring to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that occurred days before. However, he never mentioned the Soviet invasion that had also begun a few days earlier. Finally, and most famously, he said: “However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”
Eighteen-year-old Hannie Blaauw and his fellow prisoners were unaware of all this, but the tension in the camp grew. Finally, on August 15, 1945 the war was over, the gates of the camp were opened, and the prisoners were free to leave. Hannie was liberated along with 10,000 other Dutch, Indo, French, Australian, British and American POWs. Many remained in the camp temporarily because they didn’t know where to go or they were waiting to reconnect with family members and relatives in other camps.
During the years that followed it was not safe to go anywhere and Japanese soldiers, shipped in from Formosa, were assigned to protect the prisoners who were still in the camps. The gates were open during the day but at night a curfew was strictly enforced. Adriaan, one of the military nurses in charge of treating Japanese soldiers in the small camp hospital in Camp Tjikudapateuh, working with very limited supplies during the war, had witnessed the deaths of many fellow prisoners who could have been helped with better medication. The Japanese never distributed the supplies sent to the camps by the Red Cross, and they bluntly refused actual visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect the camps or limited them to a brief conversation with the camp commander. They allowed absolutely no contact with the prisoners. Lists of prisoners in other camps circulated among the inmates in Camp Tjimahi. Hannie found out that his mother was in camp Kramat in Batavia, and on another list he discovered to his great joy the name of his brother Adriaan in camp Tjikudapateuh in Bandung. Immediately he made plans to go visit him.
Very early in the morning, when the sun just rose above the horizon, Hannie left Camp Tjimahi, walking west in the direction of Bandung. Hannie walked through the sawahs, passing kampungs along the way, as the sun burned down on his head and bare arms. His klètèks (wooden slippers with a goat-leather or rubber band across the toes and pieces of car tires under the heels) made a happy sound on the pavement: klètèk, klètèk, and his heart sang: ‘I’m going to see Adriaan, I’m going to see my brother!’ It was a long walk, but after about three hours he finally reached his destination and walked through the gates of camp Tjikudapateuh. Without too much trouble Hannie found the hospital, walked in, and asked for Adriaan. With a broad smile on his face he embraced his brother, who was totally surprised when he walked in.
It was a tearful reunion – the four years of hardship, hunger, and horrors had left indelible marks on the young men and after Adriaan had asked permission to take the rest of the day off they went outside and talked for hours in the shade of a waringin. Time went by very quickly and they went to the camp kitchen to get something to eat. It wasn’t much, a bowl of rice and a ladle of soup, but the soup had meat in it, and vegetables, and it was plenty after the camp rations the brothers were used to: the war was over!
Before they knew it, the sun was setting and they realized it was too late for Hannie to return to Tjimahi in time for curfew. “You can stay here,” urged Adriaan, “come with me.” Together they walked through the hospital to the operating room; Adriaan took a key from his pocket and opened the door. “You can sleep right here, on the floor underneath the operating table. Sleep well, I will come and get you in the morning.”
Hannie fell into a deep sleep, exhausted from the long walk and the happy reunion with his brother. He awoke with a shock when bright lights went on and a booming voice said:
“I’ll be damned! What have we here? Who are you? What are you doing here? Get out, get up!”
“I’m Hannie, Adriaan’s brother,” Hannie said. “I walked here yesterday from camp Tjimahi to see my brother, and then it was too late to return to my camp before curfew, so Adriaan let me sleep here.”
“All right then, but you gave me the scare of my life,” said the surgeon, and Hannie walked out of the room and went in search of his brother.
Promises to Reunite
In the early afternoon they said goodbye and Hannie left after they promised each other that soon they would find their mother in Camp Kramat and leave Java together in search of a better future in Holland
It was hot on the road back to Camp Tjimahi. Hannie walked at a steady pace, his feet starting to ache underneath the hard rubber straps of his klètèks. After an hour, knowing that he was not even half way, he was so thirsty that he decided to get something to drink at a warung in the next kampung. He walked into the kampung, wondering if they would have anything to drink so soon after the war. Even a cup of water would be good though, and the thought of cool water made him smile.
Suddenly, a man blocked his path. “Go back to your camp,” the man said urgently. “Go quickly, hurry! Lekas, lekas, because terrible things are about to happen.” When Hannie looked up, the man was gone. That must have been my guardian angel, Hannie thought, and without another look at the warung in the distance he turned around, back to the road, and as fast as his legs could carry him he hurried, his klètèks making a nervous sound, faster and faster, back to Tjimahi.
Safe During Violent Bersiap
The next day, the Bersiap (Indonesian term meaning ‘get ready’) started: the violent and chaotic fight for independence from the Dutch with weapons acquired from the Japanese. Young freedom fighters, Indonesian extremists, led by newly elected President Soekarno roamed the countryside, brutally killing all people in sight. Hannie was safe behind the closed gates of Camp Tjimahi.
After a brief period in New Guinea, Hannie went to the Netherlands by way of Singapore. Several years later, he found his sweetheart, Nellie. They got married in 1958 and emigrated to the United States of America in 1961. They were blessed with a son and two daughters and made a good life for themselves in California, after the initial very difficult years as penniless immigrants.
In 1997 they moved to Prescott, Arizona. Hannie competed in the Prescott Senior Olympics every year, playing tennis, winning gold and silver. For many years he volunteered at Meals on Wheels together with Nellie. When Nellie passed away, Hannie, supported by his many friends, carried on, cooking his own meals (Indo of course) volunteering, playing tennis, and taking care of his little pup Scotty, his new companion.
When Hannie was 86, his daughter decided he lived too far away from her, and in June of 2013, Hannie moved with Scotty to a town in the California desert. He never complained, but set out to make new friends. After a week, he called enthusiastically: “Ronny! There are eight tennis courts close by, and two swimming pools!” Two weeks later: “Ronny, I have nobody to play with. I guess I have to wait for the snowbirds.” He offered to volunteer at the local hospital, but they had no use for him, an 86-year-old man. That was a disappointment. In October, he called and said:
“Ronny! I joined the church choir, a very large choir!”
“You did?” I said, “I did not know you could sing.”
“I can’t,” Hannie said, “I cannot even read notes, but they accepted me and I am singing along. Pretty soon we will start rehearsing for Christmas.”
He continued to make new friends. When he could no longer play tennis because his knees gave up, he discovered pickle ball and became an enthusiastic player with many other seniors in his town. When he had to give up pickle ball at the age of 89, he told me that he had purchased a ukulele and was taking classes. The group he joined, led by Cheryl Blatt, called themselves The Mouseketeers. Learning to read notes is one thing; learning to read chords and then produce sounds with your ninety-year-old fingers is something else. “You are my Sunshine” was difficult for him to learn, but his teacher said he was making good progress, and that was encouraging. An absolute favorite, which he plays when he feels lonely, is “Don’t Fence Me In.”
The Mouseketeers started performing in retirement homes and country clubs throughout the Coachella Valley. But when the Coronavirus hit and social distancing became the mandate, it seemed the music had to stop. But then Blatt had an idea. Aware of the healing properties of music and the fact that we now, more than ever, need the joy that accompanies it, Blatt and her Mousketeers reached out to neighbors, many of whom were elderly and alone, and offered a little musical therapy in the form of a free ukulele concert in her driveway.
Celebrating Hope and Life
On April 1st of 2021 Hannie hopes to celebrate his 94th birthday. Life threw him many curve balls, but Hannie knew how to swing to get far. He never gave up hope; he reached out to others even when he had to start over in a strange new environment far away from his old friends.
Last year, he lost Scotty, his little companion, but he continues to live his life: one day at a time, grateful for what he has today, thankful to live in this beautiful country, knowing that God has a plan for him, a plan to prosper and not for harm, a plan to give him hope, a plan for his future. His positive outlook on life is his secret to live to a ripe old age.