by Jane Vogel Mantiri
I met Sonja in October 2011, almost seven decades after Papa was captured by the Japanese, shackled, and forced to work the Death Railway in Siam (Thailand) as a POW (prisoner of war). Papa would endure almost four years of torture before he was released from hell. He never told me his story. The scars on his body had to speak for him. The trauma memories assailed him in the darkness of the night and terror screams hurled from his body, ricocheting off our thin walls and into my ears. The ghosts of wartime past stayed in the darkness, terrorizing him when he was most vulnerable. By day, Papa was stoic, gentle, precise, diligent, industrious. His body held all the trauma, causing it to succumb before I was ready to say goodbye. When Papa died, I was devastated. But my solace was that the past could no longer hurt him.
Oh Papa, this story is for you. I see you smiling as I relive the memory of meeting Sonja.
I had just moved to Portland, Rip City if you are a Trailblazers’ fan. I needed a pied-a-terre to pursue my acting career. My husband, Charlie and I purchased a one-bedroom condo that needed new counter tops. I called for an estimate and the company sent out a woman to take measurements and get the process started. The woman walked into my condo and I felt an instant connection with her. She was family. Indos have a strong sense of family. Indo elders are aunts and uncles, even if they are not related by blood or marriage. We are bound together by culture, not just bloodlines.
I wanted to hug this woman, but that would have been awkward. Instead I blurted out an awkward question.
Me: Where are you from?
Woman, possibly offended: Where are you from?
Yep, I offended her. My question screamed that she was not from this country. I knew that she was not from this country. She was family.
Me: I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia.
Woman: I am from Jakarta, Indonesia!
Me: A church sponsored my family and brought us to Milwaukee.
Woman: A church sponsored my family and brought us to Medford.
Me: My Oom Bert lived in Medford.
Woman: My Oom Bert lived in Medford!
Me: My Oom Bert was not my blood uncle.
Woman: My Oom Bert was not my blood uncle.
Me: My Oom Bert was my father’s campmate when he was a prisoner of war.
Woman: My Oom Bert was my father’s campmate when he was a prisoner of war.
Me: My Papa is gone.
Woman: My Papa is gone.
Me: I am JANE.
Woman: I am Sonja.
Sonja Bell told me that her father, L.G. Vermeulen, was an artist. The Japanese captors destroyed all his art but he was able to sneak out one drawing of himself with his two campmates. Sonja knew that one of the campmates was Bert Oudhof, whom she called “Oom” or uncle. But she never knew who the other man was. Now Sonja was hugging that other man’s daughter.
Our Papas and our Oom Bert survived years of the most dehumanizing horrific captivity. They went through hell together. Sonja and I met 8,000 miles and 70 years later by sheer coincidence. Or was it? Papa, can you hear me?
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