This is a letter by Titia Bouma, my great auntie, to Jetze Bouma, her brother born in 1902 in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). She wrote this letter at a Red Cross refugee camp in Singapore. Jetze in turn sent this letter from Singapore to Tanjung Priok to Jan Sluijter who in turn sent it to his wife, Helma Bouma in Haarlem in The Netherlands.
The letter gives an impression of the suffering of those who survived the Japanese concentration camps in South East Asia, and the Dutch East Indies in particular (a colony roughly from 1602 till 1948 or arguably 1942).
Singapore, Nov. 1945
We were planning on writing you before, but our lives have been so chaotic and painful lately. We were not in a right place to describe to you what was going on nor to trust any letter to paper at the time. We had contact with Louise pretty quickly once the peace deal was signed and we discovered that the kids, thank God, and you too have survived this hell. How are they now? Are you in frequent contact with them? We wrote to Louise a couple of times, but have not received any response. She must have told you by now that Mom and Dad both passed away in the camps. Malnutrition is the main cause, but we know Dad was beaten pretty badly. I will tell you some more about the recent years.
After the capitulation in March of 1942 by the Dutch East Indies forces to the Japanese, Dad came to live with us. Though he did not receive retirement income any longer, we never suffered much from running out of cash. Sonja had some cash stashed away in the house and my Theo had left behind 3 months of risk allowance for $7/day. It was relatively comfortable living for about a year and a half. There always seemed to be something we could do or sell. Dad sold his Leica, his binoculars, and typing machine to help with our living expenses. We ended up having to sell our jewelry also, but it was a small price to pay. It was a challenge for the old man every time he had to let go of his beloved equipment and tools, but he did so without complaining—for us.
This period was, under the circumstances for us “oldies” a relatively peaceful time. Our house was cozy, and we did not have to deal with the Japanese in our neighborhood. We could allow ourselves to forget about them totally for days in a row! In September of 1943, we had to leave and move into the ghetto. But even there, life was not too bad. We no longer had help in the house or garden, and we were stuck behind gates. But the “village” was quite large, it was large enough that sometimes you did not notice walls or barbed wire.
There were six of us in one house. The four of us and a young mother and baby. We worked hard to keep everything clean and to cook. But this would be the normal life of a Dutch housewife in the Netherlands I suppose. And frankly I enjoyed gaining some experience in cleaning and especially cooking. I think I did well and we enjoyed good meals almost every day. Mom and Dad also had little to worry about in those days.
This unfortunately lasted for only four months. On the 31st of January 1944, we were put on transport to Semarang. We traveled for 24 hours in a closed, damp, and hot train car—standing still, rolling slowly, standing again, speeding up, sudden stops, etc. There were crying children and overflowing latrine buckets. When we finally arrived in Gedangan, we found ourselves in an old gloomy cloister with large buildings. We were dropped there with 2,400 other women and children. From one day to another we were forced to adjust our, till then “normal” life, to the life of a camp dweller. It was noisy and dirty. We had to live in and on 2-meter wide bunk beds. Sleeping, eating, drinking… living. Food was sufficient at least in the first couple of months, but gradually became less and less.
We tried to make the best of it and it looked really clean and proper—even cozy. For Mom and Dad the worst thing was the constant noise. You could not get away from it. There was no escape and the garden was basically non-existent. No flowers or plants grew there. There were no benches or chairs. For Dad, it was a real terrible time. Mom at least could escape with knitting or mending clothes. There were hardly any books to find. We were only allowed to bring one suitcase. We had to leave everything behind.
There was insufficient lighting, so all you did in the evening was wait for food and then eat on your very thin bunk. Especially for the older folks this bunk was hard. There were no pillows or any other comforts for them. As they grew thinner and weaker, it became more torturous. The months passed. The terror increased. People were being brutally beaten. You constantly felt like a prey being hunted. Food became more and more scarce.
On September 10 of 1944, the old men and boys were rounded up and taken away. They were transported to Bangkong, a cloister about one-hour walking distance from us. Every boy of 10 years or older had to leave as they were considered “men” now by the Japanese. Heartbreaking scenes broke out, as you can imagine. It was not easy for the older men either, as they could not cope without the help of their wives and daughters. They were heading towards months of neglect and filth. Dad could not manage. He became apathetic, contracted dysentery, and was put on transport on December 5 to camp Halmahera. He passed away alone and lonely. We were never notified about his death. We read about it 6 months later, on a death-list when we ourselves were taken from Gedangan to Halmahera. Mom never knew. But it was as if they missed each other as a week after he passed, she contracted dysentery. Her condition was more or less neglected and the overcrowded hospital sent her back after a treatment of Epsom salts and nothing more. You know Mom, always in good spirits and positive, never complaining. Always washing herself and helping others and never being a nuisance to anyone—not even to the nurses who are supposed to help her. This is how no one actually realized how bad it was. We had never seen Mom sick or ill, ever. The thought of death never occurred to us. She collapsed and was taken into hospital again. It became worse. The bleeding became worse. Mom was so calm and serene. She was lying there in bed with eyes mostly closed, white as marble, and her features so noble. She said: “I will now give myself over to blind faith. Everything happens, as it must. It’s just so miserable that it must happen here, in this camp”.
Every night we were hoping for improvement, but the bleeding continued. We were torn apart internally, as we were bouncing between hope and despair. She finally received some medicine, which would surely have saved her life a couple of weeks ago—but it was too little, too late. Her perforated intestines just could not cope with the medicines. On the 27th of January, she suffered a third massive bleeding event, possibly due to an overdose of prontosil. Her pulse began to weaken. The doctors told us to prepare for her last night. This was our Gethsemane. The choking fear of what was to come. For what awaited us in the future, emptiness. We were always one with our mother. We thought of her other children and grandchildren and we thought strongly of you, her only son. We sat there, four days and four nights. Her pulse was weak, but did not weaken further. Her primal instincts of motherhood must have prevented her from deserting us. She stopped eating and drinking. She was resigned with what was to come. Her heart would not stop beating for us. We whispered to her and sometimes saw a faint smile on her face as if she understood what we were saying to her. She radiated serenity and peace. Her face so angelic, so serene, a woman so pure, free of any intrigue or meanness. Such a fine soul, already prepared for a place where good souls go.
During those four days and nights, we reflected on our lives. I’ve never felt God’s presence as much or as close as in those days and nights. It’s like we accompanied her a little bit of the way to heaven, into eternity. I saw the duality of life and death. One cannot exist without the other. Death is not the end—it is just the passing to another state of being. The walk between our cradle and our grave is but a part of our journey.
Slowly her features became less pronounced, almost younger. The last day it looked like she was in deep meditation. Her head to the side with two fingers against her cheek, she looked like Dante. We washed and made her up for some visitations as many people loved her and would miss her. She lay there looking like a queen. We were extremely happy we could be doing this for her. She always found it so important to look proper, clean, and well taken care of. There she lay, on a couch covered with the whitest sheets, in a gorgeous nightgown. Her beautiful little face finally at peace. We could not keep our eyes off of her. More than pain, we felt the proudness that she was our mother.
During the procession to her final resting place, we read a piece she always enjoyed from a book by Ebba Pauli: “What we call our lives is merely a walk. We walk and walk. Sometimes we walk with someone, but mostly, we walk alone. The area we walk through changes bit by bit. Sometimes the walking is easy and light. Sometimes hard and difficult. But always we see and learn new things. Finally we may know a little more than when we started this walk. Then, finally, the day arrives that everything changes and something new starts. From here on we don’t need so much anymore. We leave it behind and continue to walk. This is what humans call dying. When this day breaks, when this “new” starts, we no longer need these hands, or feet, or these eyes which have seen God’s wonders in this world. We don’t need these ears or these lips, which translate our thoughts to speech. And because we don’t need these any longer, we leave them behind. They can return to the corporeal world one day, where they belong. But we go on, to see more, to learn more, to understand more…”
Thinking about this made it easier to close the lid of her small coffin. We laid the damask cloth over the rough black painted wooden box. To cover this crude thing with the mantle of love. This is how seven of her closest friends walked her to the gate of the camp, which was lined with so many other camp inhabitants. In camp Gedangan this was our usual manner. We took the time to say goodbye to those who parted. We are thankful that Mom did not pass in camp Halmaheira, as at least four people every day were taken to the gates to get buried and there was no more decency left by the living to give a proper goodbye. It was indecent there how they took the bodies of our loved ones away. Better not to be present for the sake of memories.
It was 2 PM on the 1st of Feb. 1944 when we came into this camp and it was 2 PM on the 1st of Feb. 1945 when we saw Mom leaving the camp. How strange fate can be.
Camp life kept going for us and every now and then we thought we felt Mom’s presence to keep us out of harm’s way during searches of the guards in our bunks, etc. They never found the $1,000 we had hidden in clothing and blankets. Even during those difficult days in Surabaya and our escape to Singapore we regularly said to each other that our guardian angel, Mom, kept us safe.
Do you need some money? We still have around $200 Nippon. It’s worthless where we are. Or shall we send it to Louise? What is her address? We had contact with her, but have not heard back yet recently. Can you come over here? Van Nieuwuyk, Witsen Elias and Van Vendeloo (notary) are attorneys here at the counsel for orphans and repatriation. They will have a spot for you I am sure. We would really love that. Sonja is relatively comfortable as her husband’s company is taking care of her. I have had contact with Theo, but it’s not yet clear when we can see each other again. How are your eyes nowadays?
With love, your little sister.
Mom was Jane Bouma-Brill
Dad was Gerben Bouma
Article in English where they are buried today:
For more Dutch-Indonesian history:
Indo Knowledge Library
Most interesting story I am going to forward this to my kids. I am from 1939 Surabaja we left in 1954. my wife is from Puerto Rico so she and our kids are familiar with my stories
Thank you for sharing this moving story with us, and for
keeping our shared history alive for future generations