HistoryStoriesTraumaWorld War II

by Fleur Wormgoor

Background Information

Fleur, a survivor of Japanese internment camps (Ambarawa 7, Moentilan, Banjoebiroe 12, and Ambarawa 6), shares her poignant experience as one of the six participants in the 2023 Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program. Delve into her compelling story of resilience and reconciliation.

This program is an initiative that aims to foster mutual understanding between Japan and the Netherlands by extending invitations to Dutch individuals with complex historical ties to Japan, encouraging emotional reconciliation. Since 1995, a total of 687 participants have been welcomed into the program.

During the Japan-Netherlands summit meeting in 2015, Prime Minister of Japan Abe, explained that he intended to advance future-oriented diplomacy together with the Netherlands, based on the reconciliation with former war victims and mutual understanding that has been pursued under the Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program, which celebrated its 20th anniversary that year. Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands, expressed that he highly appreciated the Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program.

In 2023, the Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program took place from October 21 to 28, inviting six Dutch individuals who had experienced internment by the Japanese military during World War II to visit Japan.

In Nagasaki, the attendees engaged with local university and elementary school students, explored notable sites such as Dejima, Peace Park, and the Atomic Bomb Museum, laid flowers at the Fukuoka 14b monument (unveiled on the grounds of POW camp No. 14 in Nagasaki in 2023), and paid a courtesy visit to Mr. SUZUKI Shiro, the Mayor of Nagasaki. Additionally, they interacted with university students in Tokyo.

Reflecting on the program, participants shared, “Some students were moved to tears during our speech, and we were gratified that our sentiments resonated with the younger generation.” Another participant remarked, “My perception of Japan during World War II has evolved through this visit, making it an incredibly valuable experience.”

Fleur Wormgoor was one of the six Dutch people who were invited. This is her story.

Fleur’s Story

Before this journey, I had been to Japan three times and learned a lot about the culture and the Japanese way of life. So, when I received a call from the Japanese Embassy that I was selected for this trip I was excited.

Until now, I visited Japan as a tourist, but this time I knew it would be different, and I was right. This time I was going to see Japan not only with my eyes but also with my heart. I know that for all of us, this visit has been very importantand emotional. Every minute of every day has been planned beautifully and we learned so much about Japan and the people who live here. Every place we visited and every person we met: the sweet kids from elementary school and the students from the universities in Nagasaki and Tokyowe will never forget. Especially their emotions after they heard our stories touched us deeply. But I was also impressed by the positive way of thinking exhibited by the old survivor of the bomb in Nagasaki.

We sincerely hope this Peace Program will be continued for the next generation. We hope our children will be able to appreciate Japan and its people the same way we did during this visit. It is so important to understand each other’s culture. I am sure both countries will benefit from that. We have a long history together. Please take good care of that history. Thank you, the people of Japan, for giving us a warm welcome and for showing us your hearts.

When we were flying back home, my thoughts went back to everything that had happened during our stay. And all of a sudden I, thought of the very special letter one of the students named Kotoha gave to me. She told me that she was moved by the story about my little sister because she kept thinking what if the same thing happened to her little sisters and brothers.

During my whole life, we never talked about my sister. My mother could not talk about the saddest period in her life, it would break her. So at home, it was like an unwritten law, we just didn’t talk about her. It was like she never existed. Later in life whenever I talked about her, she was mentioned as “my little sister”, but I still had difficulty saying her name.

After talking with sweet Kotoha and reading her letter to me, I finally realized I could say my sister’s name out loud and I wanted to. I am forever grateful for meeting Kotoha. My little sister’s name was Marianne. I could do it for her.

Letter from student

Fleur’s speech at the Universities of Tokyo and Nagasaki

Konnichiwa (Good afternoon).

My name is Fleur. When you translate my name to Japanese it is Hanako and that is what my Japanese friends call me. It is an honor to be here.

As we all know, a war never ends in victory. Each side always ends up with a lot of sadness over lost family members, their cities and houses destroyed by bombs, and a lot of traumatized people.

This also happened during World War II, when atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with devastating consequences for the people living there.
But also, if that had not happened, many thousands of innocent people in Indonesia would not have survived. I was one of those people.

I was nine years old when my mother, my baby sister and I had to leave our home in Sumatra. All the women and children were evacuated to Java because of the approaching war. After a while the Japanese army captured us. Soon all the Dutch women and children were brought together in old buildings and we were not allowed to go outside. During that time my five-month-old baby sister became very ill due to lack of the right baby food, and she died.

I was devastated.

Not long after that had happened we were sent to a prison camp called Ambarawa 7.

I remember we were hungry all the time. But I tried to compensate by constantly having two marbles in my mouth, pretending they were cookies, candy, or even ice cubes. Soon all the boys, 12 years and older, were taken away to be interned in separate prison camps.

We had several Japanese guards but the camp commander was a very cruel man, his name was Kanemura. The youngest of the guards, 21 years old, was very nice. He always told us when he was going to visit the boys’ camps to give the mothers a chance to write letters to their sons, which he took with him. After a couple of days, he would return with the letters from the boys, to give to their mothers. Of course, this was not allowed and he risked a severe punishment from his superiors.

When my mother was very sick, he brought us some vegetables and eggs. And once he came into the camp and gave me a small kitten, which he had found on the street. The kitten traveled with me to the next camps and gave me a lot of comfort. After losing my little sister I had something to care about again.

As a child, the kindness of this man has helped me to see that not all Japanese people are bad people. Later in life, I met a lot of Japanese people because in 1971 my husband worked for a year with Hitachi in Japan. Since that time we have had many very dear Japanese friends. Due to their friendship, we started to appreciate the Japanese culture and I realized that it was very important for Japanese children to learn that they have to respect and obey older people and most of all listen to people who hold positions of authority. That is how I came to understand how people followed the orders from higher up without thinking if they were really in agreement with those orders and learned never to contradict their superiors.

Much later, after my husband died, our very dear friend Mr. Matsubara invited me to Japan for a memorial service for my husband with all our friends from Hitachi and their families.  Later he visited me in Curacao, where we lived at that time, to check if I was doing all right. Since then Mr. Matsubara has been in contact with me to ensure I was doing well. He also invited my daughters and me to visit Japan to show them where their father had lived for a year, working for Hitachi.

I was fortunate to meet him because he showed me how being Japanese, he supports people in other countries like Curacao, where he helps a family with young children. As a result, the children have enjoyed a good education and a better life.

As you can see I was privileged, first in my darkest hours during the war, there was this nice young Japanese guard who did what he could to help us. And later in life, I met Mr. Matsubara.

These people helped me during my life to process the impressions of my years of imprisonment.

Of course, I will never be able to forget what happened during those years, but I can now live in peace with it. Also, getting to know the Japanese people who are now our friends, cemented that feeling.

I feel honored I have been given the opportunity to visit Nagasaki where so many Japanese people suffered from the same war which I experienced. Please let us all work together to keep a peaceful world. Let us keep telling our children and grandchildren these stories, and make them realize that we have to work together to create a better world. 

Thank you for coming and listening to my story.

Domo Arigato (Thank you very much)

Reflections on the 2023 Peace Exchange

In the end, as Fleur reflected on her participation in the 2023 Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program, she cherished the profound connections made during emotional encounters with students and other compassionate individuals in Japan. These heartfelt interactions served as a crucial step in the ongoing process of healing and addressing the shared trauma of the past. The exchange not only bridged cultural gaps but also left lasting impressions of gratitude and appreciation, showcasing the transformative power of shared stories in fostering understanding, unity, and collective healing across borders.

5 Comments

  1. My father and his family were also in the camps for 3 plus years. He never wanted my sister and I to know the physical or emotional pain he and others experienced. He did eventually share his experience with my husband. Sadly they lost their sister in the camp. One of my dearest friends Is Japanese and my father harbored no prejudice, I was always so proud of his reaction. He and my mother lived for 30 years in Pismo Beach CA. He was in Costco one afternoon. As he shopped he heard a voice that he recognized but couldn’t place. Shockingly this man was in the camp with my dad. He said he would have never recognized the face but he knew the voice. A local newspaper article was published about the surprise encounter. Surprisingly their lives followed the same path. Both coming to California, on the same boat (but not the trip) becoming bankers and retiring in Pismo Beach. That was probably 20 years ago. My father is 94 now and lives with my sister and her husband. His memory is failing but his love is still strong. Thank you, it touched me deeply and left me with tears in my eyes.

  2. Thank you for sharing. Fleur is an inspirational and exceptional woman. Eloquent, intelligent and compassionate. Inspiring indeed.

  3. I am very interested in this project. I heard about this project when I join the Tjideng camp reunion in Bronbeek, 2 years ago.

  4. This story had inspired me on so many levels. I thank Fleur deeply for taking this trip and for telling her story.

  5. Have been in an Japanese concentration camp(Banjoebiroe and Karaes from 41 -45 brother and mother survived this ordeal

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