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1: Bantjeuj

Preface || 2: Samson >>

Bantjeuj is a large white walled prison in Bandoeng on Java ; this prison was condemned by the Dutch an "unsuitable for human habitation." It was a pity the Dutch had not demolished this old prison by the time Java was occupied by the Japanese, because at once they made use of Bantjeuj by filling it up with prisoners-of-war

Many times as a young girl of 14 and 15 years I had cycled past Bantjeuj. Never did I imagine for one moment that one day I would be prisoner in one of its cells myself Our life in Java was carefree. School going, passing exams, playing tennis, swimming, going for long walks , spending holidays in mountain places seemed to be the order of the day and to continue forever. Suddenly war was declared with Japan; in no time Java surrendered and the Japanese storm-troops rushed on motorcycles into the towns. The Japanese with their dark sunglasses and hats with ear flaps looked like species from another planet. Announcements were made over the radio, telling us how we should behave towards them. We were taught that we should bow for Japanese, as that was their custom, and women were not allowed to look in the face of a Japanese man when he spoke to her, but should answer him by looking down on the ground. Schools were closed. Overnight, life changed from living in freedom to imprisonment on this island. It seemed unreal and nightmarish, because the change had not come gradually, but like a thief in the night, we were unexpectedly robbed of our possessions, our way of life and most of all, of our loved ones.

One day, around 4 a.m. in the morning a truck stopped in front of our house and a Japanese soldier banged on our door, ordering my mother and I to follow his into the truck. We were allowed to take one small suitcase for each of us.

Half an hour before the Japanese arrived, someone had "tipped us off" that we were going to be "picked up;" and we hurried to bring our little dogs to our neighbours, who were Chinese people. It was the custom of the Japanese, when they picked up people to lock up any pots, e.g. dogs, cats, birds, etc., inside the house and shut the doors of the house with a Japanese seal. So the poor animals just starved to death inside the house.

The truck was already quite full of people when my mother and I clambered into it. We continued to pick up some more people until our truck was absolutely full. Then we were brought to a large building somewhere in Bandung where we had to get our suitcases from the truck and were interrogated by various Japanese officers all day long in a mixture of Malayan, English and Japanese.

Then towards the evening we were all told to got on to the truck again and we were driven off without our suitcases, which we were ordered to leave behind. Why were we told to bring then in the first place was a puzzle to us; was it for the sake of show?

We had no idea where we were being taken to, though we all presumed it was to a camp. Imagine our horror when we saw the large white building of the prison "Bantjeuj" looming up before us! We just could not believe it. Never will we forget that moment when the large double prison gates were opened with the runty screeching of iron and we drove in. It was like going into the jaw of a great monster.

The truck drove into the courtyard and the Japanese yelled that we should come off the truck. All around the courtyard, we saw cells, and behind the iron bars pale hollow faces were staring at us. They looked like death-masks and their expressions frightened us. They were expressions of despair, fear and anguish. The cells around the courtyard were for those in solitary confinement.

Our hearts sank at the sight and our spirits, which were already weary and low after a whole day of interrogation, became even heavier with fear of the unknown. Then an Indonesian warden was summoned and led us to a cell about 17 ft. by 10 ft., and we were pushed in. It was a cell in the corner; two of our walls faced the outside world and on one side of an inner wall we had a call full of women, while on the other side was a narrow passage and next to that one we bordered to a cell full of men.

The iron door was closed behind us and the runty key turned and turned, locking us in. It was a horrible feeling. By that time it was dark, and only one miserable light bulb hang in the call, enabling us to see what it was like. The thought stuck me suddenly; "I an a prisoner, I an locked in". We discovered that there were 33 of us. There were 5 children, 4 boys and a little girl, without a mother (she was in hospital dying). The oldest of these 5 children was Jonathan, 8 years old, followed by his 3 younger brothers, Karel, Tommy and James, and the youngest was Truusje: she was 2 years old and looked very delicate. Then there was a Mrs. O'Hara with us, wife of a doctor, with her 3 small children. We also had a young mother who was partly paralyzed through having caught infantile paralysis after she had given birth to a son. She was in the cell with her small boy. So we had 9 children and 24 adults in the call.

There was a hole in the corner of the cell which served as a toilet. This was a condemned prison, quite obviously because of the bad sanitation system. There was an inch of water on the floor, coming out of the ground. An we had no mattresses, nor blankets, we looked in despair at the wet floor and decided we could not possibly lie on it.

So we started by all standing together, close to each other for warmth and comfort. But an the hours went by, we could not keep it up and we sat down, leaning against one another. Towards the morning we were all lying on the ground and woke up when we hoard the runty sound of the key in the door. We were all wet and had to try to dry ourselves by walking in a little narrow strip outside our call. This walkway was 17 ft. by 6 ft.

To our horror, during the night large sewer rats came into our cell; they seemed very large and had webbed feet. The warden had warned us about them, and said "don't move when the rats come, otherwise they'll bite you, which will give you a fever".

While I was lying on my stomach towards the end of that memorable first night in Bantjeuj, suddenly I felt a rat walk over my legs. Should I scream or should I stay quiet? The thoughts raced through my head, "don't go mad, just remember even a rat is made by God", and it helped me. I noticed it had a soft warm body and could feel its little webbed feet on my skin. I tried to forget what it looked like.

We had no ceiling above us. Instead we had wire netting with birds nests scattered on them. Above the wire netting we could see the tiles of the roof. An there were many tiles missing, we could see the beautiful starry sky above us. In the tropics one can often see the Milky Way and admire the millions of stars.

Soon after our doors were opened at 6 a.m. and we were led out to dry, some prisoners in brown clothing like pajamas with large white numbers on their backs appeared and brought us food. Each of us received a tin plate with one spoonful of boiled rice and salt. This we were given three times a day. Prisoner number nine was called Samson. He had a smooth face with a constant grin on it, he was soft spoken and after a few days he told us why he was kept a prisoner by the Japanese. Apparently he had killed 9 women in cold blood. He proceeded to tell us calmly how he murdered each one of the women and gave as his motives: some bored him, some had angered him, others turned out to be a nuisance. Whether we wanted to listen to him or not, he insisted on telling us. We could not run away from him; we had to try to plug up our ears to avoid feeling sick at his descriptions. He took a sadistic pleasure in this.

After several days in prison, Samson continued to tell us the crimes of the other brown-clad prisoners who served us. It was obvious that they were highly dangerous criminals, to such a degree that even the Japanese did not dare to release them when they took over the prison from the Dutch.

Some of the "numbers" seemed to be raving mad, and were watched over carefully by the uniformed Indonesian wardens. Because they each had their own number in large white printing on the back of their pajama-tunics, it was easy to identify them to others. Messages to each other like "watch out for No. 9" or "No. 2 is nasty today, he trios to trip you when you go forward to get your tin of rice," were common among us.

Every morning the toilet in the corner of the cell was blocked, with the result that all its filthy contents floated among us on the ground-water. Thousands of flies and an unbearable stench were the result. Sure enough, about one or two hours after we were released from the cell to dry up on the court-strip, the long-awaited plumber would arrive armed with a crooked iron-stick in his hand. It was a pitiable sight to see this human wreck. He seemed reduced to shreds of flesh on bones, with hollow cheeks and large, sunken eyes. He was covered in sores and clothed in rags. Many flies wore on him and followed him. He would start poking the toilet with his crooked stick to try to unblock the system. That usually did not work, so he would stand with both feet in the toilet hole and start stamping up-and-down. Then he would proceed to go on his knees to put his arm into the toilet right up to his shoulders. At last he got it unblocked and he would leave our cell, his shoulders rounded and slumping, looking at us. We wondered what dreadful crime he had committed to be allocated this hellish job. We called him the "poop-trapper" or P.T. for short.

Before my Mother and I were picked up and put in Bantjeuj, we had helped out friends by smuggling into Bantjeuj medicines e.g. especially drugs against bacillar dysentrie, aspirins, quinine etc., and condensed foods like fudge, chocolate bars, condensed milk (like carnation milk). We conducted our smuggling through the aid of a warden who came once a week into our garden disguised as a tramp picking up sticks of wood in a large basket. We used to hide a small parcel under some leaves at the foot of the large Waringin tree in our garden. This we would put there in the midst of the night, making sure that the Japanese who occupied the house opposite us were asleep. Sometime during the following day this tramp would come to collect sticks of wood from all the front gardens of the houses on our, street, eventually coming to our garden and swapping a short letter in a bamboo holder for our packet of medicines and food and money to pay his fee. This "tramp" was in fact a warden from Bantjeuj.

During the night I'd try to find the small bamboo container. Sometimes I managed to do it during the day under the very preening eyes of the Japanese who lived opposite our house by letting our dogs have a run around in the garden while I reclined with a book under the Waringin-tree.

The letter from Bantjeuj told us whether our friends had received our previous parcel, who had died in their cell or in any of the other cells, and of course their requests for more supplies.

Needless to say the Warden-tramp had to be paid handsomely be us to render this service. For him it involved the risk of being tortured if he was ever caught!

When we landed in Bantjeuj ourselves, we at once recognized one of the wardens as our obliging tramp. He tried to hide his shock and disappointment at seeing us there. His regular income had stopped now. We pretended not to recognize him. Whenever it was his duty to guard our cell, he would make a point never to talk to my mother or me out of fear that we would give him away. It was quite obvious the warden-tramp was petrified and would certainly not be willing to lot the cell of men in No. 1 know that owe ourselves were now in Bantjeuj. But we desperately desired to make contact with the other cells.

Suddenly a wonderful idea struck me. Why ... the P.T. was the answer, as he visited all the cells each day. We had no paper, no books, no toothpaste, no tooth brushes nor soap with us. In my hair I had smuggled in a small pencil that fatal morning when we were "tipped-off" that our turn had come to be picked up.

But where to got the paper from? I plucked up courage when the P.T. came one morning and braced myself to go up to him, trying not to vomit in disgust at his appearance and stench, I asked him in Malayan whether he would be willing to give a message to cell No. 1 if he visited them. He first looked startled, then he nodded. Then I asked him if he could bring me some paper, pencil not needed, so I could scribble a note to them. Another nod. The I moved away from him swiftly to be in the fresh air outside the cell. While I talked to this pathetic man, my mother looked out at the door to watch whether the warden or any of the "numbers" came by.

Imagine our joy when next morning the infamous P.T. came with his entourage of flies and his wounds and he gave me a proud smile and carefully, very carefully took a roll of paper like a cigarette out of the torn border of his tunic. He did not wear long trousers or a pajama-uniform like the prisoners who served us but a short tunic so his bare legs and bare arms could help in his job with the prison toilets.

Quickly we wrote a message to the men in cell No. 1 telling then that we, my mother and I, had become prisoners ourselves. The next day, when the P.T. came we gave him the letter, which he dutifully passed on to the men of cell No. 1. Needless to say that their distress was great because it meant that their source for supplies from "outside" now had ceased. They wrote us at once, using the same method, the P.T. man as "courier". Of course from then onwards we wrote small letters to each other trying to encourage each other not to give up the fight for life. We decided to change the name of the courier to Postillon d'amour and for short, "P.A." Of course, we could not pay him a penny. It impressed and moved us that this skeletal man with his sores was willing to risk his life by helping us in this way, without getting any financial reward for it. What he did receive was a complete change of attitude towards him, both from the women as well ad the men of cell No. 1 who were treating him now with great respect, which he could feel. Suddenly he had become a V.I.P. for the prisoners of Bantjeuj.

After our first dreadful night in Bantjeuj, we began to notice more of the details of our surroundings. Our walls were covered with scribbled quotations from the Psalms and sayings from Christ, "Come unto Me all ye that are heavy laden and burdened... I We said to each other that the people in the cell before us must have been a religious lot. But within 24 hours of arriving in Bantjeuj, we started to turn more and more towards the scribbles on the walls, and it penetrated our minds and souls that indeed our only hope was to receive strength and comfort from God to endure this situation.

We had nothing to do and no books to read except for my New Testament Bible, which was returned to we by the Japanese Officer when I said to him; "You can't take this book from me because it's my Koran". As he could not read the Dutch, he paged through my Bible and was not convinced that it was the Koran and that I was Moslem; but decided to let me keep it. Other people had brought Bibles along, but they were all confiscated together with our other belongings.

We started to talk with each other, expressing our fears of sickness, death, or madness, wondering whether there is a God behind all creation whom we would meet after death. There were violent arguments due to tense emotions. For myself, I was frightened and I knew that it was too much for me. I feared that I might go mad. I decided to put my trust in God and to draw strength from this Power. All sorts of arguments were voiced, that "No one had ever seen God" and "that there was no proof of His existence" and that "if there was a God, who was called a God of Love, how could He allow evil and such situations like Bantjeuj?" Of course it was also noticeable how the people who claimed to believe in God differed in their doctrines about God. One person would describe a God who was a rather insipid, weak character, one who allowed everyone to walk over Him and expected his followers also to become doormats. Another would describe a more Holy God, totally removed and "Wholly Other" in relation to His creation, a God who could show wrath and use strong words against people of the establishment, likening them to "whitened sepulchres", all beautiful outside, but rotten from the inside. We discovered that we had as many different "Christians" in our cells as "believers". We had an Anthroposophist, who kept telling us how Rudolf Steiner explained the Scriptures. We had a Rosi-Crucian [sic], a Theosophist, Roman Catholics, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, a Russian Orthodox, a reformed Protestant, a Free Thinker etc. The atheists were two women. One went raving mad within 3 weeks and used to grip the iron-bars of our windows, trying to break them. She mocked the faith of those among us who believed in God and gave long speeches to us about "the injustices in the world"; "the evils everywhere" etc. She taunted us, blasphemed God, and was driving us crazy. After a few days, the Japanese Officer who visited our cell every day, decided that she had to be taken away to be locked up in a mental asylum. When the wardens came to fetch her, she resisted them physically. She seemed to have supernatural strength, and they had to fetch many more wardens to overpower her and to drag her away. We watched in amazement her strength and her fight. In her madness, she became incredibly strong. We were physically very weak after 3 weeks of hardly any food, 3 spoonfuls of rice a day with salt, and we wondered where she got her strength.

The other atheist was an American tourist, who complained every day about the injustice-done to her, explaining that she was caught by the Japanese while she was touring Java. She could not care less about all the poor children in our call. To our surprise, she was wearing cheap bracelets, necklaces and rings, which looked as if they were brought on the market. All our jewelry had been taken by the Japanese before we went to prison, and we asked her why she had been allowed to keep hers. She shrugged with her shoulders and told us that she had mockingly asked the Japanese whether they were really interested in her junk. The Japanese officer who was interrogating had became uncertain and he said "keep that cheap stuff".

To our amazement, we saw her change daily before our eyes. She was very overweight and had rather striking red-chestnut brown hair. Her hair turned out to have been dyed and daily e saw more grey hair appearing at the roots. She lost weight rapidly, but her skin could not shrink with the same speed, which made her look a little like a turkey in her face. She refused to eat even 3 spoonfuls of rice and obviously she simply wanted to die to get out of the awful situation we were all in. Her selfishness was unbelievable; she did not take to heart what happened to the people around her, and she was occupied with herself all day long. We ended up ignoring her as she ignored us.

Then we had some agnostics, who really started to think earnestly for the first time in their lives about whether there was a meaning to life, whether life continues beyond the grave, whether there is a God and if no, what is He like.

After a few weeks the American woman died in her sleep; we reported it to the morning-warden, who sent for some "numbers" to fetch her body. They came with a bamboo stretcher and more or loss throw her on to it without any respect for the dead. One of her arms flopped down from the narrow stretcher. Suddenly we saw one of the "numbers" shoot forward and grab her cheap bracelet. He scratched with his nails on one of the beads, and something glistened and sparkled. He gave a big yell and the other numbers and the warden quickly came to see what all the excitement was about. Can you imagine our shock when we realized that she was loaded with diamonds, and that she had prepared herself for being "picked up" by painting all her gems with nail-polish, making them look like trash jewelry? The warden and two numbers departed with her corpse, laughing hysterically after, howling with glee, they ripped off her rings, bracelets and two necklaces. They hold a fortune in their hands given by a corpse, whose intention it had been to take it all along with her into the grave. She was outwitted by fate, in the last minute! After they left, we sat in stunned silence; then some of us started to weep. Our first reaction was not anger but despair; those diamonds could have brought us food and medicines from the outside world into our dreadful prison. We could have paid the warden to smuggle food not only for ourselves but also for all those other cells with women and men. How such relief one diamond a time could have brought to all those suffering with illness, starving from hunger, or dying. Then some of us felt anger and hatred towards the dead woman. It helped to talk with each other about it. There were some who felt great fear at realizing how a human soul can become like a stone while the body is still alive. Had she been alive while she was with us in the cell or was she already dead for years? What is it to be "alive", if you can remain unmoved when you see children suffer? Are you in that case not already a "dead" person?

What a difference there was between her and the five children who were without a mother, in our call. From the first night onwards, Jonathan would round up his three brothers and little sister in a circle around him. Then he would start the prayers and Ave-Marias. If one of then started looking around, Jonathan would say; "You must not look at other people when you pray, you know what mommy has said to us, that Jesus is listening?" The Japanese had allowed them to have one large tube of toothpaste and one pot of jam. Jonathan offered to let us use their toothpaste and share the pot of jam with them. Of course we declined and told him that neither the toothpaste nor the jam would last long, so they had better save them. As the days dragged on, the children got quieter and weaker. Jonathan became very sad, and every time someone died in our cell or in any other cell, he sighed; "wish it was mol I'd rather be with Jesus than here". It was caring for his three brothers and little sister that made him so weary. He told us that his ninth birthday was approaching. That particular day a whole string of awful things happened, and not one of us remembered it was Jonathan's birthday. And when the evening came he said, "it was my ninth birthday today". All of us were stricken with guilt for having forgotten it. We rushed up to him and tried to make a fuss of him. He smiled but his large brown eyes were sad. He said nothing and we all understood that we had failed him and that we were too late with our affections. How ashamed I felt, and guilty. The next day when we were "drying-up" on our strip, I sidled up to him and said, "Jonathan, I am sorry, I can't put it right anymore; you know already that people let you down. It is because we all are so weak, selfish and need help, but Jesus never lets you down". He nodded and turned his face away to avoid showing we his tears of disillusionment with the "grown-ups".

Preface || 2: Samson >>