My Best Friend “Papa”
It was April 1942 when my parents, two brothers, our nanny Iwa and I were brought by open boat from the Island of Nias, west of Sumatra, to Sibolga, a village on the west coast. About 30 other prisoners – men, women and children – shared the boat with us. There were no toilet facilities; a number of pigs, expropriated by the Japanese, shared our cramped quarters.
After arriving in Sibolga, the women and children were separated from the men. My father kissed us and told us to look after each other and especially after my mother, who was pregnant with my brother Kees. Then he and the rest of the men were taken to the jail.
In December we were again uprooted (after four earlier moves) and relocated to Brastagi. We traveled all day on very crowded trucks and many women and children became sick. In Brastagi, the Japanese commander, Mr. Saida, visited us in our barrack one day. My mother was working as a nurse in the camp, and when she asked him if he could bring some medicine and food, he did. This did not happen often, as food and medicine were hard to obtain, even outside the camp. I must have been three or four when I was allowed to take baby Kees for walks around the camp. One day, Mr. Saida saw us and walked with us. His visits became a daily routine, not only to Kees and me but for many other children as well. Mr. Saida would call me Ieteke, or “Blondy”. I called him Mr. Saida or “Blacky.” I don’t think our mothers liked our walks with a Japanese officer very much because we should have hated the Japanese. But how could we hate him? We loved him.
Some children called Mr. Saida “Papa” and I asked my mother, “Is Mr. Saida my papa too?”
“No,” my mother said and showed me a picture of my father, who was white.
One day Mr. Saida asked me where my papa was. I did not know, only that he was in the jail. He told me that he had a woman and a little girl. I asked him how old the girl was and he replied, “Four years old, just like you.” He patted my head and called me Blondy. I had so many questions. I asked, “Does your little girl go to school? I’ll be going soon to the school run by the nuns.” By that time Mr. Saida could speak some Dutch, and he said, “I have not seen my little girl and woman for a long time.”
One day he asked if I would like to write to my papa and he would deliver the letters. So my mother and I would write our letters and I scribbled on a piece of paper: Lieve Papa scribble, scribble, Ieteke.
My note was one of the many Mr. Saida would be caught with. He was to be beheaded. I did not know what “beheading” meant. He had refused to translate the letters and name the people who had written them. He knew that the writers, including myself, would be beheaded along with him.
One day, he came to say goodbye. Instead of going on our walk, we went behind the barrack. He kneeled down and asked to kneel in front of him. I did not understand…Mr. Saida would be beheaded, his head chopped off? Why? I did not understand.
He said goodbye and kissed me on my forehead and both cheeks, and then he pressed his forehead against mine and cried. Why did he cry? I did not understand. He told me to go to the place where he would be beheaded, so I would remember. “Ieteke,” he said, “remember, some Japanese are good.” I would not remember this until 36 years later.
When I recently asked my mother why she had allowed me to attend the beheading, she explained that towards the end of our stay in the camp she was often sick and spent much time lying down outside on a mat. She was extremely weak and unable to do her daily tasks, often unaware of what was happening. After the beheading had taken place, she did hear about it but thought it best not to talk about it.
Excerpt by Miriam Zwaan van Veen, published earlier in FOUR YEARS TILL TOMORROW
Yes, there were some good Japanese in some camps, who often had a wife and children back home, and who treated the women and children well, behind the backs of their superiors.
As always, I welcome your comments.
Until next time