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The Remains of WarSurviving the Other Concentration Camps of World War II
By G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers
All right reserved.
Langsa, Island of Sumatra, 1942
In the far distance, the soft droning of airplanes grew louder, just as the sirens started. On Dad's bike, which was far too big for me, I pushed the pedals harder, as people walking the street began to run in the same direction. They were silent, except for their bare feet, which flapped on the asphalt when they passed me. Some couldn't go fast, for they were pulling children in carriages or cradling babies on their backs. But the people wearing shoes, who were almost as swift as I was on my bike, were the most difficult to avoid. It was the second time this week that planes had sent us running for the bomb shelters housed on every street corner.
The now thunderous planes fed my fear as they passed overhead, the pain in my side growing. The bike took over, just as I reached the shelter at the end of the sloping road; it wobbled awkwardly and landed in the ditch, its back wheel catching my knees. I thought I could hear the pounding of my heart over the sirens as I crouched under the wheel and watched the planes fly over me. A red ball showed under each wing, and inside one, I could see the shadow of someone sitting in the cockpit. They were gone before I could see much more.
I abandoned the bike and dove through the shelter entrance into darkness and the damp stink of sweat and fear. The sounds were different here. There were no sirens. Only suppressed sobs, whispered assurances, and children weeping. My knees were burning and felt wet, but the darkness of the shelter felt good and safe—no one could see me and I could not see anyone. We were all anonymous and all the same; here, we were all afraid.
A long time later, once the sirens were silenced, we dared to leave the shelter. Outside, it was quiet, and the sun had lost much of her brightness; we must have been inside for over an hour. As everyone hurried away, I noticed how many of us had been pressed together in that small space. Shelters were relatively small, not larger than an average bedroom, and also the ceiling was lower. Indonesian people, Dutch people, even some Chinese women; despite our disparate races, we had shared the same feeling of confinement, the same dank-smelling darkness, and the same desire for it all to be over.
I gratefully inhaled the fresh air, walking around the hill to look for Dad's bike, but it was not where I had left it. I decided to wait until the masses of people had let up to look further, and I leaned against the hill to examine my knees. They had been bleeding and were scraped up good and painful. It didn't worry me, though. I had had bleeding scrapes before and they always healed. I stood up stiffly when I saw the last people disappear in the distance.
After running twice around the shelter hill, I finally had to accept that the bike was gone. I sighed. Losing that bike was serious. Mom would be furious. Dad had used it to go to work each morning as the principal of the only Dutch grade school in Langsa.
Langsa was a little town on the island of Sumatra. Sumatra was one of the larger islands of Indonesia, which was at that time a colony of the Netherlands. The numerous Dutch who lived in Indonesia owned tea or rubber plantations, had jobs in the two oil refineries, or worked for the government or as teachers in the many Dutch schools. Also, Indonesian children went to Dutch schools and were taught the Dutch language. Likewise, most Dutch children learned to speak Indonesian because they were so close to the Indonesian servants in their families. So, all but a few children in Langsa were bilingual.
Having been born in Indonesia, I didn't know any other life, and I loved our small town. I loved my many friends, some of whom were half Indonesian, because their Dutch fathers had married Indonesian girls. I loved our servants, Sitah and Hassan, even more than I loved Mom and Dad. They were sweet and patient, they never raised their voices when we were bad, and they were always with us, not just when Mom or Dad, for whatever reason, couldn't be there. Sitah and Hassan were married and had their own rooms at the back of our house, where they slept, took baths, and prepared their meals. They cooked outside on a little wood fire between some bricks. Mom and Dad trusted them unconditionally, for they were devoted to us and treated me, my baby sisters Easabella and Emma-M, and my younger brother, Simon, as if we were their own.
Sitah was there mostly to take care of us children. Hassan was responsible for what went on in the house, but when he was done with his work, he would take Simon under his wing. At five, Simon was quiet and a bit shy, and seemed happy only when he was around Mom. Being the sole boy in our family, he was Mom's darling and she showed this often enough. Easabella and Emma-M were too young to notice, and I told myself I didn't care—I had Dad's attention and, even better, I had Peter, my best friend. I wished Peter were my brother.
Running around with bleeding knees looking for Dad's bike had tired me out, and I sank against the slope of the hill and closed my eyes. The wind felt cool and soothing over my face, and, for a moment, I pushed away my guilt over losing Dad's bike, only to replace it with disturbing thoughts of the last few weeks.
Mom and Dad and all their friends had become so nervous and irritable, and they always stopped talking when kids were around. Then the shelters had popped up everywhere and we were told to immediately head toward one when the sirens went off. The sirens could be heard all over the city, and every time they sounded, the Indonesians would mumble a streak of prayers, followed by curses to ward off danger and evil spirits. I had heard these chants so often that I could almost say them too, but Mom didn't like to hear it.
When the high-flying planes started coming over, Dad explained that the red painted ball under each wing was the Japanese flag. The newspapers were talking about the Japanese, too, publishing pictures of soldiers and articles warning of Japanese invasions.
Life had changed. Everything felt uncomfortable now. It was as if no one really knew what to expect. Uncertainty and fear had changed our little city.
The schools closed, too, but I liked that part. I had more time to roam those places Mom didn't want me to go. Sometimes, after Dad started going away at night, Mom would pace the floor, biting her nails. That made me suspicious. Mom was proud of her hands. They were large and slender, with beautiful, long, polished nails. I found her crying last week, trying to repair them.
The last two Sundays, we had also missed brunch with our neighbors, Uncle Cor and Aunt Maggie. They were good friends of Mom and Dad and had two sons, Kees and William. The Sunday brunches had started after Uncle Cor built a large pool in their backyard, and the boys had wanted me to come for swims. They didn't have to ask twice. We would race through the water, and usually Kees or William won, because they were awesome swimmers.
But when it came to running long-distance or climbing coconut trees, I had them both beaten. Hassan had taught me to climb a coconut tree with a strong rope looped around both my ankles. Using the thick horizontal grooves of the sloping tree, I could almost walk to the top, where my fingertips could touch the large green fruit hanging in clusters under the palm leaves. The boys could only go up halfway, after which they would slide down with red faces and lots of excuses. Then, when they weren't watching, I would drop a coconut on one of their heads. Of course, I had to pay for it when I came down; they always threw me in the pool.
Whenever the three of us played ball, I tried to interest Simon to join, but he never did. Simon was a sissy around the pool too. He didn't like to get wet. He never even wanted to join Easabella and Emma-M in their little baby tub, though he claimed it was because they peed in the water and the water made him cold.
Uncle Cor and Dad had met playing soccer on the same team, and once the pool had been built, it hadn't taken long for the adults to begin spending all their Sundays together around it, discussing everything from children's behavior to difficult situations among the locals.
Uncle Cor was an army officer and sometimes would not be there because he had duty, but Dad and the ladies would still play cards together or supervise games of Monopoly and Checkers, which Kees and William loved to play. Then after the games and laughter, we enjoyed the Sunday ricetafel, prepared by Sitah and Aunt Maggie's cook.
The two women were experts in Indonesian cooking, so watching them was fun. They used Indonesian spices over fresh, raw chicken thighs. They fried large plantains and changed them into sweet, brown delicacies. We watched the raw, large prawns die when Sitah slipped them into the boiling water, turning them instantly pink. The odor of fried, salty, sardine-sized fish filled the air all morning and made us hungry long before lunchtime.
These ricetafel dishes were cooked outside on little open fires between large bricks on the ground. The cooking area had always been swept spotless, and next to the darkly colored bricks would sit neatly split pieces of wood, exactly the size of the space between the warm, burned stones. The food was prepared in black wadjangs (woks) with wooden handles to protect hands from getting burned. The cooks would squat comfortably in front of their fire, stirring, when necessary, with long wooden spoons, or just watching the food bubble and become delicious.
Mom and Dad came from Holland, so they hadn't known about rice and spicy Indonesian dishes before Dad had come here to teach. Although they came to love the rice dishes, Mom and Dad still liked to eat potatoes, vegetables, and meat regularly. I, however, was born in Indonesia and had grown up on its food. Whenever Dutch food was on the menu, I tried to hide around mealtime and sneak to the back of the house, where I knew Sitah and Hassan would have their meal of rice with several side dishes. They would not only allow me to eat, but to do so with my hands. I had become skilled at forming a delicious clump of food between my fingers, which I would bring to my mouth, without losing one grain of rice. No spoon was needed; my thumb would push in the food. And no plate had to be washed afterward, since we used cups of palm leaves held together with a toothpick. The palm leaves would enhance the taste of the warm food and were thrown out when the meal was finished.
Our dinners were at noon instead of at night. At night, we had soup and sandwiches. Sitah and Hassan would eat before the family, because Hassan had to serve at the table when we had our meal. So by the time I came out of hiding, everyone had eaten. Mom would be angry and punish me for being late for dinner. She would tell me that dinnertime had passed so I could just be hungry the rest of the day. I made sure to look repentant, but knew, without seeing him, that there was a smile on Dad's face. He knew where I had been during mealtime. After dinner, the adults became sleepy, and us children had to stay in our rooms till Mom and Dad woke from their siesta.
Emma-M, Easabella, and Simon liked Indonesian food too. Every Sunday morning, they had furtively sneaked handfuls of kriepiek (shrimp crackers) from the large bowl when the adults weren't looking. (They were too busy watching Uncle Cor play his favorite accordion music.) Then after the music and games, we circled the large garden table and filled our plates. The rice would steam and the cooks would watch us all with broad smiles as we enjoyed their prepared delicacies. We could add hot peppers, if we could stand it, but only the adults enjoyed this. We children would pile pieces of pisang goreng (fried banana), salty fried fish, raw cucumber, boiled eggs, and fried chicken all around the rice, and sit somewhere in the shade. A large glass of cold lemonade would crown it all. This was my favorite meal.
But for the last couple weeks, no one had used the pool and there had been no Sunday brunches. There had been a lot of silence around the houses and gardens and among all the Dutch people.
Kees, William, and I waved when we saw one another, but didn't play or swim in the pool anymore. Mom and Aunt Maggie, who used to have coffee and conversation regularly, only spoke to each other shortly when they happened to be in the garden together.
Before Dad had been forced to close the school without being given a reason, he had explained to me that the Japanese armies were landing on the Indonesian islands and soon would also land on Sumatra. Right after that, Uncle Cor had left. That had been three weeks ago, and we hadn't seen him since. The newspapers had published frightening stories and pictures of Japanese parachutists, who had landed around the two airfields of the city of Palembang, and were fighting with KNIL (the Royal Dutch-Indonesian Army) soldiers for the two oil refineries there. Uncle Cor was in that army, and Aunt Maggie hadn't heard anything from him since two weeks ago, when he had mentioned a possible withdrawal of troops. He had told her he didn't know if he would be in the group that would go, and this had seemed to make Aunt Maggie very afraid. I heard her complain to Mom about her sleepless nights and the continuous questions of Kees and William, which she didn't know how to answer.
There was also silence among the local Indonesians. Some of the men looked angry and threatening. They congregated on corners and stopped talking when blandas (white people) passed them. I asked Hassan why they were acting so different from before, but he hadn't wanted to explain. He only warned me to stay away from them.
For a whole week now, we children had stayed inside, having been warned not to show ourselves on streets or in stores. Sitah and Hassan had done all the shopping and when they did, they had gone together instead of alone, as they'd used to. Even in the house, we had been ordered not to show ourselves in front of the windows. The curtains were closed at all times. Hassan had offered to build a fence around our garden so that at least we could play there. But Mom had refused. She said she'd rather keep us close by, where she could see us at all times. I had found it puzzling that Hassan had agreed without arguing; he too must have been afraid.
I wasn't even supposed to be on the streets, let alone with Dad's bike. But I'd needed to return the cartoon magazines I'd borrowed from Arthur, one of my classmates who received a new series of them from Holland each month. They were beautifully colored and the drawings were fabulous, and Arthur's mother had let me borrow them only under the condition that I would return them spotless and in time. I didn't dare keep those magazines any longer.
Now, Dad was gone. I couldn't even explain to him how I lost his bike. In fact, missing Dad had been the worst part of all that had happened over the last few weeks. The empty place at the dining table, and the corner of the living room where Mom had placed his recliner, covered with an unruffled, clean plaid, which reminded us each moment of his absence.
Evening came down around me. Getting up stiffly, I headed home. My knees hurt. The drying scabs opened and started to bleed again. I dreaded having to face Mom. Maybe she would feel sorry for me when she saw my knees, and not be so angry about my losing Dad's bike. She had not been herself since Dad was picked up last week. Even Simon had not been able to rid her of the worried frown on her face or restore the smile in her eyes.
Neither Mom nor Dad had prepared us for what had happened that day last week. I had woken up very early to the loud noises that filled our house: slamming gates and men shouting in a foreign language. I had run to the front door and opened it just in time to see Dad kiss Mom at the roadside. They stood by an idling truck.
A small man in uniform shouted something at Dad, poked a rifle into his back, and then pushed him around to the truck bed, where some other men, who I'd seen in town before, pulled him up. Then Dad turned and saw me. He waved and blew me a kiss, and he kept waving till the truck turned the corner.
My eyes followed until he was gone, and then I sank onto the steps of our front porch. Time seemed to stop as I watched the dust drift back onto the road. The road was empty and still; no one was on it and nothing moved.
Why had he left? I thought. Why hadn't he at least said good-bye to us? And why hadn't he said anything last night?
In the wake of the chilly night, dew sparkled where light touched it. The birds weren't even awake yet and the trees loomed as dark shapes against the paling sky. There was no sound until the front door creaked open behind me. Without turning, I knew that Simon was standing there. Mom still stood at the roadside. She looked frozen in place, watching the corner where the truck had disappeared with Dad. Then she turned and saw us. She was pale and her eyes were puffy.
She seemed to pull herself together then and walked toward us. She touched my head in passing, and then, picking up Simon, she said, "Get inside, Sofia. It is too cool out here and Daddy will be gone for awhile." She dropped Simon in his bed and locked herself in her bedroom, where I heard her cry and say things I couldn't understand.
Later at breakfast, she explained that Japanese soldiers had picked up all of the Dutch and other European men in town and that no one knew where they were going. In the meantime, the women would have to remain in their houses with their children until they received orders from the Japanese army, which must then be followed without questions or protest. She didn't speak anymore after that. She just turned around and called Sitah, asking her to feed Emma-M and help Easabella dress.
Excerpted from The Remains of War by G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers Copyright © 2011 by G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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