While the dreadful experiences of troops captured by the Japanese are relatively well known from a variety of memoirs from the Burma-Thailand ‘death’ railway and elsewhere, the experiences of civilians interned by the Japanese are less well chronicled.
The suffering of ordinary civilians – men, women and children, at the hands of the Japanese was widespread. Sometimes it is argued that the Japanese contempt for POWs stemmed from the fact that that they had surrendered. Yet there was an equal brutality towards civilians who had simply been caught up in the war, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There were many European families spread through the Dutch East Indies, now largely Indonesia. The Kristensen family were from Norway and had settled in Java. In the middle of 1942 they were rounded up, along will all the other Europeans. Routine brutality, meagre rations and squalid living conditions were to be the circumstances of their prison camp existence.
Lise Kristensen was 10 years old in 1944. The Japanese had forbidden any form of lessons for the children, learning Japanese was all that was needed for the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. The Japanese guards were usually absent from the compound in the early part of the morning, so three young Dutch women had volunteered to hold informal lessons for them in the Church within the compound, discreetly away from Japanese eyes. It would be risky if the Japanese found out. They did not know how risky:
One day we were having a lesson on England when the Japanese guards burst through the doors on the opposite side of the church. We had drawn the shape of the map of the British Isles, and had separated the outline into the countries of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. I was beginning to colour in Wales with a deep-red crayon when I heard a commotion behind me.
The guards were running along the back of the church towards us. Miss Helena was desperately trying to gather up the pencils and paper and instinctively I dived under the benches to get out of the way. I lay cowering on the floor, watching those horrible black boots kicking out at the children who had not managed to get out of the way, stamping on the crayons and pencils. I screwed my eyes tight shut and covered my ears.
When I opened my eyes, I could see the shape of Miss Helena being dragged along the floor towards the door to the garden. She was crying and her face was covered in blood, I lay under the benches until the guards had gone. Almost immediately the cry of tenko [summoning the prisoners to parade] came from outside.
I caught up with Mama in the garden as we rushed towards the line that was beginning to form. Mama checked that we all had our numbers attached and we took our place on parade. Miss Helena was not in the line; she was standing between two Japs who were facing us. After a short delay a Japanese ofncer turned up. I watched my dear teacher’s face as he approached us. She looked very, very frightened as the blood mixed with her tears.
‘Prisoner not follow orders,’ he boomed in a voice that almost shook the foundations of the church. ‘No school,’ he continued. ‘Only school in Japanese. Prisoner must be punished’
He nodded at one of the guards. The man took a step forward and raised his rifle high into the air. With all his strength he hammered it into the side of Miss Helena’s head. The side of her face split open and she immediately fell to the floor.
A pool of blood formed on the ground and the sight of it caused one of the ladies to faint. Women around me were crying and the children who had been at Miss Helena’s school only a few minutes before buried their faces in their mothers’ clothing.
I watched. I looked on in utter disbelief, but I kept watching because I wanted Miss Helena to stand and because I wanted it to be over. Incredibly I noticed a slight movement in my teacher’s eyes. The officer noticed it, too, and signalled once again to the soldiers, who helped her to her feet. She was very wobbly but eventually the soldiers stood back when she was able to stand on her own.
She held the side of her head as the blood seeped from between her fingers. I don’t think I could ever have imagined that much blood coming from such a wound. It covered her blouse and her skirt and fell in drops onto the dry earth. I couldn’t believe the blow to her head had not killed her, but she stood still and, although she was crying, I could see she was getting stronger by the second.
The Japanese officer nodded his head to one of the soldiers, who repeatedly and viciously attacked her with his rifle until she collapsed in a heap once again. I made an attempt to run forward and tell them to stop, but Mama hugged me tight around the shoulders and refused to let me go. Then the other soldier joined in with his boot.
I covered my eyes but could not block out the noise. The sounds of the two soldiers kicking and hitting her went on and on and, although I had nothing in my stomach, I felt sick. They beat her for a full minute; they beat her until she moved no more. I uncovered my eyes… They had beaten her to a pulp; she didn’t stir.
By now the line of women and children were hysterical; the screams and shouts echoed around the compound as the guards dragged Miss Helena away. The officer delivered a lecture about obedience and punishment, then dismissed us.
The incident is undated in the memoirs of Lise Kristensen: The Blue Door: A little girl’s incredible story of survival in the Japanese POW camps of Java, but appears to have taken place in early 1944.