This morning, with a sense of doom,
my valet rushed into my room.
‘Oh Sir, sheer panic takes my breath.’
Near the cedar I just saw the Death.
Please let me have your horse at once.
In Isfahan I have a chance.’
A few hours later that same day
Death by chance did cross my way.
‘Death,’ I said, ‘you scared my man.
At dawn he fled to Isfahan.’
‘Sir, I was as shocked as he
to meet him at that cedar tree.
While all the time it was my plan
to fetch this man at Isfahan.’
Translation of a Dutch poem by P.N. van Eyck.
Letters from Bangkok
This introduction is written by my brother. I have put already another article of my mother , called Media (l’histoire si répète), on the web site.
These are my brother’s words:
Letters from Bangkok is a collection of 10 essays that my mother wrote in an internment camp for civilians in Bangkok during World War II. My mother died in 1987 but is was only after my retirement in 1994 that I took time to study and edit these essays that I found in her estate. She had never mentioned them to us when she was alive. Like so many internees of World War II she was rather reticent about these years of war that had such a profound influence on her life and her thoughts.
The essays express proud loneliness of a woman who was unwilling to accept a black-and-white view on the war. My mother was born on Java. Her father was a socialist head master from Holland who had been expelled to remote corners of the Indian archipelago because of his belief that Dutch colonialism had to come to an end. In that time Queen Wilhelmina and most of her subjects still thought that they owned this beautiful “emerald belt”.
My parents were idealists who embraced Theosophy in their youth and followed Jiddu Krishnamurti when he declared that people should not subject themselves to any organized faith.
When war started in Europe in 1939, they had fled from Vichy Lebanon towards the Dutch Indies that were not yet at war. In Thailand, then called Siam, they disembarked when the rumour reached them that all men would be conscripted in the Dutch Indies. There they were with me, a 2-year old boy, when in December 1941 Siam became an ally of the Japanese after an unequal battle of 5 days. Luckily for the white men, the Thai kept control when they interned all Europeans and Americans on the university campus of Bangkok. Though food was scarce, treatment was good and no one died of famine.
My sister (Marijke Titia Holleman, also known as Dona) was born on February 23 1942. In the course of 1942 most American internees had been exchanged for Japanese prisoners of war and most women also had the option to leave with their children. Even the men of minority nationalities like the Dutch and the Danes had the opportunity to leave.
For some reason, maybe because my parents feared that the Japanese ships that evacuated the internees to Lourenço Marques in Mozambique would be torpedoed, maybe because they feared conscription once liberated, my parents decided to stay in the camp that then was mainly inhabited by British men.
The following article was written by my mother somewhere between 1940 and 1945. She and her husband and two children were imprisoned for four years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Bangkok on the borders of the river Menam.
In this time of the lockdown, dictated by the covid-19 virus, when we are all complaining of our lack of freedom, it is good to remember that people have gone through the same situation many times, and much worse. Personally I can’t even imagine what it was like to be behind barbed wire for 4 years without a day ‘off’, with, on top of that, bombs falling all over the place.
This article is also a looking back at a time when there was no internet, no computer, no machinery to do all the work, only people and their simple life style.
These thoughts are her reflections while looking at the ‘free’ world outside the camp with the Thai people going about their daily business. We have to remember that these articles were written 80 years ago, so the language reflects that time.
Along the western border of the camp the Casuarina trees stood guard. Their contorted trunks rose straight from the river banks carrying their mass of swaying hanging branches. All day long they slept and dreamt. Sunlight filtered through their feathery needles, which the wind kept dancing on a music of its own. They smiled as they stood gathered in the dreams of their group. At night however they woke up to individuality. They whispered and giggled. They told each other the funny stories and rumours that had flitted through their dreams. They sang in choir to the starry dome overhead. The moon sickle let itself gently down on their tops and they rocked him gently with tender arms calling out to Venus to assist.
On their higher branches the crows had their nests. There were hundreds of them swooping and shrieking round the camp all day long. Sometimes in the evening when their young had gone to sleep they too started discussing the silly, wingless beings down below. They laughed their eerie, ghostlike laughter and chattered to each other in their cheeky voices till some exasperated listener threw a stone into their midst. Then the whole flock flew up and grouping themselves in different squadrons they pursued each other flying and gliding on the currents of the wind, circling over the river backward and forward, till at last as if at a single command the whole troop flew away to the west in the direction of the sinking sun.
There was always someone with hands clasped round barbed wire, who enviously looked up at the birds and followed their flight till they were mere specks against the glowing sky. And not till they had become invisible did he drop his eyes again to the river flowing on the other side of the fence.
The river was the border of their world and the illusion of freedom. Over its silvery screen flowed life’s pictures in a continuous, never ending, stream. There were crowded two-decker’s bringing people upstream and downstream, boarding at all the hundreds of landing stages along the banks. The passengers hung over the railing with cow like stupidity gazing at the foreigner’s prisoner-of-war camp, the sight of the town. Sometimes, more aggressively, they were shouting or cursing.
There were valiant little tugs, laboriously puffing their way upstream, slowly dragging a long train of broad, bulgy cargo vessels. Sometimes a dark head bobbed up between the boats, a man dragging himself along the connecting rope from boat to boat as the easiest means of passage.
There were also sampans with their raised bow and poop propelled by the one long oar fastened on a long vertical pole. How many ages has this type survived. We still find it from Venice and the Nile to the heart of China. There are one, sometimes two rowers, mostly women. Rhythmically they put the weight of their body forwards while their feet make the same sparring steps forward left, right and back again, monotonously the same for hours and hours. At the back the woman has one leg lifted till it rests on the high handle of the rudder, which she manipulates with her foot.
For people who for four year’s days have nothing to do whatsoever, that river was a godsend. They had time to study details. Every little thing had its value, because it broke the monotony of their life. The pug-pug-pug of the motors was the beat of their hearts. What wouldn’t they have given to be on board of one of these boats, free to go!
The waves that were caused by the passage of the boats and at last beat and rushed against the banks at their feet, were as the emotions that rippled and flitted over the surface of their daily life, ever changing, one pursuing the other at last to break and die on the solid immovable stone wall that hemmed in their existence. The beauty that splashed and squandered its colours in reckless spending on the western skies at sunset was their ever recurring salvation.
Oh beauty of sunset and breath taking solemn beauty of the moonlit night, you gave us back the freedom that men in their madness had thought to take from us. You taught us that no fence can keep the spirit that is rapt in adoration. Free is the spirit of man and its boundaries are only the limitations of his own ego-consciousness. Who can keep the play from me when the stage is in my heart?
Man has destroyed the marvellous construction of his communication system and no letters reach us here in the camp. Don’t worry, because your real life is in our hearts. We will never be separated as long as this brain is alive to keep its memories.