Stories of a Lifetime
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
BY IRENA OLENDER REPRINTED FROM THE FEBRUARY 2012 ISSUE OF CONTENTS, A PUBLICATION EDITED BY EMMANUEL WILLIAMS FOR SUBUD CALIFORNIA
This is a story about my life as a very young child. It takes place at the end of World War II during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, the land of my birth. During that time I spent three years in several Japanese concentration camp under extremely harsh conditions together with my mother and two older brothers. This story is based on one of my vivid memories from that time. It is set in a camp in Lampersari, a camp for women and children near the coastal city of Semarang in Java. The Japanese occupiers imprisoned women and children separately from the men. Boys were considered to be men at age ten, and taken from their mothers to be sent to men’s camps at that age. Camp Lampersari held about 17,000 women and children prisoners towards the end of the war. The women and children referred to in this story were my family’s housemates, about twenty-five to thirty women and children cramped together in a ten by ten foot space without sanitation or water.
The impact of these experiences has been tremendous and recovery has been a lifelong project for my family and for me. My spiritual process in the latihan has been a great blessing for me in that process and has made it possible for me to find a voice for my experiences and what I have learned from them. At some time in the future I will share a story about how I came to a place of forgiveness. For now I mostly want to share the power of a very simple story, Rag Doll
‘Today is a special day’, my mother has said. “Today you are four!’ I know that birthdays are special. Most mothers in the camp try to make a celebration of some kind for the birthday children. So here I am, a little girl, standing in a circle of smiling women and staring children, feeling self-conscious and awkward. It is true that the day has started in a special way. Roll call has not lasted as long as usual, and all the sick people are still here. Not one woman or child has disappeared or forgotten to get up in the morning. So, perhaps it is true. Today I am four, and the day is special. Yet I feel set apart in an uncomfortable sort of way. People are smiling and are bringing me some special gifts. Some kids have collected snails, four snails, one for each year I have lived. I count them aloud in Dutch, and, quietly inside my head, in Japanese. Nobody, myself included, likes to hear Japanese.
Een, twee, drie, vier! One, two, three, four snails! Tomorrow, at sunrise, my mother will cook them. I hate snail soup; it stinks! But my mama’s iron will and my empty tummy will prevail. I will eat these slimy creatures. I will even pretend to like them. When it comes to snails, I know what is expected.
Again the women are smiling. They seem to have a truly special present for me. I see their tired faces, the eyes hollow and dark, attempting to make a celebration. I do not fully understand.
Together they hand me the present: a flat, tin can that used to hold crackers or cookies, long ago, in a time unknown to me. The tin can is carefully covered with little pieces of cloth. I recognize small pieces and patterns of the tattered dresses some women are wearing.
My breath stops. I am awestruck. She is so beautiful! Carefully I take her out and hold her, the way I have seen the mothers hold their little ones. Then I put her back in her little rag bed. Next I take her out again. I do not quite know, what to do. I am not used to having a toy. What does one do with such a treasure?
All eyes seem to be focused on me. Finally I sigh and announce that I shall have to check her little bed for lice once more. It gives me a reason to take the whole cradle apart again.
Some of the older children snigger. The grown-ups smile and shake their heads. Did I say the wrong thing? I hope not!
Because I really, really like my little rag doll.
And, today I am four.