Stolen Childhood: A POW’s Story

Eduard Kerkhoven was only 5 ½ years old when his idyllic childhood in Indonesia came to an end. In 1942 his family became prisoners of the Japanese. They endured horrid living conditions and treatment at the hands of their captors until their emancipation in 1945. It was years before Eduard was able to tell his story. Reliving the memories was not an easy task as he had spent most of his life hiding them away, afraid to speak of them. He believed that no one would understand. The following is his story.

On a Sunday morning in 1942, Eduard Kerkhoven, age 5½, and his brother, age 7, were playing in the living room of their family’s home in Bandoeng, on the island of Java, Indonesia. While their parents slept, a car drove up the circular driveway and stopped. Two Japanese officials got out, came to the front door and demanded to see the boys’ parents. The children ran to get their parents, who came out of the bedroom still in their bedclothes. One Japanese official pointed a revolver at the father and demanded his watch. The family was then given one hour’s notice to leave their home.

This frightening event marked the turning point that irrevocably altered Eduard Kerkhoven’s life and that of his family. In 1942 they became prisoners of the Japanese who invaded Indonesia. Eighty-three thousand Europeans living in Indonesia were interned. Some 11,000 would perish before the end of the war in 1945.

Kerkhoven’s family had owned tea plantations in Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies, since 1860. By 1942 his family ran four tea plantations, had servants, and enjoyed the comforts of a wealthy life.

After the Japanese conquered Singapore, Kerkhoven’s uncle in South Africa became increasingly concerned for the safety of his sister and her family. He tried to convince his sister and brother-in-law to leave Java and go to Australia or South Africa. He sent three cables telling them to leave, but his brother-in-law believed the family would be safe and so they remained in Indonesia.

“My parents didn’t understand the menace that was to come,” said Kerkhoven, solemnly.

That Sunday morning in 1942 reality came barging through their front door. The Kerkhoven family loaded a few possessions into their car and drove to the house of an acquaintance. Kerkhoven remembers his mother being frantic that day.

All the men, and boys aged 12 and over, were taken away first. Kerkhoven’s mother was left with two sons and a baby daughter, barely a year old. Mother and children took shelter at the house of an acquaintance. Then, on November 1942, they were declared enemy-aliens and moved to a detainment camp called Tjihapit.

The Japanese built camps with walls made of woven bamboo. Some 14,000 women and children were interned in this fenced-in housing complex. Five to seven families shared a house. Each family had one room where they all slept. Kerkhoven recalled that “there were so many houses; so many families without the father…”

In the beginning they were free to come and go, but soon the gates were closed and their freedom curtailed.

“The Japanese said because the Dutch had been so awful to the native population we needed protection against them,” Kerkhoven explained.

In Tjihapit, Kerkhoven and his siblings were temporarily separated from their mother. The children were taken to a local nunnery for three months. The only explanation he remembers hearing was that his mother was sick. Catholic nuns were allowed to care for orphaned children and those children who were ill. Kerkhoven recalls that he was sick during this time with amoebic dysentery. Eventually the children were reunited with their mother.

They remained in Tjihapit for two years. Kerkhoven described conditions as bearable, with a diet of native food and rice — “reasonable, for war conditions.”

He recalls one time when his mother wanted meat for the children. She and a few women tried to demonstrate in front of the Japanese. For their efforts they were put “in a kind of prison, without a roof, just open sky. They had to put their head on a brick and their hair was shaved off.”

A couple of local natives did manage to smuggle some food to the prisoners. One would stand guard while the other climbed over the wall with the food. If caught, it would have meant their lives.

Kerkhoven’s mother tried to keep a firm hand on her children and provide for them, even under difficult living conditions. One evening the Japanese soldiers decided to show a movie displaying their military prowess over the Americans. Kerkhoven’s mother was adamant that the boys see this propaganda film. The boys were disappointed.

“My brother and I were not allowed to watch the film. We didn’t even know then what a movie was and it meant everything to us.”

He recalls walking along a ditch used to carry away waste in Tjihapit, and collecting snails his mother would then boil to make a sauce.

“There was what we called light gas; not natural gas, but gas derived from coal. You heat coal and gas comes off. We were not allowed to make use of that. But behind the house where there was the supply, illegally she would heat the pots up with the snails that I found and she would make a dish out of it. She never got caught.”

Second Camp

In an attempt to separate them from areas of familiarity, the Japanese would move the prisoners to other camps. Women and children were forced to line up at the camp gate, then led out into darkness of night by Japanese soldiers, walking many miles to the railway station. To keep them under control Kerkhoven recounted that the Japanese soldiers “would hit the women on the breasts. They were cruel!”

“Of course, you didn’t have any energy, even to walk and if you didn’t walk, you could not make camp.”

He remembers one incident: “There was a little boy who got his foot caught in a hole and couldn’t get it out. The mother was crouched beside him. The two would die; you had to move. We had to keep walking.”

The prisoners were loaded onto trains “like cattle” and travelled a long distance between camps. Forbidden to look out the windows, Kerkhoven’s mother defiantly disobeyed. Fortunately she was not caught.

They were moved to central Java on November 13, 1944, to the second camp called Solo. Four thousand two hundred women and children were packed into barracks. Conditions quickly deteriorated.

“When we came into the second camp I saw all these mothers crying,” said Kerkhoven.

While in Solo, the Red Cross managed to convince the Japanese to allow food to be given to the prisoners.

“The Japanese had decided that we could only get it if the cans were open,” explained Kerkhoven. “Now imagine summer and the temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. The life-span of the food was limited.”

The food was also very rich for the malnourished prisoners. Kerkhoven remembers ravenously eating his portion, then promptly vomiting the lot.

“My mother was angry with me because she told me not to eat it fast, but I did anyway.”

Third Camp

They were moved to Moentilan in May, 1945. Kerkhoven described this as “perhaps the worst of all.” Tropical weather combined with poor hygiene and malnutrition created diseases which flourised throughout the camp.

Lack of adequate clean water meant the prisoners were forced to drink any water available. Kerkhoven described their diet as “pig’s food, consisting of corn, boiled in large amounts of water.”

His mother became ill again and was hospitalized. This prompted one of Kerkhoven’s more frightening memories:

“My mother and I were walking and suddenly she stood against the wall. And women came to her. She was standing with her hands against the wall. Suddenly, just like that, on bended knees. And the women came and sent me, her son, they sent me away! ‘Get away, get away, get away!’ And then she went to the hospital. So I was not allowed to be with my mother when she was sick.”

Only a small child, he did not understand what had happened to his mother and no one would talk to him about it. Today he knows she suffered a miscarriage.

Fourth Camp

In July, 1945, the prisoners were moved to the fourth camp, Ambarawa. Kerkhoven’s mother was carried on the entire trip, too ill to walk. She recuperated in a designated hospital area. Her children were kept in another part of the building.

In Ambarawa the death toll continued to rise. Kerkhoven recalls seeing a cart, pulled by a water buffalo, arrive in camp daily to remove the bodies. He estimated that four people died each day. This sight always filled him with fear.

“Your mother is in the hospital. As a little kid you are so frantic. It was traumatic conditions for a kid to go through, but you could not talk about it.” Not being able to talk about the experiences would become a common theme throughout Kerkhoven’s life.

During his mother’s convalescence he and his siblings clung to each other. He remembers that some of the women tried to offer guidance but it “wasn’t always appreciated.” There was corruption throughout all of the camps, with prisoners stealing from each other or using bribery and bartering to gain extra food or medicine.

“I had an Aunt — we called her Aunt, but I think she was an acquaintance, but we had to call her Aunt. She stole food from us while my Mother was in the hospital. If food gets stolen from you under those conditions it is worse than if I stole your car. That was the worst thing you could do.”

Little boys also had to deal with unwanted sexual interest from the women prisoners. Kerkhoven believes his older brother suffered more than him during what he terms “a difficult time.”

Education, religion, and special occasions were forbidden. However, at Christmas Kerkhoven’s mother would make drawing for her children to amuse them. Kerkhoven remembers that his mother was “very good at drawing. She was a painter.”

The Japanese kept the prisoners busy each day. Every morning they would line up in order outside the barracks, bowing as they were counted by the guards. Along with forced labour, they were made to do gymnastics in the midday tropical sun. It was not unusual for some of the women to collapse under the strain.

The boys’ heads were shaved and “the burning tropical sun on your bald head was not very favourable,” Kerkhoven recalled.

The children were made to sing the Japanese national anthem, and each house had to fly the Japanese flag.

“My mother tried to make the flag as horrible as possible, but obeyed. You had to obey or it could mean your life.”

Although he believes the Japanese guards had “a soft spot” for the children, they used the little boys to steal food from local natives. According to Kerkhoven, the Japanese were spreading rumours among the natives, telling them white people were their enemy. Having white boys steal from them served to propagate that idea.

Kerkhoven remembers with sadness the treatment of women by the Japanese, and how his mother had been forced into prostitution.

“Have you ever heard of ‘comfort women’?” he asked. “That’s how the women were treated. That’s why I am so fanatic about this point. You never forget the screaming.”

He described how the Japanese would put a woman “in a little three-by-three steel shack, close the door and let the sun shine on you. You know what the sun does on a car? In the tropics the sun is right above you. So they’d put somebody in there and let the person die.”

Another favourite was to bind a woman to a chair, put a funnel in her mouth, and pour water in the funnel until she drowned. The other prisoners were forced to watch.

One time they were told that Dutch men would go through the camp. The little boys were excited as they hadn’t seen their fathers in a long time. They wanted to show the men “how good we were”.

“The men were led through the camp. They were as meager, lean and depleted as you could imagine. There were five men, with Japanese soldiers behind them, hitting them with a whip, and they had to run. This was just intended to say to the women, ‘Don’t think too much of your men.’ Intimidation once more.”

War Ends

On August 15, 1945, the Japanese emperor declared the war over. In Ambarawa the prisoners learned of the end of the war on August 23rd. Kerkhoven remembers seeing Japanese guards crying. Then the gates were opened and people began wandering out. They weren’t told to go, nor were they given any provisions.

“I stole a little piece of cloth to wash with and I went out of camp. I wanted to trade it for food. A native woman asked me, ‘What do you do with this cloth?’ and I say, ‘You wash yourself with it.’ She gave me three bananas — not in exchange for the cloth, but because she felt sorry for me.”

On September 3rd, 1945, mother and childen left the camp and boarded a train for Bandoeng. Kerkhoven doesn’t know where his mother got the money, but thinks she might have managed to stash it away from the guards.

His sister, almost five years old, could not walk or talk. They were all suffering from malnutrition. Kerkhoven weighed 17 kilograms. His mother weighed less than 40 kilograms and was barely able to walk without falling down. She gave cigarettes to a native boy to carry what few possessions they had to the train.

In Bandoeng their plantations had been looted and burned, and the land sold for “a little bit of money, just to keep it legal.” They eventually found shelter, first in a school, then in a garage.

His father returned home on October 1st, 1945. Kerkhoven remembers walking down the driveway with his mother. A man on the road approached, calling his mother’s name.

“Then my mother asked me, ‘Who is this man?’ I said I didn’t know. Perhaps I recognized him, I don’t know.” Kerkhoven remembers only being interested at that moment in the food they were going to get.

Shortly after returning to Bandoeng, the guerilla attacks began. When the Japanese abandoned their camps the soldiers gave their weapons to native teenage boys. After the war there was no government system in place to protect the people. Guerilla fighting created a new fear. From September, 1945 to February, 1946 civil war raged for liberation of Indonesia from the Netherlands.

As a result the family took shelter in the basement of a hospital — the same one Kerkhoven had been born in. They slept on mattresses on the floor while the guerilla’s would rampage throught the night, setting fire to houses. Eventually they were forced to return to a camp, with its high walls and gate offering a measure of protection.

Eventually the British government sent in Sherpas to restore some semblance of peace to the war-ravaged country.

Returning to Holland

On February 28th, 1946, “with the pull of my family and grandparents in Holland, they got us out of the country.” Refugees now, they boarded cargo ships that had been refitted to move the thousands of people who no longer had a life in Indonesia. They arrived in Amsterdam on March 28th, 1946.

Immigrating to Holland was difficult for the children. They had been born in Indonesia and didn’t speak the same Dutch language. The was of life in this new country was foreign to them.

The most difficult problem, however, was the silence. No one would speak about the years of imprisonment. The Dutch in Holland had suffered through their own ordeal with the Germans. Kerkhoven explained that many in Holland did not understand the ordeal suffered by the Dutch in Indonesia.

Even within the Kerkoven family the children could not discuss their experiences with their parents.

“We were not allowed to talk about the war. We did not know how deeply we were affected,” Kerkhoven explained. “The family was so desperately divided, but it was also extremely Victorian. Nothing could be discussed.”

Fighting between the parents forced the children to take sides. Kerkhoven believes his father was unable to “forgive” his wife for what she was forced to endure during her captivity. Things were never the same between them.

“Our parents used us as pawns in their battles.” This resulted in a permanent division of family members that was never healed. Kerkhoven remained dedicated to his mother and never forgave his father for his treatment of his wife after the war.

After studying Tropical Agriculture in Holland, Kerkhoven immigrated to Canada in 1959. He studied agriculture at the University of Alberta, eventually settling in Ontario. In 1963 his brother came to Canada with his new bride. In 1969 Kerkhoven married his wife, Hannie, and the couple adoped a son.

However, relations between the siblings remained estranged for years. Kerkhoven’s brother suffered for years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He turned to alcohol, abandoned his family and eventually succumbed to alcoholism on April 15th, 2001. Kerkhoven’s sister remained in Holland with her father and eventually married and had four children. She hasn’t spoken to her brother in years.

Although he moved on with his life, scars from his experiences remain to haunt him. Kerkhoven says he was obsessed with food after the war and spent 30 years in the food industry. He credits his wife with helping him overcome difficulties he had with women, although he doesn’t elaborate on that point.

For many years Kerkhoven kept silent about his experiences, believing no one wanted to hear his story. He has never returned to Indonesia, although his sister did visit there once. He would like to go back to his birth country one day, if the political unrest improves.

“I’d like to walk the streets — I was always walking in bare feet in those days — and see all those little things along the road. They sell barbecue chicken and sauces, and they eat it from a piece of banana leaf. I’d like to be a kid again,” he laughs.

© 2008 Tallulah

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