Seventy-nine years ago this week – on May 10, 1940 – Germany invaded the Netherlands. While trying to defend their country from the Nazis, the Dutch were also worried about their colonies in the Pacific – then called the Dutch East Indies, today called Indonesia – which were being invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army.
In 1921, the Dutch East Indies – an archipelago consisting of 17,508 islands – was inhabited by approximately 2,000 Jews, some Dutch, others Iraqi (or “Baghdadi” as they were called). Their numbers grew in 1941 to 3,000 due to an influx of refugees from Nazi-occupied territories.
One woman, Mrs. Thea Riesel, who spent the war years in The Dutch East Indies recently spoke with The Jewish Press. “I am an only child who was born in Vienna in 1924,” she began. “My father, Heinrich Frankel, had an agency for hardware goods and stainless steel cutlery. He went to work in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1911 and couldn’t return to Vienna because World War I started, so he stayed in Sumatra until the end of the war.
“In 1921, he married my mother, Ernestyna (nee Pordes)…and in 1934 we fulfilled my parent’s life-long dream by immigrating to Palestine. After struggling to earn a living, though, my parents decided to return to Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1939 where my father found employment in a jewelry shop. Six months later, when I was 15 years old, my family moved to Batavia [now Jakarta].”
Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States on December 7, 1941, leading the Dutch government-in-exile in London to declare war on Japan the following day. A month later, on January 10, 1942, the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, taking control of the colony’s natural resources: coffee, tea, coconut, tin, rubber, and oil.
These resources made the Japanese virtually self-sufficient and the dominant power in the Pacific. Since the Japanese shipped these raw materials and food abroad, starvation and material shortages were widespread throughout the colony.
Approximately, 130,000 Dutch, British, Australian, and U.S. citizens living in the colonies were interned by the Japanese.
“In early 1943 my father was interned in a camp. Mother and I rented a room in Jakarta.”
Hastily-converted warehouses, universities, army barracks, churches, hospitals, prisons, schools, and blocks of houses throughout the archipelago were used as camps. Areas were sealed off with barbed wire and plaited bamboo walls. Men and women were separated.
In 1942-1943 Jewish male prisoners, together with 260,000 Asian, British, Dutch, Australian, and U.S. prisoners of war were transported under inhumane conditions to Burma and Thailand to construct a railway through the jungle known as the Burma Railway. During construction, 12,621 prisoners died.
In mid-1943, Dr. Helmuth Wohlthat, Hitler’s economic adviser, together with a German delegation arrived in Java to coordinate economic cooperation with the Japanese. Upon discovering that Jews – as Jews (as opposed to Jews who happened to be Dutch citizens) – had not been interned, Wohlthat was appalled and applied pressure on the Japanese government to be harsher.
“In September 1943, all Jewish women and their children were ordered to meet at a police station on the following day at 10:00 am. When we arrived, we were ordered to return the next day with our house keys and all our valuables, including money and two suitcases each that we could carry. The next day, we were herded onto trucks, taken to a train station, and placed on trains that had blacked-out windows.
“From September 1943 to March 1944, my mother and I were in Tanah-Tinggi Prison. When we arrived, we were greeted by British women who were well-dressed and wearing make-up. This was done to deceive us into thinking that life in prison was fine. Jews were separated from other Dutch, British, American, and Australian civilians.
“We slept on a row of wooden planks against a wall with 100 women in each dormitory. Each person was entitled to a space of 55 cm. Some women had brought mattresses with them. Mattresses wider than 55 cm had to have the filling removed and made into a mattress for those who did not have one.”
Due to a dearth of food, dirty drinking water, and intense heat, many became malnourished and suffered from malaria, dysentery, and other ailments.
“From March 1944 to March 1945, we were interned in Tangerang Prison Camp with Baghdadis and Europeans who had been transferred from Surabaya.
“We slept on two-tiered bunk beds with 24 women in a room. Our food consisted of rice with weevils and a type of coffee, which was actually burned corn. There was no real coffee or tea because the Japanese had burned all the coffee and tea plantations.
“Someone had bought a violin into the camp and, as a musician, I was permitted to practice one hour every day. For a short while we had a cultured Japanese commander who oversaw us. He made me perform with other interned musicians in an amateur concert for him.
“In the front of the prison we had a small vegetable patch that we attended to. We were forbidden to eat any of the produce.
“The prison was surrounded by a high fence, but at the back of the prison was a section where inmates traded items for food with local Indonesians on the outside. This activity was illegal. One day a lady was caught smuggling food into the camp. We were all punished by being made to stand outside under the boiling hot sun for the whole day without receiving any food or water. After we returned to our dormitories, the culprit remained outside. In the middle of the night we heard her piercing cry.”
On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered. Two days later, pressure from Indonesian radical and political groups led Achmed Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta to proclaim Indonesia’s independence. A four-and-a-half-year battle followed between the Indonesian militant nationalists and the Dutch who tried unsuccessfully to reclaim their colony.
“From March to September 1945, we were in Adek Prison with approximately 2,000 Dutch, European, and Baghdadis. From the moment a Japanese or Indonesian soldier was spotted by us, we had to bow very low and avoid eye contact; otherwise we would be severely punished.
“On August 22, 1945, everyone felt perplexed. There was no roll call and many rumors circulated, one of which was that we did not have to bow deeply any longer. Two days later the whole camp was ordered to assemble in the courtyard of the prison. On the stage in front of us stood a Japanese, an Indonesian, and our forewoman.
“After the Japanese soldier spoke, the Indonesian translated his speech into Malay and our forewoman translated it into Dutch. The forewoman told us to remain very calm and not show any emotion to the news she was about to tell us: ‘A great loss had been suffered by the Japanese who have now had to surrender.’ There was not a sound from anyone.
“The forewoman continued, ‘Because the surrender was sudden, the Japanese have agreed to look after us in the camp until the Allied forces come to relieve them.’ She also reported that the Indonesians were going to fight for independence against the Dutch.
“When we returned to our dormitories, someone suggested that we sing the Dutch anthem. We had Hungarians in our group, so one of them suggested that they do the same. After they began singing, they became so emotional that they couldn’t finish their anthem.
“In September 1945, we were liberated by the British but remained interned. The Indonesians rose up and fought ferociously against the Dutch colonists.
“In central Java, there was a women’s prison protected by only a few Japanese guards. One day, they were suddenly informed that a group of Indonesians were on their way to attack them. The women became frightened and didn’t know what to do. The Japanese soldiers commanded them to immediately put on their clogs, stamp as hard as they could, and shout loudly in a deep voice behind the prison walls.
“When the Indonesians approached, they thought that there was a whole army of men behind in the prison and ran away.”
On December 27, 1949 the Netherlands formally accepted Indonesia’s independence and withdrew.
Approximately 30,000 Europeans died in Indonesia in Japanese internment camps, and an additional four million Indonesians died during the Japanese occupation.
After the war, Thea Riesel moved to Holland while her parents remained in Indonesia. In the early 1950s, she moved to Australia, and her parents joined her once she was settled. She has a daughter, twin sons, and eight grandchildren.