Eighty years ago, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Jews desperately sought refuge wherever they could – even in exotic places like Singapore.
“My father and mother left Poland with their families before World War I and immigrated to Vienna,” Australian resident Eva de Jong-Duldig told The Jewish Press. “After secondary school, they attended the Kunstgewerbeschule and Viennese Academy of Fine Arts where they studied under very well-known artists…. I was their only child and was born in February 1938.
“My father was an outstanding sportsman and in 1938 – after the Anschluss – a game of tennis saved his life. A ball boy carrying my father’s tennis gear home was involved in a traffic accident and my father was in danger of being arrested by the Nazis [for his ball boy’s “crime”], so he fled Austria the next day.
“He went first to Germany where he bribed a Swiss consular official and managed to get a visa to play in the Swiss summer tennis tournaments. In the Swiss city of Zug, he met a friendly migration official who helped him obtain visas to Switzerland for my mother and myself….
“We could only stay in Switzerland for a short time, and it was very difficult for my parents to find other places to go to. In the end, my father received a telegram from his niece…saying, ‘Come to Singapore.’ So my parents decided to leave Europe. We sailed from Genoa and arrived in Singapore on May 6, 1939.”
For 150 years – from 1819 until 1965 – Singapore was colonized by the British. In 1931, 832 Jews, mainly from India and Iraq, inhabited the island. By 1939, that number had grown to approximately 1,500 due to an influx of European Jewish refugees.
“My parents led an incredibly lively and rich artistic life in Singapore. They started their own art school, and my father had a number of important sculpture commissions, including a life-size bronze statue for the Tiger Balm King, which is now in China. My mother restored portraits in the municipal collection. While they worked, I was looked after by a Chinese [nanny], and at two years old I was able to speak German, English, and Chinese.
“We had entered Singapore on Austrian/German papers, and after the outbreak of war on December 3, 1939, parole restrictions were imposed on all ‘refugee aliens,’ which included us….
“On July 22, 1940, we received a letter from the Jewish Refugee Relief Committee informing us that all Austrian, German, and Italian Jewish Refugees would be sent out of the country. My parents tried really hard to stay in Singapore, but all their appeals failed, and on September 17 – together with about 250 other Jewish refugees – we were rounded up and taken to nearby St Johns Island.
“After spending one night in makeshift accommodation on St Johns, we were taken on launches to the Queen Mary and…arrived safely in Sydney a week later.
“In retrospect we were so lucky to be deported from Singapore as barely two years later Singapore fell to the Japanese.”
The Battle of Singapore (February 8-15, 1942) was fought between the Japanese and British garrison, comprising of Indian, Australian and Malay soldiers. Victory for Japan resulted in the surrender of 80,000 British-led troops. The Japanese confiscated cars, and public transport ceased to exist. Additionally, civilians had to bow deeply to every Japanese sentry.
On March 16, 1942, the Shonan Shimbun newspaper issued an order for Jews in Singapore to gather outside the Orchard Road Police Station for registration. A white armband with a one-inch stripe on which the Jew’s name and race was printed in Japanese was handed to each person to wear at all times.
The Jewish refugees woke early on April 5, 1943 to find Japanese soldiers breaking down the doors to their homes and yelling at them while thrusting leaflets into their hands informing them that they were “enemy aliens.” Each Jew was ordered to pack a small bag of belongings. Five trucks collected over 100 refugees and drove them to Changi jail while 450 Jewish men, women, and children remained behind.
The Jewish section of Changi jail were known as Aldgate. It had previously served as a large rice shed. Each refugee was given an area measuring 7×3 feet and a mattress to sleep on.
The Japanese did not interfere with the refugees during their initial internment leaving. There was no official roll call or inspections, for example. Meager rations issued by the Japanese consisted of a small portion of watered-down porridge and plain tea for breakfast; boiled rice, thin vegetable soup for lunch; and porridge and tea for dinner.
Additional food and medical supplies were purchased by the internees through sources outside the jail or at the jail’s tuck shop. Provisions were also supplied by people living outside the camp.
A Sikh sentry posted outside the Jewish quarter ordered all refugees to bow each time they passed him. If they didn’t, they were severely beaten. The prisoners suffered from malaria and typhus, mosquitoes, mites, and bedbugs. Many died from malnutrition and disease.
In 1944, a synagogue, called Ohel Jacob, was constructed within the jail by Sergeant Sam Biner. It had the capacity to hold approximately 50 men. Jewish prisoners from Holland, England, India, U.S. and Australia attended its induction service.
On May 1, 1944, due to overcrowding, all civilian internees were transferred to Sime Road Camp – an old Royal Air Force base. A total of 4,500 prisoners were housed there, 500 of whom were Jewish.
Upon arrival, they found the floor of the dilapidated huts covered in excreta and the roof caving in. After complaining, they were moved to “Hut 106,” which also had a leaking roof and rough plan walls. The refugees were given uncooked rations which they had to cook over open clay and brick fire places that were installed by interned Jewish engineers.
At the bottom of a slope, some 400 yards away, was the women’s camp called the Rose Garden. They lived in huts with roofs that leaked. On Sundays families were able to meet for half an hour.
Towards the end of 1944, the internees in Sime Road Camp were ordered to build huts for new internees, including most of Singapore’s remaining Jews.
The Japanese meted out punishments at their discretion for the slightest infractions with iron bars, brass rods, sticks, bamboos, belts, knotted wet rope or revolver butts.
On August 6 and 9, 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered to the British on September 2, 1945.
Eva de Jong-Duldig, meanwhile – once she arrived in Australia – lived for two years (1940-1942) in an internment camp near Tatura in Victoria. The Australian government ultimately released her family, and her father served in the Australian army for six months. He later re-established his sculpture career and became a distinguished Australian sculptor whose work is represented in major galleries in Australia and overseas.
Eva inherited her father’s sporting ability and became a leading Australian tennis player, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon (1961-63). She is also an author and the founder of Duldig Studio.