A Strong,Young Internee in Shanghai
"Sweet are the uses of adversity."
Two days earlier, the Japanese commandant had harangued us that World War II would continue for a long time; that we would remain prisoners; that the Allies were losing. Now we were riding a donkey cart to freedom, one of the first families to leave the internment camp.
I remember our going to a large hotel in the Bund, the main thoroughfare in Shanghai, and being the only customers in the dining room that evening. How vast the room seemed with all its empty tables covered in white linen. The waiters smiled at us, happy to see free foreigners.
We had been interned for 2-1/2 years. My father, a businessman, had been captured first in Hong Kong at the time of Pearl Harbor. No word of his whereabouts reached my mother for several months. My mother, who had previously led a carefree social life, turned to her Bible. She was alone, with the care of three young daughters and a house full of servants to manage. She dismissed all the servants. Only our faithful nurse, Mary, and the coolie refused to leave, regardless of pay.
My mother, who had never before been called upon to make so much as a cup of tea, rolled up her sleeves, and with Mary at her side, stepped into the kitchen.
Our house was on the outskirts of Shanghai. The paved road ended a quarter of a mile away, and we were surrounded by small Chinese villages and paddy fields. Concerned friends begged my mother to leave the house. We could stay with them, they said.
Japanese soldiers were billeted not far from where we lived, and their hostility, previously reserved only for the Chinese, was now openly directed at Westerners. We were called enemy nationals and had to wear armbands.
Banks were closed. Cars were commandeered. All of our furniture was stickered; it could be neither moved nor sold. My mother did not want to leave our home. Supported by her prayers, she felt we were protected. Although other families were pestered by soldiers walking in at all times of the day or night, putting their feet up on the furniture, and demanding food and drink, we were not disturbed.
After about nine months, my father, along with other residents of Shanghai, was allowed to return home. Shanghai had status as an international settlement, but that did not prevent our eventual internment by the Japanese.
It took a long time to round up the thousands of foreigners considered enemies. When our turn came, my father was well-prepared by his earlier experience. We were allowed to take in what we wanted, and he hired a truck to carry beds, clothes, and food.
The saddest part for me was kissing Mary goodbye. (She was Portuguese, and so not forced into camp.) It was the first time we were separated. I was eight years old.
When we arrived at the camp, Lunghua, a converted university campus, we were greeted by friends and taken to B block, where we had been allotted a room. As each room could only hold four, and we were five, I was farmed out to a family who had only one daughter. The rooms were only a short distance apart, and I considered myself fortunate to stay with a friend.
Each morning we stood at attention for roll call outside our room. No slouching was allowed, or the guard would slap us in the face. Roll call was tense but perfunctory most of the time. We could hear the boots of the guard coming down the hall accompanied by the footsteps of the attendant building manager. We barely dared to look.
Our room was one of eight at the end of a corridor. About 30 people stood silently while the guard slowly did his head count. Usually he gave a grunt and walked on to the next area. Only if someone was missing did the whole camp suffer. It was tempting, especially for young, unmarried men, to jump camp. Several succeeded in getting out, but to pass as an Asian and reach neutral soil was not easy. Sometimes there would be no news for a week or two, sometimes even for a month. People would begin to hope that the escapees had reached safety, but then came the inevitable recapture. In time, rumors of their fate deterred others from attempting escape.
Running across the compound to school when the bell sounded that roll call was over was a great release.
School was largely improvised with few textbooks, paper, and pencils. A lot of recitation: times tables for math, poems memorized for English. Different nationals taught their own languages. Madame Renard was our French teacher, a lady with fiery red hair who tore the sleeve off my blouse as she pulled my arm one day in vexation. In the winter, the classrooms were so cold that the teachers had us jump up and down every now and then.
Camp was rich in playmates. I had grown up as a solitary child, so to walk arm-in-arm with Julia or Daphne was luxury. We built circular forts out of old bricks that we found in the rubble. We laid out courses for marbles in the dirt. And old cans with pieces of string attached became miniature stilts.
Adults had their own way of improvising. Soda crackers came in large square cans. By taking off the cover, installing some wires to make a grate and one to make a handle, one soon had a "chatty," a useful cooking device. Charcoal was available, and it was not unusual to see a father swinging his chatty to get the coals to a good heat before cooking the family supper.
Idiosyncrasies flourished in tight living conditions. One family had smuggled in some chickens that they kept under their beds. My father had brought in a hot plate (all electrical appliances were forbidden). On inspection days when rooms were searched, he had to wear his raincoat, the only garment with a deep enough pocket to conceal the hot plate.
My mother's preoccupation was cleanliness. Showers were short, once-a-week luxuries. Get wet, soap up, and rinse quickly. Otherwise, the water might go off and leave you covered in lather. Every evening I was obliged to wash in a small metal basin from top to toe.
A few radios had been smuggled into camp and were used discreetly to keep up with news of the war.
Artistic productions flourished at every level: orchestra, chorus, dance performance, plays. The most popular were skits on camp experience and song-and-dance routines. One number had this refrain:
"We're all going to sail away, sail away and the day that this camp embarks, there'll be happy hearts and free as we're setting out to sea, afloat on a boat to go to Lourenco Marques."
Our family left Lunghua early, because my mother was pregnant. We moved into another camp right in the city to allow her quick access to a city hospital for the delivery. Our younger sister arrived, a small but healthy baby with a shock of dark brown hair. Shortly after that, we were again moved to a remote area, where we remained for the duration of the war.
About a year ago, I was asked to join a group of internees seeking compensation from the Japanese government. You had to list deprivations, hardships. Somehow, I could not do it. I could have put down "schooling disrupted," but in many ways my education had greatly increased.
I did not leave camp with a sense of trauma, fear, or abuse. Our family had been stable, and the contact with our parents was closer and more affectionate during camp than at any other time before or since. I did not leave camp hating our captors. Some of the guards had been kind to us children. They even surreptitiously gave us candy when they could.
Camp had not deprived me of anything substantial. It had strengthened and helped me.