Living witness confirms existence of camp for Jews in wartime Indonesia

July 24, 2013

By GEN OKADA/ Staff Writer

A Dutch woman has come forward to confirm that occupying Japanese forces rounded up and placed Jews in Indonesia into a separate internment camp during World War II, where they were subject to beatings and near-starvation rations.

Anne-Ruth Wertheim, 78, a former senior high school teacher who is now living in Amsterdam, confirmed its existence as a living witness of the camp.

“When I was in Indonesia in my childhood, I was put in an internment camp for Jewish people,” she said in an e-mail.

At her home in Amsterdam, Wertheim talked about her past while clutching her mother's diary.

She was born in Batavia (current Jakarta) in Indonesia, which was then a colony of the Netherlands. Her father, who was Jewish, was the principal of a law school. Her mother was not Jewish.

Japan occupied Indonesia in March 1942 in an attempt to secure oil supplies and shore up its defense lines in Southeast Asia. Wertheim's father was sent to an internment camp for Dutch and other civilians in Indonesia. At that time, other family members were allowed to remain at home.

In January 1944, however, Wertheim was sent to an internment camp for women and children in Jakarta along with her mother, older sister and younger brother. At that time, she was 9 years old.

In September 1944, a Japanese officer told internees in the camp, “If even one drop of Jewish blood flows in your bodies, tell me.”

Her mother wrote in her diary, “Though I am not Jewish, I wrote my name in the list of Jewish people in order not to be separated from my children.”

In December 1944, Wertheim and her family members were transferred from Jakarta to an internment camp in Tangerang, in the western part of Java Island. Two-thirds of the people in the camp were Jewish. The remaining detainees were members of the Freemasonry fraternal organization, and those who had belonged to the ruling class.

In the camp, iron bars were installed on the windows. Boards, each measuring only about 50 centimeters in width, were placed in rows to serve as beds.

“The living conditions in the camp were clearly worse than those in the previous camp,” Wertheim said.

Meals in the camp, which consisted of only one scoop of rations, were decreased from three times to twice daily. On such near-starvation rations, women stopped menstruating and children's growth became stunted.

Harsh disciplinary measures were observed in the camp. If internees did not bow sufficiently to Japanese soldiers, they were struck by camp staff. In addition, all the prisoners would then be forced to stand in the hot sun for many hours to take collective responsibility for a breach.

Wertheim sketched the lives of internees on pieces of paper with colored pencils, both of which she had smuggled into the facility.

In March 1945, she and her family members were transferred to a different camp. On Aug. 17, 1945, two days after the Japanese surrendered to end World War II, the one scoop meal was increased to two scoops. At night, they heard local residents' voices in celebration outside the camp.

“I am not holding a grudge against the Japanese people," Wertheim said. "But it is regrettable that what happened (in the camps in Indonesia during the war) was little known in the Netherlands, as well as Japan.”

There are historical materials to prove that the Japanese operated an internment camp for Jewish people.

The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation is keeping diaries of several internees. In them, the authors report that isolation and internment of Jews started in 1943, and that a building for Jews, which was constructed in an internment camp for male civilians in Cimahi, also in the western part of Java Island, was called “Tel Aviv,” and both Jewish and Freemasonry internees were forced to wear a red badge.

In one of the diaries, the author wrote, “I was asked (by a Japanese military police officer) to cooperate in looking for Jewish people. (But I rejected the request).”

Aiko Utsumi, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Partnership of Osaka University of Economics and Law, has detailed knowledge of Japan’s policies concerning wartime internment camps in Indonesia. Among historical materials she copied at the national archives of the Netherlands, there was a list of names of Jewish internees.

The National Archives of Japan also has a Japanese translation of the testimonies made by a former chief of the special higher police section of the Japanese military police in Java, who was declared to be a war criminal in the postwar trials of Class-B and Class-C war criminals.

This former section chief was sentenced to death for having given tacit approval to his subordinates’ torture of civilians. In questioning him, a Dutch prosecutor said, “In 1943, all Jewish people and Freemasonry members were unfairly rounded up on Java Island.” The former section chief replied, “Under an order from our military commander, we isolated Jewish and other people from the public.”

After the end of the war, employees of the Japanese Justice Ministry visited released war criminals and interviewed them. The records of the interviews were also found in the National Archives of Japan.

According to the records, one of the former war criminals said about the former section chief, “As a researcher of Jewish issues, he clamped down on Jewish people and, as a result, he angered them.”

During the war, the former section chief contributed several articles to The Java Shimbun, a newspaper published on Java Island by The Asahi Shimbun, and also gave interviews. One of the articles read, “Jews and Freemasons are plotting to control the world.”

Judging from these historical materials, Utsumi said, “It is certain that there were internment camps exclusively for Jewish people in Indonesia that was under the occupation of Japan.”

However, it is not known why Japan isolated Jews from other civilians.

“In those days, incidents of persecution against Jewish people were also taking place in Japan. There is a possibility that discrimination (against those people) appeared more strongly in areas occupied by Japan,” she said.

Residential areas for Jewish people were also set up in Shanghai in 1943. However, many of the Jews in the areas were those who had lost their nationality and had become refugees. They were also allowed to go in and out of the areas.

According to Naoki Maruyama, professor emeritus of political science at Meiji Gakuin University, who is well-versed in Japan’s policies on Jews in those days, in Indonesia, Japan also interned Jews from countries other than the United States, Britain and other Allied countries, and Jewish people from the Middle East, including Egypt. That was a difference from Shanghai, he said.

“The difference shows that Japan’s policies toward Jewish people were not unified,” he said.

According to Ikuhiko Hata, an expert on modern history, the view that Jews and Freemasons were plotting to control the world was spreading widely in Japan during the war.

“It is not known what Japan did to Jews in areas other than Shanghai. So I have much interest (in what occurred in internment camps in Indonesia),” he said.

But there is a possibility that Japan interned civilians by their religious faiths in Indonesia. Because of that, he said, “Judging from the current historical materials, it cannot be said that isolation of Jews from other internees was a persecution of Jews.”

In the Netherlands, diaries of people who were internees in the detention camps in Indonesia have been published since the 1970s. However, those diaries have garnered little attention.

Esther Captain, a member of the Dutch national committee to mourn the war dead, said that their stories failed to attract attention because of the Holocaust by the Nazis.

However, interest was sparked when a symposium on the internment camps in Indonesia was held in 2005. As a result, research on the issue finally began.

Next year, the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam plans to hold a special exhibition on the Jews in Indonesia.

In the Netherlands, however, there are few researchers who can speak or read Japanese. Because of that, the research has been focused on analyzing diaries of internees.

Japanese and foreign researchers also are interested in the diary of the former chief of the special higher police section, wondering why he chose to spread the view that Jews were trying to control the world and also trying to confirm his claim that a Japanese military commander ordered him to separate Jews from other civilians.

By GEN OKADA/ Staff Writer
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Anne-Ruth Wertheim explains at her home in Amsterdam about the sketches she drew as a young girl in an internment camp in Indonesia during World War II. (Gen Okada)

Anne-Ruth Wertheim explains at her home in Amsterdam about the sketches she drew as a young girl in an internment camp in Indonesia during World War II. (Gen Okada)

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  • Anne-Ruth Wertheim explains at her home in Amsterdam about the sketches she drew as a young girl in an internment camp in Indonesia during World War II. (Gen Okada)
  • A copy of the list of 211 Jewish people apparently compiled by the Japanese military in March 1944. The list was found in the national archives of the Netherlands by Aiko Utsumi, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Partnership of Osaka University of Economics and Law. (Gen Okada)

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