The sounds of survival
Publication Date: Wednesday Oct 11, 1995

The sounds of survival

Menlo Park resident's new book and CD depict the life and music of Far East prison camp

by Elizabeth Darling

When Helen Colijn hears the Largo movement of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, a faraway look comes to her eyes. Dvorak. Sumatra. Barbed wire fences. Armed guards. Voices . . .

The rhythms bring a host of memories--some punishing, some poetic--all of them involving her unique experience as a prisoner in an internment camp in the Far East.

But it is the music she remembers most of all.

"We felt it was something to live for," she says.

It was two days after Christmas 1943 when some of the women of her internment camp on the island of Sumatra put on their first concert inside their spartan confines. Guards were at their usual posts.

"It was outside, it had a gazebo-type thing," said Colijn, now a Menlo Park resident, who was an audience member. Her two sisters were among the performers.

Their first piece was the Largo movement from the New World Symphony. But there were no violins or flutes to be found in this ensemble. Their only instruments were their voices.

And their only sheet music was provided by two remarkable women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, both students of music, who had painstakingly written the notes to the music from memory. Their tools consisted of scraps of paper and copybooks, and bits of lead pencil.

"At 4:30 sharp, 30 women filed behind Norah Chambers . . . Each carried pieces of paper in one hand and a little stool in the other. I saw no instruments," Colijn writes in her new book "Song of Survival: Women Interned" which is being released later this month.

"The choir started to sing, leh, leh, leh, in four-part harmony. Very softly, as through a haze, the first measures of Dvorak's 'Largo' came floating through the pendopo (the outdoor gazebo area). The music slowly swelled. A solo joined in. It was the deep voice of Miss Dryburgh. The music soared into its first rich and full crescendo.

"I felt a shiver go down my back. I thought I had never heard anything as beautiful before. The music didn't sound like a women's chorus singing songs. It didn't sound precisely like an orchestra either, although it was close. I could imagine I heard violins and an English horn. The music sounded ethereal and totally unreal in our sordid surroundings."

Suddenly, she said, a guard behind her made a sound, and she saw that he had his bayonet ready. He walked forward, she said, and reached the front where the choir was singing. "I couldn't see the tip of his bayonet any more. Had he put the rifle down? . . . Could he be listening to the music? As the largo moved toward a great, glorious crescendo, the guard remained as still as we. He remained still during the rest of the program," she wrote.

At intermission, the audience clapped hesitantly, she said, because the guard was still there. "But he too seemed to be savoring memories behind his stony face, and the applause slowly took on volume until it surged into a loud outpouring of enthusiasm with cries of 'Jolly good!' and 'Bravo!'" she wrote.

"It was not only a lovely thing to listen to, it was also a complete surprise," said Colijn.

Colijn spent three years in that women's prison camp with her two younger sisters and about 600 other women from Holland, Australia and Great Britain.

The choir of 30 women sang for a year, performing 30 songs from McDowell's "To a Wild Rose" to Beethoven's Minuet in G. But by the end of 1944 the choir was unable to continue its performances. Half of the singers had died.

The story of the prison camp, the choir and the music have been captured in a book and CD that are both being released this month.

Colijn's book, "Song of Survival: Women Interned," is expected to arrive in bookstores soon. Colijn is scheduled to appear at Kepler's Books and Magazines on Nov. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. A compact disc of the songs, sung by a Dutch women's choir, also is being released this month by Windham Hill Records of Menlo Park. The music will be played at the book signing.

The a capella music, which was brought to life again by the Peninsula Women's Chorus in 1983, is ethereal, dreamy and yet full of meaning when the listener realizes that it was first sung at a tiny jungle island prison camp surrounded by barbed wire.

"Music (takes) you out of your surroundings, makes you feel free," said Colijn. "The ones who listened . . . put out an effort to get out of camp. We were still human in an inhuman situation. We could still rise above these things."

Born in England of Dutch parents, Colijn's ordeal began in early March 1942. It was about 11 in the morning, and she remembers how the sunlight sparkled on the Indian Ocean as a 10,000-ton Dutch freighter made its way toward the British colony of Ceylon.

On board were 250 Dutch evacuees from the Dutch East Indies who had made their way to a pristine beach on the island of Java to board the ship, some with only the clothes on their backs, others with luggage.

"It was a beautiful bay," Colijn said, "surrounded by tropical hills, blue sky, sparkling water. It was a lovely scene.

"We started to sail at night. The boat was crammed with people, we generally say 250. We slept on the deck on blankets. We just slept in our clothes."

Suddenly, "we saw a Japanese reconnaissance plane coming. The plane left again. Then we knew, war being what it is, that he didn't just come to say 'hi' to us.

"A half-hour later, nine planes came and bombed the ship." Five of the eight lifeboats were destroyed, leaving three for the 125 people left. "Half of them drowned or went down with the ship.

"We had 23 (in the boat). It was very crowded. One had 54."

As the bombs dropped around them, everyone went to their assigned lifeboat station. The boats were lowered into the water. When more bombs were dropped, "everyone fell out of the boats again and started swimming around." She watched the ship sink, stern first, and then she and her father became separated from her two sisters.

"You're all alone on the waves. Father and I floated around looking for them after the ship sank and feared that they had gone out of the lifeboats and probably were machine-gunned."

"Water. Water to moisten my parched throat and wet my sunburned lips. It was our fourth day at sea," Colijn writes of anticipating her ration of water from the undamaged water tank on the lifeboat.

"Already I had made a decision. I would not drink my ration in a few, greedy gulps, but would sip a little water from the cup, slowly swish it around in my mouth, and savor it as I swallowed. The noon ration was six hours away . . . Finally, the cup was in my hand. I had craved, longed, yearned for this water since the water ration the evening before, 12 hours ago. I drank the water as planned. I let my tongue play with the water in my mouth. I relished every taste."

Eventually after seven days at sea, their lifeboat came to a coral beach on the island of Sumatra. "It was gorgeous, big blue waves, and whitecaps. (But) we had nothing to eat," she said. And they didn't know where her sisters were. "It was a very dramatic 24 hours traipsing along an empty beach," she said. "We got to a lighthouse and heard that (another) group had walked away to hide in the jungle. There were monkeys and snakes and bloodsuckers, and lots of noises. You didn't know what they were."

Three days later, they found her sisters and the rest of their group, and they set out to find a local person to sell them a boat to take them to Australia. But the locals were afraid to give them a boat for fear of retaliation by the Japanese.

One day, as they were resting at a guest house, a Japanese officer and three soldiers on bicycles saw them and began asking questions. "We said we were on our way to Java," Colijn said. "They interrogated Father, asked where we were going. They said we'd have to report to such and such a place."

Two days later, the Dutch refugees traveled with their three ox carts to the town of Palambang. "We had sores from all the bloodsuckers," she said.

Her father was taken to a men's camp, while Colijn and her sisters were interned in Palambang before being moved two other times during their 3 1/2-year imprisonment.

"In the beginning there was a hospital in Palambang. In the next place, there was a camp hospital with imprisoned nuns who acted as nurses," she said, to care for those who came down with dysentery, malaria or beriberi, a vitamin B deficiency. "There was very little medicine. A lot of people wouldn't have had to die if we'd had medicine."

Twenty or 30 women were crammed into each house, where they lived for about 18 months. "The food got worse and worse," she said. "We had mostly cooked rice and vegetables, and occasionally a banana." But the rice "always came full of weevils, maggots and bits of glass, things swept off the street."

They were moved to barracks nearby, made with bamboo poles and palm fronds. The women had a lot of chores to do, such as cleaning the barracks and the bathrooms. "There was never enough water to do that."

"Our new camp was no larger than an American football field and consisted of a rectangle of dismal-looking barracks crudely put together of bamboo-plaited gedek walls and palm-frond roofs. The rectangle enclosed a dusty or muddy compound," she wrote. "In the barracks were two bathrooms, a kitchen, a hospital and accommodations for all of us in long rows on balai-balais (bamboo platforms). . . . On this balai-balai we had no privacy. Neither did we have privacy in the communal bathroom. We had to stand naked in elbow-poking proximity to each other . . .

"In the compound we could never be alone either. Other women were always in the compound also, walking ghostlike in the moonlight, their skins pallid, their steps languid and slow. We walked to look at the stars, or because we were going crazy with the itch. This was a new camp affliction: no rash and no scabs formed but the skin itched so badly that we wanted to scratch with our nails or a sharp object. This was unwise. Skin abrasions would develop into nasty tropical sores."

"People got sick with malaria, dysentery and beriberi," she said. "In the first camp, we had quite a lot of fun. We were still healthy. We didn't think we'd be gone that long. We had an English and a Dutch choir. We had a lot of songs. After a while we ran out of songs."

By the end of 1943, Colijn recalls, the two women with musical backgrounds decided to have the women sing piano and orchestral songs and started to hold secret rehearsals. The music brought many refreshing memories for the captives.

"We remembered concerts, remembered freedom. I thought about a concert that I attended in Tarakan. It was such drab surroundings. The hunger, the sickness, the lack of communication with the outside world. We never heard from any man," said Colijn.

"Christmas wasn't much. We gave each other gifts. There were no trees, no decorations, no lights. People made things for each other like booklets to put needles in, or offered to do chores. It was a matter of doing with what you had."

The group gave about three or four concerts over the course of a year. "Each time we heard the music we marveled again at the beautiful and often familiar melodies, at the purity of the sound, at this miracle that was happening to us amid the cockroaches, the rats, the bedbugs and the stink of the latrines," Colijn wrote. "The music renewed our human dignity. We had to live under bestial conditions, but by Jove, we could rise above it all."

By Christmas 1944, about half of the singers had died, mostly from malnutrition and malaria.

"You have to realize how badly we all felt. It depended on what cycle you were in. We all felt differently depending on our health."

So the surviving singers put away their music.

"We heard that the war was over about nine days afterward (Aug. 15, 1945). We had thought about liberation for so long. We had saved dresses to wear. We ended up giving them away.

"A Japanese officer made a speech and said we would have to wait for the Allies to come. Meanwhile, we were still in camp. Suddenly there was a vast abundance of food. We didn't have to bow to the Japanese guards anymore.

"Finally three commandoes from some little Dutch organization (arrived). They told the rest of the world where we were. Once we were discovered, some of us were sent to Singapore to hospitals to recuperate. Suddenly we were in hotels, having meals served, napkins on the tables, glasses to drink from instead of silly little coconut shells."

Meanwhile, their father had died in camp, and their mother, a Red Cross nurse who was imprisoned in 1942 when the Japanese invaded the island of Tarakan, had been imprisoned on the island of Borneo.

The family, mother and three daughters, were reunited in Singapore. "Mother had snow-white hair," Colijn recalled.

The family decided to go to the United States, and after six months found space on a steamer going to New York. "We bought a secondhand car. I don't know how many states, how many miles, miles of freedom. It was marvelous."

They settled in San Rafael, and Helen got a job working for the Swiss consulate in San Francisco as a secretary and translator. She got married, had a daughter, Madelyn, and was divorced in 1954. She then worked as a free-lance writer, and led tours of Europe for teen-agers before being hired at Sunset Magazine in the editorial department, where she was a staff writer for 12 years.

Helen Colijn will sign copies of her book Nov. 12 at Kepler's Books and Magazines on El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue from 2 to 4 p.m. Books can be purchased there or ordered from the publisher, White Cloud Press, P.O. Box 3400, Ashland, OR 97520. The compact disc is available through the Windham Hill Records catalog or by calling (800) 495-1976.

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