For the first time, the harrowing stories of Iraqi Jews interned in Japanese camps on Indonesia during WWII are being documented.
In the 19th century, Jews left Baghdad to flee persecution or follow the trade routes of the British Empire: they went to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They were relative latecomers to the Indonesian archipelago, and only settled there in any numbers when it became the Dutch East Indies. The community comprised a few thousand Ashkenazi Jews from Holland. But some 600 Baghdadi Jews also settled in Surabaya, the port capital of East Java. They led a charmed life until World War II.
During the war they were joined by refugees escaping Nazi persecution in Europe. When the Japanese occupied Java in early 1942, most of the community was interned for being Dutch civilians. In the latter half of 1943, the Gestapo mounted antisemitic campaigns in Indonesia. They persuaded the Japanese to intern all the Baghdadi Jews simply for being Jews.
This little-known episode was researched by Rotem Kowner of Haifa University. However, more stories have come to light thanks to an investigation by Australian journalist Deborah Cassrels, who interviewed several survivors for a book she is writing. Deborah was the guest speaker in an online ‘Lockdown Lecture’ organised by Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
Beginning in 1943, Jews were rounded up, men and women segregated and sent to four separate camps. In one camp the prisoners were made to build a railway which was never completed. Most inmates did survive, but suffered infected mosquito bites and diseases like amoebic dysentery. It was a daily struggle to stave off hunger. The prisoners ate stray dogs, worms, snails, anything they could find.
Five-year-old Edward Abraham’s father died after eating raw cassava, which can contain poison. Edward’s pregnant mother was made to stand all day staring at the sun without food and water – a favoured Japanese punishment – until she fainted. Solomon Elias recounts how his sister Hannah was punished for trading jewellery for rations and confined to a rat-infested dungeon for two weeks. The Japanese guard who helped her was shot. Hannah bore the mental scars of her ordeal for the rest of her life.
Sybil Sassoon, pregnant with her second child, had a pistol held to her head if she refused to go to the local hospital for the delivery. Thankfully the baby was born without complications. She remembers being so thirsty during a train journey to a camp that the inmates tried to capture rainwater in their cupped hands. The prisoners still managed to observe Yom Kippur by asking for the guards not to give them rations of rice with worms and vegetables that day, but bring them tea and bread at night. Sybil remained in the camp for one and a half years.
Benjamin David, 4 at the time, recalls eating banana skins. One day he picked up some green beans from the ground. When his mother tried to boil water for green bean soup, the guards instructed her let the boiling water run over her hands.
When the the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the Jews found themselves caught up in anti-colonial struggle for independence no less brutal than what they had been through during the war.
Today the survivors are in their 90s and live in Australia, California and Israel. There are no more than 10 Jews still in Java.