Jews suffered hunger and torture in WWII Indonesian camps

Baghdadi Jews formed communities in the Far East and 600 settled in Surabaya on the island of Indonesia. Stories are beginning to emerge of their suffering in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Deborah Cassrels writes in Haaretz:

“We were all starving; the hunger was horrendous. Sometimes we collected banana skins to roast and eat. We were like skeletons.”

Benjamin David, an 84-year-old Australian-Iraqi Jew, could be recalling Holocaust scenes. He is not. But his own nightmare, which played out simultaneously on the opposite side of the world in Europe, has left a bitter legacy.

Talking from his home in Sydney, Australia, David is reliving childhood memories of the years he spent in Japanese internment camps on the Southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia – then known as the Dutch East Indies.

He was just 4 when he and his family were forced into a camp, along with other Jews, after the Japanese invaded the then-Dutch colony in 1942. He still bears the physical and psychological scars of deprivation and brutality.

Stories of repression, disease, starvation, torture, segregation, resilience, faith and death are largely unknown – but are starting to emerge.

“After the war I had nightmares for about 20 years.” David closes his eyes and tilts his head back. “My nightmares were about the Japs knocking at our door, taking us to the camp … and I saw a lot people hung.”

He recalls his incomprehension at witnessing, as a young child, five Indonesian men hanged for stealing or smuggling just before the war ended. His mother pulled him away, saying, “They’re only dolls.” He did not learn the brutal truth until he was married and had a daughter.

David’s parents had migrated to Indonesia, where he was born, from Burma (now Myanmar) in 1933 to escape conflict. His maternal grandfather had left Iraq in about 1926 for Rangoon, where he met his future wife (whose parents were Iraqi).

Of some wonder is how David’s indomitable mother, and other Sephardi women, still managed to observe the Sabbath and Jewish holy days while interned – to the bemusement of their Japanese captors.

A rare Jewish grave in Indonesia.
A rare Jewish grave in Indonesia. (Photo: : Deborah Cassrels)

“After the war I had nightmares for about 20 years.” David closes his eyes and tilts his head back. “My nightmares were about the Japs knocking at our door, taking us to the camp … and I saw a lot people hung.”

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