Memories of a childhood lost to war


As military veterans commemorate anniversaries of major events in World War II, Ilse Reichenfeld Keuls remembers her stolen childhood -- 3 1/2 years in a concentration camp during the brutal Japanese occupation of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.

Mrs. Keuls, 60, born in Java to Dutch parents, was 8 when the Japanese conquered the island -- now part of Indonesia -- in March 1942. The invaders imprisoned thousands of Europeans under terrible conditions and held them until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan's surrender Aug. 15, 1945.

Malnutrition and illness, particularly malaria and dysentery, were rife in Camp Ambarawa No. 6, one of a group of six camps near Semarang, in central Java, where she and thousands of other Dutch women and children were imprisoned, said Mrs. Keuls.

"Girls just a little older than me" were raped and beaten, the Carney resident said.

"It was horrible," she said. "There was no medication. Food was a little bowl of starch for breakfast, just like the stuff you use on collars, a cup of corn kernels for lunch and some rice with sweet potatoes for supper, or maybe some vegetables.

"The hardest thing was seeing the children dying around you. One day you had a friend, the next day you didn't. We were really underfed. We had a ration of sugar sometimes, white or brown, but we stored it up as a treat. We used to put a little bit in our hands and wet our fingertips to pick it up.

"It was terrible to hear children saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, I'm hungry,' " she said. Afterward, Mrs. Keuls said, she learned that her mother had shared her meager rations with her children.

As bad as the physical conditions were, the mental toll that the Japanese-enforced isolation took was even worse at times, and that's where her childhood went, she said.

Books of any kind were forbidden, and possession of them was punished severely.

"Some of the women tried to organize classes, but if they were caught, they were punished," Mrs. Keuls said. "The Japanese tore up any books they found; they didn't want us to learn anything. If they saw more than five people together, they thought they were conspiring. They were mean and cruel to everyone who crossed their path.

"They just wanted us to rot there. We were totally isolated from the world. We didn't know about the war in the Pacific. We knew there was a war in Europe, in the Netherlands, because we learned about it before we went into prison," she said.

When the Japanese conquered Java in March 1942, after defeating an Allied naval task force in the Battle of the Java Sea, they set about subjugating the foreign population.

Mrs. Keuls' father, Erwin Reichenfeld, was born in Java and became a judge there after attending law school in the Netherlands in the 1920s. The family lived in Malang, a beautiful mountain town in East Java, where they enjoyed a high standard of living in a tropical paradise. "We lived right next to the mayor," Mrs. Keuls said.

The Japanese conquest changed everything overnight. "They ordered everyone to stay inside, then they fenced in the whole neighborhood with barbed wire," she said. "People were brought in from other sections and put into our houses, people we didn't even know."

Males older than 14, including her father, were rounded up and shipped off to forced-labor camps. "After he was captured, we never saw him again until after the war. We didn't know if he was alive or not," Mrs. Keuls said. "He spent the time building airstrips on several islands -- Flores, Lombok, Timor."

After Judge Reichenfeld was taken away, his wife, Anna, and the three children, Karin, 13, Ilse, 9, and Leod, 6, were left to contend with the invaders.

About two months later, the European women and children were told they were to be moved "to a better place."

"They told us to take only what we could carry and they would send the rest to us. Ha!" Mrs. Keuls said. "We had to leave all of our beautiful things, and we never saw anything of ours again.

"They packed us into trucks and drove us to the railroad station where we were piled into cars with the windows closed and paper over them so we couldn't see out," she said, recalling the grueling journey to the camp. "We were two days and two nights with barely any food or water. It was too much trouble for them."

At the camp, the prisoners lived in barracks built of bamboo and slept on thin mats on beds like long tables, she said. "Water was very scarce, and we had to dig our own latrines, too," she said.

Even though the prisoners were women and children, armed Japanese soldiers were everywhere, and they were very strict, she said.

"They were very hostile. They liked to shove the women around, but they weren't too bad [physically] with the children," Mrs. Keuls said. "Girls had to carry the heavy bags of rice, 40 or 50 pounds each."

Freedom, through the Red Cross and British forces, arrived soon after Aug. 15, 1945, V-J Day, Mrs. Keuls recalled.

"We noticed the Japanese had left their posts, because in the morning they would raise their flag and sing their song, and one day they didn't do it," she said. One of the women crept out of camp and met some Indonesians who told her about the atomic bombing and Japan's capitulation.

"The Red Cross and the British showed up within a few days, and brought us food," she said. "We all got sick from eating too much. I never ate so many duck eggs before in my life. We were all so skinny.

"Thank God for the atomic bomb. I'm grateful for it because otherwise we might never have been freed."

The family learned that Judge Reichenfeld also had survived. When they were reunited, "that big, robust man was so skinny, a wreck," Mrs. Keuls said. "They had knocked his teeth out; they beat him up a lot. But we all survived, all five of us."

The family was repatriated to the Netherlands, where the children attended accelerated schools to catch up on their education. Once they had recovered, her parents and brother returned to Java, where her father was a judge for war-crimes cases. The girls remained in school in the Netherlands.

When she finally finished high school, she said, it was too late to continue her education.

"By the time I grew up, I was too old to go to school. I was 14 and in the third grade. I think I would have gone into nursing, but I never got a chance to go to college," Mrs. Keuls said.

It was in the Netherlands that she met her future husband, William Keuls, another Dutch-Javanese who had spent the war as a prisoner in a forced-labor camp. "I think he had a very rough time," Mrs. Keuls said. "He never wanted to talk about it."

Mr. Keuls made several voyages in the Dutch merchant marine before deciding on a career ashore. He got an office job with a shipping company in Baltimore and later became a checker on the docks. In 1953, the Keulses were married in the Netherlands, and Mrs. Keuls joined her husband in Baltimore in April 1954.

The Keulses had three sons, all of whom live in the Baltimore area. Mr. Keuls died in 1985 at 58. Mrs. Keuls' brother and sister live in the Netherlands.

Mrs. Keuls said that once her sons were in school, she went to work, first as a waitress at the old Hutzler's store in Towson and later at Towson State University, where she is a cashier.

Ilse and William Keuls made only one visit to Indonesia after the war, in 1979. "I saw my old house," she said. "It seemed very small."

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