Wilhelmina Moller, (nee van Halewijn), a Fish Hoek resident who lost her teen years to a prisoner-of-war camp in Java, says she is still afraid of the dark.
Ms Moller, 88 as she is legally known, has written two books about the stolen years of her youth, but even so, she is well aware that she was one of the lucky ones; simply to be alive to tell her stories.
There are no outward shows of this experience. Ms Moller is a pensioner living in the coastal home of her choosing, she walks the beachfront almost daily, she has a full schedule with friends and bridge, Rotary and a well loved extended family – she writes articles for various newspapers and says one of her favourite things is to google (she bought herself her first computer at the age of 65) and is adept at using it.
But the stories of her youth, linger. They live on in her fear of the dark.
They motivate her yearning for knowledge. “Some of my friends in the camp lay down to sleep – and never woke up in the morning,” Ms Moller said.
She said at the time she had no idea why. “I was often scared to fall asleep, in case it happened to me,” she explained.
It was only in later years that she realised that they had been diabetics and had fallen into comas and died. “We only had one cup of sugar to last us a whole month,” she explained.
At the time, all she knew was that some nights took her friends.
Ms Moller was placed in the first concentration camp for women and children when she was 13. She turned 17 in Singapore, after their release; after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She levels her gaze at me. “That bomb saved our lives. They couldn’t say it at the time, 50 years had to pass before the military information could be revealed, but our captors had been instructed to kill us all before the war was over,” Ms Moller said.
Dutch of origin, Ms Moller was no stranger to fleeing dangerous situations and the family had already fled war, before.
When she was nine her family left the Netherlands to go to Romania where her father had found a job building boats. When the Germans occupied Romania, the family fled to Turkey, and it was in Turkey that her father was conscripted by the Dutch Navy to their base in Java.
This is what placed them in the area and led to her family’s incarceration.
In 1942, 10 days after the Japanese occupation of Java, the Van Halewijn family were moved out of their navy home. Initially it was to a shared house, then when that filled up, all the occupants were moved into different concentration camps.
There were a number of camps, men and boys in some, women and children in others; and people were moved between them often to defuse any plans of escape.
She still looks aggrieved when recalling how she, her mother and two little sisters, slept on the floor, four people crammed together, terrified.
The rations, the hard manual labour they were required to do to keep busy, how the women were so malnourished that their menstrual cycles just stopped. Which, she says, was probably a good thing considering they had no soap nor toothpaste throughout that time, and were required to wash in groups around a trough – using just this shared water.
She speaks about the sicknesses like Beriberi, a disease caused by a vitamin B-1 deficiency, and an all-encompassing fear, daily: would they survive, how could they survive? What was going to happen, next? There was no way of knowing.
Beatings were commonplace, and the prisoners, with no idea that bowing was the Japanese custom, felt humiliated by the need to stand up and bow to every Japanese person or officer who walked past them.
“They even painted out the windows of the rooms, black, so you couldn’t see out,” she says.
Ms Moller says many people still have no idea that the Japanese held people prisoner in camps such as this.
“It was my husband’s idea to write about it.
“He woke me one night while I was having another nightmare and asked ‘are the Japs chasing you again?’ he asked me to please write about it so he could know what I went through, and so that one day our children will also know,” she said.
It took a while for the idea to bear fruit but through the family’s work with Rotary, Ms Moller was often invited to speak at different engagements about her experiences. The first book she wrote was in her mother tongue, Dutch.
That was published as Sterretje and sold out 2 000 copies in the first three months, requiring a reprint.
Her second book, written by Mariel le Roux, was published in Afrikaans, titled Wilhelmina Kampkind op Java.
Ms Moller’s books recount the details of those years through the eyes of a trapped teen, and then with the wisdom of hindsight and healing. For her, the writing has been her healing.
What she has learned through the experience, paradoxically, was gratitude.
For freedom, for choice, for family, for surviving. And appreciation of this as a home country of choice.
“My father was on the last Navy ship that was sent out – they were en route to Australia when the ship was diverted and sent here to South Africa. My father spent the war in Simon’s Town,” she said.
The family was reunited after the war, and chose to stay in South Africa. Ms Moller followed her family one last time, after the war, protesting all the way to Worcester.
“I didn’t want to go, all the friends I had who had come out with me on the ship, were in Cape Town. I said I would go for three months,” she laughed.
“But there I met my husband – and I stayed for 47 years.”
Ms Moller’s return to Fish Hoek, where the family had always holidayed, was for retirement when their family farm became too unmanageable for an elderly couple.
Here, she walks the beach front, has a great social life with her friends, and keeps in touch with her extended family, all over the world, on various social media platforms.
Her stories are sadly limited at the moment to the Dutch and Afrikaans market, but she hopes to find a publisher who will translate her books into English.
“I asked some friends the other day what Heritage Day meant to them and they said nothing. It made me think about what South Africa has given me.”
She says she has a heart in
two places, and only one of them knows her story of survival.
“I would like the book to be read in English because it’s not just my life story, it is the story of what happened
to many people, and even today
so few know what we went through.”
her father called her – the sterrteje -thatsinglepersonshedding
light on the darkness of a shared but largely unrecognised past.