ON A WARM INDONESIAN EVENING in 1943, a young Dutch woman named Helen Colijn headed out the door to hear some music. This was to be no ordinary concert; the setting was a Japanese prison camp in the middle of the Sumatran jungle. Padding barefoot from her barracks to a palm-thatched pavilion, Colijn took her place at the back of the audience—several hundred emaciated women and children, seated on the ground—and watched as 30 women, equally emaciated and dressed in the tattered remnants of shirts and dresses, filed onto a stage. The assembly quieted, and the ragtag choir began to fill the grim internment camp with the incongruously sweet sound of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. A prison guard, rushing over to put a halt to the unauthorized singing, stopped in his tracks and listened, entranced.
“A shiver went down my back,” remembers Colijn, now 76 and living in Menlo Park, Calif. Tall and thin, she speaks calmly about her past, with little evident emotion. “It was wonderful to hear such beautiful music in such a mucky place. None of us would ever forget it.”
Colijn saw to it that others wouldn’t forget either. She was not a choir member herself, having been convinced in childhood that she “couldn’t carry a tune.” Instead she carried the memory, and in this way lent her voice to the others. Written over many years, her uplifting account of a terrible ordeal, Song of Survival: Women Interned, was published in 1995. Then there were the musical scores themselves—transcribed secretly with pencil stubs in old copybooks by two English prisoners—which Helen and her sister Antoinette donated in 1981 to Stanford University. These sources and the stories of two dozen other camp survivors interviewed by Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy) became the raw material for his film Paradise Road, which opened April 11 and stars Glenn Close, Pauline Collins and Frances McDormand. Some of the characters in the film are composites of real people—Colijn is not individually portrayed.
Collins and Close play characters based on Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, who formed a choral group in 1943 after 18 months’ incarceration. Dryburgh, a missionary with a gift for remembering entire orchestral scores, and Chambers, who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, fashioned the vocal arrangements. Their concerts were allowed to continue and were even attended once by Japanese officers who sat in rattan chairs and offered the performers a gift of five cans of Spam. Within about a year, the music stopped after too many of the choir members had died, including Dryburgh. (Chambers, who survived the war, died in 1989.) “When everything was unbearable,” recalls Richard Sneeuwjagt, 65, a retired research chemist now living in the Bay Area, “then the music kept us together.” Sneeuwjagt sang in the choir as an 11-year-old and shared a barracks with Colijn, who he remembers, “was always sick but still had the will to live.”
Colijn may have her upbringing to thank. Her father, Anton, the son of a former Dutch prime minister, managed an oil-drilling operation in Indonesia. “It was a nice life,” says Colijn. “We lived in a fair amount of luxury.” Anton believed in physical toughness, and Helen and her two younger sisters, Antoinette and Alette, learned to endure long hikes and swims, training for which they would soon become grateful.
In 1942 the Japanese invaded Indonesia, taking 100,000 civilian prisoners. Helen’s mother, Zus, was captured; Anton and the girls fled in a freighter, which was sunk by Japanese bombers. Six days on crowded lifeboats brought them to Java, where they too were seized and then taken to prison camps. Conditions were abysmal. The soldiers beat the prisoners and forced them to bow in the direction of Emperor Hirohito. A Chinese man caught throwing bread into their camp was tied to a pole until he died of thirst three days later. Malaria, beriberi and dysentery were rampant—by war’s end a third of the 700 internees had died. Though the women exchanged smuggled messages with a nearby men’s camp for a time—the sisters even snuck out for a Christmas rendezvous with their father—when the camps were both moved, contact was lost. “The isolation was terrible,” Colijn says. “All of us had moments when a neighbor would die, and we would think, ‘It could be me next.’ But you couldn’t let yourself be afraid because then you would start to go down.”
News of her father’s death couldn’t move her to tears, nor did the eventual reports of an Allied victory pierce her numbness. By August 1945, when the camps were liberated, Colijn, suffering from malaria and “yellow like a lemon” from jaundice, had to be evacuated in a hospital ship; six feet tall, she had shrunk to 90 pounds.
The sisters reunited with their mother, who had spent the war in a Borneo camp, and settled in San Rafael, Calif., where they had lived in the early 1920s. Helen worked as a book translator, magazine editor and European tour-group leader, and wrote two travel books about the Netherlands. In 1948 she married Louis van Ryckevorsel, a Dutchman living in San Francisco, and the couple had a daughter, Madelyn, before divorcing in 1955.
After the sheet music was given to Stanford, a concert was arranged with members of the Peninsula Women’s Chorus in Palo Alto. At the first rehearsal, Colijn’s head filled instantly with visions of the barefoot, half-starved chorus of women from 40 years before. The performance was a “tremendous” experience, says Colijn, who harbors no grudge against her former captors, preferring to keep in mind her father’s last words to her mother. “Whatever happens to you, don’t feel bitter about it,” he said, “because bitterness will destroy you.”
LAIRD HARRISON in Oakland