Photo: Heather & Marie Vischer Elliott (Rita), Aug 2021
In August 2021, I had the privilege of meeting Marie (Rita) Vischer Elliott for the first time when she traveled to my home state. My husband and I visited with her for a couple of hours, and she told us stories about her remarkable life in her lovely accent. Marie is now called Mary by family and friends, but I refer to her as Marie in this story for clarity. During our first meeting, Marie and I were both vetting each other. I wondered if I’d be able to do justice to a story that Marie had kept to herself for so many decades. She wondered if she was truly ready to share such private and difficult memories.
Marie told me that her family never spoke of the war after it ended. Her parents had wanted to fully move on. Years later, Marie ventured to ask her mother some questions, but her mother gave precious few answers. The topic was still considered a closed book to the past. Because of all that she’s endured, Marie never wanted to watch war movies or read about wars. She especially stayed away from stories about concentration or prison camps and their victims. Like her parents, she was keeping her past firmly behind her.
Yet, a slow change came over Marie in recent years, and she was surprised to realize that she wanted to share her past. She wrote up a brief summary of her experiences, and she began to tell her family about what had happened to her. The lock she’d kept on her memories and fears was slowly turned, then opened.
Marie’s remarkable story begins when she was a child, living in Indonesia (then called the Netherlands East Indies). Both her parents were originally from the Netherlands. Her father, George Vischer, who worked for the Royal Packet Navigating Company (KPM), was stationed on Java Island as his home base.
World War II left very few countries unscathed, and Marie’s family was divided up, then sent to live in Japanese prison-of-war camps after Japan invaded, conquered, and then occupied Indonesia. Marie, her mother, grandmother, and younger brother Georgie were sent to the Tjideng camp, which interned women and young children. Men and older boys were sent to their own camps. This began a period in Marie’s life that would shape her childhood, her future, and her beliefs.
Having read dozens of books about the World War II era over the years, I hadn’t ever read anything about the Dutch people’s experience in Indonesia. When I searched for books or films about the subject matter, I was only able to find self-published memoirs. I bought everything I could find and began to read.
I was already excited to write a historical novel about Marie’s early life just from what she’d shared with me in our first meeting, but I had no idea the impact of the war on Indonesia and its people until I dove deeper into research. Story after story, shared by former POW camp victims, revealed experiences long-buried. At the end of this novel is a list of the memoirs and other historical sources that helped frame this book.
As a backdrop to Marie’s story, it’s important to understand why Indonesia became an strategic asset to the Axis power of Japan during the war. Due to the oil embargos against the Axis powers, the oil fields that spanned the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) drew Japan to the islands since they were searching for mineral resources to fuel its war effort. To the Japanese, the Dutch colonies were a diamond in the Pacific.
In the early 1600s, the Dutch joined other traders such as the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Arabia, etc., bent on securing trade routes and trade posts throughout southeastern Asia and the Americas. In 1602, in order to establish a dynasty over other traders, the Dutch founded the world’s first multinational trading empire called the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East Indies Company. This began the next two centuries of the VOC running trading posts. When the VOC declared bankruptcy in 1796, the Netherlands government took over, and the Dutch colonization of the East Indies went into full effect. Over the next several decades, Dutch families moved to Java and Sumatra, seeking opportunities in private enterprise.
On the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (December 8 in the NEI), the NEI was spurred into action, and they declared war on Japan. Every Dutchman the age of eighteen or older was conscripted into one of the Royal military branches to undergo accelerated military training. Overall, the Dutch relied mostly on the Western Allied powers for help. But the Allies were busy defending other Pacific Rim countries such as the Philippines and Singapore, leaving the NEI vulnerable to attack.
Battles raged between Japan and the Dutch, on land and on sea, ending with the Battle of the Java Sea, in which the NEI and Allied fleet was soundly defeated. Three days later, Japanese forces landed on Java Island, and one week later, on March 8, 1942, the NEI governing body officially capitulated to Japan.
As a result, over 100,000 Dutch men, women, and children were funneled into prison camps. An additional 40,000 Dutch men became prisoners of war, many of them shipped to work camps in Burma, Japan, and Thailand.
The Dutch-Indonesians, or Indos, were caught in the middle. Descended from Dutch and Indonesian marriages, due to the decades of intermarriage from Dutch colonization, the Indos were given a choice: live in the prison camps or serve the new Japanese regime.
With the takeover of the NEI by the Japanese, everything related to the Dutch culture was replaced by Japanese culture. Even Batavia, the capital of the NEI, was renamed to Jakarta. The Japanese language was taught in schools, the Japanese calendar implemented, and local time became Tokyo time.
Over 6,000 of the 18,110 islands of the Indonesia archipelago are inhabited, and in 1941, the Dutch population made up most of the Europeans living throughout the islands. The total population of the NEI was about 60 million people. To understand the scope of the loss the Dutch people suffered throughout the prison camps in Indonesia, by the end of the war, 30,000 European internees had died, but even more sobering is that a total of four million civilians perished, which included Indonesians and Indo-Europeans, as a result of malnutrition and forced labor.
Under the Java Moon follows the story of Marie and her family, as they endured the hardships of living in a POW camp during World War II. At the end of February 1942, Marie’s father, George Vischer, fled for his life with a group of naval officers in order to join up with Australian Allied forces. On a fateful day in March 1942, Marie Vischer was ushered out of her home. Marie, her elderly grandmother, her mother, and toddler brother were forced into a women’s prison camp ran by the notoriously cruel Japanese commander, Captain Kenichi Sonei.
This is Marie’s story.