How Jews survived Japan

By Colin Shindler, March 21, 2014
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Most Jews recall September 1 1939 as the date innocence ended, when the Nazis marched into Poland. Fewer remember December 7 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.

Who knows about those Jews who bore witness to the extreme brutality which was meted out to many a hapless prisoner in Japanese camps? Forced labour, decapitations, torture, massacres, medical experimentation, starvation rations, death marches, comfort women. In part it was due to the fact that although Jews were occasionally victimised because they were Jews, they were more often humiliated by vengeful guards because they were seen as representing the colonial master.

When Emperor Akihito visited London in 1998 to be invested with the Order of Garter, Jack Caplan, together with other veterans of the camps, turned their backs on him as a mark of disrespect as he passed by in the Mall. Police, diplomats and politicians were not amused. While Caplan undoubtedly spoke for a section of popular opinion in Britain, he was also the Jewish dissident who would not forget. And yet he went to Japan a few years later to meet a new generation of Japanese. He returned with an understanding that the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the sons. When he died in 2004, the wife of the then Japanese ambassador attended his funeral at a Jewish cemetery and brought with her condolences from the Emperor.

The mammoth task of recording the testimonies of Jewish soldiers who suffered in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps has been undertaken by Martin Sugarman in his new book, Under the Heel of the Bushido. It records how their Jewishness and their Judaism became meaningful and fortified them in dark times.

He writes: “In April 1943, David (Arkush) managed to organise a Passover service with about 40 Jewish Allied POWs attending: in lieu of matzo and kosher wine, he managed to provide rice cakes made with sago flour, charoset from grated coconut, rice and coffee, maror made from mint leaves, the hard-boiled eggs made from spinach leaves and rice wine and some bananas”.

The main purpose of all this was more than religious. It was to enable survival – to strive towards saying the shehechayanu blessing on the day of liberation, to thank God for keeping them alive to see that day. Harry Courts, a veteran of nine camps and the Burma railway, understood that it was not only stamina that would ensure survival. Even though his siddur, tefillin, and tallit had been stolen, he persevered in praying every day in the belief that he would win through.

The Canadian captain Jacob Markowitz saved the lives of countless hundreds who had contracted gangrene. Japanese doctors refused to hand over medical equipment so ingenuity and imagination produced solutions. Over 4000 transfusions were carried out using broken bottles as funnels while the blood was prevented from coagulating using a bamboo whisk.
Sidney Lawrence of Hove was forced by his captors to watch the gang-rape of 15 Dutch women in Java by dozens of Japanese soldiers. Markowitz termed the bushido code as “remorseless villainy, portrayed as chivalry”. Yet somehow these remarkable men and women overcame the despair and the humiliation. They survived to dance on Hitler’s grave and to forge their own destiny.

Who are these people? They are our aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbours. Old men and women who sit alone in synagogues. Taxi drivers and millionaires. We can now enter their inner world and to learn what happened to them long ago.

Colin Shindler is emeritus professor at SOAS. Martin Sugarman’s Under the Heel of the Bushido is published by Vallentine Mitchell

    Last updated: 7:45am, March 21 2014