“Happy Birthday, Itte petit,” my mother whispered to me as we awoke early one morning in the Japanese concentration camp in Java, Indonesia. “You are nine years old—a big girl. Pretty soon we’ll be able to celebrate your birthday in freedom, with cakes and lemonade and ice cream. You’ll see!
“You have always been a special child, born to me because you have a destiny. You have come to earth to live because you have a goal to reach. There is a purpose for your life, and being in this camp is only temporary.” Softly, my mother insisted that some day the war would end and peace would prevail.
My older sister, younger sister, and younger brother had been with us in the camp for eighteen months—ever since Japanese soldiers had forced us from our home. Our three older brothers were in another camp. We knew that my father was in a camp in Japan or the Philippines because of his involvement in the resistance against the invasion of Indonesia.
I was depressed and lonely. The world was so unfair! We were confined behind barbed wire, infested with fleas and lice, and plagued with flies and mosquitoes. Each person was allotted only one and one-half meters of space in our cramped, hot building. People bickered and were unkind to each other, children were always crying, and we had to take turns going to the latrine.
“What will my tenth birthday be like?” I wondered. “Will I be free?” How I wished I could walk on soft green grass—roll in it, smell it! How wonderful it would be to sing if I wanted to, scream if I wanted to, or just be by myself!
One day, the need to be alone made me disregard my mother’s warning to stay close to our building. I wandered away, taking my only possession—a stick—with me. My mother often wrote on the ground with that stick, making a game of teaching us the letters. She also told us Bible stories and stories about things we used to do or things she had done as a child.
I was thinking about these “good old times” as I wandered farther and farther away from the main compound, toward the outskirts of camp and the feared barbed wires. Oblivious to my surroundings, I was dreaming about our old house in the mountains, my pony, and my toys. Oh, why had I left my doll—Pop Mientje—sitting in the chair when the soldiers came to take us away? I had been too frightened and too sleepy to think of my old rag doll, and I had left her at home. How I wished I had her now!
I also missed my nanny, the older Javanese woman who used to watch over me. When I had been frightened or had hurt myself it was my nanny—Baboe Kit—who had comforted and consoled me. I could still remember the feel of her sweet, soft hands caressing me, the smell of her fragrance, and the sound of her voice whispering consoling words. I even imagined that I could hear her call out to me: “Nonny Kitty, Kitty!”
But wait! Listen … It was not my imagination.
I heard it again: “Nonny Kitty, Kitty. Very carefully, look to your left. I am in the bushes. Don’t come too near. The barbed wire is very sharp, and they say there are land mines around here.”
Carefully, I turned my head and looked into the underbrush. There she was: my nanny!
“You have come to take me away from this awful camp?” I asked.
“No, Nonny. I have come to give you something because it is your birthday.”
I came closer, pretending to play with the stick on the ground.
“Nanny, please, I want to come with you. I hate it here. Please let me touch you. Oh, Baboe Kit, please!”
Her voice became stern. She told me to keep very still, to keep my voice down, and to listen to what she had to say.
“I brought you Pop Mientje to keep you company because baboes are not allowed in this camp, and it is too dangerous for a European child to live in the village. Always say your prayers to ask for strength to endure what you have to endure, because Allah is wise and all-knowing. He knows when the war will end and is only testing us to see if we can stay faithful and endure to the end. And the end will be sweet to us. Take Pop Mientje, and promise me that you will not lose her. Take her with you wherever you go. If you do that, she will bring you happiness one day.”
I knew that whatever Nanny told me was true, and I had learned to obey her at all times. But at that moment I needed her touch—no matter how dangerous it was. I shifted my position and crawled toward the barbed wires. She handed me Pop Mientje. Our hands touched. She stroked my hand.
“Oh, please take me with you! Please don’t go away!” I threw the doll aside and reached out for her with both hands, cutting my face as I brushed against the barbed wire to press my body closer to her. I could smell her fragrance. I closed my eyes, savoring the seconds of feeling her hands caress my face.
“Go, Nonny. Go now, quickly. Take the doll and go quickly. I have to go. Quickly!”
I was not quick enough. A sentry saw us. He saw her run away, and took aim and shot my nanny—my Baboe Kit—in the back. A gaping wound appeared, and she turned around and waved at me with her hand, as if to say, “It is okay!”
Amid the confusion of shouting sentries and screaming women that followed the shooting, no one paid attention to me. I stood there in shock, unable to move. Someone picked up Pop Mientje and handed her to me. I stooped to pick up the stick, and as I straightened up, I saw a Japanese soldier standing in front of me. He looked at me and whispered, “Go quickly.”
I ran all the way to our compound. I had been saved by my enemy—a Japanese soldier! My mother was waiting for me. She had been looking for me all over. When she saw me running toward her with Pop Mientje, she knew that I had seen Baboe Kit.
I told her what had happened. “If only I had been a little bit quicker! If I had not been so slow and had listened to her, Baboe Kit would be alive!”
My mother folded me into her arms and comforted me, telling me over and over again that what had happened was not my fault.
I wrestled with guilt for many years before I fully understood the meaning of Baboe Kit’s sacrifice. Meanwhile, I took Pop Mientje with me everywhere.
Just before my eleventh birthday, British and Australian troops and American paratroopers liberated us. Our property had been confiscated in the civil war between the Dutch and the Indonesians, so we had no home to return to. We stayed in a refugee camp, waiting for my older brother to recover from cholera. My father had needed immediate medical aid and had been shipped to Holland with the wounded Dutch soldiers. He lived only a short time after the rest of us reached Amsterdam.
My mother was left to find what work she could to sustain herself and her six living children. Penniless, we lived in a tiny apartment furnished with old wooden boxes. Life was not easy, and although my mother longed to make our existence more comfortable, she did not have the means to do so.
On my sixteenth birthday, as I was cleaning out a closet, I came across Pop Mientje, safely tucked away on the shelf. She was dirty; she had been a victim of my airsickness in a cargo airplane, and she had been in the mud under me as we sought cover when our truck was shot at by the Indonesians.
I decided to clean her up. As I scrubbed her with a brush, her clothes, which were sewn to her body, disintegrated. Unwilling to abandon her, I began the job of reconstruction. But as I reached into the stuffing, it yielded more than soft cotton. Pop Mientje spilled forth the treasure she had carried all these years: diamonds, rubies, pearls, jade, and various rings. How had my old rag doll been made the guardian of such precious goods?
Although my mother was not a member of the Church, she was a very religious woman, and she had responded to the promptings she felt. When the war began, she had decided to build a bomb shelter not too far from our home in Indonesia. In it she had stored food, water, medicine, and clothing. These supplies had sustained us for eight months when we were not allowed to leave our property. She had also stored the family jewels in the bomb shelter, and before we were taken away to the concentration camp, my mother had told Baboe Kit to use the stored food to save her own family from the famine that was already rampant. But as soon as Nanny had found out where we were interned, she had carefully stuffed my doll with some of the jewelry and had walked the 192 kilometers to bring it to me.
The discovery of the jewels changed our lives. The proceeds from their sale first brought us warm clothing and furniture to make our lives more comfortable. Eventually they enabled us to obtain higher education. The training I received because of Pop Mientje’s treasures meant better employment and higher wages, both in Amsterdam and later in America.
The influence of Baboe Kit has remained with me throughout the years since my ninth birthday. For many years I felt guilty and had nightmares about her death—until one day I realized that Nanny had known she was risking her life.
She had been willing to die for me. And because of her sacrifice, those ninth-year birthday whispers that were once only dreams have become reality. Not only have I had birthdays with cakes and gifts and ice-cooled lemonade, but I have also fulfilled the destiny of which my mother spoke. I have had the opportunity to receive and accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and through the gospel I have come to a greater understanding about the kind of love shown me by Baboe Kit. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13.)