First Letter Home
Translated by Albert de Zutter
For months, or even years, we have had to keep our thoughts, our reactions and our feelings to ourselves. As for me, I have been deprived of those familial contacts that united us so pleasantly before the wars in various countries completely broke the bonds that embraced us and sent me to this concentration camp for two-and-a-half years. Only a few messages from the Red Cross and several letters from Albert’s brother-in-law were able to reach me. For me that meant I had to give up thinking in terms of family – “a letter will come tomorrow”; “in six days I must write to Albert”; “this or that niece is making her first communion, or that sister is getting married,” etc. I was carried off to a camp where I knew no one except for the other “auxiliaries” interned with me, and after two years and more I do not regret the experience even though it has distanced me from you. (Translator’s note: Father Hanquet was a member of the Societe Auxiliaires des Missions, the Society of Missionary Auxiliaries, or SAM.)
Much later I would like to tell you many details about our life during these 30 months, and I think that I will do it best by answering your questions. In any case, I would be able to talk for hours or write books about the lives we led here. But, on the whole, the sum of good memories, good strokes of luck and remarkable adventures overshadows the bad experiences. To help you become acquainted with them I have asked a woman connected with the mines at Kailan, who was returning (to Belgium) with her children to see her mother, to pay you a visit. Madame Brouet, that’s her name, has a sister living in Chaudfontaine. She is not religious and does not hide the fact that she is returning to Belgium to seek a divorce so she can marry an English engineer with whom she has been living in the camp. But that does not affect the fact that she knows much about camp life and that is what will interest you.
So, before leaving this place, I would like to let you know some of the impressions that have come to mind as I sat saying my breviary on this bench from which I am writing you (excuse the corrections). We lived in such a mixture of languages – English, Chinese, French – that I sometimes forget my grammar, even though I taught it for seven or eight hours a day for two years to young Belgians, Britons, Americans and others!
I am seated against the south wall of the camp, formerly topped with electric wire which we carefully destroyed when the Americans arrived (that felt too much like prison). Behind that wall was a double row of barbed wire, some chevaux de frise (spikes) and a trench of three meters completed the penitentiary installations. All these have started to disappear thanks to the dexterity of the Chinese who make off with all wooden things and make money from whatever. Facing me is the hospital, the good hospital of the Presbyterian mission, supported and directed by our nurses and doctors, and which contributed to the maintenance of health among the internees, and the avoidance of epidemics. I never had to be a patient in it; I only made monthly visits to the dentist and occasionally to the doctor. The hospital is a big building in the form of a cross, with a wing for men and women with 15 beds each, an operating room, a pharmacy, etc. The two upper floors were occupied by priests up until two years ago when they were concentrated in their monasteries at Peking, and later by a missionary school from Chefoo which had been transferred here, including the entire staff and all the pupils.
Between the hospital and my bench is a tennis court. I spent many pleasant hours there with young and old to maintain bodily condition and morale. In the summer there were so many players that one had to be adroit to claim the court for more than three hours a week. But speak of the rise and fall of Byzantium – I believe we have not played any real matches since the Americans arrived. We used to have some great tournaments as we had some very good players of which one of the best – from America – was part of the U.S. Davis Cup team at Deauville just before the war.
On my right, between the hospital and the east wall of the camp, there is not a lot of space nor much vegetation, but nevertheless we held many a grand Scout function there and often operated a very profitable “Black Market,” most of all during the first months before the prison-like installations were so redoubtable and well coordinated. As the song lyrics said in the renowned musical revue in which 50 missionary priests went on-stage in shirts and white pants to entertain the public, everything passed over the wall: eggs, honey, sugar, soap, peanut oil and even, at times, pork quarters. In those good old days in our first months here, priests were the main specialists in these matters, due to a mixture of audacity and absence of commercial aspirations. To divide the goods and facilitate accountability in case of loss, each room, involved stored one or two items – some kept tobacco, eggs, sugar, we had the oil and jars of jam and sometimes alcohol as well.
At times the Japanese organized raids. It was amusing to see merchandise in garbage pails or basins covered with towels as though one was going to the showers, being handed out of rear windows and other expedients. The penalty for getting caught was several days of solitary confinement among several of us, a fate that I escaped.
That wall, did we not study it trying to discover its weaknesses? In April last year, it became an obsession, and the monotony of a life of imprisonment led me to the decision to take flight as soon as possible. Alone at first, then with an Englishman and an American and Father Albert de Jaegher, we made various contacts among the Chinese who occasionally entered the camp, and finally all was arranged for the end of May. But, alas, we had a priest, Father Rutherford, appointed by the Apostolic Delegate to have jurisdiction over the other priests for the duration of our imprisonment. At the last minute he got wind of the affair and threatened us with suspension. He said if we carried out our plan there would be reprisals against the Catholic people in the camp. We priests had to heed his warning, but the other two involved in the plan jumped the wall one evening and joined a guerilla band in the area. They stayed in contact with us and sent us news, medicines, etc., and three days after the arrival of the American parachutists they came back to the camp triumphantly, enraging the Japanese who were still guarding the camp (under American supervision). Later on if I have the time I will tell you the story in detail.
On the other side of the hospital, to the
west, I see our house – six rooms at ground level and six rooms above
them plus a veranda. When I say rooms I am talking about a space of 3 meters
by 2.5 meters. Twenty-five of us lived in that house, the priests on the ground
floor and several men above us. As each house or building was required to have
someone in charge, I was given the duty of staying in contact with the authorities
on issues of administration, the cantine, of banking and of roll call twice
a day conducted by the Japanese. South of the house we had cultivated a patch
of land to grow tomatoes, corn and carrots, and especially flowers around the
edges. Because last year was not very fruitful, except for the flowers, and
maintaining and watering the garden required a huge amount of work, this year
I left the plot to some neighbors who were seriously focused on
growing tomatoes, and they didn’t do too badly. As for me, I was more absorbed in teaching classes, so I was satisfied with the arrangement.
And I could go on for hours talking to you about these little details which made up our life here, but that would take too long. What is interesting to note today is the difference between the past and the present. We are still in the camp even though on August 17 six young Americans parachuted down at the risk of their lives to occupy the camp and prepare our liberation. (Later on, ask me to write you about that memorable day!) Transportation difficulties have kept us here. Only one group of 580 left for Tsingtao two weeks ago, and they will be repatriated by ships that are arriving these days. Last night it was announced that the second group would leave on Monday and my group on Wednesday. With the departure of those groups to Peking and Tientsin, involving the 900 remaining internees, the camp will be empty and will be turned over to three Presbyterian missionaries who will stay on.
Two loudspeakers broadcast music four or five hours a day, we have English and American magazines and pictorials available to us, and starting three days ago we have motion pictures every evening. This evening we will have a program consisting of news and films about the war. News also arrives regularly, so we no longer feel isolated. We can leave the camp during daylight hours and go to the town 30 minutes from here.
For the last eight days I have gone out to walk in the countryside, swim in the river, chat with the Chinese peasants and above all to get some air. I am feeling much better now, the food is much better, we have received magnificent bundles from the Americans, arriving in B-29s from Okinawa (various meats, cigarettes, chocolate, impressively packaged biscuits). My departure date is in sight and I feel sure that this camp experience is truly ending and that my return to my mission is near.
Friday, October 12:
China is still China, and all the well-laid plans have been demolished in the space of a few hours! Instead of being in a hotel in Tsingtao, as I expected, I am seated on the same bench from where I wrote last week. What happened? Nothing unusual for those of us who have lived in China for some time. The railroad was destroyed in 17 places the night of Sunday to Monday by the Communists, who form a majority in the province. For 15 days they had ceased their attacks following face-to-face secret contacts, and left the rail-line intact (without having made an agreement, they had implicitly given us a chance to evacuate). But our authorities were too engrossed in preparing the return to Tsingtao and neglected to take account of the guerillas. That cost them dearly, because now the only way to evacuate us is to fly us directly to Peking and Tientsin by airplane. We might have been able to go by train from here to Tsinan and north from there, but the railroad is cut in many places on that route as well. In the end, the American colonel in charge announced just before the motion picture that on Sunday or thereabouts they would start transporting us by air, and that the Peking contingent (we) would be the first to go. Let’s hope that at that time the airfield, which is five kilometers from here, will not have been destroyed by the guerillas.
While we wait we pass the time as best we can. On the 10th, a Chinese holiday, I inspected Chinese troops. As I was by chance the only foreigner present, and I knew several high-ranking officers who came to the camp, I found myself being led away in American uniform (received by air drop from Okinawa) at the side of the general of Tjintao who commands 30,000 men in the region, and who had 2,000 of them passing in review that day. I had to laugh momentarily, but I think I did just as well as an American colonel or captain.
Yesterday some of us spent three hours visiting the small arsenals in town. They make a copy of the Skoda sub-machine guns, rifles to which a bayonet can be attached, grenades, mortars and shells, and it was very interesting to see what they could do with very limited equipment. Two years ago these Chinese troops were stationed in the mountains where they made these same arms, but they had to surrender to the Japanese on finding themselves cornered between the Communists and the Japanese. Since then they were confined to the area and are now awaiting the arrival of the Nationalist troops to rejoin them. That is one of the aspects of the military situation in China.
According to news we have received, the first group of evacuees from this camp, among whom was (Father) Albert Palmers, have left Tsingtao for Europe or America via Shanghai, where Albert will disembark to return to Nanking. An Australian war correspondent who flew in by airplane for a day told us that there was a confrontation in the House of Commons regarding our camp because we were the last to be evacuated. It was interesting to listen to him as he witnessed the occupation of Japan, but the Americans were afraid that he would talk too much, and after a one-day stay they vigorously advised him to return to Tsingtao! That’s a pity, because he was very interesting and he wanted to study at greater depth the issue of China which, he said, is one of the most important.
October 19, 1945
I am finishing this letter in Peking where we arrived by airplane on Tuesday after a trip of two hours. All went very well. Our baggage arrived soon after, and for now we are to be fed by the American army for the next 30 days. As we have also received some clothing and some money, we want for nothing. I am living with the Franciscans among whom I have quite a few friends, but I often go to see Paul Gilson where there are Auxiliaires. I think that I will return to the missions in about two weeks. The railways are not yet very regular and the region is not very calm, but I think I will be able to get there just the same.
My dear mother, on arriving here I received a letter from Albert (Translator’s note: Father Hanquet’s twin brother) and one from Therese (his sister) from the end of October 1944, which gave me enormous pleasure as these letters gave me details of the sorrowful events of which I had received only the bare minimum of news. You know how we had been of one mind and heart in our life’s focus, in our sorrows and in our joys. Let us be even more so now that I am to resume my missionary calling. I long to receive news of you regularly, and I am eager to re-establish contact with everyone.
I will go momentarily to the American Red Cross to try to have them get this letter to Delvaux who is still in Chungking. He will have the means to reach you, as the mail across Russia yields nothing.
I kiss you, dear mother, as well as all my brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters in law, nephews and nieces, all of whom I bless with all my heart.