For a few weeks already, sometime near the end of the year 1943,
we learned of the imminent arrival of a new group of prisoners without exactly
knowing their precise identity.
The Japanese had to make space for them, and to do so, they had already emptied all the rooms (bloc-43) situated alongside the North wall, not very far away from the guardroom near the entrance as well as near a more important bloc, n°44 and kitchen number III. The whole zone thus delimited was already secured by interior brick walls and the only thing left to do, was the making of two doors to lock the access, a job quickly done by the Japanese.
We found out, soon enough, that the scheduled arrivals into our compound, would be a group of a hundred Italians from Shanghai.
We must remember that in those days, the Italians had surrendered in Europe and that they were no more part of the Axis. Moreover, their economic interests in Shanghai were enormous (the real-estate business, navigation companies, banks etc.) and by interning the Italian company directors and owners, the Japanese could take over all those interests for themselves in the name of their Emperor, Hiro-Hito.
The great dilemma for us, was ; what behaviour would we choose to have regarding our new neighbours and we must also admit to say : our “enemies”.
We were already behind the walls for 9 months now, and it was important, we thought, to make no difference between ourselves because they were prisoners, just as we were.
Therefore, it was not long until we made our decision to welcome them and help them to settle down into their new quarters. As soon as evening came, that day, Father Palmers and I jumped over the wall (which wasn’t as high as the camp’s boundary walls) and made our first contacts with the eldest of them. That is how we met with the Tavella. He was an important banker in Shanghai and his wife was of American birth, the Gervasi family of whom the wife was of Belgian origin, the Rocco, with their three or four children and a few other families as well.
All those people had been accustomed to easy life with Chinese domestic personnel, and seemed to be completely helpless about their present situation. We tried to help them the best we could with all the experience we had as “elderly” prisoners and built for the Travella family, the same evening, a little brick stove just outside their prison cell so they could begin cooking their ample provisions of canned food they brought with them in their luggage. The first item to benefit of the brick stove, on the second evening, was a tin of Maxwell grinded coffee. They insisted in making us taste the good coffee they had brought over with them. As we hadn’t drank coffee since the beginning of our imprisonment in Weihsien, we had become very vulnerable to caffeine and that is why we didn’t sleep at all that night after returning to our lodgings in block-56.
A few weeks passed, and permission was finally granted by the Japanese Commandant to open the two doors communicating with the rest of the compound. The Italian prisoners were so grateful of what we had done for them, that, after the war had ended, we received a letter from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thanking us for what we had done. .
Louvain-La-Neuve, January, 6th 2003