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... first letter home ...

Translation of letter from
Father deJaegher, by Norman Cliff ...

Peking, Christmas 1945,

Dear Y, F and E, A and his wife, A and tt,

I’m taking advantage of this occasion to send news of myself and also a few photographs taken in Weihsien, after our liberation by the Americans. Also a Chinese friend had my picture taken by a photographer from Peking, but I don’t know if I’ll receive this photo before posting my letter. These photos will show you that we haven’t become too thin in Weihsien concentration camp.

I’d like to tell you about our life in camp in more detail, and of course I would have liked to tell you about all this face-to-face!

RELIGIOUS LIFE. There were 1,500 internees of 13 nationalities (mainly British and Americans). There were 300 Catholics; and 10 priests remained behind in the camp - 2 American Franciscans, 6 Auxiliaries, 1 Belgian Benedictine, and a Belgian Jesuit. Also there were 6 American sisters. 25 people, Protestants were baptised in camp. I would like to tell you one day about the conversion of Miss Mary Brayne, an English missionary of the China Inland Mission, whom I had the honour of instructing and receiving into the Holy Roman Church.

Church services went very successfully in the church, which also served as school, conference room, theatre etc. We preached in turn, in English for both Sunday High Mass and Children's Communion. It was a good chance to practise English and at the same time doing our apostolic work! Every morning we said Mass, three priests in the two rooms which the sisters occupied the others in a very small room which served as a chapel, and where we kept the holy sacraments.

We had very little wine for Mass, and we managed to say 100 Masses with a single wine bottle. We had to use a spoonful of wine and water, both taken with a dropper.

We had an American school run by the sisters, which amounted to being a Catholic school.

EDUCATION. Many of us led in courses of study. For myself, I had 12 hours a week ― Chinese, French, Religious classes! Education for children as well as adults, as we had a good educational course for adults.

ORGANISATION. The camp was under the control of the Japanese Consular authorities, helped militarily by Consular police and the Japanese Army. But we organised ourselves into committees elected by the internees. The Committee of Nine covered Education, Discipline, Labour, Engineering, Recreation, Accommodation, Medical, Supplies and Finance. Every six months we appointed new personnel. All delicate matters which arose were negotiated between the committees and the Japanese. Weihsien became a model concentration camp. From this point of view we were better off than the other camps. This was due to the close collaboration between the internees and the camp committee. The Japanese did not dare put too much pressure on us for fear of possible trouble.

FOOD. At the beginning food was sufficient, though for the laity it was hard, as they were used to an easy life in the Far East with numerous servants and all the modern facilities. But in Weihsien there were very cramped rooms and simple food. We who were used to being in far away inland missions, we found ourselves better off! The food diminished as the war dragged on. In the spring of this year (1945) we had two slices of bread in hot water for breakfast, two slices at midday with thin vegetable soup and two slices in the evening with still thinner soup. Fortunately we received some packages from the American Red Cross, one package each at the beginning of this year, and after the Japanese surrender we received plentiful supplies by B29 aeroplanes.

ACCOMMODATION. We were five in a small room – Michel Keymolen, Manu Hanquet, Albert Palmers, Herman Unden and myself. We sat on our beds which served as benches. We also had some furniture which we rescued at the beginning of camp from the homes later occupied by the Japanese.

From the beginning of camp life I could have escaped. Bishop Yu Pui, from Chungking, had asked me to take over the work of P. Lebbe. But it was impossible to leave from An Kwo because I was hemmed in by the Japanese police force. (Between ourselves, for seven years I had been a voluntary worker for China's Secret Services). One could always escape from a concentration camp.

Unfortunately for me some Apostolic Delegates worked hard to arrange for the transfer to Peking of all the bishops and priests interned in Weihsien (there were six bishops, 400 priests and 200 nuns). If I had escaped at the beginning of internment, this would have been easy but the Delegation would then have been furious, if my escape had caused the failure of their plans.

I waited until the end of the month of August 1943 when the bishops and priests, after six months in Weihsien, returned to Peking to be interned in the premises of their respective religious orders. They were not to live at the expense of the Japanese government but at the expense of the churches. But we in the SAM, being priests under Chinese bishops, could not expect to receive financial support in an exterior Peking concentration compound. So we wrote to the Delegate, saying that if the Pope couldn’t financially help us out, we couldn’t very well oblige the Chinese Bishops to pay, they were far too poor.

Here at Weihsien from the very beginning I was in touch with many Chinese. I was put in charge of all the toilets in the camp! My official title sounded very dignified ― I was "Superior of the Sanitary Patrols of Weihsien Camp" ― a task no one else wanted to do!

Through this arrangement I was able to establish and maintain contact with people outside the camp. I received letters, newspapers, Chinese books, thanks to very original means that would take too much time to narrate in detail. For the entire duration of camp life I sent letters to my mission - i.e. Chinese letters inside Chinese envelopes. These got through the censorship to the local post office. As the town of Weihsien had only 300,000 inhabitants the Japanese were unable to censor all the letters. Thus my letters and those of my friends went out by this means.

I had to use various methods for posting the letters ― in the padded pants of the Chinese, in welded boxes which we placed in the buckets of the cesspools, attached to bricks which we threw over the wall when a Chinese was waiting.

In all these contacts with the Chinese, after six months I succeeded in making contact with officials of the Secret Service in Chongking, and they in turn put me into contact with their troops who were operating in the Weihsien area.

At first these officials wanted to transfer the entire camp by air to Chongking. But in view of the large number of women, elderly people, the sick and minors the project had to be abandoned. I proposed sending a delegation to Chongking of which I would be a member.

I discussed with Lawrence Tipton, an English friend of mine, a plan of escape from the camp. It involved many factors that took many months to overcome. I prepared my luggage and Emmanuel Hanquet prepared his with a view to accompanying us.

One day when my haversack was packed and on my bed Fr. Nicolas Wenders saw it and wondered what it was all about. The other room mates said that I was soon planning an escape. Frightened, Fr. Wenders told Fr. Rutherford, senior priest in the camp. He was an American Franciscan who had been given authority by the Apostolic Delegate to be the senior priest. He was also Vicar General of Chefso in his mission of Pepso, and Weihsien was situated in this diocese.

Fr. Rutherford was equally concerned and forbade me as well as Father Hanquet to escape, under threat of priestly suspension. This was one of my greatest acts of self-sacrifice, and even now I bitterly regret having lost such an opportunity. Sometimes it is difficult to obey the Church. Arthur Hummel, a young American, took my place. He had made no preparations to take such a journey, but he was happy to be offered the opportunity.

With other friends I helped them to get over the wall and through the electric wires surrounding the camp. The escape from the camp area was a great success. The Chinese contacts led them to the quarters of the Chongking Guerrilla troops who were working in the Shandong area. After a brief gap I got into touch with them, and from then up to the end of internment we stayed in touch, using a secret code on silk fabric which the Chinese carried in their mouths, as they were closely watched by the Japanese.

Tipton and Hummel gave good service to the camp, sending medicines which had been parachuted down and taken secretly to the Catholic mission in Weihsien, where the Swiss Consul lived when he was visiting the camp. He then brought the medicines officially to the camp in the name of the Red Cross. They rendered other services to the camp, and when the Japanese surrendered Tipton and Hummel returned to the camp accompanied by the Chongking troops.

We gave a big banquet to the Chinese who had helped us in our communicites, and I gave them funds in the name of the central government and a large photo to each as a souvenir.

After the arrival of the Americans I was made the leading interpreter, then chief of the Intelligent Services of the camp. This dealt with matters relating to the American authorities, the Chinese and the Japanese. For two months before leaving Weihsien for Peking I held this interesting post, and received gifts from the Americans and Chinese in recognition of services rendered. I am bringing back two beautiful parachutes for An Kuo and other various gifts from the Chinese.

From the moment I returned to Peking, on October 16, I have been busy trying to obtain compensation for our completely demolished mission, still being occupied by the communists. Monseigneur Wang wrote saying that I shouldn't go back to Bi Kwu, there wouldn't be anything to do there, as the Bishop's residence had been looted twice by the Japanese, and is now occupied by the Reds.

Here in Peking I've also worked for the Social Welfare paper "I Che Pao" that Monseigneur Wang will edit in 9 important cities of China. "I Che Pao" is already published in Chungking, Si An, Peking and Tientsin. I've also helped various Catholic associations. I preached during our brethen's 8 day retreat in Ts'wigho, and have come back yesterday from (....? ), 19 hours by railway for 350 lis (175kms.) where I had to go to the vicariate for business affairs.

In Peking I've had the pleasure of meeting several important persons from Chunking: twice for business the general representing the Generalissimo in the North of China; once, General Shang Chen, head-chief of staff of the Chinese army; once, for an hour, Chang Kiai Che's secretary: Mr. Shun Chung Huan; another time during 3 hours Mr. Tai Ly, chief of all the secret services in China; and also many times the Chief Organizer of North China, Mr. Ma Han San.

Finally on December 17 I've had the great priviledge of receiving an invitation to see the Generalissimo. He met me personnally, accompanied by his secretary, and we had an interesting conversation lasting a quarter of an hour. He came to Peking for only five days, and it was his first visit in ten years. Also it was the first time he left Free China to come to a region that had been occupied by the Japanese. Just to say that it was a great honor to have been received by him.

The Generalissimo made an excellent impression, and with such a man China will go far -- provided that he may live yet some years more.

Later, if ever we meet again, I'd love to tell you more of so many interesting things.

Since I left camp, affectionate tokens of friendship shown by our Christians, friends, etc...are very touching, also I received important sums of money, presents of all kinds, and endless invitations to lunch and dinner, all this though life has become very costly! I've just received some photos as a present from a Chinese friend. I hope that later on I'll have the pleasure of receiving photographs of you.

I would have liked to write a long letter to Abbé Boland but have had no time, so if you can, please pass on this letter to the vicar.

I pray for you often. Pray for me and for our beloved China, may she be strengthened by this present crisis.

Love from Raymond.