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Reviving Bitter Memories

October 25, 1987

Regarding "Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices" by Betty Cuniberti, Oct. 4: The Japanese-Americans interned during World War II were indeed unfair victims of the war. There were also thousands of unfair victims of the war in many other countries, put into prisons by Japanese occupiers, civilians of nations not at war with Japan.

Although Japanese-Americans were interned, the camps they were housed in were not primitive and they were not starved. Their children had food, were allowed to attend schools and religious services, and had medical and dental health service.

This was not the case with the civilians who were imprisoned by the Japanese in Singapore and Java. Families were rounded up in a similar fashion as were Japanese-Americans. But that is where the similarity ended. Our families were split up--fathers in one camp, mothers and daughters in another, and boys over a certain height in another camp still.

We were moved from camp to camp, where conditions grew progressively worse. Grogol camp in Java was an asylum. Tangerang was a jail, where we were housed two layers high in about 48-inch-wide spaces on roll-up mattresses, and had to crawl along the length of the upper edge to get down via a ladder on the end. Toilet facilities consisted of a cement slab on each side of a hole in the ground. Adek camp consisted of flea-riddled bamboo barracks.

The medical world marveled at how any of us survived on the deficient diet we were on for 3 1/2 years: no milk, eggs, bread, fruit, meat. A lot of people did die of starvation. Our family was lucky--my father survived the sinking of his merchant ship and being shelled in his lifeboat by the Japanese, prior to internment where he nearly died of beriberi; my brothers recovered from dysentery--one of my brothers broke his arm throwing a tennis ball, the result of calcium deficiency, three months after we came out of camp.

It is all long ago. But my indignation about the possibility of these Japanese-Americans receiving restitution brings back bitter memories. In a war any person can become an enemy. The Japanese invaded countries and imprisoned families of nationalities who were not at war with Japan. No apology was made by Japan. We had to Kiotsuke, Keiray (attention, bow) twice a day before the Japanese and anyone who did not comply was beaten. The Americans liberated us. The Red Cross supplied us with clothing and enabled us to return to our respective countries. The prisoners, dispersed all over the world, are not organized and have no photographs of the camps. Bygones are bygones, and after so many years one is willing to forgive, but that is hard when the past is brought back to the present in this matter of restitution for the Japanese-Americans.

JOHANNE E. M. ZELL

Los Angeles

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