Life in the Weihsien internment camp, 1943
I was recently looking for something in Against All Odds: Sisters of Providence Mission to the Chinese (a great book by Sister Ann Colette Wolf) and in the process got quite distracted by “Chapter Seven: Internment.” It tells, in nicely sourced detail, its underlying story of 10 Sisters of Providence and their time as “civilian enemy nationals” in a Japanese internment camp 70 years ago this spring. It’s a story of challenge and heartache, war and humanity. It is also full of the whimsy and hilarity that only such situations can bring about.
The set-up is this:
The SP missionaries have been having a hard go of it for a while. They were running a school in Kaifeng, which would be enough to handle on its own, but after Japan invaded China in 1937, the sisters found themselves dealing with bombings, wounded soldiers and citizens, and general misfortune. Then, the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and war was declared with the U.S. in 1941, Japanese soldiers had rounded up all the American-born sisters and shipped them away to various bouts of house arrests and exile.
Now it’s 1943 and the sisters are being taken to an internment camp called Weihsien, in a former Presbyterian mission compound. They arrive at the Weihsien compound at 4:30 p.m. on March 23, 1943, and are put in a wing with other religious types who had been in China for various reasons: Mongolian bishops, Dutch nuns, Belgian priests, Australian monks… Everyone is assigned chores. The men keep the kitchen and boiler fires running, pump all the necessary water, cart things around and do all sorts of digging and carpentry and electrical work. The women make all the vegetables, act as nurses, and make powdered calcium from egg shells. Everyone does laundry.
It doesn’t sound fun at all yet, right? But here’s the part where the story picks up.
The black market emerges
This batch of internees starts getting used to the camp and wanting new ways to fill their free time, so the priests start offering classes in theology, philosophy and Scripture. Everyone agrees this is actually a nice luxury, since usually mission work doesn’t allow much time for study of this sort.
Then the internees realize that outside the high wall of the camp, the brave local Chinese merchants are willing to make some covert money selling supplies like eggs, sugar, peanuts, and honey. A sneaky, nobody-tell-the-Japanese black market starts to spring up. I’ll let Sister Ann Colette take it from here:
“Those who were adventurous enough to deal in the black market took orders and the money for the goods during the day. The next day, orders were delivered all sorts of ways — in buckets (as if carrying water from the well), or wrapped up in a bundle of clothing, or in other clandestine ways. … Regularly every night [Father Patrick] Scanlan bargained in rapid Chinese for hundreds of Chinese dollars’ worth of merchandise. Scanlan’s trusty accomplices were four Divine Word priests whose room was separated from the Trappists’ by only a narrow passageway. Stones thrown into the passageway alerted the Divine Word priests to get the merchandise. Scanlan and another Trappist received the goods and passed them through windows into the room of Divine Word Father Joseph Fontana.
“If a guard happened along, two Trappist friends down the line would begin a Gregorian Chant. At this signal the ‘egg monk’ would quickly cover the eggs with his long monk’s robe.”
“Another Trappist monk had a seemingly foolproof method of receiving eggs undetected. In an obscure corner of the wall about a foot above the ground he had pried loose a few bricks, creating a small hole through which eggs and money were passed. If a guard happened along, two Trappist friends down the line would begin a Gregorian Chant. At this signal the ‘egg monk’ would quickly cover the eggs with his long monk’s robe, and in kneeling position be deep in prayer by the time the guard reached him.” (p. 177)
(I LOVE this story. I would totally watch this movie.)
Later Father Scanlan gets caught and put in solitary confinement near the Japanese officers’ quarters. As a Trappist monk, “solitary confinement” is almost a vacation from the drudgery, but he knows his skills in the black market trade are helpful to the others. So this is how he responds:
“About the sixth night after Scanlan was imprisoned, he arose at 2 a.m. and began chanting the morning Prayer in a very loud voice. One of the Japanese officials got up and told him to stop chanting because he was disturbing him. But Scanlan told him the monks always chant their morning Prayer at 2 a.m. (the truth) and he had to do it.”
Scanlan ends up being so annoying that the guards let him out a whole week early.
Set in a day-to-day routine, they all start having baseball games against other wings of the camp. The Catholic priests team up to be the Padres and are soon proven to be unstoppable. Says Sister Ann Colette: “Some of the men on the Camp team said it wasn’t fair; the Padres had to be professionals. The Padres really laughed at that. … Other members of the Camp team said the Padres always won because the sisters were praying for them.” (p. 180)
Every two weeks a formal concert is organized by the music committee. (Because of course they formed a music committee in an internment camp. You can’t keep religious men and women away from their great love of committees.) They don’t skimp on these concerts, either — the selections include “The Crucifixion, Tschaikovsky’s Concert in B Flat Minor, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, taught to a chorus of about one hundred singers and orchestrated by Sister Ursuline from Kaifeng.”
I don’t mean to minimize their pain or the war. It was hard and awful in Weihsien. The surrounding Chinese poor fared even worse — the food-sneaking incident that landed Fr. Scanlon in solitary also resulted in the summary execution of the Chinese farmers involved. The sisters were obviously grateful when they finally were able to leave the camp five months later.
But I think of what Mother Theodore once wrote: “So true it is that misfortune binds hearts together.” What never ceased to be a great misfortune for these sisters was still, nonetheless, a great binder of hearts too. It’s a classic Sisters of Providence move — they took something rather awful and made the best of it, determined to be love, mercy and justice in the world anyway.