A Song of Salvation at Weihsien Prison Camp
Mary Taylor Previte
Self-government at Weihsien ruled that every able-bodied person should work. The prisoners did everything—cooked, baked, swabbed latrines. My older sister, Kathleen scrubbed clothes. Jamie pumped long shifts at the water tower and carried garbage. John made coal balls. Before and after school, I mopped my square of floor, mended clothes, stoked the fire, and carried coal dust. Not coal. The Japanese issued only coal dust.
Like every other Weihsien problem, coal dust had its dark side and its bright side. You could take your pick. You could grump yourself miserable about having only coal dust to burn; or, when you were breaking the ice in the water bucket in the morning to wash your face, you could count your blessings that you had anything at all to fuel the stove.
We younger girls made a game of carrying the coal buckets. In a long human chain—girl, bucket, girl, bucket, girl—we hauled the coal dust from the Japanese quarters of the camp back to our dormitory, chanting all the way, “Many hands make light work.” Then, in the biting cold, with frostcracked fingers, we shaped coal balls out of coal dust and clay—two shovels of coal dust, one shovel of clay and a few splashes of water. Grown-ups swapped coalball recipes. Winter sunshine made the coal balls dry enough for burning.
One person in the camp who didn't work at a job was Grandpa Taylor. Almost 80, and the only surviving son of J. Hudson Taylor, he had dwindled away to less than 80 pounds. His cloths bagged around his emaciated frame. “Grandpa Taylor,” people begged him, “let us take in your clothes to make them fit.”
He always smiled, his face haloed with glory: “God is going to bring me out of Weihsien,” he used to say. “And I'm going to fit in these clothes again.” (He was right; he did survive the war and was flown back to England.)
The grown-ups said Grandpa looked as though he had one foot on Earth and the other in heaven. I snuggled up next to him on his bed and ran my little fingers through the crinkly silk of his snow-white beard to feel the cauterized scar on his cheek where a rabid dog had bitten him in his early days in China. Of all the children in the Chefoo School, we Taylors were the only ones to have a grandpa in the camp.
Why do I remember Weihsien with such tender memories?
Say “concentration camp” to most people, and you bring forth visions of gas chambers, death marches, prisoners branded and tattooed like cattle. Auschwitz. Dachau. Bataan.
Weihsien was none of that.
A wash in a cesspool of every kind of misery, Weihsien was nonetheless, for us, a series of daily triumphs—earthy victories over bedbugs and rats and flies. If you have bedbugs, you launch the Battle of the Bedbugs each Saturday. With knife or thumbnail, you attack each seam of your blanket or pillow, killing all the bugs and eggs in your path.
If you run out of school notebooks, you erase and use the old ones again—and again—until you rub holes through the paper.
If you panic at the summer's plague of flies, you organize the schoolchildren into competing teams of fly-killers. My younger brother John—with 3,500 neatly counted flies in his bottle—won the top prize, a can of Rose Mille pate, food sent by the Red Cross.
If you shudder at the rats scampering over you at night, you set up a Rat Catching Competition with concentration camp Pied Pipers clubbing rats, trapping rats, drowning them in basins, throwing them into the bakery fire. Our Chefoo School won that contest, too, with Norman Cliff and his team bringing in 68 dead rats—30 on the last day. Oh, glorious victory! The nearest competitor had only 56.
One, two, three, four, five years I hadn't seen Daddy. I could still hear his voice: “Mary Sweetheart” － he always called me Mary Sweetheart — “there's a saying in our family: A Taylor never says ‘I can't.'”
In the far reaches of my mind, like a needle stuck on a gramophone record, I heard the messages playing:
A Taylor never says “I can't.”
Thou shalt not be afraid…
Somewhere out there, the war dragged on. Midway. Guadalcanal. Eniwetok. Saipan, where more than 40,000 were killed or wounded in one battle. Forty million people would die before the madness ended.
But inside our prison walls, we preserved the wonders of childhood. From the third-floor window of his dormitory, Jamie perched in a hollow tree trunk behind a rain gutter and watched a family of sparrows nesting and raising their young. If he did it right, he could chew up bread saved from Kitchen Number One and get the fledgling sparrows to eat the mush right out of the side of his mouth.
There were also sports. If the food supply is dwindling and starvation is near, should you expend your energy on sports? In other Japanese prison camps in Shanghai and in Hong Kong, doctors advised against games and exercise because prisoners had no energy to spare. But Weihsien was different. Nourishing the spirit was as important as feeding the body. So on any weekend after school, we children played basketball or rounders, hockey or soccer. The man who organized these games was Olympic gold medal winner Eric Liddell—Uncle Eric, we called him. The Flying Scotsman.
Almost everyone in camp had heard of Eric Liddell. The folklore about him seemed almost bigger than life. In later years, the film Chariots of Fire would dramatize the accomplishments of this man who refused to run in the Olympics on Sunday because of his religion. But Uncle Eric wasn't a Big Deal type; he never sought the spotlight. Instead, he made his niche by doing little things other people hardly noticed. You had to do a lot of imagining to think that Liddell had grabbed world headlines almost 20 years earlier, an international star in track and rugby.
When we had a hockey stick that needed mending, Uncle Eric would truss it almost as good as new with strips ripped from his sheets. When the teenagers got bored with the deadening monotony of prison life and turned for relief to the temptations of clandestine sex, he had some missionary teachers organized an evening game room. When the Tientsin boys and girls were struggling with their schoolwork, Uncle Eric coached them in science. And when Kitchen Number One competed in races in the inter-kitchen rivalry, well, who could lose with Eric Liddell on our team?
One snowy February day in 1945, Liddell died of an inoperable brain tumor. The camp was stunned. Through an honor guard of solemn schoolchildren, his friends carried his coffin to the tiny cemetery in the corner of the Japanese quarters. There, a little bit of Scotland was tucked sadly away in Chinese soil.
For a child who used to have to be bribed to eat a bite of food, eating the concentration camp fare was no problem at all. I was hungry! In the early days of the war, we lived no gao liang, the roughest broom corn, or lu dou beans cooked into hot cereal for breakfast, and all the bread we wanted. Lunch was always stew, stew, stew. “S.O.S.,” we called it: Same Old Stew. Supper was more leftover stew—watered down to soup.
Only the stouthearted could work in the butchery with the maggot-ridden carcasses. Plagues of files laid eggs on the meat faster than the team could wipe them off. When the most revolting-looking liver—horribly dark, with a hard, cream-colored edge—arrived with the day's food supplies, the cooks called in our school doctor for a second opinion. Was it fit to eat? Probably an old mule, he guessed. So we ate it.
If you wanted to see the worst in people, you stood and watched the food line, where griping and surliness were a way of life. Hungry prisoners were likely to pounce on the food servers, who were constantly being accused of dishing out more or less than the prescribed half dipper or full dipper of soup. It was a no-win job.
Having been taught self-control, we Chefoo children watched the cat fights with righteous fascination. Shrieking women in the dishwashing queue hurled basins of greasy dishwater at each other. Flights were common. But not among the Chefoo contingent.
Our teachers insisted on good manners. There is no such thing, they said, as one set of manners for the outside world and another set for a concentration camp. You could be eating the most awful-looking glop out of a tin can or a soap dish, but you were to be as refined as the two princesses in Buckingham Palace.
Sit up straight. Don't stuff food in your month. Don't talk with your mouth full. Don't lick your knife. Spoon your soup toward the back of the bowl, not toward the front. Keep your voice down. Don't complain.
Food supplies dwindled as the war dragged on. If you wanted to be optimistic, you could guess that the Allies were winning and that you were going hungry because the Japanese weren't about to share their army's dwindling food with Allied prisoners. Grown men shrank to 100 pounds. But our teachers shielded us from the debates among the camp cynics over which would come first, starvation or liberation.
By 1944, American B-29 Superfortresses from bases in Calcutta, China and the Marianas were bombing Japan. There were many meatless days. When even the gao liang and lu dou beans ran out, the cooks invented bread porridge. They soaked stale bread overnight, squeezed out the water and mixed up the mush with several pounds of flour seasoned with cinnamon and saccharin. Only our hunger made it edible.
An average man needs about 4,800 calories a day to fuel heavy labor, about 3,600 calories for ordinary work. Camp doctors guessed that the daily food ration for men in our camp was down to 1,200 calories. Although no one said so out loud, the prisoners were slowly starving. The signs were obvious—emaciation, exhaustion, apathy. Some prisoners had lost more than 100 pounds. Children had teeth growing in without enamel. Adolescent girls were growing up without menstruating.
That's when our teachers discovered egg shell as a calcium supplement to our dwindling diet. On the advice of the camp doctors, they washed and baked and ground the shells into a gritty powder and spooned it into our spluttering mouths each day in the dormitory. We gagged and choked and exhaled, hoping the grit would blow away before we had to swallow. But it never did. So we gnashed our teeth on the powdered shells—pure calcium.
Still, there was a gentleness about these steely teachers. On my birthday, my teacher created a celebration—with an apple—just for me. The apple itself wasn't so important as the delicious feeling that I had a “mother” all to myself in a private celebration—just my teacher and me—behind the hospital.
In the cutting of wondrously thin, translucent apple circles, she showed me that I could find the shape of an apple blossom. It was pure magic. On a tiny tin-can stove fueled by twigs, she fried the apple slices for me in a moment of wonder. Even now, after 40 years, I still look for the apple blossom hidden in apple circles. No birthday cake has ever inspired such joy.
It was a lasting gift these teachers gave us, preserving our childhood in the midst of bloody war. But if we children filled our days with childish delights, our older brothers and sisters had typically adolescent worries: college, job, marriage. Kathleen, quite head-over-heels in love by now, was sporting a lovely page-boy coif with a poof of hair piled modishly over her forehead.
“God has forgotten all about us,” one of her friends moaned one day. “We're never going to get out of here. And we're never going to get husbands.” With malnutrition slowing down my hormones, no such foolishness entered my mind.