Song of Survival

Reprint from KUSP REVIEW, vol.4, no.5 (Dec. 1983)

by Roger Emanuels

A reunion of World War II concentration camp survivors might seem like a dreary confrontation with painful memories. But for the nine women who gathered together in Palo Alto in May, 1983, it was a joyous occasion on which they celebrated a forty-year message that, through music, hope can emerge from despair.

The survivors had been among the 100,000 Dutch, Australians, and Britons who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra by the Japanese military. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan occupied this and other islands of the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. Many of the prisoners had been trying to flee the area by ship, but a heavy air attack forced them to life boats. Those who rode out the many hours at sea were to face capture and internment. Malnutrition, tropical diseases, and harsh treatment took a large toll among the prisoners. Living conditions were miserable and humiliating, and those who survived to bury their dead endured three and a half years of isolation from any contact outside their meager compound on an island only 270 miles wide and 1100 miles long.

The nine women who met in Palo Alto this year travelled for this occasion from their homes in Australia, Java, Holland, Britain and the United States. They had spent over three years together at Palembang, an internment camp on the south east corner of Sumatra. Palembang was one of many camps on the island and held 600 women and children. Many were missionaries, nuns, teachers and nurses. Others were wives of colonial government officials and businessmen. All of them tried very hard to maintain their health, dignity, and will to live. All fought constant boredom and isolation. They sang songs and hymns. Language differences, however, prevented any singing together of Dutch and British women. 

Margaret Dryburgh was a Presbyterian missionary who helped her fellow prisoners maintain their hope. Aided by a gifted musical memory, this unique woman recalled masterpieces of European music she had heard or learned in her youth. She then proceeded to write down entire compositions from well-known orchestra and piano literature. Not just the main themes were jotted down on scraps of paper but also the inner voices and accompaniment lines were notated in precise detail, often in the original key. She worked in collaboration with another prisoner, Norah Chambers, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Together they carefully arranged the recalled music for four-part "vocal orchestra." Norah Chambers then began to rehearse a chorus of thirty women in the camp. In the hot, steamy tropical climate, these thirty undernourished prisoners clung to the one contact they had with their past culture and identity: music of Dvorák, Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, and many others.

Rehearsals were difficult. With no words to sing, it was necessary for each of the four sections of the chorus to rehearse separately. Learning a first alto part from the Pastoral Symphony of Handel's Messiah probably seemed as tedious as the camp chores. "Many of the women were not really good singers," says Helen Colijn, a survivor of Palembang who now lives in Menlo Park, California. "Neither was anyone ever barred for not being able to sing. If you wanted to sing, you sang."

The vocal orchestra presented its first concert on December 27, 1943. Helen Colijn was among the audience and recalls the occasion: "Everyone knew there was going to be a concert, but no one knew what the program would be. I was in the audience, and I was part of this tremendous feeling of excitement. Our life was so dreary and so dull, that when there was a concert, and particularly this one which we knew was something special, we dressed up for it. Now, dressing up in our camp meant not much more than putting on lipstick, or borrowing lipstick from a friend.

"Here we were, all sitting around together in the compound, waiting for the chorus to enter. The chorus comes in, all thirty of them with their stools to sit on, as it is too tiring to stand and sing. Norah Chambers, the conductor, lifts her hands and starts, and we hear the beginning of [Dvorák's] Largo [from the New World Symphony]. Well this was something so unexpected, and then it goes on, and finally you get these marvelous crescendos. By that time we were all - not in tears, we didn't cry very easily - but we all felt shivers.

"We had several more concerts after that. And each time again it seemed a miracle, that among those cockroaches and rats, and the bedbugs and the dysentery, the smells of the latrines, that there could be that much beauty, that women's voices could actually do this, and bring this to this horrid camp."

The concerts continued throughout 1944 and into early 1945. By this time over half of the chorus had died, and the chorus ceased to function. Margaret Dryburgh, who had provided so much to those around her, was also buried next to her sisters in the waning months of the war.

Helen Colijn's sister Antoinette was a soprano in the chorus and now lives in Washington, D.C. She had saved her music, but was concerned about its fragile condition. She reached an agreement with Stanford University to donate the music to the Music Library, where the pages were treated with preservatives and stored in air-tight conditions. The Library's Archive of Recorded Sound also requested a recording of a performance of the music to put in their collection.

The natural resource to produce a performance was the Peninsula Women's Chorus, based in Palo Alto since 1965. Conductor Patricia Hennings claims her initial cautious reaction soon gave way to enthusiasm for the project. "At first I thought 'this sounds like an intriguing idea, and interesting story, but it can't possibly be any good.' I was absolutely astounded to find a collection of thirty pieces that were so well-balanced, well-written, well-arranged. Not only did Margaret Dryburgh know the pieces intimately, she remembered harmonies, melodies, counter melodies, bass lines, rhythms. Not only could she do that, but she knew something about voices, and could make the transition from what is basically instrumental or piano idea, to women's voices, and make it work."

A commemorative concert was performed by the Peninsula Women's Chorus at Stanford University on March 10,1982. Public response was so overwhelming that it was decided to prepare a concert for the next season and invite survivors of the original chorus as guests of honor. As the closing work on that May, 1983 concert, the survivors were invited to join the Chorus and sing together the Captives Hymn, written by Margaret Dryburgh in 1942 while interned at Palembang.

© 2001 Roger Emanuels


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