Survival Lesson from Dutch East Indies, 1942: Taking Care of Yourself

Dutch East Indies family at dinner 1936

Several years ago I heard a radio documentary about a group of women who had survived a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia during World War II. In 1942 Japan had conquered Dutch East Indies, as it was then known, and had rounded up the couple of hundred thousand foreign workers and families. The majority were Dutch, but there were many thousands of British, Americans, and Australians, too. The men were put into camps separate from those of the women and children. The conditions in all the camps were brutal. Tens of thousands died from disease and starvation. One Dutch woman recounted how she was looked down upon by the other women in her group because she did not give some of her food ration to her children (who had their own meagre rations). The other women gave sometimes as much as half of their own rations to their children. Since everyone was starving, the women saw their actions as selfless, and the actions of this Dutch woman as selfish. She firmly disagreed. “You must take care of yourself,” she said in the documentary. “If not, how can you take care of your children?” Many of the other women died of starvation, leaving their children who survived to be cared by others. I never forgot the determined way she spoke, nor the simple lesson of the importance of taking care of yourself.

Stepping Back

After months of writing about genocide, war, violence, and morally corrupt politicians, I was feeling overwhelmed by negativity. Every day reports on the radio and television, in newspapers, and online brought more terrible news. Then came the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and I had to stop. I stopped researching, stopped writing, and stopped paying attention to the 24-hour news cycle. I needed to rest. My mind needed rest. I needed to take care of myself.

A wise Jewish scholar of the first Century, Hillel the Elder, is famous for saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” One must be both selfless and for the self to be a well-rounded human being, but it’s a question of balance. We all strive for balance in our lives—between work, volunteering, family, friends, entertainment, enlightenment, and mental, emotional, physical and spiritual enrichment. When the balance is out of whack, it’s time to stop, rest, and reconfigure.

So, starting now and continuing for the summer, my goal for my blog is to reduce the number of posts to perhaps once a week, and focus on positivity. We’ll see how it goes.

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Photo of Dutch family enjoying a large rijsttafel dinner in 1936 courtesy of Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Rijsttafel is a meal of many side dishes served in small portions, accompanied by rice prepared in several ways.

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