Nienhuys, Janna

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Nienhuys, Janna

"Dutch Nurse of Sumatra" who was captured during World War II and interned in a Japanese concentration camp. Born in the Netherlands; attended high school in the town of Haarlem; attended the Sorbonne in Paris for one year; received R.N from Binnen Gasthuis, Amsterdam; married Hendrick Nienhuys (an agricultural consultant), around 1937; children: two daughters, Marieke and Caroline.

Janna Nienhuys was one of over 100,000 nurses of World War II who cared for the sick and injured in enemy-occupied villages, in prisoner-of-war hospitals, and in internment and concentration camps in war-torn countries. Called the "Dutch Nurse of Sumatra," Nienhuys saved the lives of many women and children in the Sumatran internment camps, where she and her two young daughters were also prisoners for three years.

Nienhuys was raised in the Dutch town of Haarlem, where she met and fell in love with her future husband Hendrick Nienhuys, the grandson of Jacobus Nienhuys, the founder of the Dutch Sumatra tobacco industry. They planned to marry and settle in Sumatra, where Hendrick intended to follow in his grandfather's profession. While Janna waited for Hendrick to finish his advanced agricultural studies and to serve in the Dutch military, she studied for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, then returned home to attend teachers' college. Thinking that she might face some medical problems in the tropical climate of the East Indies, she impulsively enrolled for nurses' training and after three years earned an R.N. from the Binnen Gasthuis in Amsterdam.

Janna and Hendrick finally married in 1937, and immediately left for Sumatra, settling on a tobacco plantation outside of Medan, where Hendrick was employed as an agricultural consultant. Their first house was primitive, without electricity or running water, but they had five dedicated Sumatran servants to take care of their every need. The couple had a daughter and enjoyed an idyllic life until 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Initial concern gave way to true alarm in April 1940, when Rotterdam was bombed, and the Nienhuyses realized that they were cut off from Holland entirely. In 1941, they traveled to the United States to visited Hendrick's parents, who had fled there from occupied Holland. When they returned, they took up residence in a more modern house in Medan. By that time, it was clear that Sumatra would figure highly in Japan's quest for territory, and to prepare for possible invasion, the Dutch women of Medan organized a Civil Defense Corps for which Janna, who had just given birth to her second daughter, taught a first-aid course.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Netherlands East Indies declared war on Japan, Hendrick left his wife and children to fight for Sumatra. Meanwhile, Janna, the only trained nurse in the area, continued her Civil Defense work, readying the women of Medan for what appeared to be inevitable attack. They had their first hands-on experience in the wake of a Japanese air raid, during which a number of young Sumatran soldiers were injured. They performed magnificently, treating the wounded and keeping them comfortable until the Red Cross arrived to transport them to the hospital.

The small armies of the Dutch East Indies were helpless against the invasion of the Japanese, and on March 11, 1942, Janna was confronted by several Japanese soldiers stealing supplies from her kitchen larder. Days later, several officers entered her house without knocking and ordered her to pack her things and move out. Janna collected what household supplies she could carry and with her young children took refuge in the house of a friend. A month later, the entire town—now only women and children—was rounded up in the town square and then taken to a deserted rubber plantation, where they were interned under Japanese guard.

Placed in dozens of small houses originally built for Sumatran workers, the women and children lived six to each 9×9 room. They slept on the floor, and the able-bodied chopped trees and cleared land for planting, under the careful watch of their Japanese guards. Food, though scarce, was adequate for the adults, but not for the children, although the Sumatran women were expert at utilizing native plants for spices to enhance the bland food. Nienhuys quickly assumed the position of camp nurse, using what few medical supplies she had thought to pack with her household goods. She treated cuts and scrapes, tended to the malnourished children, and even delivered the babies of women who had conceived before their internment. Without a doctor to consult, she frequently relied on intuition and common sense, which worked in most instances, although a number of the younger children died during their first year in camp.

By the end of the first year, food rations were cut and hunger became an ever-present problem, and Janna feared more and more for her own children. She also knew nothing of her husband's plight, as news from the outside never reached the camp. The women were eventually ordered to pack up and once again march to the train, which transported them deep into the jungle. They were then marched through the rain and thick mud to yet another converted rubber plantation, surrounded by barbed wire. This time, they were housed in long wooden barracks with earth floors and wooden benches along the sides, providing them with no privacy. Sanitation was primitive and as the level of the wells sank, water was rationed. What food was available was inedible, and Janna was eventually forced to trade the treasured diamond she had hidden in one of the children's rag dolls for a single cup of rice. She continued to tend the sick and injured, although she was now completely out of supplies and there was little she could do but make her patients comfortable and see to it that they did not die alone.

In August 1945, the women first heard through the camp grapevine that the war had ended. The truth of the rumor became clear when British planes flying overhead dropped food parcels by parachute. British doctors also arrived in camp, bringing supplies and medicines. The Japanese provided the women with lists of prisoners who had died in captivity, and Nienhuys was relieved each time her husband's name was not included. One day in September, she was brought a note in her husband's handwriting. "Where are you?" it read. Janna scribbled a reply, hoping it would reach him, but there was never an answer.

The women prisoners were not immediately released, as the English occupation army had to arrange transportation and a place for them to stay. They left camp in small groups, but Janna stayed on to tend the sick until the camp was emptied. Finally, she was free to go and was thankfully reunited with Hendrick, who had also been taken prisoner soon after the Japanese invasion of Sumatra. He had contacted beriberi in captivity, and was very ill. Over the next several months, Nienhuys performed her final wartime duty, nursing her husband back to health.


McKown, Robin. Heroic Nurses. NY: Putnam, 1966.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts