real life

Jan handed her daughter a notebook before she boarded a plane. It contained a 50-year secret.

Jan Ruff O’Herne’s two daughters always found it peculiar how much their mother hated flowers.

“Don’t get me flowers,” she’d say before Mother’s Day or her birthday. “They’re such a waste of money.”

Eileen Mitton, Jan’s eldest daughter, reflected on her mother’s disdain for flowers in an episode of ABC’s Australian Story in 2007. In retrospect, she would come to understand why her mother, who she knew had been a prisoner of war, could not stand the sight of them.

They reminded her of the first night she was raped.

The Japanese had denied Jan her name, along with all the other women. Instead, they’d come to be known as different types of flowers – perhaps just another step in the dehumanisation of women whose entire identity had been reduced to a sexual repository.

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Ruby Challenger calls her grandmother Jan a ‘strong woman’.

“She’s the most wonderful woman you’ve ever met, but tough. She’s incredibly creative… always doing something. And her faith is incredibly important to her,” Ruby told Mamamia. 

When Ruby’s mother, Carol, was in her 40s, and preparing to board a plane to Alice Springs, her own mother Jan gave her a handwritten notebook.

The situation was a little unusual. Carol would not be gone for long and, along with her sister Eileen, was close to her mother Jan. She didn’t know a great deal about her mother’s past except that she had been a prisoner of some sort during World War II. Her mother didn’t talk about it much.

For the entire journey to Alice Springs, Carol did not stop crying.

“The air hostesses were asking what’s wrong,” Ruby said. Her mother was inconsolable.

“How can you tell your daughters, you know?” Jan would later say on Australian Story. “I mean, the shame, the shame was still so great. I knew I had to tell them but I couldn’t tell them face to face… so I decided to write it down.”

Ruby was five years old when the full extent of her grandmother’s wartime experiences were shared. In December 1992, the same year she told her friends and family for the first time, Jan attended the International Public Hearing on Japanese War Crimes in Tokyo and told a story she never thought she would.

You can watch the short to Ruby Challenger’s film Daily Bread based on her grandmother, Jan Ruff-O’Herne’s life. Post continues. 

Video by Ruby Challenger
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Jan was born in 1923 in the Dutch East Indies, a former colony of the Dutch Empire located in Southeast Asia. She recalls her childhood as the happiest anyone could imagine.

At 19 years old, however, the Second World War would destroy the idyllic little life she had.

Along with thousands of other Dutch women including her mother and two younger sisters, Jan was captured by the Japanese and forced into a prisoner-of-war labour camp in Indonesia. Her father was sent elsewhere.

“People were dying every day,” she would later recall. “It was appalling conditions.”

But two years later, in 1944, a truck pulled up full of Japanese officials and demanded that the young women line up. Their decision would pave a path of horror for Jan beyond what she could have ever imagined.

At 21 years old, Jan was one of 10 women chosen by the men, and taken to a colonial house at Semarang. They expected they would be forced into factory work or used for propaganda – but neither theory even came close.

The women were photographed and their pictures displayed in the reception area.

It might have been at this point, when they saw themselves advertised like meat in a deli window, that they realised they had been taken to a military brothel.

They were ‘comfort women’ or sex slaves for high ranking Japanese officials, and immediately they began protesting.

“Our whole world just collapsed from under our feet… We said that we were forced into this, that they couldn’t do this to us,” Jan told Australian Story. 

“But they just laughed at us, you know, just laughed. They said they could do with us what they liked.”

And, as the women would learn, they could.

Video by Ruby Challenger
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On the first night, the women were sat around a dining table and taken off, one by one, by various officers in the Japanese army.

It’s been more than 70 years since that night, but Jan’s experience was so torturous she says she won’t ever forget it. She was chosen by an officer armed with a sword, and despite his threats, she desperately tried to resist.

She said ‘No’ in every language she knew, and when her cries were ignored, she desperately plead for mercy.

“The tears were streaming down my face as he raped me,” she told the ABC. “It seemed as though he would never stop.

“The whole time was ghastly, terrible, but the first night was really the worst,” she said. “It has tortured me all of my life and I could never get rid of the memories of that.”

Following the brutal rape, Jan went to the bathroom and scrubbed and scrubbed, trying to erase all trace of the dirt and shame. In one night, she felt as though she had lost all her innocence. She would reflect, more than 50 years later, “I never thought suffering could be that terrible”.

For the next three months, the young women were brutally raped and beaten more times than they could count. It wasn’t long before Jan discovered she was pregnant – a consequence she didn’t think was possible in such horrific circumstances.

She was force-fed pills and eventually miscarried.

In an effort to make herself look “as ugly as possible” and deter the Japanese officials, Jan cut off all her hair. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. She became an object of curiosity, with more men than ever selecting her.

After more than three months of harrowing physical and sexual abuse, the women were moved to a camp in West Java and reunited with their families. Jan, along with the other women, were told that if they ever told anyone about what had happened to them they, and members of their family, would be killed.

The women believed them.

Although some families likely suspected what had happened to their daughters and sisters, it was never discussed. The secret of what they had endured inside that colonial house in Semarang would lie buried for decades.

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Ruby recalls one of her grandmother’s stories following the war that might explain why she chose not to disclose her experiences to anyone.

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Jan, a devout Christian, had always dreamed of becoming a nun. Her time at the military brothel had strengthened rather than compromised her faith, offering her hope when there was nothing else.

“After everything she’d been through in the war,” Ruby said, “she was already living a very holy life, and studying to become a teacher with the nuns, but she said that after what she had seen she wanted to become a nun.”

Before being taken to the brothel, Jan had already taken her initial vows, and so sought out a priest following the war. She told him – a figure whom she trusted – what had happened to her in Semarang.

This man made it clear to Jan, who was only 21, that given her experiences it was best she not become a nun.

Jan was “devastated” but as she was mourning her rejection from the Catholic order, she met a man who Ruby knows as her granddad.

Tom Ruff was a British soldier who had protected the camps from Indonesian freedom fighters after liberation.

In letters she wrote to him early in their relationship, told him what had happened to her. Tom’s response was simple and unwavering: “I don’t care and I love you.”

In Tom’s eyes, Jan said, “I wasn’t dirty. I wasn’t soiled. I wasn’t different. I was just beautiful…”

Although theirs is a stunning love story, Jan’s experience as a comfort woman would continue to affect the rest of her life – often in ways she could never have anticipated.

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“I wanted the house. I wanted marriage. I didn’t want the sex,” Jan told Australian Story.

Her sexual and physical trauma had been so significant that for decades after she walked out the doors of the military brothel, she would have terrible nightmares. She feared sex with her husband, equating it with violence and pain.

For years they tried to have children, but Jan suffered a number of miscarriages. Ruby explained that there had been “significant damage done to her body” during the war, meaning she was physically unable to carry a baby.

It would take a major operation to allow Jan to carry a baby to full term – a procedure she decided to undergo.

First, she gave birth to Eileen and then to Carol, both entirely worth the obstacles it took to get there.

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Jan was in her 70s, now a grandparent, when a story on the news caught her attention.

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Three Korean comfort women were demanding an apology from the Japanese government.

Inspired by the courage of these Korean women, Jan decided to stand next to them and verify that the Japanese army used rape as a tool of war – a reality that had not yet been acknowledged.

In 1992, Jan travelled to Tokyo with her daughter Carol and spoke at the International Public Hearing on Japanese War Crimes about one of the worst human rights violations committed by the army. She did not want compensation. All she wanted was for the Japanese to admit this happened.

In her statement, Jan said:

I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, but I can never forget. For 50 years, the “Comfort Women” maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women’s ruined lives to become a human rights issue. I hope that by speaking out, I have been able to make a contribution to world peace and reconciliation, and that human rights violation against women will never happen again…

Our bodies were damaged. I had three miscarriages after I married Tom, and I needed major surgery to restore my body. 

The prime minister at the time, John Howard, said what happened to Jan was “an appalling incident… a facet of a tragic period,” and described her testimony as “harrowing”.

Her testimony also took place at a time during the Bosnian War, when women were again being systematically raped as a tool of warfare.

In 50 years, it looked to Jan as though nothing at all had changed.

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The work that Jan has done, which began with her landmark testimony in 1992, has affected laws about rape during wartime.

In 1993, the ‘comfort women’ who had been victims of the Japanese army received an unofficial apology known as the Kono Statement. Within it, they acknowledged that the Japanese military were involved in the “establishment and management of comfort stations…”

There was no apology, however, from the Prime Minister on behalf of their government.

“It is a horrid part of World War II they are trying to conceal,” Jan told The Advertiser“And while I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, I can never forget.”

Her granddaughter Ruby echoed that message: “If I haven’t learned from her that forgiveness is the message, then I’ve failed her as a granddaughter.”

As it stands, the Japanese are still trying to conceal their history of rape and abuse towards women during wartime. Jan has made it clear that she does not want money or compensation, she simply wants an apology and a public acknowledgement by the government.

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Her daughter, Carol Ruff, said, “There is a danger that these stories will die with my mother’s generation… We can’t give up on this otherwise people like mum will become ghosts of the past.”

In the spirit of never forgetting, Ruby, a film producer, director and actor, has made a short film titled Daily Bread which draws on an excerpt from Jan’s book Fifty Years of Silence. Ruby herself plays Jan.

Ruby Challenger as her grandmother, Jan Ruff-O'Herne.
Ruby Challenger as her grandmother, Jan Ruff-O'Herne.

The entire film is spoken in Dutch and Japanese, authentically representing the experiences at the time.

It's a microbudget film which is currently being screened all over the world, reminding big audiences and small ones that war stories must include the atrocities perpetrated upon women.

Ultimately, however, this is a tale of survival.

Today, Jan Ruff O'Herne is 95 years old.

She lives a peaceful and creative life in Adelaide, surrounded by friends and family, hopefully with the knowledge that in her own, courageous way, she has unarguably made the world a better place for the women and girls behind her.

To find out more about Ruby Challenger's short film Daily Bread, visit: https://www.facebook.com/dailybreadfilms/ 

Or follow on Instagram: @dailybreadfilm

You can also buy Jan Ruff-O'Herne's book, 50 Years of Silence, published by Penguin/Random House.

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