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5:01 AM Tue, Nov. 20th

Tales of concentration camp a lesson in history, heroes and hope

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Ronny Herman de Jong

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Ronny Herman de Jong

PRESCOTT - Ronny Herman de Jong lived a dozen years in a tropical paradise.

Seems fitting for a woman who lived four years of her childhood in a tropical hell.

A still vivid, seven-decade memory is of a warm day on the South Pacific island of Java when she was picking flowers to give to her mother. She was next to a ditch on one side of a bamboo fence that surrounded the "camp" where she lived.

The little girl's idle was interrupted by a bayonet forced through the fence slats inches from her body.

"Scared me to death," the now 76-year-old Hassayampa Village author, hula dancer, and doting grandmother of seven recalled with a slight shudder of her shoulders.

It was not to be her first close call with death.

Seventy years ago, de Jong and her baby sister, Paula, and their Dutch mother, Jeannette "Netty" Herman-Herman-Louwerse, were freed from a Japanese concentration camp. The United States decision to drop the first atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II in August 1945 spared their lives, and that of tens of thousands of fellow prisoners, she said.

At the time of their rescue, "Netty" was near death with malaria; the girls skeletal from starvation.

Still the young family celebrated.

Four fretful years after the Japanese invaded their island, the three were reunited with their husband and father, Frokko Herman, a pilot in the Dutch Naval Air Force stationed in the Dutch East Indies at the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"We didn't recognize him," de Jong recalled of the bearded man who disappeared after the invasion.

"She always hoped the end of the war would come one day," de Jong said of her mother, noting the family matriarch who lived to 101 refused to succumb to despair.

In the midst of the camp's hard labor and lack of food, medicine, or toys for the children, Netty tamped her fears for the sake of her daughters. She strived to give them a happy childhood, one filled with hope and dreams of a healthy, prosperous future, de Jong said.

The camp might have 40 people living in a house built for four, shoes cut at the toes to make room for growing feet and air siren blasts, but de Jong's mother was notorious for finding "fun" any way she could, the author said.

"If you grow up having nothing, you don't know any better," de Jong said. "At least Mama was always there. I felt safe and secure."

Her mother even smuggled a pair of hand-embroidered dresses for the expected "Liberation Day" into suitcases she hauled from one camp to another during their four-year confinement. Her mother wanted her daughters to meet their father wearing their "beautiful new dresses."

And they did.

Another way her mother kept her spirits was to write a secret diary, letters she penned to her parents in the Netherlands chronicling the family's time in captivity. She even let her daughters draw pictures on some of the pages. The act of defiance that had she been caught could have proved fatal enabled her to endure the days she clicked off on a tiny, hand-made calendar she also managed to keep hidden.

Forty years after the war ended, de Jong's mother presented her with the diary.

She read it with fascination. Then she translated it from Dutch into English for her own children.

In 1992, the English literature graduate from a Netherlands University wrote her first book, "In the Shadow of the Sun," a non-fiction story based on her mother's translated memories.

The out-of-print narrative tells of a life few in America knew existed; stories of brutality and torture mixed with stories of imprisoned neighbors who embodied against-the-odds determination to triumph over evil.

Today the diary is a family treasure.

Seated in her kitchen overlooking her adopted hometown's landscape, de Jong reverently turns the pages of the faded, ledger-style black book filled with her mother's elegant script. Some pages, even sentences, are ripped out, her mother clearly afraid of them being read by the wrong eyes.

In 2011, de Jong opted to build upon her mother's memories. Combined with accounts of everyday survival in a death camp, de Jong shares of life beyond the shadow of war, one rich with love, passion, adventure, creativity and civic involvement.

The title of that book is "Rising from the Shadow of the Sun: A Story of Love, Survival and Joy."

With this month's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of World War II's official end, de Jong has stayed busy promoting her book, one readers and reviewers suggest combines history with hope. The book also includes some of her research from the declassified files of Japanese war crimes.

In addition to her story, de Jong last year published an anthology, "Survivors of WW II in the Pacific," based on stories of four World War II veterans from Prescott.

One of those veterans, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ben Candelaria, a three-war veteran, described de Jong's book as an "emotional ride" that brought "tears to my eyes on more than one occasion."

Reviewer H.F. "Foster" Corbin declares that de Jong masterfully translated her mother's diary that is a wrenching rendition of horrors that without such writings might be lost to the annals of time. Most importantly, though, de Jong's book is a "testament to the endurance of the human spirit," he said.

In her book, de Jong takes readers on her journey from the Netherlands with her husband, Mike, a sportswear manufacturer she married after college, to their immigration to the United States in 1972. In Pasadena, Calif., the de Jongs planted roots for their three children and a dog.

For 18 years, de Jong enjoyed a rich, fun-filled life with her family while also realizing her own dreams. She worked as both a fashion model and actress, doing small roles in television and in commercials.

In 1990, de Jong and her husband opted to buy a "lovely" property on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"We were living in paradise," said de Jong who quickly absorbed Hawaii as if she were a native.

In 2002, the de Jongs opted to return to the mainland. They chose to settle in Prescott.

An upbeat, full-of-life woman who keeps physically and mentally fit, de Jong said her books were cathartic, historic and, she hopes, a reminder to readers that any adversity can be overcome.

"When I wake up in the morning, I thank God for a new day, and that I'm healthy. I hit the road running most days. I feel blessed," de Jong said.

So what's next? Another book, perhaps?

de Jong assures nothing is off limits.

"I look at the future as full of expectations. I'm looking forward to it," she concluded.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter@HutsonNanci Reach her at 928-445-3333 Ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809