I Cannot Forget

By Suleski, Ronald | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

I Cannot Forget


Suleski, Ronald, The Humanist


Each year the world pauses to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II. Running through most public activities is an attempt to bring about a sense of closure to the trauma of the war. For a short while it seems to work, but the enormity of what took place in the 1930s and 1940s cannot be so easily laid to rest.

Many European nations, especially Switzerland and Sweden, have been implicated in the transfer or acceptance of gold looted by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. Apartments confiscated by the Nazis in Paris have never been returned to their rightful owners. Neutral Portugal traded with Germany, as extreme of Europe.

Early in 1997, it was revealed that the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had spent much of her life attempting to deny her Jewish heritage in fear of the anti-Semitic prejudices that had destroyed many of her relatives. Hidden Jews in Poland phoned a special telephone hotline to confess that they were burdened with a similar secret.

The same struggle to relieve the sting of deeply felt injustices and the lingering pain of catastrophic suffering continues in Asia as well. Women in South Korea and the Philippines who were forced to serve as sex slaves (euphemistically called "comfort women") have demanded official apologies before they will accept the compensation that an embarrassed Japanese government has been forced to provide. Chinese officials still watch with anger the ways the brutal "Rape of Nanking" in 1937 is palliated in the school textbooks which are approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education.

These struggles have been played out in the public eye, but for thousands of other individuals likewise violated by the war, their personal suffering--just as intense--continues as a private matter not put before the public. Among those is Edward Weiss, whose story is told here. Weiss is an American but his life was changed by wartime events in Asia. His is not a story of anti-Semitic violence but of inflicted suffering equally uncalled for. Now living in the snowbelt of northern Pennsylvania, over fifty years ago he struggled for survival in the warmly moist jungles of Indonesia. Not wanting to carry his burdens and unanswered questions to the grave, Weiss, now in his seventies, felt compelled to seek an understanding of what had happened to him.

In 1941, Ed Weiss was twenty years old, a radio operator in the U.S. Army who had wanted to see the world and experience adventure. Christmas that year meant war for Weiss. He saw the Philippine city of Manila, where he was stationed, crumble under relentless attacks by Japanese airpower. Those early raids by Japanese planes also destroyed the American P40 fighters and B-17 bombers stationed there. The American units had no air cover and were therefore at the mercy of the Japanese, who dominated the skies. When radio reports said Japanese convoys of warships and transports likely loaded with combat forces were heading toward the Philippines, Weiss' unit evacuated Manila to escape into the mountain jungles of Negros Island.

After months of wandering in the Philippine hinterland, followed by weeks at sea attempting to sail to Australia, Weiss was captured by a Japanese marine patrol boat off the coast of the island of Morotai, about 300 miles north of New Guinea. That August day in 1942 marked the end of his attempt to escape to Australia and the beginning of his confinement as a prisoner of war.

Weiss was taken to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on the island of Ambon, then part of the Dutch East Indies (and since 1949 part of Indonesia). Within the camp compound were fifty barrackslike buildings set on concrete slabs, with low wooden sides and roAd with palm leaf thatch. There he found about 800 Australian soldiers and a number of Dutch men, some of them army but primarily businesspeople and government officials who had controlled the island. It was there he also met a Japanese official who has never faded from his memory. …

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