Book Review: Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War


by Martin Sugarman

London: Vallentine Mitchell / Portland, OR: International Specialized Book Services, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 666. Illus., map, append., index. $89.95. ISBN: 0853038775

Hirohito’s Jewish Prisoners

The plight of prisoners of war of the Imperial Japanese forces during the Second World War is a notoriously familiar history – forced labor, starvation rations and ever-present malnutrition and hunger, degradation and maltreatment, brutality and physical abuse, atrocities, torture, death marches, and disease.  The chances of a Western Allied serviceman dying in a Japanese POW camp were five times higher than those in a German one.  British teacher, archivist and historian Martin Sugarman has chosen to focus attention on a particular group almost entirely overlooked in historical records, those Jews, military and civilian, held captive by the Japanese.

In Under the Heel of Bushido, Sugarman offers personal testimonies and mostly previously unpublished material gathered during a decade of interviews with more than 60 Jewish prison camp veterans of British and Commonwealth forces, along with Jewish Dutch Army POWs and civilian internees from the Dutch Indies, as well as rare archival photos.  (The subtitle reminds that this generation of witnesses is rapidly passing away.  It should also be noted that accounts of American Jewish POWs are outside the scope of this volume.)

The experiences of the 600 identified British and Commonwealth Jews in prison and internment camps stretching from Burma, Thailand and Singapore to the Dutch East Indies and Japan itself was in essence the same as those of their Gentile fellows.  Anti-Semitism was largely absent; the concept – and the Nazis’ obsession with Jews – was puzzling to most Japanese, though there were incidents initiated by German liaison officers and Muslim propaganda, and, of course, cruel acts done simply out of spite toward the enemy.  (Strangely, German Jews in Bangkok were for the most part unmolested because the Japanese saw them as German nationals, thus their allies!)  What was unique was the character the responses of many of the Jews and their adaptations to the situation of their captivity; maintenance of their Jewish identity (often expressed through concern with ritual practices) provided an additional sense of community (sticking together and caring for each other) and proved a survival tool.  Amid painful and horrific recollections are fascinating and inspiring stories of compassion and charity toward the sick and wounded (in at least one camp, 10% of rations were so donated), and of imaginative and innovative observances of Jewish holidays and festivals.  In Changi Camp, Singapore, prisoners put up a small hut for use as a synagogue; named Ohel Yaacov (Jacob’s Tent), it was probably the only synagogue ever built in a World War II POW camp, and even for a time had a real rabbi leading the services, a Dutch Forces chaplain who had, ironically, been born near Auschwitz, Poland, and migrated to Java, where he had been captured.

In the absence of synagogues and rabbis, many of the Jewish POWs attempted and managed nonetheless to practice accommodated forms of Judaic rituals, including Friday night Sabbath services and, too often, funerals.  In a Java camp, a Dutch POW carved a wooden Chanukah menorah candelabra and used coconut oil for its light.  Hundreds of prisoners organized Passover Seders, with sago flour used for matzoh, the traditional unleavened bread, and mint leaves for the bitter herbs; the ritual meal held deeply special significance for the POWs, celebrating as it does release from captivity to freedom.  As for fasting on the Day of Atonement, quipped the Scots Jew who became the Changi synagogue’s cantor, “It was not difficult to fast on Yom Kippur – we had nothing to eat anyway!”  Particularly noteworthy was the “Bar Mitzvah on the Kwai,” in September 1944, in which, with the permission of the skeptical camp commandant, an Australian signaler in Tarmarkan, Thailand, unable to attend his son’s ceremony in Melbourne celebrated it with a proxy service “at a distance” of thousands of miles.

The volume is, of course, neither confined to nor primarily focused on testimonials about Jewish POWs’ religious observances, and there are found accounts common to the POWs of all backgrounds, from morale-boosting pranks and evasions of guards to the nightmarish Thailand-Burma Railway known as the “Death Railway.”  In the midst of appalling conditions, one Canadian physician saved hundreds of lives, matching expertise with ingenuity (such as using broken bottles as funnels for blood transfusions; over 4,000 were carried out without one death), for which he was later awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).  Finally, there are two remarkable eyewitness reports on the atomic-bombing of Nagasaki from a POW camp only a mile and a half from the blast’s epicenter.

Sugarman’s main flaw is the book’s length.  In a quest to be definitive, at which he admirably succeeds, Sugarman is frequently repetitious, often including virtually identical accounts of the same occurrences.  Still, it does fill in a gap in the war’s history and provide a representative picture, both broad and narrow, of one segment of Far East POWs.  And one hopes that the stories of the many American Jewish military personnel who were POWs of the Japanese will receive comparable treatment.


Our Reviewer :  Mark L. Blackman is a lifelong history and Jewish history buff.  This is his first review for StrategyPage.


Reviewer: Mark Blackman   

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