Father Michel Keymolen writes:
Peking, November 8, 1945.
I have just been handed this piece of paper which ― it is claimed ― will be sent by plane to Europe, providing it be ready for tomorrow. I was told that communications are still very bad with Europe, thus I am taking this opportunity to write, now that the war is over … and especially since we know almost nothing about Belgium and its inhabitants, and absolutely nothing from you neither directly or indirectly. This silence is a mystery that we cannot understand. The only news we have learned is that the female branch of our group is shipshape and efficient. We are very happy about that, but a little more news, especially from you, would be a great pleasure.
Here is a brief overview of our odyssey. At the beginning of 1943, it was rumored that we would be interned. On March 19, after a "very wet" farewell, we left Suan-Hwa: Father N. Wenders, three Trappists, an Englishman who later became famous at the camp, Father Scanlan, a Canadian and a Dutchman who caught typhus shortly after arriving at Weihsien and myself; all escorted by Japanese consular police. As the rickshaws started, I shouted to the seminarians, "Revenie. mus cum Victoria »(1); and the victory preceded me.
First at Kalgan, at the priest's house, where we soon arrived to see the Fathers of the Congregation of Scheut all present as well as the sisters of St. Augustine. Most were able to carry as much luggage as they wanted to. We had been allowed to carry only two suitcases, one to be sent separately and in advance, and the other which we had to carry ourselves; that depended on the police. We slept on the floor on blankets provided by the Japanese consulate who graciously advised us to give to each Japanese policeman a sausage. They (the policemen) fought over and over again all night long about those sausages.
On the 22nd of March 1943, 256 fathers and about forty nuns went to Peking. At Peking we had to change trains. The sisters were denied assistance from the local porters to carry their luggage. On which Bishop Desmet ― an old man ― got quite angry and "catches" the attaché of the Japanese consulate to express his irritation. After a short argument, the Japanese "attaché" gives up and calls for Chinese porters to help the nuns.
At Tien-Tsin: a new train change. We were jam-packed like herrings in a sardine tin. We spent a horrible night in that train. In Tsinnanfu: a new train change. Everyone makes fun of the Japanese for their lack of organization. Finally, sometime around 4 pm in the afternoon we arrived at Weihsien. The Tsingtao Swiss Consul ― a delegate of the International Red Cross ― is on the platform and his presence is a great comfort to all of us because experience has taught us to expect for the worst from the Japs. Then, Jap buses took us to the camp located at about a dozen lis (2) from the city of Weihsien in Shantung province. It is a center for American Presbyterians (Protestants), a huge property, many several-storey buildings, a hospital etc. The Tsingtao Westerners' welcomed us. We must have looked fierce because later a Protestant missionary told me that he thought we were the Roman Catholic shock troops. I must abbreviate. Soon other groups arrived and among them the Samistes: Paul Gilson, Raymond De Jaegher, Herman Unden, Albert Palmers. We were happily logged together in two very small rooms. The Japs provide food, make the call, stand guard and do not take care of the rest. All the work is done by the internees: bakery, kitchen, etc. All of us priests are busy in the kitchen except for Paul and I who are responsible for much less poetic needs (= taking care of the latrines). After Paul's departure, Raymond replaced him. Nicolas, cook, then driver, Herman and Albert, bakers.
We were about 500 Allied Fathers and Sisters. Their presence has brought joy and happiness to a society that was pretty much down. Many even among the Catholics had a revelation as to the value of the priests … especially the Americans who were very kind to us and very cordial too. Ah! those magnificent baseball games when the whole camp rushed out to watch the match and where many sympathies went to the "padres". They left ― for us ― a very good and unforgettable memory. On August 15, 1943 almost all the priests and nuns left for Peking at the suggestion of the Pope's delegate. As we (the Samiste priests) were responsible for our own expenses, we preferred not to burden the already very thin budget of our bishops and stayed in camp with the approval of Bishop's Delegate. Paul alone left because of the requirements of the Beijing authorities. We also got acquainted to several of the Protestant missionaries. We even made some friends amongst them.
In September 1943, a significant number of Americans were repatriated, and in their place came the Chefoo group, consisting mainly of the C. I. M. (China Inland Mission) school. At the beginning we were 1800, and after that recent arrival: 1500. The atmosphere of the camp changed completely. Everything became rather dull. Many people were very "down". We made the acquaintance of Mrs. Hc. de Keyser and her three girls (the three boys are in Shanghai and Jean (3) in Tchungking). With Raymond we became very good friends. They were liberated in February and left. I teached Latin and French at the American school established at the camp and which is practically catholic.
All the other prisoners ― the non-religious ones ― people accustomed to comfortable lives have certainly suffered greatly. We did not: I've got fatter.
The camp earns me a tenth year that I absolutely needed. I come back from captivity in radiant health. The philanthropic of Tien Tsin sent us food-parcels.
On August 17, 1945, seven Americans were parachuted over the camp and in a delirium of joy, the whole camp rushed into the fields to meet them. On October 16th, I was evacuated with Raymond and Manu Hanquet to Peking by plane. The others followed the next day. Albert was evacuated a month earlier and went to Shanghai. I now live with Paul Gilson and Nicolas. Suan-Hwa is in the hands of the reds. Impossible to return. Moreover, the Seminary is divided and scattered. The Fathers of Scheut are still waiting at Peking. It will be necessary to wait a few months before all this is arranged. The major seminary of Suan-Hwa was occupied by the provincial government of the japs and now by the reds. The residence, the convent of the Little Brothers, etc. in Ankwo were looted several times by the japs, now they are also occupied by the reds who relegated Monsignor to a small room. Raymond and Herman are at the Little Brothers procession near Petang. Manu is thinking of going back to Huntung shortly.
Cordial "hello" to all.
(1) Nous reviendrons avec la Victoire.
(2) Environ 8 km.
(3) Jean Ho, ancien étudiant de Louvain, marié à une louvaniste.
Our Roman Catholic Missionaries at the Weihsien concentration camp in China
From left to right ; Fathers De Jaegher, Wenders, Father Martin of Lophem Abbey, Fathers Hanquet, Keymolen, Unden and Palmers.
This photo was titled: "
" September 1945. Bloc 56.
Our Palace ".
At the Weihsien camp, there were 1,500 internees of 13 nationalities, mostly English and Americans. After the departure of the missionaries ― authorized by the Japanese to live in Peiping (6 bishops, 400 priests, 200 nuns), there were only ― left in Camp: 10 missionary priests: 2 American Franciscans, 6 Auxiliary Missionaries, 1 Belgian Benedictine and 1 Belgian Jesuit. There were also 6 American sisters.
Furthermore, 25 people were baptized at the camp, all converted from Protestantism.
Among them Miss Brayne, an Englishwoman, missionary of the "China Inland Mission".
Weihsien, May '1945 Block-56, The Priest's Shack
From David Beard:
"I put my art lessons in watercolour painting to good use and did a number of paintings of Weihsien Camp during 1943-45.
Block#2, sketched by Joyce Bradbury, née Cooke.
"The staircase on the right hand side of the sketch was drawn by a priest, Father Keymolen who was my drawing teacher as I was having trouble drawing the stairway on the left." --- Joyce.
REV. R. de JAEGHER
... was born in Belgium in 1905. He studied in England and received his M.A. at the University of Louvain. He lived under the Communists in China front 1937-1943, was in a Japanese concentration camp from 1943- to -1945, and worked against the Communists in China until 1949. His book, The Enemy Within (Doubleday) has been translated into eight languages. He is coauthor with Dr. Pan of The Red Guards which was published last spring. He was Regent of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Seton Hall University front 19501953. From 1954-1964, Father de Jaegher worked in South Vietnam, where he founded two high schools with 4,000 students. He established the Free Pacific Association in Saigon, and for many years edited a daily paper and a magazine in Chinese, a magazine in French, and one in English. Father de Jaegher rendered extremely valuable service to the late President Diem from 1954-1963. His command of languages, his long experience with the Communists in China, his knowledge of the people and problems in Vietnam, was so unique that Diem conferred with hint daily during his nine years in the presidency. He is director of Public Relations for the Archdiocese of Taipei. He lectures in English, French, and Chinese.