If Lewis Altman is remembered today other than by immediate family it is as a leading character in two City scandals of the 1970s. But he has quite another claim to fame; he was one of over 540 British, Dutch and Empire prisoners of the Japanese during the second world war. Many, including Altman, were East Enders.
Their stories are told in a remarkable book, Under the Heel of Bushido – Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War, by Martin Sugarman, archivist of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. He spent six years interviewing survivors and their families, talking to their descendants and poring through archives to compile an astonishing collection of what the book rightly calls testimonies from well over 100 former prisoners. Most of the testimonies are substantial accounts; some at the end of the book may be of only a few lines but are nonetheless invaluable for that.
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Bushido is the Japanese code of honour, akin to a code of chivalry. But it has as a central ethos that you choose death before dishonour – and surrendering is dishonour. Hence the brutal treatment meted out to so many – they were deemed to have merited all honour by allowing themselves to be prisoners.
The Jewish presence was marked in some camps by areas being given East End nicknames; the Sime Road internment camp in Singapore, for example, had a Jewish section known as Aldgate by the British prisoners.
Altman, born in either 1915 or 1917 in Stepney to poor immigrants from Russia – his father was a warehouseman – joined the RAF in 1940 and witnessed the first Japanese attacks on Singapore in 1941. Evacuated to Java, Corporal Altman was captured with the Dutch surrender and was then incarcerated in a large number of camps for the duration of the war.
As a medical secretary, he had the horrific task of keeping records of deaths and illnesses among those working on the notorious Burma Railway. His work assisted families to find out the fate of their fathers, brothers, sons etc, and was to prove valuable in the war crimes trials that followed.
“Sixty years on,” he said, “it was the mud that was the abiding memory; evil-smelling it sapped morale; we worked in the rain, ate in it, slept in it in leaky tents at night.
There were amputations without anaesthetic; there were brutal interrogations and punishments.
When he was liberated he weighed just five stone.
Another prisoner, David Wince was born in Stepney in 1920 and was called up in March 1940, being sent to the Far East in autumn 1941. He was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, 53rd Brigade.
When the Japanese invaded Singapore he was in hospital with a leg wound that had turned septic. He and another solider decided to escape and bluffed their way through Singapore before the risk of being shot as spies impelled them to join civilians being marshalled in the city centre, whence they were sent to Changi.
Soon came a journey through Thailand by cattle truck in appalling conditions to work on the infamous death railway. A typical incident saw him pass a small working party while he was walking to his hut. A Japanese yelled at him to stand still and then came right up to him, yelling in Japanese, before hitting him across the face as hard as he could.
Nonetheless, he did manage one September to hold a small Yom Kippur service with other Jewish prisoners.
He was moved to Burma to help maintain the railway, contracted malaria and was then sent back to the so-called hospital camp at Chungkai. Two more camps followed, and David Wince’s story is not without its lighter side. There was some successful money dealing for example, swapping Burmese scrip or camp money for Thai scrip in a trade involving a group of Australians brought in from Burma on the one side and a Japanese guard who wanted to exchange his Thai scrip for Burmese. There were many risks along the way, but everyone ended up happy and Wince took a profit that enabled him to buy food – and stay alive.
In 1954 David Wince emigrated to Canada, and he told his story to Martin Sugarman in a series of emails. But eventually he had to stop – reliving his experiences was giving him nightmares.
Another East Ender was Signalman Joseph (Joe) Max Hirsch. He was born at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in 1920, the son of an immigrant father from Polish-Austria and immigrant mother from Russia. The family lived on the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green.
Joe was highly talented, winning a travel scholarship in 1939 to study architecture in Rome, where he saw both Goebbels and Mussolini. He served in the Home Guard during the Blitz before being called up in late 1940. His journey to the Far East was circuitous – via Canada, South Africa, and India. In South Africa, Joe bought himself a sketchbook, pencils and watercolours. Eventually his division arrived in Singapore, but after only four days the garrison surrendered.
First came imprisonment at Changi, where illness and death were commonplace. Joe stayed healthy – thanks, he said later, to having done lots of exercise as a boy and eaten good Jewish home-cooked food as a child.
He too was then moved to work on the infamous railway. Many possessions had to be discarded for a final three-day march to the work camp, but Joe kept his drawing equipment and persuaded comrades to take at least three books each so that they could create a sort of lending library.
On the banks of the Kwai, malaria and cholera were endemic and Joe was convinced he was going to die. He was at a variety of camps for two years, receiving just one Red Cross parcel in that time because his captors stole them. His hearing was seriously impaired – something that probably saved his life since it prevented his being sent to work in Japan, where mortality rates were extremely high.
He kept a diary – strictly forbidden – though that did not survive the war, and also continued his sketching, with drawings of camp scenes. These were inspected by the Japanese, who removed any that they felt showed them in a bad light, but Joe was allowed to keep most of the general scenes he had sketched.
Liberation finally came, and Joe arrived in Liverpool on October 15 1945. In later life, he made plain that he had put all the hatred behind him and did not feel that the modern Japanese people could take any of the blame for what had happened.
This is just a little about three of the East Enders who feature in this huge work of scholarship. Others include Private Jack Bloom, born in Hackney; LAC John Fisher, also from Hackney; Private Len Frank, born in Shoreditch, whose Russian-born father was a tailor; Sgmn Bennie Gold, from Brick Lane, who was barmtizvah at Duke’s Place synagogue and whose parents ran a knitting and wool shop; Pte Harry Leslie, born in Bethnal Green, the grandson of a rabbi; L/Cpl Alfred Posner, whose mother and stepfather ran the Still and Star pub in Aldgate; and many more.
The book of course ranges well beyond East Enders; its stars are Jews from all parts of Britain and across what was then the Empire and also the Netherlands (because of the Dutch East Indies) who found themselves at the mercy of the Japanese. It might seem unlikely, but there is humour and there are some surprising acts of kindness. There is also a lot of forgiveness. Above all, there is a record of a little-known facet of Jewish life and a fitting tribute to the many brave men who feature in its pages.
Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War. Published by Vallentine Mitchell. www.vmbooks.com
ISBN 978 0 85303 908 2. Paperback. Regular price £25.00.
ISBN 978 0 85303 877 1. cloth. Regular price £50.00.
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